When I told Chuck Sambuchino a story about the Colorado Writing Workshop shared with by my Guest Author today, his answer was for her to “Always body check first and ask questions second.”
My First Writing Conference – Top 10 Things I Learned
Guest Author Jenna Willett
On November 15th, I attended the Colorado Writing Workshop in Denver with presenter and instructor Chuck Sambuchino. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement. In fact, I learned so much, there’s no possible way for me to tell you everything. So, I’m going to do a Top 10 list!
Before I get started, here’s a list of the sessions I attended during the conference. I’ll admit, I got more out of some than others, but each one taught me something, and that’s what I’d hoped for.
- “Your Publishing Options Today.”
- “Everything You Need to Know About Agents, Queries & Pitching.”
- “Writers’ Got Talent: A Chapter One Critique-Fest.”
- “How to Market Yourself and Your Books: Author Platform & Social Media Explained.”
- “How to Get Published: 10 Professional Writing Practices That You Need to Know NOW to Find Success as a Writer.”
So, without further ado, here we go!
1: Be Bold, Brave, and Outgoing!
One of the main reasons I attended the Colorado Writing Workshop was to meet and befriend local writers. I only know a few here in Denver, so I figured it’d be a great opportunity to make new connections. So, I printed up some business cards, gave myself a social pep talk, and marched into the conference room, ready to mix and mingle…
I stepped into the room and my heart dropped. Sitting before me was a group of fidgeting, throat clearing, eye darting writers. Silent writers.
Oh. Dear. God.
Up until that moment, I’d forgotten one important fact: most writers are introverts.
With knots in my stomach, I sat down and fiddled with my notebook for a solid ten minutes before I mustered up the nerve and turned to the woman across the aisle from me. I slapped on a smile, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself…Ironically, she was from Rhode Island and didn’t fit into my “meet local writers” plan, but whatever. She was super sweet and I was proud of myself for being brave and approaching someone, rather than waiting for someone to approach me.
Later, as the group broke for lunch, another woman walked up and said, “I love your bag. I keep staring at it.” After I thanked her and cracked a joke (yes, I use humor as a self-defense mechanism), I swallowed my pride and anxiety and asked her if I could tag along with her to lunch. “Of course!” she said. “A few of us are going out.” And, before I knew it, I was sitting in a restaurant befriending a handful of writers.
So, if you ever attend a conference, try going into it with a brave, bold, and outgoing attitude. Don’t wait for people to approach you. Be willing to approach them and put yourself out there.
2: Content Is King
Chuck Sambuchino spent the entire workshop discussing a writer’s publishing options, as well as the various strategies for success. Yet, at the end of the day, he made this important point:
“So much is out of your control.”
No matter how “right” you do things, there’s still a hundred things that could go “wrong”. That’s why you need to remember: Content is king! You should always strive to write the best story you can. Focus on content. Take your time. Think and be considerate. Because, bottom line: good, solid stories are more likely to lead you “right” rather than “wrong”.
3: Your First Page Matters!
Hands down, my favorite session of the day was “Writers’ Got Talent: A Chapter One Critique-Fest.”
Basically, attendees were invited to anonymously submit the first page of the their manuscript to be critiqued by a panel of literary agents. At random, Chuck Sambuchino chose an entry from the submission pile and read it out loud. The literary agents–AKA, “judges”–read along with him. The moment they lost interest, they raised their hand. If two of the four judges’ hands went up, Chuck would stop reading.
Think of it like the TV show, America’s Got Talent. Too many buzzes and you’re out!
It. Was. So. Scary!
First there was the waiting to see if my page got randomly chosen. Then there was the hearing of it read aloud. And then there was the praying to God none of the agents raised their hands…My heart was pounding so hard!
To my relief, not a single hand went up. In fact, one of the agent’s grinned and nodded at one point.
To be honest, I had a gut feeling my page would make it all the way through without getting “buzzed”. Not because I’m arrogant, but because mine was one of the last ones chosen, and by that point, I’d heard enough to know what rubbed an agent the wrong way. Those things included:
- Info Dumping. By far, this was the biggest first page no-no. If there was an extensive section describing the world, character, situation, etc., all of the agents’ hands shot up. Then they’d make comments like these:
“Get into the story faster!”
“Trust the reader. They’re smart.”
“Organically weave your information in.”
“Questions are good.”
“Less information is always better. More can be added.”
- Avoid using dreams. If a character wakes up from a dream on the first page, it’s an instant deal breaker for many agents.
- Show, don’t tell. Every time a first page told a story, the agents “buzzed them off the stage”. So work hard to show your story, rather than tell it.
- Characters describing themselves. Don’t say, “I stared at my reflection in the mirror. My blonde hair was matted in blood.” Seriously, who thinks to themselves “my blonde hair”? It’s unnatural and lazy, and agents don’t like it.
- Stiff dialogue. Too often, despite an interesting story, an agent’s hand went up because the dialogue was stiff and forced. So take care to develop yours and make it as real as possible. Personally, I recommend reading your work out loud. Or, better yet, have someone else read it. You’ll be amazed how easily you catch weak spots.
The bottom line is your first page is vital. It’s what hooks both an agent and a reader and keeps them reading. So be sure to start your story off with a bang! Not a stiff, unnatural, info-filled whimper.
4: Avoid Prologues
To prologue or not to prologue, that always seems to be the question. Well, according to the agents at the conference, there’s no question about it. Writers should avoid using them. In their eyes, prologues are passive tools and weak attempts to hook a reader. “Why not hook a reader in chapter one?”
One of the agents put it the best way I’ve ever heard: “Personally, I don’t mind prologues. But over 50 percent of the agents out there do, so why risk it? Play it safe and leave it out.”
I don’t know about you, but 50% is way too high. I’ll avoid the gamble and jump straight into chapter one.
5: Don’t Put All of Your Eggs In One Basket
You write a book and get an agent. Sweet! Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the attention you and your agent had hoped for. Now what? You got it: Pitch a list of new ideas to your agent and write another book. Agents want career clients, not one hit wonders.
So, don’t charge into the publishing industry with the mentality, “I just need one great idea.” Charge into it with, “I need a lot of great ideas.” And then be willing to let go of those ideas that aren’t working and use the ones that do.
6: Read Your Genre
During the “Writers’ Got Talent: A Chapter One Critique-Fest”, literary agent, Sara Megibow, lectured us about the necessity of reading the genre you write for. In a forceful, “Come with me if you want to live” kind of voice (haha, kidding), she said, “These are the three things you must do…
1: Read debut authors from your genre that have been…
2: published in the past two to three years from a…
3: major publishing house.”
If you want to know what’s hot and what’s selling, stick to these rules. And if you ever refer to an older book in your query letter (ex: The Hobbit), an agent will laugh and toss your story aside. They’re looking for writers who are keeping current on the latest trends and staying ahead of the game, not those living in the past.
On a related note, another agent chimed in and said it’s very attractive to see comparative book titles in a query letter. It not only helps them visualize what your story is about, but it proves you know your genre.
7: “Confusion is like cholesterol. There’s good and bad.”
This was one of my favorite quotes by Chuck Sambuchino during the conference. It’s such a great metaphor! Confusion in a story is like cholesterol. You don’t want to have the bad kind that causes your readers to scratch their heads, lose focus, and get bored. You want the kind that makes them wrinkle their brow, ask questions, and eagerly turn the page to get answers.
This idea ties into what the agents said earlier about info dumping. “Questions are good”. So, don’t be afraid to add some confusion to your story. Just make sure it’s the good kind.
8: Be Specific In Your Query and Pitch
Be specific. Be specific. Be specific!
Chuck Sambuchino drilled that into our heads during the “Everything You Need to Know About Agents, Queries & Pitching.” session. He said the number one problem he finds when critiquing query letters is vagueness. All too often, people will say things like, “Sally had to overcome many obstacles”. But what are those obstacles? Be. Specific!
“Billy Jenkins quit his job today”
What job? Lawyer? Plumber? And who’s Billy Jenkins? Old man? Boy?
Try writing it like this instead:
“After 17-year old, Billy Jenkins, made his 1,000th Big Mac, he threw special sauce in the air, flipped off his boss, and walked out the front door.”
So, when you sit down to write your query letter, or get ready for a live pitch with an agent, remember: Don’t be vague. Be specific!
9: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
Yes, I know. Obvious! But, it’s true. So many of us read articles, blogs, and tweets about the publishing world, and we tend to swallow every word of them–hook, line, and sinker. Because, hey, if an industry professional said it, then it must be true.
Although 90-95% of the information we read from agents and publishers is golden, there’s always that small percentage that isn’t. Certain agents have certain quirks that go against the grain. They’ll promote an idea that the rest don’t believe in.
For example, during one of his workshops, Chuck Sambuchino had an agent say something to the group that completely contradicted what he and everyone else in publishing taught. Later, when he asked them about it, the agent said, “Well, my agency does it that way, so I tell writers that’s how they should do it too.”
So, play it safe and read multiple resources. Don’t rely on only a couple. And be sure to cross reference your facts to ensure the information you’re using is what the majority of agents and publishers expect.
10: “You have to give up what you like to pursue what you love.”
AKA, put down the remote control!
Yep, that’s Chuck Sambuchino’s “secret to getting published”. And, if you think about it, it makes complete sense. Nobody ever said writing a book and getting published would be easy. It takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication, and a lot–a lot–of passion. If you want to achieve your dream, then you need to cut out those distractions you enjoy so much.
So, there you go! As you can see, I really did learn a lot at the Colorado Writing Workshop. More than I could ever list.
Actually here’s a bonus point I’d like to add:
11: Attend a Writing Conference!
Okay, I know conferences can be on the pricey side, but if you look around, I’m sure you can find one that’s affordable. The one I attended was only a day long, and it was local, so it was on the cheaper side. Plus, if you have someone like Chuck Sambuchino instructing you, I promise every penny will be worth it. I highly recommend you check out his schedule to see if he’s coming to teach in your area!
So, how about you? Have you ever attended a writing conference? If so, what were some of your biggest takeaways? Would you recommend others to attend one? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
If you have any specific questions about the sessions I listed above, feel free to contact me! I’m happy to answer what I can 🙂
So you probably wonder where the body checking came in I mentioned at the top of Jenna’s article. Chuck recognized Jenna. “Hey, I know you,” he said. And then an older lady barged in and got between him and Jenna. I told Chuck about and that I had told Jenna to body check her next time. That means slam her out of the way. You saw Chuck’s response.
Jenna Willett is an Author, blogger and friend of JensPenDen.WordPress.com. If you haven’t visited her Den before you need to. She finds some of the most helpful articles for writers and does weekly posts that are encouraging for all of us in this mind agonizing business at times. @JensPenDen
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