5.02.2011

Big Conference, Big Mountains, Big Hopes, Big Fears

Pikes Peak and the road ahead
The Pikes Peak Writers Conference is over, and now that I'm installed back on my favorite seat in the house, at my favorite altitude, I figured I'd take a few minutes and share some highlights and lowlights of the experience.

It was my first major conference. I'd attended a few local events several years ago, but not at a time when I could have gotten as much out of the workshops as I can now that I'm actively pursuing publication with finished work. The Pikes Peak conference is one of the biggest of such events in the country, and because some great friends of mine also live in the Colorado region, it was a fantastic way to get to meet them as well as further my writing career.

As far as the latter was concerned, I had two goals in mind when I decided to attend this year's event. I wanted to attend workshops that would help strengthen my writing in key areas (namely voice, but that's going to be in a future blog) and I wanted to entice an agent with my latest manuscript to the point that they would request more materials. I'm happy to say that I achieved both of those goals.

I pitched to agent Joanna Volpe of the Coffey Literary Agency, and she was fantastic and friendly in spite of my nerves, which I never could completely conquer before going in. The first moment you sit down to discuss your work with an industry professional is one of the most nerve-wracking in existence. At least it was for me. Writing is such a solitary thing, and the first time you come out from under a rock to seek validation for it in public can be terrifying. It's like any other audition, only it's for a particular talent that largely exists behind closed doors. Rarely do we write aloud in front of audiences. But she did attempt to break the ice by complimenting my shirt, and that helped. After I got my legs under me at least a little, I pushed through, and although my words were rushed and shaky, and although I wandered so far off my carefully rehearsed discussion points (due to many of the questions she asked, which I'm thankful she did, because it also allowed me to discuss parts of the book I might otherwise have missed), she was interested enough to request the first 50 pages. Do I have the highest hopes that she will fall in love with those pages, request the full manuscript, and then promptly sign me? Of course. Do I think it will happen? Absolutely not. But hey, you have to tell yourself these things in order to keep going. "No" is a word you expect to hear until the "Yes" comes.

I also attended a Read and Critique session. That was on Friday afternoon, and it involved a group of 30 people gathering with an agent and each of us reading our first pages aloud (also nerve-wracking) and allowing the agent time to give us a critique on her first impressions of the story--what grabbed her, what didn't. This is important, because it gives you a clue as to what might make an agent or an editor decide to reject your writing or ask for more. I knew going in that I had a particular problem, because my original draft began with a prologue. For those who don't know, a prologue often puts a writer at a disadvantage while shopping around work. Agents and editors are wildly divided on a prologue's usefulness. While some are completely open-minded about the process, others have a strict "I hate them" policy and will often reject work on the spot that contains a prologue because they see it as a sign of weak storytelling. It just so happened that the agent I was reading to was one of these types.

However, her criticism had a lot of merits. She said my particular prologue's voice didn't match the genre of what I was writing, and you know what? She was right. While she gave me a lot of kudos for my descriptiveness and general writing ability, that was the main stumbling block. The prologue was crippling my chances to even get my story read by publishers and agents. It had to go. And now that I've eliminated it and have set about sprinkling its pertinent parts throughout the book, the story is a lot stronger for it.

Are any of these people as terrified as I am? 
Overall, the experience at Pikes Peak was a positive one. I met so many friendly people (and great writers) and learned a lot about the craft and the industry. If I return next year, my goal is to put myself out there even more, and that means swallowing all of my fears and doubts about my work and not being afraid to pitch to other attending agents and editors. Many of the writers there do this in the course of dinner conversation and social engagements, but I just couldn't quite go there yet. I was struck with blind terror at the prospect of pitching at a scheduled appointment. The thought of doing it spontaneously in a hallway or over a meal... forget about it. First of all, I have a lot of illogical fears to overcome, but I also know my personality. Until I feel comfortable in a situation, my first instinct is to hold back until I do. Or until I've had a few drinks. Maybe I should have been pitching after a few Cosmos.

Rehearsing the pitch, take 1000
As such, I kept to myself a lot, and seeing people who didn't have such fears getting multiple manuscript requests was discouraging to me at times. There was a low point Saturday afternoon where I holed myself up in my room and cried for a little while, completely convinced of my cowardice, lack of talent and ambition, and the futility of even trying to pursue this dream. But then I got it out, fixed my makeup, and focused on my breathing and my story (which is GOOD, dammit, even if I have trouble believing it at the times when I feel most vulnerable). I stumbled through my pitch and got a positive response, and even if I don't get any more out of it than that -- even if Ms. Volpe rejects my manuscript, I can at least say that I'm making baby steps toward a larger goal. I just have to keep moving forward. Retreat isn't an option at this point.

As one of the many speakers at the conference said during a particularly motivating speech, you have to be present to win. I'm going to remember that as I soldier forward. I'm present and I'm not going anywhere. As long as I keep that in mind, I will win someday.

P.S. There is a lot more I learned and experienced at the conference (and my overall visit to Colorado--like my how my aversion to high altitudes is completely incompatible to my love of beautiful mountains) that I couldn't possibly cover in one blog, so I might be talking about this for a little while.

4 comments:

  1. Allison, I'm so proud of you! Not only have you courageously furthered your writing career by enduring the fears and discomfort of this new experience, you've also gained so much personal growth. Well done!
    I had never heard about the prologue controversy so that was quite interesting to me.

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  2. You did a lot better than I did my first year. I barely talked to anyone...I got stuck in line next to a guy with nice hair, fortunately :)

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  3. Hi Allison - I was at this conference, too. And this post about your experience really struck a chord with me. I didn't know a single soul there and I, too, was absolutely terrified of pitching to an agent. (coincidentally, I pitched to Joanna Volpe and she requested my first 50 pages, too - woot!) But, outside of that...after workshops and meals were done for the day, I was up in my room hiding away. A personality flaw I continue to deal with...but, I sat in on your R&C and I remembered your name in the directory, because I really loved your story concept. I wish I'd had the nerve to say "hello" and introduce myself.

    Anyhow - you're on the right path, in my humble opinion. :) Even if it scares us to death - it's part of the dream I believe we both aspire to. Best of luck with Joanna!

    :) Donea Weaver
    www.itwillhappenoneday.blogspot.com

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  4. Thanks everyone for your great comments!

    Jody -- Prologues are basically giant lightning rods for a lot of publishing folk. You never know who's going to be okay with one. I used to have a "no prologue" rule myself, but I needed to write one for this story just to get a better sense of the characters. I'm surprised by how easy it was to delete once I actually decided to do it.

    DeAnna -- So THAT'S how you two met! Well I'm glad it happened. It was awesome hanging out with you guys at the conference! Hopefully next time, I'll be a better able to corner folks in hallways and pitch to them. lol

    Donea -- That's great you got a request from Joanna! I really liked her and my fingers are crossed for both of us! It's so funny that we were in the same room together the whole time. I'm glad you found your way over here, though. :)

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