At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 3 of 3)

Wherein I shall conclude the elucidation of the mysteries revealed unto me whilst attending the Writing Track at JordanCon 2011Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Today’s post will conclude with my thoughts on the last two panels, including the marquee “JordanCon’s Got Talent”, and I’ll wrap up with my main take-away lesson from this whole experience.

Rewriting History

This was the panel that was probably of least interest to me – primarily because I write very little alternate history.  It was still an enjoyable panel – with a fun discussion about whether or not it’s okay to write historically real people in such a way as to portray them very differently than what we understand to be the historical truth of those people.  Can you, for instance, write a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a lying bastard?  Is that any worse than writing a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a Vampire Hunter?  If so, why?

We never really answered the question definitively.  But it was an enjoyable aside.  I sort of came away from this part thinking of alternate histories as “fan fiction for real-world history”…

For my part, I did ask a question in this panel: this time in reference to my story, “PFTETD”.  When I had my first rewritten draft out to readers (all two of them) in early 2010, the feedback I got was strangely consistent: the readers were intrigued by the world I had created.  The world was, basically, real world modern-day but with a certain fantastical element inserted, which element has been with humanity for all of its history.  Sort of the basic premise of half of urban fantasy.  (Although, I don’t consider it an urban fantasy – there’s no “urban” to it, as it takes place in a rural setting – so I call it “contemporary fantasy” instead, meaning it takes place in a contemporary setting.  At least Wikipedia recognizes that as the genre in which Urban Fantasy is contained, but I rarely see reference to it out in the wild.)  What my readers wanted was to see more of this world, and learn more about how this fantastical element has changed the course of human history, making this world simultaneously familiar and different.

Except, the problem was, this was meant to be a short story that had already ballooned to novelette length.  There just wasn’t room enough in the story for a deeper look at the world surrounding it.  Especially considering many of the details that I would uncover in doing more thorough historical research for this purpose would be largely irrelevant to the smaller story I was trying to tell.

The panel agreed this was a problem.  Ultimately, of all the historical research you do (read this as worldbuilding), most of it will go unseen in the final draft.  You touch on it but you can’t reveal your hand fully (there lies madness, and also more infodumps).  So there’s not much I can do, really, to address these concerns in the confines of a short story.  “Except”, said David Coe, “maybe this is a sign you need to turn your short story into a novel.”  No!  Do not tempt me!  Understand I would do this out of a desire to do good, but it cannot be so.  Err… sorry about that… What I meant was, I’m not sure if the story is big enough to carry a full-length novel.  But that’s a consideration for another day.

JodanCon’s Got Talent: 30 Second Pitch Session

And finally we come to the last marquee event: the 30-second pitch session with Brandon Sanderson, Harriet McDougal and David B. Coe.

I was so nervous in the minutes leading up to the arrival of the guests/panelists/judges – and heck, I was nervous all the way up to the moment of my pitch.  I was literally shaking with my anxiety.  (I wasn’t the only one.)

Brandon explained the purpose of the session – it was his idea to add the panel, and it was based on something he did with his editor or agent (I can’t remember which) at another con where they had some time to kill and the editor or agent said “heck, why don’t we let them pitch to me”, or something along those lines.  The purpose, Brandon said, was not to evaluate story ideas.  Instead, it was solely to provide feedback from established professionals on the content of the pitch itself.  It was intended to help us hone and refine our skills in pitching and develop a comfort level interacting with editors and agents.  The reason he was doing this, he explained, was that it was an opportunity he didn’t have.  When he first had the opportunity to pitch, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do, so he tripped all over himself when the editor or agent he was speaking to asked for his pitch.

The session was safe, however, because although David and Brandon have experience with pitches, they’re both authors, not editors or agents.  And although Harriet was once the main acquisitions editor for Tor, and is still the editor for “The Wheel of Time”, she’s no longer an acquiring editor.  So these folks hearing our pitch mis-steps would not negatively impact our chances at future success.

I held myself back a little – I didn’t want to be first.  I raised my hand to go next after the second person had made their pitch.  I felt good about my pitch, going into it.  I had written mine out in advance, and gotten Dear Wife’s stamp-of-approval.  And it seemed to correct for some of the weaknesses of the first two pitches.  I launched into it, and it seemed to be going well, and then I stumbled over the very ending, tangling my words and falling flat.

So, I got some critique, believe-you-me.  And I had to stay standing there before audience and judges alike through it all.  Still, I was gratified to get this comment from Brandon, toward the end: “That said, this was still the best pitch we’ve had so far.”  It didn’t stay that way of course.  At least two more that came after were clearly far-and-away much better than mine (although I disagree with the judges about which of those two was the best; I particularly liked the one that made everyone, judges and audience inclusive, crack up and laugh). 

I pitched my impending “Book of M“, and I began it with this line (which may be familiar to some of the regular readers here): “It’s Final Fantasy meets Mad Max”.  And that was my first mistake.  The “this meets that” format was one that had been spoken about several times during the weekend – David Coe used the format to pitch his upcoming “Thieftaker” book series (under a pseudonym; I won’t repeat his exact pitch as that’s kind of his to share, but it works for Thieftaker).  But the format can be a bit trite or overused sometimes – you don’t want to rely on it.  The real weakness, however, was in what, specifically, I was referencing – and I realized this when I had to repeat the first two words to Harriet at the end.  She had no idea what “Final Fantasy” was.  Brandon took it from there: the problem is that while most of us in our 30s and younger grew up on the Final Fantasy video games, a lot of editors will not have heard of it or played it.  “Believe it or not,” Harriet said, “There are still some editors over the age of 30.”  Brandon’s advice: editors and agents are more respectful of “this meets that” when either this or that or both are literary references and not from other media – and neither Final Fantasy nor Mad Max are books.  (That being said, they were primarily critiquing the use of Final Fantasy over that of Mad Max.)  So, I may be dropping this line altogether from my main pitch, or I may try to find a literary example that demonstrates what I’m getting at with my reference to Final Fantasy.

The rest of the critique on my pitch went mostly toward it’s length.  Mine was just a tiny bit too long, they thought.  Not that I went over 30 seconds – but that I’d strayed from the big ideas of the pitch and was getting into too much detail.  A pitch should have 3 main ideas, they suggested.  Mine had four or five, depending on how you counted them.  So, I can keep the pitch more punchy by cutting off the last big idea in it, and ending the pitch a little earlier while reworking the end.

As for more general advice from the various pitches presented:

First, David Coe discussed his model for creating a pitch.  “First,” he suggested, “start by writing a brief synopsis of your story.  More than likely you’ll come up with something around 400 or 500 words.  Then, rewrite it in half the length, about 200 words.  Then half again, about 100 words.  Then rewrite it again in one sentence.”  What you’ll end up with is a series of pitches – starting with the last one you wrote and working toward the first.  When you get the opportunity to pitch, what you hope for from the editor or agent receiving it is “Tell me more”.  When they say that, you move up a level to the next-longer pitch, and keep moving up as long as they’re still interested.  Alternately, they may be interested in some specific aspect of your pitch – and you can rely on your long-form description of your story for the detail on each specific part of the pitch.  As long as you’ve got each of these down firmly in your memory, you’re set.  And you’ll need to remember it, because you won’t have your notes handy when you’re in front of the editor or agent making your pitch.

Keep the pitch short and focused.  Focus on one primary element or three big ideas.  Novels may have several interweaving storylines, but focus the pitch on the single, main storyline and the main character.  Focus on what makes the story memorable, and drop anything that is already common to the genre.  Don’t use too many names: one character name, maybe one other supplementary name.  Any more and the pitch gets confusing.  Open the pitch with a simple thesis.  The classic example of such a thesis is the “this meets that” formula, but don’t rely on the formula for your thesis.  Keep the pitch conversational – this is the hardest part to pull off, and requires developing a comfort level with your pitch and with editors and agents.  And finally: don’t be afraid to give away your ending – especially if that’s the part that makes it cool and interesting.  A pitch is different than your cover copy – it’s meant for a different audience and its purpose is to convince editors to buy it and agents to represent it, not to convince readers to buy it.

A lot of valuable lessons – and lessons I’ll have to come back to, most likely, years from now.  Because I haven’t even really started on Book of M, yet.  It’ll be at least a year before it’s ready.  But when it’s done, I’ll have some idea how to craft my pitch for it.  Hopefully, by then, I’ll have a little more temporal freedom to schmooze and interact with editors and agents in a live setting – time will tell, and we’ll see.

Final Thoughts

So, yes, I learned a lot at JordanCon 2011.

But then again – a lot of this, especially the craft advice and much of the detail about the industry, I already knew.  Some bits here and there were new to me – the intricacies of how to pitch, some of the more esoteric details of the industry.  Some were packaged in a new way, such that it felt new and allowed me to gain some insights that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, like Brandon’s Second Law, the discussion of the familiar and different (which I’d heard previously on Writing Excuses) or the details on the Villain’s panel.  But inasmuch as most of what was discussed on the various panels I had already learned and internalized – what did I really learn at JordanCon?

I met or watched from afar a lot of writers over the weekend: from the very young, just starting out, to the gray-haired grandparents, from the unpublished to the professional.  I saw writers of all skill levels.  And that helped me put things in perspective.  It sounds pretentious, and for that I apologize, but what I really learned was that I’m close.  I’m on the verge.  I’ve reached a certain level of my skill that I’m ready to break into the next stage.  That doesn’t necessarily bring with it publication and career success, but I’m almost at a level of quality parity with any other first-time author.  Close, anyway, if not quite there yet.  Really close. Maybe that’s something I should have known after I got an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future – but it’s hard to gauge exactly what that means.  But I’m just a little more confident, now.

I need to keep working at it, keep writing.  But I’m not an amateur, anymore.  I’m only unpublished.

But that’s something I can fix.  I’m going to go work on that, now.

Keep writing.

6 thoughts on “At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 3 of 3)

  1. Okay, first off? Having been present that day, I must say your pitch was awesome! And while I admit that nerves kept me from remembering much about what was actually said by anyone present in that room, I remember that your pitch made me feel remarkably inadequate, seeing how you managed to get in line near the front and I was most certainly following… O_o

    Re: “The session was safe…” Haha! I’d like to harken back to your line about literally shaking with anxiety. I don’t think my jeans have ever vibrated against my legs before. They did during this session. For an entire hour and a half. Oy…

    Heh. Practice is practice. And dammit, it’s been a long time since I’ve done any public speaking. Oy. I still maintain, though, that I’m a writer not a speaker. Ha!

    This pitch session, though, was by far the most helpful session I attended that weekend. As fascinating as Brandon’s writing lecture was, I (ahem) am not currently writing fantasy (though I’ll certainly be applying the ideas to older, abandoned WIP concepts). This practice pitch session blanketed all genres, and got to the point — when meeting industry-types, we would-be authors need to relax. That said, having the esteemed panel sit behind that table was more than a little intimidating. From the sound of it, at times you can encounter an agent or editor at a con and be chatting away with them perhaps before you realize what/who they are, and it’s that situation we’re cultivating — the natural conversational pitch. Well, any situation/opportunity would be nice… but yes, the more natural flow…

    And if I take away anything from this particular session (aside from direct critique), it’s David’s exercise in synopsis writing, which you so eloquently discuss above. 🙂

    Also? Don’t worry about sounding pretentious — from what I saw and heard, you and I are on the verge. As arrogant as it sounds, I realized that I’d achieved something I never expected to by this point in my life — I’d finished two novels (almost three), and I’m polishing them, still learning craft. And the feedback I received in the peer review panel only underlined how close I really am. Confidence is not pretentious. And writers are vulnerable creatures. Hold that confidence close. You deserve it. 🙂

    (Psst… For what it’s worth, I tripped over my words, too… most of us did — and I think we who trip learn more from a less-than-perfect pitch than those who are out-of-the-gate awesome.)

    • I agree, it doesn’t seem possible to shake in jeans – and yet we’ve proven that it is possible! And yeah, it’s great to get this kind of practice; even if the situation is a bit artificial. The real trick is going to be getting those opportunities to do this live. I’m not sure when I’ll be in the right place at the right time – I guess job one is finishing my novel, though. I’ll have to cross the pitch bridge when I get to it. And I’m glad you thought my pitch went well – and I appreciate your vote of confidence. I was so nervous, but I didn’t want to wait too long and risk not getting my chance to pitch. I had to do it. That said, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’ve just completed my MBA – and working on an MBA has giving me many opportunities to brush up on my public speaking skills. In that case – frankly – it’s really and truly embarassing to have flubbed as badly as I did. With the many opportunities I’ve had to work on that particular skill, I should’ve been more polished than I was.

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  3. Stephen, wow, I really like how you fleshed out your experience in this last post. I have taken away from this post that writers will need to master not only the craft of writing yet also being a salesman. We need to bring fresh ideas and benefits to the customers (the editor) on how our product (the story) will help them (e.g. generate sales).

    I do not think that studying sales techniques would not be wrong to help in the process of getting published because we are selling ourselves all the time and why not put out the best presentation of us that we can.

    • Absolutely, the skills of a salesman would certainly prove handy for a writer. It’s been said before and it’s true: a professional writer is a small-business owner. And as a small-business owner, you have to wear a lot of hats – and one of those is as salesperson. (Some of the others include accounting & finance, legal, and so on.) Learning how to sell your work and how to present yourself are very important for writers who want to succeed (in the sense that they are making some income from their writing). Of course – that’s easier said than done… and even harder for many writers who also happen to be introverts (like myself). If I had answers for that, of course, I’d share it. The only advice I can offer is to keep practicing how you present yourself and your work.

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