Last October I attended the Niagara event sponsored by the Algonkian Writer Conferences with my novel , Weather Vane, in my hot little hand, ready to knock the agents and editors dead. It was ready. It was au courant. It was unique… no one had written from this perspective; this story that had to be told. I didn’t knock anyone dead, but I left the conference with a new title and three requests. (And a lot of work to do to get the novel ready.) So it was a no-brainer to go back this year with my memoir.
Barbara Kyle opened her portion of the event with a joke:
Q. How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Writers don’t change anything.
We are a stubborn lot. We are invested. We believe our stories to be our children, our beloveds, so why on earth would we consider lopping off an arm, even it was a third one, or touching a hair on its lovely little head, even if that hair was growing in inappropriate places? I heard grumblings during and after the pitch panels wherein authors had the opportunity to practise and hone their pitches with the assistance of Michael Neff, the director of Algonkian Writer Conferences, before the big morning of pitching before real senior editors and agents. They grumbled about suggested changes, about Michael’s sometimes rather abrupt challenges to various elements, and about the amount of time some of the pitches took to be sorted out. But this time, I listened with a different ear, and it became quite clear what was being offered at this unique event. Because of Michael’s extensive experience as a writer and editor he is intimate with the process of bringing a novel to fruition, but he has also developed relationships with agents and editors from publishing houses across the continent, and is therefore privy to what he calls the “tripwires” that keep a story from being considered. He knows the market. I began to see why some stories, that might be good stories, won’t sell. Dragons and fairies are done. Vampires are done. Sexual abuse, too. The market is saturated with these stories. And it’s hard to hear that what you’ve slaved over for the past three or four years is of no interest to the commercial market. But I witnessed a particular kind of listening – Michael was on alert to the threads that could be pulled from the stories to be woven into a viable manuscript, and there were times when it took a fair bit of probing to find those threads. I began to understand what this particular conference is about, and witness the sometimes fierce push and pull between an author’s vision and what kinds of plots work in and of themselves and then create a pitch that is saleable. And the disillusioning truth that no matter how brilliant your work is, how masterfully written nor how profound its insights, if it isn’t what’s selling, it’s not going to get picked up by a major publishing house. So these conferences do two things – first, crafting a pitch based on one’s novel reveals holes in the plot and in the panel the writer works with the facilitator to massage the story until it is compelling, and then the writer rewrites the pitch according to what they’ve worked out in the panel. Then that’s the pitch they present to the editors on the final day of the conference.
After feeling as if I’d been given the bum’s rush when I pitched my memoir to a couple of acquiring editors, I examined my pitch yet again. I wondered if I had to sell-out in order for the story to be requested, to slant it toward something that it wasn’t, and wondered if I would be able to do that just to get it sold. But here’s where Michael’s expertise saved me from despair – he was able to distill what I told him into not one, but four books – all with great marketing potential, and sweetly in keeping with what I hope to convey. I just had to be clear, stop protesting and really listen to what was being offered.
So I came away from that conference bubbling with anticipation for the work ahead, even though it seemed that none of the editors were even vaguely interested in the work I’d pitched. What occurs to me is that when I say yes, instead of no, doors open, possibilities expand and magic happens. Whereas, when the response to an offering is no, that’s the end of the story. No is like a Stop sign, a locked door. Yes doesn’t mean that I jettison everything I know in favour of someone else’s opinion; it means that I am willing to listen and to try – to consider options outside my private box. Life is full of surprises. A lot of them good and brimming with juicy treats. But if I have my arms folded across my chest and refuse to look outside the confines of what I think I know, I’ll never get to taste any of them.
Today I got word that Random House has asked for a partial.