Today I’d like to wrap up my discussion of writing conferences by responding to a couple of comments that my loyal blog readers posted.
My current novel is still in the early stages (I have almost 100 pages of a rough draft and a skeletal outline of the rest of the story). What should I focus on getting done if I do end up going to the conference? Should I try to polish the first twenty pages for critique? Pull a proposal/summary sentences together (not to pitch to editors, but as a way of having the elements of the story in a concise, easily discussable form)?
Any recommendations? I have limited time to work on it due to a full-time college schedule, but I set aside a little time each day to write.
Randy sez: I think your best bet is to try to polish the first ten pages. Make it as good as you’re capable of making it, and then stop. DO NOT obsess on it for the next three months. After a few rounds of editing, most writers hit their peak and then they start disimproving their work.
When it’s as good as it’s going to get, take it to the conference of your choice and sign up for a critique with a published writer. Most conferences allow you to do this instead of showing it to an editor or agent (who is likely to give you a yes or a no, and maybe a few comments. Editors and agents are overworked, so they basically triage the manuscripts they see, sorting them into the very few that are really good, the larger number that have potential, and the majority that are not close.)
I have seen editors at conferences get 60 manuscripts. Let’s face it — an editor who gets that many has to fly through them.
Whereas real authors generally get far fewer. I think I’ve never gotten more than 9 at any conference. So authors have a bit more time to do a decent critique, and they may even have time to meet with you in person. At some conferences, you can get a paid critique of 15 minutes for $25. This may be the best $25 you ever spent. At other conferences, you can get a critique for free.
One of the most valuable critiques I ever had was a paid critique of my public speaking skills at a writing conference in Colorado where I was teaching. I spent half an hour with a speaking coach who gave me some tremendous insights and also reassured me that I’m not nearly as bad as I had feared.
At the Mount Hermon conference, there is a walk-by critique table that is free. I’ve often seen as many as 10 authors there simultaneously, some of them best-selling authors, others winners of major awards, all working over manuscripts with a red pen. This is, in my view, the biggest bargain in all of publishing.
Morgan wrote quite a long comment on going to a couple of conferences where I taught. I’ll quote just a bit of her comments here:
After listening to Randy, I went to his site afterward and learned loads more about writing. At that point, I had been writing for 3 years and wanted to see just how far I had come in my writing, along with wanting to learn more about the publishing world.
So with added encouragement from my husband, I signed up for Mt Hermon last year and specifically for Randy’s mentoring track. And my writing life has changed ever since.
Randy sez: Wow, I didn’t realize, Morgan, that you’d heard me speak before signing up for my mentoring track. I have to say that running a mentoring track is one of the most delightful things I’ve done at any conference. Last year, the group I worked with had tremendous chemistry. I could have sat there and said nothing, and the group would have critiqued each other very effectively.
I had 10 writers in my group, with a wide range of experience. Morgan brought her fantasy novel and we had a wonderful time working through her first chapter. I expect to see several of the novels we worked on last year get published in coming years. One of the guys in the group was working on his Master of Fine Arts in writing and brought the novel that will be his thesis project.
I always make individual appointments with each of my mentees for about half an hour outside the main class. The reason is that some of the writers need career guidance, and in some cases I want to talk about things that we missed in the group session or say things that need to be said without an audience. And sometimes it’s good just to brainstorm new ideas.
One of the things that made me happy with last year’s group was that they asked me to set up a Yahoo group after the conference, and they continue to keep in touch with each other and give advice and critiques to each other.
This is part of the magic of a conference — forming those connections with other writers that you click with. You will meet many writers, editors, and agents in your career, but the ones who will be most important to you are those writers in your “cohort.” These are the writers you’ll “grow up” with. These are the writers you’ll cheer on when they get published. You’ll fight to stifle your envy when they break in ahead of you. And they’ll be there to cheer you on and stifle their own envy when you break in.
My own “cohort” includes people like John Olson, Rene Gutteridge, Marlo Schalesky, Cindy Martinusen, Brandilyn Collins, and many others. Our career paths have varied widely, but we keep in touch. When you have survived years of uncertainty and self-doubt together, there is a special closeness that can’t be faked and can’t be destroyed, ever.
I hope all my loyal blog readers find a “cohort” of like-minded writers to break in with.
In my next blog entry, I’d like to return to our ongoing analysis of STAR WARS to see what more we learn about the structure of this story.