KEYNOTE: On Being Brave in Publishing
Hello WriteOnCon 2019! I’m so happy to be a guest blogger today! As some of you might know, at the first 2010 WriteOnCon, I was unagented and participated in the forums, looking for that perfect match. I signed with my first agent in February 2011, and participated in subsequent forums to give and get critique. I was, and continue to be, amazed by the organizers and how much time and energy goes into the project. As someone who has been involved in planning “live” conferences, I can tell you there’s no less work involved in planning a virtual one.
Thank you to the organizers for inviting me back this year!
I want to talk about being brave.
Sometimes the brave part is forming the words on the blank page to start with—and congratulations for doing that! But let’s be honest, it takes an incredible amount of bravery AFTER you finish the creative process as well. Sending that first query letter…and the waiting that follows. WAITING is a fact of life in the publishing world. Sending the dozens of query letters that follow takes more bravery! And let’s face it, you know you’re in for the long haul when you query, right? We’ve all heard of the author who gets an agent from one query letter, but the fact is that most of us have to send 50, 100, or more queries to get an agent. I did an anecdotal poll for a workshop I did for RWA (Romance Writers of America) a few years ago, and the AVERAGE number of queries people sent to sign with an agent was about 55—and some had many more than that.
So it takes persistence, patience, and bravery to suffer through all the “I must pass” replies.
For agented writers, there’s a level of bravery that comes after the query process. Sort of Brave New World. No one talks about what comes next, so it’s often a surprise when you find out about revising with an agent or the submission process that happens after those revisions. Or when the first book doesn’t sell, and you have to write book number two. Or three. Or four.
I’m not trying to depress you! I just wanted to acknowledge that it takes courage and bravery to persist in this field sometimes. If you want to move beyond the creative process, you must be brave!
So I’m going to ask a question. Who considers themselves a professional writer?
You are all professional writers! It doesn’t matter if you haven’t published or if you don’t have an agent. You’re all here. You’ve taken the brave step to be here. This is a professional conference. So, say it with me.
“I am a professional.”
If you believe it, everyone will believe it!
Part of being a professional is accepting that you’re always learning. I’m sure some of you (I hope!) will be participating in the forums to get your work critiqued this weekend. If this is the first time you’re receiving feedback from an industry pro, congratulations! It’s a brave first step to put yourself out there.
Let me tell you about my first in-person critique with an agent—almost ten years ago. Some of you might know Jennifer Laughran from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She and I had communicated previously about my work-in-progress, and she was my “dream” agent. I was so nervous to meet her. We met first thing on a Saturday morning. The critique itself was pretty quick. She gave me some helpful feedback, and handed me her written notes.
And then, she said, “We have a few more minutes, do you have any questions for me?”
MY HEART STOPPED BEATING.
I had not considered having questions for her. Which was stupid, because having worked in academia all my life, I KNOW you’re supposed to have questions.
So. “What did you say?” you ask.
After a thoughtful pause—during which my brain hyperventilated—I finally came up with words. “Tell me about the publishing industry,” I said.
Oh, yes I did.
I cringe now even thinking about it. And I can’t believe I’m writing this down for all of you to read. In true Jennifer style, she deadpanned. “All of it? I don’t think we have that much time.” I think my face probably glowed, I was so hideously embarrassed. I was sure I’d blown my chances for all time with any agent anywhere.
But, do you know what? She asked for the full. Ultimately she passed on the project, but she gave me two pages of notes (yes, TWO pages!). She requested other things from me later. And the best part? She swears she does not remember this conversation. And yes, I am safely agented now.
(Quick plug for Jennifer—if you don’t listen to her amazing kidlit podcast, go download it now and come back. I’ll wait.)
So what is the moral of this story?
But if you’re not prepared, it’s not the end of the world—if they like the work, it will speak for itself.
If you say something stupid, chances are it sounds worse to you than anyone else. Don’t beat yourself up.
Pick yourself up and keep moving. Don’t let the mistakes keep you from being brave the next time. Or from stopping you in your tracks. Every mistake is part of the learning process. Agents and editors are people too. They can make mistakes, be tired, be cranky, or not remember your name, when you think they should. Cut them some slack.
Other things to keep in mind when interacting online and in person with publishing industry professionals:
It’s about networking. Not only with agents and editors, but with each other. Look around (virtually). Somewhere, sitting in their living room, lurking in the forums or listening to a live feed this weekend, there’s a future best-seller. There’s your future best friend, or your co-author. Or a beta reader or a critique partner.
I firmly believe that 99% of this industry is networking. Making friends, making connections that turn into you hearing about an opportunity that you wouldn’t have heard about. You learn as you go, you learn by talking and meeting, and connecting.
My best advice is to be professional. Act professional. See an agent in the bathroom at a conference or in a chat forum or on Twitter? Say hello, how are you? We’ve all heard the horror stories of the manuscript passed under the stall door. It sounds funny, but I’ve heard things almost that bad. Don’t be the person that the agents and editors are trying to avoid. Or worse, the person they warn their colleagues about.
No pitching unless you are asked. Why? Because it’s not professional. When you go to a cocktail party and you ask another guest what they do for a living, it’s because you want to know. But you don’t just go up and try to sell your product to another party guest. You lead into it. There’s small talk. You find out if they are interested by the things they say. If they ask, you have permission to pitch.
I promise you, if you act like a professional, you will be taken seriously.
Look around this virtual room. There’s someone else at WriteOnCon who has been in THE EXACT SAME situation as you are in right now—no matter what that situation is. THAT is the value of networking and attending professional conferences (both in person and online), that you are not alone. You have a network of colleagues with whom to commiserate, share stories, and ask advice. You are not alone. You don’t have to be brave by yourself.
Take some risks this weekend and beyond.
Talk to someone whose work you admire. Say hello to an agent or editor in the forums or on Twitter (and no, that does not mean unsolicited pitching! NO out-of-bounds pitching!!!). Everything starts with a [virtual] smile and hello. Use the time to network. Forge relationships. Form critique partnerships. Raise your hand and ask a question in a workshop.
Be open to learning. Be open to new genres. Be open to new styles.