I spent most of this weekend indoors at Grub Street’s annual Muse and the Marketplace conference. Writers take over two floors of the Park Plaza Hotel, networking, taking seminars from some of the best writers out there, and getting manuscript feedback from agents and editors.
I attended the conference primarily for the Manuscript Mart – a chance to sit down privately with an agent or an editor, have them read an excerpt of your work, and hear their thoughts. Most attendees use this to pitch, but I had no illusions about by manuscript (the novel I finished last year) being saleable. I wanted to hear what the pros thought.
(Agent) Michelle Brower, Wendy Sherman Associates: I need to work on pacing. I have a good sense of character, description and dialogue, but for a murder thriller, there’s very little tension in the first 20 pages. She recommended that I scoop up a bushel of thriller writers – King, Cornwall, Patterson, etc – and read them for craft. “Also, I think your protagonist needs a name.”
(Editor) Rakesh Satyal, HarperCollins: Spend more time on the primary characters in the first 20 pages. If I need to front-load all that tension, I need to introduce the main characters efficiently and thoroughly. Give a clearer description of the setting, particularly the family’s new neighborhood. He also called me out on several unnecessary adverbs that I thought I’d scooped up in the first revision. “It’ll help the audience identify with your protagonist if he has a name.”
Tess Gerritsen gave a gem of a talk on taking a strong premise and pushing it into a genuine plot. She writes very different from me: starting with a good idea and letting rip rather than outlining. We both agree that a character evolves through the writing process, though, not a character sketch. We as humans never learn a person’s whole life story when we meet them: we meet a person as they are at that moment. So should it be in your novel.
What hooks a reader in, she observed, are premises and scenes with strong emotional content. Keep an eye out for what makes you feel something, even during the research stages. “When you’re doing research,” she told us, “if you find something that makes you say, ‘Wow’ – put that in the book.” Her example: the one-in-fifty failure rate of NASA shuttles, which came up while researching Gravity.
Sure were a lot of women my mom’s age pitching their memoirs! Or maybe I just picked the right string of seminars. The male/female ratio was about 40:60, and I fell several years below the median age.
Chuck Sambuchino: think Mark Wahlberg, literary agent. He has the same high, urban accent (not Bostonian, though), the same aggressive upper body language, and the smart attitude Wahlberg would likely have in dealing with a roomful of unpublished writers.
“There’s a lot of debate about self-publishing …” began one question.
“There is?” Chuck laughed.
I attended two of his – one on query letters, one on non-fiction book proposals. A query letter (he says) needs to sell your strengths in a way that gets the agent excited. Work on your pitch until it’s streamlined and effective. And the non-fiction book proposal seminar not only gave me information, but ideas for things I might write myself. Chuck handled himself like a pro in a tight room with a limited clock and a lot of questions. “Not all of this applies to memoirs,” he said, watching half a dozen hands slowly go down.
I expected cold sandwiches and chips, but they lay out quite a spread! Caesar salad and chicken breast with capers for Saturday lunch, with key lime pie for dessert. On Sunday: baby spinach salad, chicken asiago and Boston Cream pie. I wouldn’t mind cheaper fare if it meant a cheaper conference, but Park Plaza caterers might not have down-market options.
Amy MacKinnon taught a seminar on using sparing, salient details to enhance description. The handout had more examples than concrete principles, but it gave me a wealth of new authors to consider: Stewart O’Nan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Paul Yoon and this Hemingway guy.
Ann Patchett gave the keynote speech during lunch on Sunday. She chose, ironically enough, “the Muse and the Marketplace” as the topics of her speech. “The Muse,” she began, “is bullshit.”
Writing is a job, she stressed, and writers have to treat it with the same respect as a job. If you sit around waiting for creativity to inspire you, or you confine yourself to peculiar rituals and superstitions before you can write anything, you will never produce the volume that you must to succeed. The more time you spend sitting in front of your computer, trying to write, the more you will write and the better you will write.
We put such a high premium on creativity, she said, when it should really be the top level of the pyramid – and therefore the last applied. Absolute commitment should come first – the vaunted ten thousand hours – then technical proficiency. Only once you’ve assembled all the tools should you get creative.
Patchett talked about the immense technical quality you see in most short stories today. She had a hard time narrowing down the twenty Best American Short Stories when she edited the collection in 2006; she said she’d have a hard time finding twenty such novels. The reason, she said, is because writers throw short stories away. Nobody expects to sell their first short story, but everybody wants to sell their first novel. Writers invest so much time and pain into novels that they have a hard time letting go.
(N.B.: Patchett wasn’t saying to write more short stories – though that couldn’t hurt – but to view novel manuscripts more objectively)
As for the Marketplace? Opinions vary. Some speakers encouraged new writers – publishers are clearing out their mid-lists in the slow economy and are willing to buy a debut novel cheaply in the hopes of finding a breakout. Others acknowledged the changing market – Barnes & Noble’s head buyer will not be the most important person in the print world by the end of 2009. But the moral remained constant: keep networking, keep honing the craft and keep writing. Luck strikes anyone who stays at the table long enough.