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Our weekend was fabulous.  I could save myself some time and just repost last year’s description, which we pretty much repeated, down to the walking, shopping and eating.

But I’ll grant you a few minutes and go through the details of the actual conference.

First of all, my mom and I were both heartened to discover so many repeat attendees from last year. I think we’d both been a little worried that going back again meant we had somehow failed: we were the losers that ended up being rejected by the agents after all that hard work and here we were, groveling at their feet yet again. But right away at the first session, we started to see people we recognized and several mentioned as they asked their questions to the panels that this was their second visit. (And of course, the conference organizers announced proudly that four conference attendees from the past few years have found representation thanks to the Pitch Slam. FOUR. From the last SEVERAL YEARS. Well. Not sure whether to feel relieved that I wasn’t the only one not picked up or completely discouraged that we’d spent all that money and invested all that hope in something that won’t likely lead anywhere.)

But, it is still so rejuvenating to be there, thinking and listening and talking about nothing but writing. I loved it. It had a few ups and downs though. Friday evening, at the end of the last “Perfecting Your Pitch” session, the moderator asked for brave souls to present their pitch for a very public critique. Well, I was feeling very confident and somehow imagined that I could wow him (this man whose entire job is critiquing pitches–critiquing as in criticizing), so I quickly got in line and stepped up on stage to repeat my memorized lines into the microphone in front of 400-plus people. And he just … well, he just didn’t feel it. He wasn’t harsh or anything, but gave me some generic suggestions that certainly didn’t come across as the praise I’d been imagining in my head. Within a mere eight minutes of my moment in the spotlight, the whole session was over and my mom and I rushed out to meet a friend for dinner, never hearing any feedback from the assembled crowd.

And I was completely deflated, suddenly unsure of what I would say the next day or how to present my work with the same pride I’d had in it a half hour prior. (I know, I need a thick skin for this industry, I know.) I tossed and turned through the night, finally sitting up at 3am to announce to no one and everyone that I’d figured it out. I had a new ending in mind that I liked and was again ready to go.

And as soon as I walked into the first session of Saturday morning, I was met by strangers complimenting me on my story, asking how Austin was, saying they’d teared up and thought it was wonderful. I said to one that I was discouraged by the moderator’s response, even though I knew he wasn’t my target audience (he did say in his critique, “Well, I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know what that feels like”) and she said that she was sitting right in front of him and thought he had gotten emotional after hearing me and covered up his discomfort by being extra unemotional. Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly what happened but it did feel good to have the praise of my colleagues.

So we sat through several morning sessions, all interesting but still only a prelude to the big event of the afternoon. Finally two o’clock rolled around and we formed our long and jittery lines outside the various ballrooms for the equally dreaded and coveted Pitch Slam. And again, just like last year, it was fantastic. I loved my pitch, loved it (I gotta admit, he did nudge me along to improvements I may not have otherwise made). But I stood in some very long lines and saw only seven agents, the exact same number as last year even though it was an entire hour longer! (My mom, by comparison, saw eleven agents over the six she saw last year.) They all asked for my work except one, who was very complimentary but she’s repping a writer whose memoir about his son’s death from cancer is due out soon and she didn’t feel it would be fair to him to take on such a similar project.

One asked for my entire manuscript (the one I’d referred to last week and the one whose line was so damn slow) and another asked for my strongest six pages (NO ONE does that; they all ask for the beginning of the book, either ten or thirty or fifty pages, no one allows you to choose which pages so that ought to be fun).

Of course, as an experienced Pitch Slammer I know that this doesn’t guarantee anything except a read (which is pretty big on its own) but I really felt like I connected with the agents. And like I said last week, it only has to work once. I only need one single agent to like it. So I’ve been furiously revising yet again (I swear, I thought it was done) and plan to send stuff out by the end of the week.

Fingers crossed.

 

 

My mom and I are going back to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City this weekend!

It was sort of a last minute decision that started two weeks ago when Mark asked me if we were planning to go again. “Oh, no, “I said, “Not again.”  Why not, he asked.  “Oh, people don’t do that twice . . .” Why not, he asked again. “Weeeell, uuummm, I don’t know.”

So, after checking to make sure he wouldn’t mind being the sole parent all weekend (“I wouldn’t have suggested you go if I minded, honey”), I brought it up to my mom and, over the course of one conversation, we got so increasingly excited about the possibility of going back again that we couldn’t even imagine not going.

This is the conference, of course, with the much-coveted Pitch Slam, for which we were so nervous last year.  This time, with the great benefit of experience, we are able to strategize in much smarter ways.  I’ve been carefully studying the agents who will be there (there are only a few repeats, so that’s not a worry) and have focused my attention on those with more years of experience in the industry.  Over the past year, I’ve heard from several young, new agents who’ve told me my work is compelling and well written, but because they lack experience and are still forming relationships with publishers, my type of memoir would simply be too hard for them to sell. It’s not hard for an agent to pitch a young adult paranormal vampire romance to an editor, but it is hard to say, “I know, another cancer memoir . . . but trust me, this one is good,” unless they’re pitching to someone who actually does trust them. So I’ve found a few women with twenty-plus years in agenting, one of whom said in response to a question about the most frustrating aspect of her job, “Those rare moments when you find a book that’s absolutely amazing and editors agree that it is, but feel that the market for it is too limited for the book to be commercially viable in the current economy! Argh! Then I just keep my head down and keep plowing until I find someone willing to take the risk. As I mentioned earlier, those books often turn out to be successes far beyond what anyone expected.” Now that’s the kind of agent I need!

I’m also going to pitch to at least one male agent (who said, “Voice and story can carry a memoir, even if the author doesn’t have a platform”), which I haven’t done in the past.  I tend to think of the target audience for my book as mostly female, but I’ve had some of my positive reviews from men, one an editor at Writer’s Digest, one a published novelist and university English professor, and a few other early readers and critiquers.

Having gone through the Pitch Slam last year (and having survived!), I think we’ll also have a completely different — and more realistic — set of expectations.  I remember being so afraid that no one would ask to read my work and then thrilled when the first agent invited me to send her ten pages.  I thought I’d struck gold!  It was only in the hallways and elevators afterwards that we discovered that everyone had been asked to send in their work by almost every agent. This is how the Pitch Slam works — they simply say yes . . . only to say no later. So this time, I’ll have a more level head.  I’ll see this is an excellent way to get my foot in the door and then will hope, that with a combination of good writing and the right agent, this will actually happen.

It only has to happen once, after all.

The rest of the details:  The entire conference was good, with many interesting sessions (and some really boring ones).  There was a mix of presentations on writing as a craft (how to build and develop your characters) and writing as a business (how to build and develop an online following). I find the former more enjoyable, even though right now it’s the latter that is probably more important.

There was an enormous focus on using social media and blogging (can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “Search Engine Optimization” — perhaps I should go back to my hot titles?) and on the changing face of the book industry given new technologies (e-books, print-on-demand and so on).  It was during these sessions that I found myself (and many of those around me) pulling out the draft of my pitch for endless last minute revising and rehearsing.

I had an opportunity on Friday afternoon to practice my pitch with one of the session presenters, the book world’s expert on pitches and queries. He really helped me hone in on the central theme of my work.  I had been planning on opening with one of those poetic lines that sounds really lovely but doesn’t actually give the hard facts an agent needs.

My original first line: The Wrong Side of the Window is, in essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.

The first line I ended up using: The Wrong Side of the Window is an 83,000 word memoir about mothering through adversity.

A bit more to the point, yes? I also originally introduced Austin as “the hero” of the book until he said that, because it’s a memoir, the hero can only be me. So I omitted Austin entirely and spoke solely of myself.

Kidding!

But I did change a few words to say that the book “focused on” Austin, without using the word hero at all. Many of the agents really responded to the Braedan parts (with lots of vigorous head nodding): There’s wide-eyed and gentle Braedan, struggling to find his role in the drama that stars his little brother, whom he adores and resents with equal force.

I had been advised by above-mentioned expert to leave the word “suffering” out of my last line, which I tried to do late Friday night and throughout the Saturday morning sessions before I finally decided it belonged there, because, hello, I can’t just go and lie.

Sad but not depressing and hopeful but not sappy, this story is an intimate look at suffering and loving and really, really living.

After my introductory monologue, there were 90 seconds for discussion, during which time the agents inevitably asked how Austin was doing (and I often joked that they had to read my pages to find out). The other topics ranged from questions about my previous writing experience to “I can’t wait to read more about the Braedan and Austin relationship.”

All in all, I left there feeling listened to, respected and validated (never a bad thing).  I will send out my pages tomorrow and expect to hear back from them within four to six weeks. The hearing back part is another huge bonus of going to a conference like this and having a face-to-face meeting. Often, due to the high number of blind submissions an agent receives each week, they say that if you don’t hear back from them within a specified amount of time, assume it’s a no. I think that these agents will provide a response, even if it’s a rejection, because it’s material they actually requested. And, if it is a rejection, they will hopefully take a few minutes to say why. And if it’s not a rejection, then they’ll ask to read the full manuscript, which could take another eight weeks. And after that, they would either offer to represent you (or, hopefully, me!) or not.

Then a whole other process starts during which they need to sell the manuscript to a publishing house who actually publishes the book, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!

Everything else about the weekend was great too.  The fellow writers at the conference were extremely interesting to talk with and very supportive of one another’s work. I am sure to have lots of new friends on Facebook this week!  My mom and I are excellent travel partners because we like all the same things — same kind of food (must include cheese), same amount of walking (lots), same style of walking (fast), same way to spend any free moment (shopping). So, after finishing our long Pitch Day, we walked 3.6 miles in our newly purchased and miraculously comfortable boots to meet up with old friends at a fabulous little Italian place and eat delicious food and drink fat glasses of wine before walking another 3.6 miles back to our hotel. And we never once turned on the hotel room TV.

Perfect.

I love that I can be equally as excited to go away somewhere as I am to come home again — definitely a good sign. And speaking of good signs … the weekend was fabulous.

I am exhausted so I’ll skip all the extraneous details (for now at least) and get to the thing you (and I) care about most: the Pitch Slam. What a fascinating and exhilarating and nerve-wracking process!  Picture more than four hundred aspiring authors lined up outside a hotel ballroom at 2:50 and then, when the doors are ceremoniously opened at 3:15, the crowd surges forward and everyone forms chaotic lines behind the agents of their choice, who are seated two to a table around the periphery of room. And then you wait, lips moving silently as you nervously rehearse your “lines,” eying the competition, strategically deciding which line to stand in next.

I pitched to seven agents in the two hours, which (from what I gleaned from my 400 new best friends) was on the higher end. Five of them requested material, usually the first 10 to 30 pages (one said, “Oh just send me the whole thing” — gulp!). I’m happy with that response, although it was far from unique.  Most attendees I spoke with were asked to send work to most of the agents they pitched to (my mom had an impressive six requests out of six!).  I think the request itself is not an indication of how well they really liked your pitch (I honestly think the agents were sometimes just being nice to people), but the victory lies in the fact that there will now be five people actually reading my work. And that for me has been the biggest hurdle, given the somewhat “unappetizing” nature of what I write.  I mean, few people walk into the bookstore and exclaim, “Oh look! A memoir about a baby who gets cancer — can’t wait to read it!”

I felt like I received some very personal and thoughtful reactions, including one excellent rejection. The first agent I pitched to, who was starred as number one on my list, got tears in her eyes and said she has learned through experience that she simply cannot represent work of this nature because she gets too emotionally caught up in the characters and is no longer able to be objective about the manuscript. That “No” felt as good as some of my “Yeses.”

I did have one other woman who passed, saying that cancer memoirs are just too hard to sell. I wanted to say, “Ugh, I know, everyone who’s ever been sick thinks they should write a book … but this one is GOOD,” but that sort of self-promotion is not looked upon very highly (to say the least).

But all the others seemed genuinely interested (often interrupting to ask if Austin was okay) and excited to hear more. So my next few days will include rewriting a query letter (much easier now that I have a pitch I like) and polishing up those first ten to thirty pages (again) and emailing them off in the hopes that one (or more) agents will like what they read.

And then, who knows, we’ll see … but mission number one is definitely accomplished.

Alright, let’s see if I’m ready.

Cape, tights, superpowers? Check. (Thank you, Chris, for reminding me to pack those.)

Well-worded oral pitch that clocks in at 87 seconds (thanks to some careful revisions) and that makes me giddy with pride? Check.

Well-researched list of agents, ranked according to best match for my work? Check.

Carefully chosen outfits that are both comfortable enough to wear all day and yet appropriately stylish? (Hey, you gotta look good.) Check.

Three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams? Che….

Wait a minute. The product of my three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams (and blood, sweat and tears) is staying behind. It’s here, this family, this house, this home. Two mostly healthy, mostly happy, remarkably normal children and one super-strong marriage.

Perspective? Check.

Three days until the Writers’ Digest Conference in New York City. And I am so excited.

My mom and I fly out Friday morning and the event starts that afternoon.  There will be  a variety of keynote speakers throughout the three days, as well as many sessions to choose from, covering everything from how to write an effective query letter to what to do after you’ve landed an agent. The highlight, of course, comes Saturday afternoon when we have two hours to sign up with any of fifty agents for the Pitch Slam. I’ve been carefully researching the agents attending to find those who represent memoir and who seem like they’d be a good match for me. I don’t have my final list yet (that’s what I really should be doing right now) but I think I’ll be pitching to about twenty.

Most importantly, I have a pitch that I really like (and that, if you’re lucky and if I’m feeling extra brave, I might just post on here). It runs a tiny bit long (100 seconds) but I don’t imagine they’ll cut me off right at 90 seconds. The second minute-and-a-half of each meeting is dedicated to questions and feedback, so I suppose (hope?) we can just lose ten seconds out of that. I can always race through what I want to say but much of the impact lies in well-placed (but brief!) pauses for emphasis.

I’ve decided to use the title The Wrong Side of the Window, at least for the purposes of this event. It doesn’t need a subtitle or an explanation and I’d much rather use my allotted time to sell the book itself and not its title. Besides, my original subtitle for Whoosh was One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year, which — call me crazy — loses a bit of its flow when revised to One Ordinary Family, Three-and-a-Quarter Extraordinary Years!

So, that’s it. I’m super super excited. Appropriately nervous too, but mostly just excited.

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