James River Writers Conference

This was my first James River Writers Conference October 10 to 11, 2008. I went with the idea that I would learn about the business of writing, meet some new writers, and if I had a meeting with an agent, well, that would be a plus.

  • First, the plus. I met with Barbara Clark of a new agency, Barbara Clark Literary Agency. She has recently made the transition from editor (at such large publishing houses as Doubleday, Viking Studio Books, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    She said she was looking for clients. Well, I am looking for an agent, so I did my best. My appointment was her third from the last on the second day, a timing I prefer when I have to make a sales pitch. “Always go last if you can,” my business mentor Chan Preston says. You’ll leave a lasting impression! I pitched my women’s fiction, Unintended Consequences, about a woman who comes out of retirement to take care of two generations in a dysfunctional family. Ms. Clark asked me to send her a query letter and the first 80 pages of my novel. I have done so.

  • Next, what I learned about marketing. After all, this is all about selling me and my ideas in fictional form. I have nearly 30 years experience in sales, marketing and public relations, so much of what the agents and editors talked about was what I do naturally.

    To help once an editor buys your manuscript, draw up a formal marketing plan. Get to know your local indie and big box book stores. The indies are great because they hand-sell books. The big box stores are important because you need to sweet talk them into giving you, a new writer, precious shelf space. It’s a lot of smoozing and getting to know people who can help sell your books. But you all know that already. I asked if my backgound in marketing would be a detriment. One agent said he’d kill to have a client like me. Since I would rather live, I didn’t pursue him!

  • Moving to tips from the sessions on how to write. Nothing really new here. One editor said you had to be prepared to “kill your darlings.” The phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc. that you like the best is most likely the one that has to be chopped out. Don’t make the mistake of substituting dialogue for character. Dialogue is a window into your character’s pysche. And for heaven’s sake, lose the adverbs like “he said, menacingly.” Rewrite the dialogue to be menacing. In her session on writing mysteries, Diane Mott Davidson reminded her packed room of Somerset Maughan’s famous statement that “nothing bad can happen to a writer. It’s all material.”
  • Research played a central theme in many sessions. From David Baldacci to David L. Robbins to Adriana Trigiani, everyone stressed research. Learn something about what you want to write about. Do it youself, if you can. If you want to write about hair styling, talk with stylists and work in a salon. You don’t have to style hair, but you can learn from observing and listening.
  • The only session that was disappointing was on the literary novel. Three panelists tried to define it. They lost me with “it’s like porn. I know it when I see it.” I expected better.

    Would I go again? Yes. Did I find the investment in time and the cost of the conference worth it? Again yes. I recommend the conference to any writer, whether just starting out, changing genres, or seeking to broaden horizons as a published author.

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