I must say I’ve been very blessed lately to have met and been able to interact with a number of great writers.
I’m currently writing my second novel – with the working title of “Old Habits” – through the Humber School of Writers and under the mentorship of Nino Ricci. If you didn’t know, Nino (and yes, I can now call him Nino) is one of Canada’s biggie writers, with Giller and Governor General prize buzz all over him, so it is at once a great honour and an incredibly intimidating reality all at once. Many Humber writers don’t get to meet their mentors, so I was very fortunate to meet Nino at a reading he did to benefit literacy in Bancroft, Ontario, speak to him a little and have him sign my copy of Lives of the Saints. And shake his hand five times. I may have been a wee bit nervous…
Yesterday, I went to an IFOA reading at Toronto Harbourfront with readings from Helen Humphreys, Riel Nason, Ruth Roach Pierson, and Miriam Toews. They were all great, but I was particularly impressed by Helen Humphreys (who I’d never heard of) and Miriam Toews, whose A Boy of Good Breeding was a favourite read while overseas. I put Miriam back on my fave authors list, because of her incongruous wit and wonderfully understated prose, and I was able to say hello after and have her sign Irma Voth, her latest work. I may become a reading groupie now, and just trawl bars and theatres in the hopes of taking in some writing and shaking hands and getting books signed and meeting other writers and making a fool of myself.
I also had the great pleasure to meet Ian Weir and Mary Robinette Kowal at SIWC2011. Ian read the first three pages of Aeden’s Wake and was quite complimentary, and Mary Robinette was very gracious when I referred to her as “The Puppet Lady” because I didn’t know her name at the time. I bought both of their books, which both writers were gracious enough to sign. Sweet!
And I won signed copies of all the Man Booker shortlisted authors for my contribution to a contest on the Booker website. Each day for a week, writers contributed one line (of 100 characters or less, including spaces) for a six-sentence story, and each day’s winner received the mini-library. My line was: “He holds the cool, black cloth he had taken from her eyes. ‘Finish it,’ she says.” Mysterious, right? Anyhow, I didn’t actually interact with any of the Booker finalists, but I have their signatures, which is pretty cool – at least they interacted with the copies of their novels I now own!
All right, having waded through piles of internet "goodness," and successfully pitching my novel at SIWC2011, I think I have discovered a fairly good formula for pitching a fiction project. Here are my thoughts:
1. Finish your novel. The little light that went on in the eyes of the agents and editors when I said Aeden’s Wake is complete at 82,500 words was priceless. I met a number of fine folks who pitched unfinished novels or concepts and had the agent/editor say to contact them when it was finished – I imagine sometimes it’s a polite blow-off, and other times it’s genuine, but I’m glad I had a complete project to give. Only once did I hear of an agent asking to see an uncompleted manny. If you’re just interested in speaking with an agent, all right, but if you’re hoping to sell, the odds go up – waaaaayyyy up – when you can put the finished manuscript right into their hands. Their eyes light up all over again.
2. Know the unique premise of your book. This is more than just the plot or character – it’s what makes your story unique, and will set it apart from the (many, many, many) carbon copy novels being written. Which I know you didn't.
3. Write that premise into a one sentence logline and start your pitch with that. Hook ‘em straight away. I’ll post my logline and most of my pitch (sans climax and denouement) below.
4. Then write a 1 minute (max) synopsis of your work that really explains the following: the protagonist’s awesomeness; the novel’s problem/conflict; the complication; the climax, and the resolution. Do not hold back your ending – an agent needs to know, and now is not the time to be cagey (besides, you’re proud of it, right?).
5. Because Aeden’s Wake is literary/upmarket, I chose to say a bit about the structure of my novel, which I feel is significant to its potential reception by audiences (see below).
6. In 30 seconds, situate your book against others in the market. Don’t say it’ll be a bestseller, but try to make a commercial connection. And, if you can, try to add something specific to that agent (e.g., I used the word "quirky" because she used it in her profile).
7. Write a bit about what makes YOU qualified/able to write THIS book. If you have publication credits, pick a couple you’re most proud of or will impress; if you’re a teacher of literature, mention that, etc. However, do not talk about loosey-goosey, abstract ideas about your project – stick with real, concrete things that will impress someone who deals with writers and books for a living.
8. Practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Read it out loud to catch syntax and diction flubs – it should sound natural – and try to capture some of the voice/tone of your work if you can. Then read it to someone who will give you honest feedback.
9. If you’re good with small talk, break the ice as you shake her hand with something nice or relevant to the situation (I was able to offer a tissue to an agent who had spilled some coffee on her table – she was grateful and, from what I gleaned from others, much nicer to me than she had been to the previous pitchers…score, right?!). If not, smile, take a deep breath and plunge into your pitch – be natural, be yourself. Agents are used to nerves, so just go for it.
10. In your pitch, I recommend reading it rather than memorizing it. If you’re really good at delivering memorized material and aren’t prone to nerves, go ahead and memorize, but HAVE A WRITTEN COPY WITH YOU, JUST IN CASE. Stay focused.
11. Use any remaining time for Q&A. Be ready for the agent’s questions and pay attention to things she missed or that you forgot to put in (in my nervous state, I forgot to include my ending for my first agent, and she asked about it straight away…thankfully, she was interested in everything else, but did I make sure to add it in for my next session? You betcha.).
12. If the agent stops asking questions, have some of your own ready. Take the opportunity to ask her about her projects, whether she has handled your kind of novel, what strategies she’d recommend, etc.
13. If she asks for more material, find out the following: hard or soft copy? Does she prefer in-line/embedded or attached files? What format (.doc or .pdf)? What is her timeline?
14. Get up, smile again – but not in a creepy way – and shake her hand. End well and clean. She’s a pro, you’re a pro, right? Don’t wink. (There were some annoyingly cocky people around who probably winked. I didn’t see them do it, but I’m just sayin’.)
15. Have a soft copy of your entire ms, pitches, queries, synopses, etc. with you at the conference, and send any requested info straight away. If you run into her again at the conference, how great would it be to say that it’s already in her inbox? Hard copy: unless you want to lug it around, don’t bring a hard copy of the whole ms – it’s rare for an agent to want 300 pages to carry back with her on the plane. HOWEVER, if it does happen (it happened to me, woot!) ask the hotel concierge or Google to find a nearby Staples or copy centre. I missed a morning keynote to grab the ms from Staples, but I think the agent appreciated the extra effort, and I certainly felt good about my willingness to go the extra 1.4 kilometres.
16. Always, always, always find a way to send a quick card or email and thank the agent for her time. Be polished. Be nice. People remember those little gestures.
AEDEN’S WAKE is a novel about a young, small-town woman who discovers that her family’s personal tragedy is merely the byproduct of a greater conflict that has shaped her hometown for generations.
Rhoda Camael is tired of everyone telling her how – and when – to grieve for her father and little brother. She knows she will have to at some point, and she does want to remember what happened – she just wants to do so in her own way. However, as she begins to discover what loss truly means, she also uncovers a conflict between a town that has the power to call people to itself, and those who are drawn in as a result. The two people Rhoda loved most in the world are dead because a serial criminal named Devon Eli was called home, yet she is alive because of a moment of choice that can only happen in a place like Aeden’s Wake… (climax and denouement would go here).
AEDEN’S WAKE is an upmarket commercial novel with supernatural undercurrents, and is complete at 82,500 words. Rhoda’s first-person narrative provides the story arc and central conflict, while parallel entries from Eli’s posthumous prison journal provide a glimpse into his psyche as he lives out the consequences of that moment of choice.
In terms of audience and marketing considerations, I think the novel would appeal to readers who enjoy a quirky and flawed yet strong female protagonist, as well as those who enjoy literary fiction that can blend strong character and theme with supernatural elements. There has been commercial success for such an approach, with writers such as Justin Cronin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, and Alice Sebold demonstrating that blending the literary with the supernatural can be successful commercially and critically.
My stories have appeared or will appear in The Storyteller Magazine, bazaar Magazine, and Fringe Magazine. I have published non-fiction in The Christian Courier, The Banner, The Kuwait Times, and Al-Watan Daily. I have been a literature and writing teacher for ten years.
I happened across the Surrey International Writer’s Conference website (www.siwc.ca) early in my web-research journey because of its high satisfaction ratings and warm-fuzzy factor – i.e. people seem to rave and gush about it a little more than others – and decided that perhaps a Canadian conference should be my first. An alternative would have been to sign up for one of the many in New York, but since I’ve never been to NYC and find people from that particular centre-of-the-universe intimidating, adding that angst to the nerves I would be feeling anyway would have been counterproductive. And also, I like being out West – BC breeds lovely, gentle people, and there are tons of large pine trees there.
What I’ve discovered about Writer’s Conferences – from all that über-profound internet research, you know, the stuff that’s determining the direction of this wee planet’s learning – is that they are scary and/or wonderful. Some people get to isolate the latter of the two emotions by attending purely to take in the workshops and seminars and schnoozle with writer friends from conferences past. Others attend to focus on the first, and find themselves ID-badged-up and lurking where – anywhere – an agent or editor might be found, be it the proper spaces or the bar or through closed bathroom stall doors (true story, that – happens at every one, so I’ve been told).
I’m a little of both, apart from making small talk at the urinal. My primary goal was to pitch Aeden’s Wake, my first novel, to agents and editors, in the hopes of representation and publication, and also attend workshops on writing craft and the publishing industry.
Signing up was easy: click, click, and enter Visa number (there are actually more clicks than that, but I didn’t count). Next, because I paid for the whole weekend, I was entitled to a pitch session and blue pencil session with my payment; if you buy a day at a time, you can only sign up for those things on the day itself, which greatly reduces the likelihood of seeing someone perfect for your work. The whole weekend registration fee was about $800, because I signed up for a couple of optional “Master Classes” on the day before the main conference started. Within 24hrs, I had my confirmation of registration and my two sessions, so I could then book flights and accommodations. I decided to spend a little extra and stay at the venue hotel – The Sheraton Guildford – because it’s way out in Surrey, which is about 45mins from downtown via SkyTrain. This was a good decision – the days are long and very, very full, and knowing I could duck up to the room for a kip or sip as needed was nice.
Preparation for the conference involved more super-awesome internet research (man, is there a lot of crap in cyberspace) which I was able to distill down to two things. First, have a pithy logline – one sentence that captures the premise and unique awesomeness of the novel – ready for use at any time while at the conference, and second, write a 1-2 minute pitch that summarizes the best things and plot of the novel and why you think it would do well in publication. Since I have been querying agents since late spring, most of my homework was done – I just had to focus it a bit.
Here’s my logline (apart from a more specific explanation of my climax and denouement – I want you to buy the novel at some point, after all): Aeden’s Wake, a literary/upmarket novel with a supernatural undercurrent about a young woman who discovers that her family’s personal tragedy may be more than just a small town tale of loss and woe. (Don’t worry – I didn’t actually use the word “woe” in my pitch session.) Perhaps I’ll post my pitch at a later date.
Because my focus was on pitching agents and editors, I was ducking in and out of workshops all weekend to attend the pitch sessions, which run alongside everything else. In addition to the sessions you get when registering, each morning there is opportunity to sign up for more, depending on availability. Jocosa Wade, a friend over at Backspace (www.bksp.org, an excellent resource for writers to get advice about agents and querying, among other things) had told me about the sign-ups, so I was almost first in line each morning, and ended up getting a total of six agent pitch sessions. This was the best part of the weekend for me – just sitting and chatting with agents has given me much more confidence about the whole process (thanks, Jocosa!). Best of all, I had six requests for more material, including four for the full manny!
It would be fun to go back sometime without the worry of pitching, just to take advantage of the workshops, which covered everything from plotting and character to marketing and publishing and everything in between. Generally, the sessions are excellent – SIWC has been around for nineteen years and has discovered the formula for inviting speakers who add much to the experience.
One of the other interesting happenings was the recurring motif from agents, authors, editors, and organizers was the transformation of the publishing world towards digital realities. The de-emphasis of genre and the traditional publishing model towards self-publishing and publishing on demand as being the next big way for writers to get their work out there and get noticed. Also, hearing about how genre-bending and mixing is anticipated to be really huge over the next while – that’s great news, because blending the literary and realist with the supernatural is what I do!
All in all, it was a great experience, one I hope to repeat.
Click on “Contact” if you have any more specific questions about SIWC2011.