Per usual, I’m aware that not everyone may care to read a description of every panel I attended at the splendiferous James River Writers Conference, so I will put all that under a cut. For the short version, I’ll say that I had an awesome time – and got to have cool conversations with not one, but two literary agents!
Walking into the Library of Virginia, where the conference is held, I ran into David L. Robbins! I hadn’t seen him since – well, probably since the last conference – and it’s always great to catch up with my favorite ridiculously tall Advanced Fiction professor. Bonus: within five minutes of my arrival at the library, David R. introduced me to a friend of his (and speaker at the conference) who is a literary agent. We chatted a little, and then she suggested I submit The Dogwatchers to a colleague of hers, who handles middle-grade for their agency. Know what that means? Yes! A REFERRAL! I had almost believed these were creatures of myth! (I sent the query Saturday evening.)
This year, for the first time, the conference included events on Thursday as well as Friday and Saturday. I have three classes on Thursdays, though, so I skipped those. I understand they were kind of extras, anyway.
Another difference from previous years: there were (very loose) themes in the panels of the two days. Friday had a bunch of writing elements: Pacing 101, Character 101, Setting 101. Saturday had genres. Since these were spread across the time slots, you could attend all, a few, or none, but it was a neat idea.
So! Friday morning! After the introduction and the recital of a comic poem written for the occasion, we had a session called Pitching an Agent. Agent Katharine Sands gave a free-form talk about the job of an agent, how to approach one, and more. She passed around publishers’ catalogs and made book recommendations. Also offered the catchy sum-up of what you should include in your query’s description of your work: “person, place, pivot.”
From there, on to the panel Finding Your Inner Teenager. A tough choice, this, because the same time slot also included Pacing 101, which had David R. and sounded pretty neat, but I have been writing a YA work lately, so this seemed especially relevant. Plus, I was wowed by the panel: Meg Medina and Erica Orloff are JRW regulars, and are awesome, but they also had Jacqueline Woodson (author of After Tupac and D Foster) and Lauren Oliver (author of Before I Fall). Interesting points made include:
- Even as distinct from MG, YA may be kind of a big category. Many books will not have equal appeal to a fourteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old.
- One common difference between MG and YA: YA is more body-centered. Not always true, but often.
- Had not previously heard this quote: “Aim for truth, and beauty will follow. Aim for beauty, and truth will not necessarily follow.
Next, I went to Character 101. The panel had some good observations about how to work in physical description in ways that also showed character. Also, not avoiding conflict in writing. One of the panelists shared the catchy mantra, “Make a scene!”
On to Setting 101! I thought the best observation made here was that, while setting is not atmosphere, it should dictate atmosphere. And then, similar to the discussion in Character 101 of showing character based on what the characters notice about their own experience, the panelists talked about describing setting in ways that also show character. They also prescribed sparing use of value words like “beautiful.”
The last session of the day was Relationships: Writers, Agents, and Editors. The panel consisted of one of each. The initial intent, apparently, had been to have one author plus her agent and editor, but her editor couldn’t make it, so another editor filled in. It was still cool, though, to see what an author and agent had done on the same project (a novel called The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors). Bonus: At the end, when the moderator asked what each of the panelists would like people to know about her/his profession, the agent said, “I have a beating heart!” Agents, it would seem, are secretly people. You heard it here first! Oh, and two other interesting things (and in one case, I mean “terrifying”):
- The editor, when asked which department of his publishing house was the hardest to sell on projects, didn’t waffle around: “Sales, with publicists as a close second.”
- The book buyer at Barnes & Noble can REDESIGN YOUR COVER. This happened to the author on the panel. Her book’s cover was already in its second incarnation, and the book buyer at B&N didn’t like it – so the art department REDID IT TO MATCH THAT PERSON’S SUGGESTIONS.
Saturday started with the First Pages Critique. Always fun. Before it got started, the moderator mentioned two JRW members who had met their agents at the JRW conference – agents who had recently sold their books. Go them! Also, sweet!
The critique was awesome. The three agents were helpful and delightfully snarky – the kind of snark that’s actually funny, though, not just mean, and they offered a lot of constructive criticism. Plus, David R. moderated, and he did a good job asking the right questions.
Some consens. . .es? Consensi?
- Putting thoughts in italics is just fine. Good!
- Do not begin with your character waking from a dream. Be careful about using recurring dreams at all (unless, I assume, they are magical in nature). One of the agents polled the audience on how many of us had recurring dreams. I was surprised to see maybe a sixth of the room raise hands. The agent said, “So that’s about what percent of characters should have recurring dreams. But I think closer to eighty percent have them.”
- Sentences should make sense. Also, not be impossible. (The sentence that sparked these observations was one that described a character’s hair with the phrase “color indefinite.”)
- If you start a paragraph on your first page with “Anyway,” that means you have been digressing, and you really want to think about whether you can afford to digress on the first page.
- Be careful in SF/Fantasy about giving too much too soon, especially if what you’re giving is made-up proper nouns.
From there, went to the Mystery genre panel. One of the mystery writers on the panel provided us with a cool handout that broke the mystery genre down into waaay more subgenres than I knew existed, providing examples of authors who write each one (except for Cozy, which just says, “Cats and recipes”). (Not that she had anything to say against cozies – at least one of her fellow panelists writes them.) Some interesting discussions of genre-specific stuff, like how early in the book the victim has to be dead and how this varies by subgenre. I don’t write mystery, but I enjoyed learning about it. Plus, The Dogwatchers has a mystery subplot, so that’s part of the reason I chose that panel.
The next panel, Writing Convincing Dialogue, was looking great – and was crammed full of people! – but I had to sneak out halfway through for my scheduled five-minute agent pitch. (Though I didn’t leave too early to hear David R. say that “[Plot] devices are poison in the aquarium.”)
The agent meeting was fun! I had actually managed to prepare a two-sentence pitch, which impressed the agent mightily. (“You stopped! That’s great! Most people go on and on!”) She reps MG but not a lot of fantasy, and she thought The Dogwatchers was a little long, but invited me to send pages. I did, of course, but am not SUPER hopeful there, based on the aforementioned notes. Still, we had a great little conversation, and I continue to be proud of having made a two-sentence pitch. Never had I done such a thing.
From there, I caught the Fantasy panel. It covered a lot of ground already familiar to me – that inevitable audience member who needed “steampunk” explained, etc. – but had some good stuff. (Also, I admit that I didn’t realize there is an East Coast/West Coast steampunk hostility! Apparently on the West Coast they’re . . . less into corsets?) Of particular note, the statement, “What makes stories not have enough plot is too many characters saying ‘yes’ all the time.”
Fun comments from Michelle Brower, the one agent on the Fantasy panel:
- “You don’t want to write ‘a trilogy.’ You want to write ‘a novel with series potential.'”
- After sighing over how many zombie novels she’s being sent, brightly, “Really, I’m ready for witches.” (You guys heard that, right?)
- “I’ve always wanted to go to a steampunk party because they have TINY HATS! and I want a tiny hat.”
The conference rounded off with Dean King interviewing Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird, a biography of Harper Lee . . . written expressly against Lee’s wishes. How this came about was an interesting story, really. Mr. Shields wanted to approach Ms. Lee with a publisher backing him, so he sent a full proposal, including all the people with whom he planned to speak, to several publishers. Someone photocopied the whole thing and sent it to Ms. Lee, who angrily telephoned everyone she could think of and told them not to talk to Mr. Shields.
Many, many of them didn’t. He ended up having to go to people farther removed from Ms. Lee, people she hadn’t thought to call. Hearing about all this was fun. Mr. Shields reminded me of Robin Williams, and he had a lot of interesting, sometimes funny, stories. (And a great demonstration of how you, as an interviewer, can play stupid to get people to tell you more.)
A good time! While yes, every time I go to the JRW conference I hear more that I already know, I also always come away with valuable new information. Plus, I meet cool people, and I always feel inspired.
I just finished reading How Not to Write a Novel. Hilarious and insightful. I particularly love the observation that potentially tricky scenes, like sex scenes, are not half as good if they’re done halfway well, just as half a kitten is not half as cute as a whole kitten. Also, hilarious “doing it wrong” examples.