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Write on the Red Cedar Recap

Thanks to Meika and Christina of my novel critique group, the Pigasus Pen (and many, many others), the Capital City Writers Association held another fabulous Write on the Red Cedar conference last weekend! Victoria and I joined the other half of our team for a set of writing workshops, which I won't summarize here, because you can probably download some podcasts and exciting PowerPoint slides of that stuff. I'm here to report back on the weird things you have to be there to pick up.

Pitching Isn't So Bad 

I'll try just about anything once, even things that I hear can involve intensely fast minutes of terror, vomiting, screaming... you know, like a really good roller coaster. Write on the Red Cedar invited three literary agents to hear writers' pitches for a total of eight minutes each.

I get extremely nervous speaking to someone I haven't met before one-on-one, and I'd never described my completed manuscript to an industry professional, so... of course I signed up. What better challenge to push myself out of that treacherous comfort zone and shove me into the next phase of my career?

Spoiler: It was a positive experience! I was lucky enough to get a morning appointment, one of the first ones--I cannot imagine an agent's exhaustion after hearing a book pitch every ten minutes for the course of an entire day, so I'm glad I didn't have to overcome that, at least. I'd practiced my pitch on friends and received some useful feedback, but my pitch on the spot with the agent came out differently. In the rush of adrenaline, I was acutely tuned in to when the eyes started to glaze over vs. brighten up--Yes, that! Talk about that! So I was guided in real time as I rambled on, and it gave me some ideas for how to upgrade my query letter language as well.

The agent I chose to pitch doesn't normally represent the exact type of book I've written, but I thought that someone else at the agency might be more personally interested. Before I could ask about Dream Agent, my pitching agent interrupted to tell me that my book is just the kind of thing Dream Agent is looking for! Yesssssss. The eight minutes ended with an exchange of business cards and an encouraging glow.

I have already thanked Pitch Agent by email (only because I was asked to send an email afterward!) and launched a query letter to Dream Agent. Will Dream Agent have time to read it? Will she, in fact, be interested, as Pitch Agent guessed? If so, will she be interested in my manuscript? If so, will it turn out to need an extensive rewrite? Will it turn out to be unsellable at this time because of market issues outside of my control?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and chances are still slim that this interaction will directly initiate my career as a novelist. But even if nothing whatsoever comes of it and I never hear back from the agency about this query, I have come away with the confidence to move forward. I feel affirmed that in a basic sense, yes, I'm on the right track. I also feel a lot less nervous about interacting with industry pros after having this pleasant conversation.

Sending out query letters does not seem as scary to me now. Onward!

What to Wear: Something that Tells a Story

So like I said, small talk with a stranger is not my special talent. Strangely, I can get up in front of an audience and give a speech without breaking a sweat. On a stage, I feel like there's a magical screen between me and the audience, and a crowd of people feels like a big blob of dissipated attention. The bigger the audience, the less nervous I feel.

Yet unrehearsed, one-on-one conversation makes me itch. And writers' conferences are all about networking, so I didn't want to miss out on meeting other writers. To make up for my introversion issues, sometimes I wear prosthetic charm.

For this event, I chose a giant, neon-colored flower necklace that often prompts people to ask, "Where'd you get that?" All kinds of people ask this, from stylish older ladies to children to men seeking a gift for their Valentine. Everybody covets this necklace--or pretends to, as an easy way to start a conversation.

The great thing about this necklace's story is that I can tell it one short sentence at a time, pausing to see if the person is actually interested in hearing more or if they just wanted an in to start talking about something else. So I can say, "I got it in Mexico," and if they say, "Cool. I'm Jane. I write paranormal thrillers," then I can ask them about their writing. And if they're like, "Where in Mexico?" because they also want to cling to my necklace as an ice breaker, or because they genuinely are interested in the origins of this decorative string around my neck, I can continue with as many facts as they want to hear about it, one at a time.

It's made of jute fibers and seeds found on the ground and probably some toxic dye. Don't put it in your mouth.

I bought it from a street artisan in the highlands. Sorry, you can't have one. The only one on earth belongs to me.

The city where I bought this is in the plains under the mountaintop villages of Santa María del Río, where they make those boss ass rebozos, and Real de Catorce, you know, where all the Trustafarians go to eat peyote buttons.

No, I didn't go to Mexico to eat peyote. The first time I went, I did go up into the mountains and I was high as a kite, but that was only because of the altitude sickness and the hefty dose of beta blockers keeping me alive and the inevitable dehydration due to giardia infection. As I recall, my friend took me to visit this dying old woman in the mountains with hundreds of descendants and a courtyard filled with birds and a lot of quiet time to think about which silk rebozo she wanted to be buried in. This was possibly a hallucination.

No, I regret nothing. If not for the giardia, how would I have met Doctorcito Chalita? 

See, gross, I'm not good at small talk. Luckily, nobody was more than two sentences interested in my necklace. But it did open up a few interesting conversations about other people's writing careers.

Nice Does Not Mean Boring

Which leads me to another joyous truth I encountered many times at the conference, which is that nice people are not necessarily boring, and conversely, you don't need to be boring to be considered "nice" anymore. How refreshing, considering my giardia of the mouth whenever I get excited about something.

My experience of the conference began with a Q&A with international bestseller Lori Nelson Spielman, who is the sweetest person--she literally passed around a bowl of chocolate bars--and also full of grit, enthusiasm, and sparkling success. You know those dumb memes going around Facebook right now? Really, though. Lori is smart. Be like Lori.

And there are other ways to be nice. Aaron Foley, author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, spoke about how the backlash he expected from his strong attitude in the book didn't happen. I read the intro to his book and listened to him talk about his career trajectory, and I was struck by how he could be so forcefully sharp that it made me laugh, with a clear vein of humility and genuine pride in his city warming up the snark. He gave me a sort of Lewis Black vibe, with the kind of anger that makes you smile. Anger doesn't have to be mean. Pride doesn't have to be arrogant. Telling people honestly how not to be a jackass can be, well, a nice thing to do. Nobody wants to be a jackass. Most of us appreciate that person who tells us we have spinach in our teeth. Or that saviorism isn't cute. Thanks, guy.

Mercifully, the agents who came to hear the pitch sessions at the conference were also nice. And not boring. They all gleamed with high class professionalism and yet put many of us at ease with their comfort in using strategic swears, sarcasm, and moments of silliness. I gathered from the panel discussion at the end of the conference that it is more important to be enthusiastic and engaging than to always obsess about avoiding offending anyone. (Or else how can we sell all these paranormal erotica novels, hmmmm?) My general takeaway is that most people in the writing and publishing industry are nice... and a little naughty, if not at all mean.

In sum, I feel inspired by spending the day with so many incredibly talented and creative people. Now that we've broken the ice, the publishing industry feels more approachable and inviting to me. I've already started sending out my first batch of queries to a carefully selected set of agents (ZOMG!!!), and I've put some sentences, bird by bird or whatever, into my next manuscript!


  1. I'm so excited for you, Jeannie! My fingers are crossed that dream agent will adore your manuscript and snatch you up for representation!

    1. Thanks, Lori! (See, I told you, everyone, Lori is the nicest!)


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