The Caboodle – My First Writing Workshop!

I know, I know. Every writing blog has stories of their first conference. But mine has panties, see?

You can really kick up your heels in the Marriott lobby between panels!
You can really kick up your heels in the Marriott lobby! It’s got a water fountain AND a Starbucks.

Hahahahahah – I have the most idiotically juvenile sense of humor, so you should know that, at odd moments during the day, I’m going to set down my Kindle or my paring knife and murmur “I told them they’d see panties and then I showed them bloomers.” Then I’ll laugh and laugh until my kids come in and ask wtf? It’s a problem.

So, anyhow, last Saturday I attended my very first writer’s workshop, the Chicago Writer’s Workshop, hosted by Chuck Sambuchino of the Guide to Literary Agent’s blog fame. I was excited about the lecture part, but there were live agent pitches. Yeah, I dreaded it as much as you might imagine. But it turned out SO MUCH BETTER than I thought. Here are some of the discoveries I made along the way.

AGENTS AREN’T TERRIFYING – WHO’DA THUNK IT?
I have a lively horror of appearing insincere and I’m actively querying right now, and so I’m a little hesitant to talk about this bit. But I know any writer facing their first pitch session expects to sit across from someone like this: judgement face

Or, if it’s a panel and you’ve been drinking or doing…other things…(don’t do this before you pitch – PLEASE!) you might envision facing a group like this:

witchydemons

And, after having your soul snacked upon for ten agonizing minutes, leave feeling like this:

judgement people

(Side note: It’s from one of the world’s most famous paintings, folks. Don’t email me about the skin. I’m not cropping out the bits and bobs or putting a fig leaf over ANYTHING).

Having met agents in the flesh, I can tell you with bold confidence…wait for it…they’re NICE. Really. Each person was kind, approachable, whipsmart, encouraging, and generously patient with a bumbling newbie. All seemed interested in what I had to say. Each asked probing questions to follow the narrative. I’d have gladly gone to lunch with any of them, just because they were exactly the kind of people I like to spend time with. This, for some reason, came as a shock to me, but once I thought about, I realized duh! They share the same kind of life interest in books as you do. Of course you’ll have something in common.

I got through it intact and left with three requests. 🙂 I’m actually looking forward to doing it again, just so I can meet more agents. I’m not shitting you here.

EDITORS EARN THEIR SANDWICHES
So I’ve been so focused on finding an agent I haven’t had much time to work up a dread or fetish about editors. But in the back of my mind I’ve always wondered: Ummm, why am I stressing so hard to make this perfect? Why do people have to do so many revisions with their agents before subbing? Shouldn’t that be the editor’s job? What the hell do they do all day? This?

Yeah, that's me in the pic. Yes, REALLY. You wanna call me a liar to my face, bud?
Yeah, that’s me in the pic. Yes, REALLY. You wanna call me a liar to my face, bud?

And then I saw one in in action and realized they spend their day like this…

FranticWriter

One of the funnest part of the workshop was the first-page session, where you submit your first page anonymously. Chuck read them aloud and the agents and editor raised their hands at the point they’d have stopped reading. With each submission, I watched this editor scribble and circle and find all kinds of narrative and structural problems in two minutes. Everything she said was spot on. And it clicked home to me: what kind of great ideas and feedback could she offer if the manuscript was clean enough to need less nuts-and-bolts attention? I don’t want someone that smart fixing my commas. I want her finding unique parts of my characters, unseen footpaths in my narrative, richer ways to connect layers of meaning. His or her time is just too valuable to waste with basic copyediting.

WRITE BOLDLY, YOUNG MAN/WOMAN/ANY COMBINATION OF THOSE TWO
So I’m sitting at that awesome panel I mentioned above. Page after page of blameless but bland prose rolled by. The agents and editors made helpful comments here and there, but no one seemed super excited about anything. And then came the story that opened with boys drinking their own urine to avoid drug tests on their football squad. My sensibilities have a fine bawdy edge, so please believe me when I tell you it was the grossest thing I’d ever heard — absolutely disgusting. Jaws dropped everywhere after the first sentence. The author worked in piss, vomit, sweat, pubic hair, and a few different icky sex acts into one page.  With each new piece of gross, the panelist’s faces filled with escalating horror. Everyone in the room was roaring by the end, from the sheer craziness of their reactions, and I almost felt bad for the writer except… it was DAMN good. The best piece I heard that day, hands down. All the agents agreed, even the most grossed-out one there. This writer wasn’t playing, and it showed. And it got a referral to a pretty big-agent, on the strength of the writing alone.

So I’m taking that to heart: don’t play with your words. Make them bright. Make them luminescent. Make them anything but just okay enough to keep someone reading.

So I hope you leave this post a little more enlightened about the professional writing world. I know the workshop sure opened my eyes a lot wider.  Later in the week we’ll get Nikki Roberti’s take on Designing Principle. Stay tuned!

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