This year’s Willamette Writers Conference 2012 was a startling success. I pitched to four agents and one publisher, and received from all of them requests for more. I attended sessions all three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) and did my best to stay sane and conscious enough to socialize.
Part A: The Program
I wish I could Vulcan mind-meld with you, if only so you could have experienced with me Eric Witchey‘s stellar, re-orienting talk on “Story Fluency: Story as a Second Language.” It’s not my place to divulge all of the secrets that Eric, in turn, divulged to us–but I can tell you that my most basic understanding of the structure and arc of story is fundamentally changed. It goes a bit like this:
-Start writing a new story every single day. Give yourself a time frame and go–no excuses. You will miraculously (or not so miraculously) become a better storyteller.
-Story is not plot. Story is emotion. Story starts and ends with what our protagonist feels, then what our protagonist does as a result.
It’s one of those total duh moments, where you knew it all along–somewhere, far back there in that amygdala or whatever–but it didn’t really occur to you until somebody said it out loud.
As with any conference, there were highs and lows. The YA track looked promising on the schedule, but a number of the talks I attended felt geared toward the novice novelist, not the serious (and grown up) YA writer. I kid you not–during a panel on dialogue, the presenter went through the grammatical basics of speech. As in, add a new paragraph for each new speaker. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
Then, of course, there were the exceptional talks. On Sunday I attended Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story: Using Brain Science to Hook and Hold Readers.” I will share with you some of her wisdom.
Humans are engineered to love stories. We crave them. We seek them out. Why? As a survival mechanism. For example:
Your friend escapes a tangle with a tiger. You are dying to know how he pulled it off. As he slowly reveals to you his tale of woe and danger, you are sucked in, enthralled. What if you got into a tangle with a tiger? You’d use the same methods as your friend, most likely. You add his experiences to your mental glovebox. You might even pass it on to someone else.
Cron discussed brain “expectations” and ways that writers can harness those expectations in the course of storytelling. Human brains are designed to analyze everything–so extraneous details can sometimes confuse brains that try to place them into the larger conflict of the story. Humans naturally shy away from conflict, so imposing conflict and drawing out the resolution creates a page-turning effect–“How does this get patched up? How?”
Part B: The Agents (and publisher)
I pitched to four literary agents, all geared towards YA and many who had fantasy on their wish lists. I received four requests for more–one request for a full, three requests for partial plus query plus synopsis. Of which I had none ready to go. Awesome. I am so prepared. (In my defense, I’m not attending any other conferences this year and I wanted to get The Aeronauts pitched sooner rather than later.)
One agent, whom I will not name but I totally loved meeting in person, dropped me her card before I’d even finished giving my tag line. I’ll share the tag line at a later date, but all I did was give comparisons to other YA or fantasy books–e.g., “My book is a bit like X and a bit like Y, with a twist of Z.”
I think the key with live pitches is to be casual. Talk to agents like they are people. Make your pitch short and concise. Even if it’s not all in the right order, or you mess up some words, that’s cool. They’ll ask you questions. Just be sure to introduce yourself, drop your credentials, and leap right into your hook. Be friendly. Be personable. But most importantly, know your story inside and out. You need to be able to talk fluently and easily about your novel with someone who has never seen it before. It will speak volumes about you and the quality of the work–though the agent will still request to see it before agreeing to anything.
I also pitched to Tor Books. Though I’m looking for representation, having an acquisitions editor at a big fantasy publisher like Tor interested in The Aeronauts can’t hurt my chances for picking up an agent, right? Anyway, Tor liked the pitch and has also requested a partial.
The trick now is getting all that stuff done and shipped off before they forget who I am.