Tips on Writers Conferences

The Pacific Northwest Writers Conference was held last week, Thursday through Sunday, a wonderful event bringing together hundreds of writers, agents, and editors to talk about the publishing world today. This was the 57th conference of PNWA, and there was, as usual, something new: Power Pitches. Think of them as speed dating for connecting writers with agents or editors. The idea was that for three minutes, a writer could “pitch” her or his book idea to an agent or editor, who would use the final minute or so to give feedback and, with any luck, ask that some pages be sent subsequently for review. At the sound of the bell, the writer left the chair and was immediately replaced by another writer, making another three-minute pitch.

This went on in 90-minute blocks. It was grueling, but after the first four or five pitches, a writer usually had it down how to proceed, and had probably refined the pitch enough to say it without reading it from a notecard. The pitch – now streamlined and easy to say – can later be used in approaching other agents through email or letters.

Writers conferences provide an invaluable opportunity to talk face-to-face with people who have the expertise and potential to bring work to print. But a few general tips can help make best use of the time:

1. Research the conference ahead of time to make sure this is the right conference for your material. If no publisher or agent on the roster will work with spiritual material and that’s what you write, this is the wrong conference for you. Spend your money where it can do you the most good.

2. Assuming this is the right conference, research agents and editors ahead of time to make sure you know who will represent your specific kind of work. This is best done on their websites, but pay close attention when these individuals speak to conference attendees, because their interests can change or they may be seeking material on behalf of colleagues. The best thing is when you can relate your work to a specific writer the agent represents or title the editor published and explain how your work is similar.

3. If an agent or editor requests to see pages, make sure you send them, even if time transpires before you can get them ready to send.

4. Make sure that in every contact you have, the agent or editor will perceive you as easy to work with and completely professional. One thing this means is that you adhere precisely to guidelines given for sending in your material.

5. Keep reading current books in your arena, keep writing what you write, keep attending writer events, because it is all a large network, and your place is in there, waiting for you to claim it.


Points of View

A writing friend and I went to hear an agent talk about elements of a manuscript that will cause an agent to turn down a novel for representation. These days so many people are submitting queries and manuscripts to agents that it’s a good idea to know what elements are cause for disqualification at the get-go.

One item on the list was having too many points of view in the story. The agent advised restricting the story to one or at most two, and spoke strongly against trying to present five or six POVs in a story. Now, we can all name successful books that break this rule. Perhaps the rules have changed in today’s publishing climate and those authors were already established with a reader base before agents and editors (and readers) became sensitive to this issue, or maybe those stories are so scintillating that the authors could afford to break accepted rules with abandon. Whatever the case, novelists today who want their manuscripts accepted will find an easier road by playing by this POV rule.

My tendency – a characteristic of my everyday spirituality – is to look for the blessing in what might otherwise seem a difficulty. The blessing I see with restricting my novels to one or two POV characters is that it gives me license to go deeper into the character, to mine their perspectives and personalities for the richness that would otherwise be glossed over if I were trying to tell the story from several different points of view.

Thus today I get to commence the adventure of reducing my 100,000-word novel, told in five points of view, to a richer, shorter one focused on just two people, the two who I already know bring the most to the story. This is a good thing!


Self-acceptance: Finding the Diamonds

“People behave rationally only part of the time; the rest of the time we take stupid risks and do other things we can’t explain,” Elizabeth Sims wrote in an article published in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest. The intent of the article was to advise writers in how to make their stories better and this key had to do with “embracing idiosyncrasies” in the characters we have created. By not only accepting but celebrating the fact that our characters aren’t perfect, we allow them to be real enough to become effective in communicating the messages we are hoping our writing will achieve.

What’s true for fiction is also true in our everyday spirituality. Some of us are still trying to put out the persona that we never fail, that we are always happy, that we have life figured out and all is good all the time. Of course this is ridiculous and trying to maintain the front is wearing us out. How much better for all of us if we can accept that sometimes we take stupid risks and do irrational things we can’t explain. Where grace comes in (in real life) is that we can know at the same time that we are loved by the Divinity that lives in us and we always have another chance to try again – and in trying again, we remove a little more of the dross from the diamonds we are in spirit.


Writing: The Importance of Showing Up

Woody Allen is given credit for the statement: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” The truth of this observation resonates with many people, pursuing many different pathways to hoped-for success, and writing is one endeavor in which it seems most apt.

When you make your living as a writer (or want to) and then you don’t regularly show up at your keyboard, or your writing tablet, or however you do it, the words don’t go down on the page. That seems pretty obvious. Something that is running around in your head isn’t being put down in words that others can read.

But there is something more to it that is even more important. If you don’t show up, you aren’t there for the inspiration to strike you, you aren’t there for the Holy Spirit to write through you, you aren’t there to create the message or the story or the essay or the poem or the book that you didn’t even know was in you waiting to be written, and those creations are always more stunning, more magnificent than the ones you formulated all by yourself. And part of the tragedy is that no one will miss it, because no one else knew it was in you either.

Whenever your time of day or night is that you write – that time when above all else, you are a writer – make sure you show up!


Writing Practices: Pray First, Write Second

The “about Jean” section of this website makes reference to two points in my writing history: I made my living as a freelance writer for business clients for about fifteen years, and for the last four of them, I wrote and published a spiritual newsletter. In those years, I learned a valuable, practical lesson: always spend time in prayer before putting my hands on the keyboard and attempting to put words on the page. It sounds like a simple point, but it makes all the difference in the world.

The reason this is a powerful practice is the infinite world of Spirit that we can access if we wish to. This spiritual “place” has the right themes, the right words, and the guidance and peace we need in order to settle into the job we are undertaking. It will even accommodate deadlines! You can go it alone and not avail yourself of this priceless assistance, but doing so, more often than not, leads to frustration, stress, and even the dreaded “writer’s block.”

The more you nurture your spirituality through everyday practices such as meditation and prayer, the surer your confidence in this spiritual collaboration.



Writers Groups – Four Tips

Not all writing groups are created equal, so if you go looking for one, here are four pointers from my most recent stint in one, which has continued some seven years and I hope will continue for a long time to come. I would encourage you to look for a group that:

1. Stays true to the core theme. If the group’s focus is spiritually based writing, for example, then any prospective new members must have the same focus for work that will be brought before the group.

2. Is clear about the intent of any feedback regarding an individual’s work. Successful writing groups are noteworthy for how they encourage writing, first and foremost. Groups that focus on finding and exposing every flaw in the writer’s work will not only trample over the writer’s spirit but surely find themselves eventually disbanding.

3. Accepts only new members who are deeply interested in writing, regardless of the particular form the writing takes. “Deeply interested” means that even though the member is probably not earning his livelihood from his writing, he views his work as much more than just another hobby.

4. Honors each member’s material and schedule. This point ranges from remembering to honor confidentiality to ensuring that reviewers have adequate time to review material before a meeting.

More pointers could be given here, but if you find a writers group that meets these four, you probably have found a good one in which it will be safe to let your writer’s spirit soar.