Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conference Goers, from Susan Hawk

This morning I opened my email to find a message from one of the fabulous organizers of the Kansas SCBWI meeting, where I’ll be in October, followed by a reminder about a dinner this week with a group of NJ SCBWI members here in New York.  Got me thinking about conferences, and other opportunities to meet editors and agents, and how writers can make the most out of these events….and tada!  Some ideas to keep in mind as you prepare for your own meetings and conferences:

One.  No need for nerves! 
I understand that just considering the idea of talking about your work can make your knees knock, I do.  Writing, coaxing your ideas into life on paper, is a delicate thing.  Sharing those ideas with people you don’t know can feel like inviting in the wind.  Will it blow soft?  Or, will it stir everything up beyond recognition? 

Here’s what I try to remember: we’re all in this together.  All of us are here because we love stories.  We want to fall in love with a character and we want to know what’s going to happen to them next.  So, you have something in common with most anyone that you’re going to meet.  And all of us have dealt with rejection – as writers, as agent and as editors.  Something else we all have in common!  See this commonality between yourself and others and it may help with the nerves.

Two.  Be ready to talk about your project
Sometimes at a conference, I’m chatting with a writer, having a great time comparing notes about recent movies or a trip, all while getting the feeling that she wants to tell me her project, but doesn’t want to be pushy.  When, and how, should you tell an agent or editor about your book?

If we’re chatting, that’s the right time.  If I’m heading off to a presentation, or we’re in the line for the bathroom it’s not – but in essence, if we’re having a good conversation, you should let me know about your project.  That’s the when.  As for the how: keep it simple and ask, Can I tell you about my project? 

That’ll probably do the trick.  I think it’s a good idea to practice what you’ll say next – not to memorize necessarily, because that can feel stiff (though if you know that you need to do that, go ahead) – but to have a couple lines or phrases ready, so you don’t have to dig for them.  The key here is to keep it short, a couple sentences only.  All you want to is to capture my interest, because with everything going on at the conference, I’m not going to remember lengthy descriptions.  So those lines should get right to the heart of your story, and leave me wanting more.

Three.  Be ready to talk about something other than your project
As much as you want to be ready to share your book, don’t let that readiness keep you from other conversations with an agent or editor.  Yes, you’re hoping to inspire interest, but it’s also your chance to get a sense of the person you’re meeting – is this agent or editor easy to talk to?  Does your taste in reading resonate with each other?  The right agent for you is someone who loves your writing and wants to represent you, of course, but is also someone you have a rapport with.  This is your opportunity to get a feel for that.

Four.  Don’t worry if I don’t want to take samples of your work on the spot
Basically, this boils down to one thing: how heavy my bags will be and how little I want to drag them through an airport.  And in the rest of my work I do everything via email, so your material will actually get more attention if it comes to me that way.

Five.  Don’t take criticism as a negative
This is a tough one, because of course criticism can be hard to hear.  Yes, it would be so good to have an agent faint with delight or an editor hand you a contract on the spot.  Who amongst us hasn’t polished up a little mental reel of a gracious acceptance speech of awards and accolades before an adoring crowd of our peers?  The truth is that everyone, everyone has gotten feedback that they weren’t expecting to hear.  Everyone has had to re-think something that felt just right. 

More often than not, I think part of what makes criticism hard to hear is that it’s so unexpected – after all, if you had noticed that passage had some clunky dialogue, you would’ve fixed it yourself.  Feel free to ask a question if something is surprising; dig into what your reader is telling you and really get to the bottom of their concern.  If you understand it, it may not feel so uncomfortable.

And finally, when you give your work to lots of different people, you’re likely to get lots of different feedback.  Responding to every bit of that may send you off in all kinds of directions, some of them opposing.  So, plan to filter the feedback you get – see what the thru-line is, what you hear more than once.  Remembering that you have a plan for using criticism may help you hear it when you’re meeting with editors or agents.

Six. Remember to listen, as well as to talk
As much as a conference is an occasion to discuss your work, and hopefully create some interest in it, there’s usually so much other opportunity available – to learn something about your craft, to understand someone else’s process, to find out what editors are excited about, to learn about various author’s paths to publication.  All of that is enriching to you and your writing; take advantage of it!

Seven.  Plan to make connections with other writers
This is the most important piece of advice I have.  Some of your writing may be meant for you alone, but if you’re going to a conference, you have writing to share.  You’re hoping that your words will have meaning for others and you want to connect through that.  Paradoxically, writing is a singular task and it can be lonely.  Plus, without the person on the other end to respond to your writing, how do you know how it’s going?   If you don’t already have a writing partner or group, that’s probably the most important thing you can find at a conference.  So, keep your eye out for a like minded writer and see what they’re up to!

Finally, this feels like it goes without saying: have fun!  What tips do you have?

Happy Summer everyone--Susan

Saturday, July 7, 2012

It's not WHO you know, it's WHAT you write in your query

This is #2 in my series of posts which are meant to demonstrate that you don't need connections to be successful in publishing--just a really good query and manuscript.   To do this, I'm featuring unsolicited query letters that captured my attention and got multiple offers of representation from different agents.  Last week I wrote about Yangsze Choo's letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and today I'm highlighting a letter from author Lori Nelson Spielman for a book we retitled THE LIFE LIST and sold to Random House.  We've also sold rights in 13 other territories (including France, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Spain) and optioned the book for film to Fox 2000.   Again, Lori didn't have a connection to me or to the other agents who offered representation--she just wrote a great query letter.   I'll parse it below.

Dear Ms. Bent,

What’s the downside of a successful thirty-something with the world at her feet who’s set to inherit millions of dollars? She can only get the money if she fulfills the na├»ve dreams of her teenage self, and that’s an order from her dead mother!

I love your blog Bent on Books, and would be thrilled if you’d consider my contemporary women’s novel, ANOTHER SKY (104K words).

Following her beloved mother’s death, Brett Bohlinger naturally assumes she’ll take over the family business. But she is stunned when her savvy sister-in-law inherits the lucrative company, and Brett is handed a yellowed, dog-eared life list. Brett had no idea her mother’s sense of humor was this twisted: her inheritance hinges upon completing the ten remaining goals on her life list—the very list her mother fished from Brett’s Beverly Hills 90210 wastebasket twenty years ago.

And that girl’s life wishes are insane! Have a baby? Not happening. Become a teacher? Surely she’s not expected to swap her lucrative salary and stock options for snotty noses and spelling bees. Buy a horse? The condo board doesn’t even allow fish. And a relationship with her father is out of the question. The coldhearted stranger died seven years ago!

But Brett’s biggest challenge is Andrew. When her driven, big-city boyfriend comes home toting a bottle of Perrier-Jouet to celebrate, she doesn’t have the heart—or the guts—to tell him she is not, and never will be, President of Bohlinger Cosmetics. And she’s sure as hell not telling him about that asinine life list. He’d be history if he found out about the humble, conventional life she’d once craved.

Entangled in a web of deceit, Brett is forced to examine the life she chose and the life she dreamed of as a teen. With a multi-million dollar inheritance at stake and nothing but her mother’s letters to guide her, she wades from her comfy Gold Coast neighborhood into the streets of Southside Chicago in search of a young girl’s dreams. There she faces challenges and victories, and loves and losses, that her youthful heart never could have imagined.

I’m a member of RWA-Pro and a local writer’s group. Like Brett, I work as a homebound teacher in an inner-city school district, though writing is my true passion. Along with my teaching degree, I have Master’s degrees in Speech Pathology and Guidance Counseling.

Pasted below you’ll find the first ten pages, per your guidelines. Thanks so much for your time and consideration.

Warm regards,

Lori Nelson Spielman

If you break this letter down, it is many ways similar to the letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and you can see the same elements that go into a successful letter:  it has a great log line, a reason for querying me, a snappy synopsis, and a bio that highlights the relevance of her personal experience to the book she has written.

First, her log line.  Two sentences, which is absolutely fine, and it sums up the plot while giving a sense of the emotional hook, which is essential.  Then she tells me she reads my blog, which does mean something to me (I appreciate writers who do their homework).   Her synopsis is actually fun to read and it showcases her voice, which is such a great thing to do in a query letter.   And she doesn't have showy writing credentials but her life experience mirrors that of her heroine, and publishers love that--it's a great hook when pitching the novel to media.  

You may have noticed that Lori doesn't include comp titles, which is okay because of her log line.  The reason for including comp titles or a log line is because they serve as a kind of shorthand for the agent--they give me a sense right away of the kind of book I will be reading.  If your log line is effective, therefore, you don't need the comp titles (although including them wouldn't have hurt the letter either).

Best of all, her letter has heart and you can tell from reading it that her novel does too.  It's packed full of words that convey emotion--something to think about when you are working on your own query.  If you can make me feel something just by reading your letter, you know you will capture my attention and get me to request your manuscript.

So, once again, I present you with evidence that you don't need to schmooze to get an agent or a book deal.  You need to do your homework about what makes a great query, research agents to make sure you're approaching the right ones, and of course, write a great book.   Then, all you have to do is press send.  I'm rooting for you!

Oh, and if you're intrigued by the letter for the book that became THE LIFE LIST (which pubs in about a year), please do go over and join Lori's author page on Facebook.  I promise she's just as warm and lovely as the premise of her book.