I’m freshly back from a four-day writers’ conference in Niagara Falls and everything looks different. It’s almost like the way I would feel coming back to the west after six months in India. I’ve changed and therefore so has the world in which I live. Only this time it took just three long days and one short one, rather than six months. And it does feel oddly spiritual, this shift, with its heightened sense of being. As with most residential or extended workshops that wonderful bonding thing that happens when people get together for a common purpose reminded me again of how we are communal creatures and that separation is an illusion. It happens so quickly that one touches and is touched by others.
Okay, here’s what I’m getting at:
The conference began with Michael Neff talking about character development, point of view, story arc, dramatic complication, etc. It was a review of everything we’ve been taught about novel writing, with a few interesting fresh tidbits to nibble on. I took a few notes and wondered what was for lunch. And then things got really interesting. He invited four people to sit at the front table and pitch their novel. They were practice “throws” of course. The idea was to see how our pitches landed among the group and get feedback. At first I thought this Mr. Neff was a brusk, dismissive American, as he gave the “kill” throat-cutting sign, cut in, interrupted, and said, “whatever” and “bullshit”. I mean, really. But slowly my eyes and ears began to clear of their prejudices and I began to understand what he was really up to. Duh. Is your story going to engage the agents/editors enough to want to put their career on the line? If it isn’t, this guy was there to help you make it so. And he knows his stuff – the inside and out of the publishing biz, what they want, what’s hot and what’s not, etc. He wasn’t there to waste our time, that was certain.
In two days, he had us whipped into shape. I personally rewrote my “perfect” pitch and synopsis at least six times over the course of the three days. By the time I sat in front of the first acquiring editor, I felt confident and clear. These “dragons” of the publishing world were attentive and interested; they engaged me in lively albeit brief conversation about my novel, asked me very specific questions that shone a light both on to my story, but also on to the elements that captured their interest. After pitching to three editors from major publishing houses and two Toronto agents, I understood one thing so well: the premise of my story is compelling and unique. Imagine that – this story hasn’t been written yet. One thought it sounded too “quiet” but asked to see it anyway. Both Random House and Penguin asked to see the manuscript.
I sent it off immediately, and was able to speak with the agent at breakfast. The following day, the editor at penguin responded. They both said the same thing: Simon is too passive, his voice not distinct enough. Weirdly, I’m ecstatic. It’s so fixable. This conference altered my perception and shifted my awareness. I understand this process in a whole new way. I’m ready for this. The agent said he’d look at it again, and I suspect the editor will too… but it doesn’t matter. Two men approached me and asked to read the novel. Men want to read this book? Yes, yes, they do. I’m going to rewrite the whole thing. I know the story. It has to be written. It’s just going to be told in a different way. I can do this. I am doing this. When it’s done, a top notch literary agency will read it and so will Penguin. That’s heady stuff… my fingers are a blur.
Thank you Michael, Lois, Gail, Vlad, Sue, Sally, Phil, Dale… it was a life-changer.