Coffee with a ManuscriptNotes from a Writing Workshop

by Jason Sitzes


I'm writing from my humble office in the humble retreat center that for thirteen years has hosted the Writers Retreat Workshop in Erlanger, Kentucky, USA. 

As director, there is never a busier week in my year, and I'm never more tired than when these ten days end, but it is an absolute honor to work daily with talented writers and staff from all over the country.  I thought I'd share with you some of the nuggets of gold from the first half of the week.  

Cricket Freeman, agent with August Literary Agency based out of New York City, spent four days with us discussing among other topics the status of publishing in this difficult economy. Cricket assured our mix of fiction and nonfiction writers that now is as good an opportunity as ever to find a home with a publisher

Publishers, especially with the advent of ebooks, are taking risks, she says. They are looking for original angles on familiar themes, looking at new authors as a source of much needed revenue, and producing more books than ever. And as always, they are looking for good writing.  

The economy is beginning to turn to the positive, and with President Obama and Michelle both supporting literacy like no President in recent history (and the last eight years we're not certain that guy could even read 'big words'), book sales should increase in the years to come.  Last year actually saw a spike in independent bookstore sales.  

Debut novelist Diana Rowland (Mark of the Demon, Random House, June 2009) came up from Southern Louisiana (near New Orleans) to talk about her writing journey. The best news from her presentation was that, contrary to the belief it can't happen, she was picked out of the slush pile.  A couple of agents contacted her based on complete cold submissions. She had no contacts in the industry and was discovered by Matt Bialer at Sanford J Greenburger.  

After getting an above-average advance with Random House, she hit the blogosphere and found her journey well worthwhile. She's already received a four-star rating from Romantic Times and because of her connections online, many reviewers are preparing to review the book upon release.  Diana said one of the best moments of her pre-published life was meeting Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse series (HBO'S True Blood) at a large writer's conference.  

Charlaine introduced Diana to her agent, and while the agent passed on the book, Charlaine gave Diana a blurb on the front of her debut novel. Those connections at workshops and conferences, she reminded, can be invaluable down the road.  

A common question from writers is "how can we get publishers interested in us"?  

The easiest route is to get an agent. So how to get an agent interested?   

All guests at WRW agree nothing is more important than a professional story. Writing is hard work. You must know the craft, the conventions of your chosen genre, and present to agents or editors the most polished version of a story you can develop.

Don't write what's already out there, find ways to make what is out there original. Cricket suggests sending exactly what the agent requests in their guidelines. Don't be outrageous, she says. Her agency only accepts email submissions and when they open an email to see a letter that includes the words, "This is a guaranteed bestseller," she hits delete. Or if the author is rude, aggressive, arrogant, she hits delete. No book, she said, is worth having to deal with a diva.  

Professionalism in submissions is vital. Including a few pages with a query is a way to show agents that you can write, but if the scene isn't polished (or isn't a scene), they will know you haven't learned your craft and will hit delete (or send that nice rejection letter). Rowland was picked off the slush pile because her synopsis and hook were riveting, and she combined her 20 years in the police force and forensic science with a unique twist on urban fantasy.  

The overall message so far, persistence will pay off.  

Next time, I'll write craft-oriented tips from Diana, and guests who are arriving today including popular conference speaker and author Les Edgerton (who led us tonight in a story breakdown session while watching and dissecting the gorgeous movie Thelma and Louise) and Foundry literary agent, Stephen Barbara. 

Until then, may you have as many sips of wine and Kentucky bourbon as we'll have late into the night, dreaming about your stories and the stories of our lives.  

copyright Jason Sitzes, 2009


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