Periscope Depth

I hope that you’re the one; if not, you are the prototype

When you go to Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s annual conference, Muse and the Marketplace, you first go into a small conference room with two dozen other writers, equally nervous. Most of them are older than you (if you’re me). In fact, I would wager that Grub Street makes the majority of its Muse and the Marketplace money from women between the ages of 42 and 70 trying to sell their memoirs. You sit there, conference folder in lap, and find work that occupies your hands. Maybe you have a muted conversation with the person next to you. But even though nothing’s going on around you, you still keep your voice to a hollow murmur. Eventually the staff comes for you and there’s a polite rush for the door.

You meet with an agent or an editor (in my case, both) who has read the first twenty pages of your manuscript, plus a synopsis. They tell you what they liked. If they want to know more, they ask you some questions: who do you read in this genre, how long have you been writing, where do you see this going? As expensive as it is, I recommend meeting with more than one professional because then you can compare notes. The agent didn’t quite buy my female protagonist as female; the editor had no problem with it. One found that the implied affair made the protagonist unsympathetic; the other found it a compelling hook. Both suggested that mobsters are rather played. “Unless you know mobsters,” the agent said, “or you’re Harlan Coben and can get away with it, you want to be careful.”

And that’s what we go on: the oral tradition of older members of the tribe. I hate the cliche that there are no rules for writing, but it’s really true. I attended seminars later that morning with Joseph Finder and Hallie Ephron, both very successful thriller writers. One recommended withholding secrets in order to build suspense; one cautioned against deliberate obfuscation in order to draw out tension. And they’re both right, of course. This is helpful and frustrating at the same time, because I want The List: the series of steps I need to take to sell a book to a publisher. Part of growing up, of course, means discovering that not only is there no List in your chosen passion – there’s no List for anything. Nobody has the steps. They can simply tell you what worked for them.

The afternoon might have ended in much more frustration, were it not for lunch. More on that tomorrow.