Blood, sweat … and years
Speakers at this year’s TMCC Writers’ Conference talk about what it takes to get a book published: work and more work
What do you do when you want to write a book? You grab a pen, keyboard or typewriter and begin writing. What do you do when you want to improve, finish and sell your book? One option is to attend the annual Truckee Meadows Community College Writers’ Conference.
This year’s conference, the 15th, was held April 7-10 at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks. If you missed it, fret not; the RN&R sent me along to soak it in and bring back some highlights.
I began my tour at the Friday-night reception, where the bookish conference organizer, Mike Croft, introduced me around. Pat Walsh, founding editor at San Francisco’s MacAdam/Cage publishing company, conversed with an eagerness that echoed the happy vulnerability of most attendees. With beer in hand, we ducked into the hallway to ash into the fake plants.
As an agent, Walsh specializes in first novels by unknown writers. Since none of my writer friends makes a living exclusively from writing, I asked him if it was different for his writers.
“About 20 percent can make a living from their writing,” he answered. But the “making a living” equation may involve a sliding cost-of-living scale. “Some of them live in places like Kentucky,” he added.
I inquired about his submission-review process. “Books come from good habits,” he said. “We read the first three chapters, about 150 pages. Weaknesses in the book can be seen in the first third of a manuscript.”
The next day, at a roundtable luncheon, I ended up at the table of Elizabeth Engstrom, author of nine novels and more than 250 published short stories, essays and articles. Dressed for high tea, she greeted the table warmly and asked what everyone was writing. Responses came back organized by genre: vampire story, psychological thriller, doomed-writer thriller, memoir.
“Nothing in the last 11 years” said one participant, who had come on a dare from her husband.
Someone asked Engstrom what kind of writing she did. “Science fiction, fantasy, sex,” she replied with a grin.
On my turn, I admitted to literary fiction and this article. Laughter circled the table and someone joked, “He’ll get published before any of us do.”
After lunch, Donna Levin, from Palo Alto, Calif., a tightly-coiffed agent with the bicoastal Manus & Associates Literary Agency, started the afternoon lecture track by speaking about how to impress an agent.
This was part of what’s called Track B, the conference’s more affordable level of participation. (Track A features small-group workshops with professional writers.)
Levin started with two points, which would get repeated by other speakers all afternoon. The first and only real way to impress an agent is to write a good book. And the only way to write a good book is to “rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and then rewrite it three more times.” Just in case we didn’t absorb the point, she followed with, “Write as many drafts as you can stand, and then write two more.”
Telling aspiring writers about how to get and impress an agent may sound like putting the cart before the horse, but writers hope all along that someone will eventually read our output. So the rest of Levin’s presentation on the format and content of query letter helped get the crowd’s attention and yielded a lot of questions.
The next speaker was Karen Joy Fowler, petite and ungussied author of the novel The Jane Austen Book Club. After numerous published books and literary awards, Book Club gave Fowler what most writers would kill for: a bestseller. Her presentation, “Understanding Setting,” referred to her own development as a writer who has written both genre and literary novels. As a writing teacher, the biggest mistake she sees in student work is the absence of setting. “A story can take place anywhere, but it can’t take place nowhere,” she noted.
Red-curly-haired Laurie Fox, a literary agent and the author of The Lost Girls and the autobiographical novel My Sister from the Black Lagoon, spoke about “What Agenting Has Taught Me about Writing.”
“Time is the great leveler” among writers, Fox said. She’d been working as an agent for other writers and had a passion for writing, she said, but she couldn’t find time to write.
But, she continued, “One day, a lovely ruthlessness emerged.” She wrote every Saturday for only as many hours as her laptop battery would survive. She wrote one vignette after another until, after four years, she had a rough draft. She was bolstered by the knowledge gleaned from her experience as an agent—that most first novels take eight to 10 years to complete.
Her own novel went through three edits by paid professional editors and endured feedback from her husband and a British slang expert. After it was accepted by a publishing house, the manuscript underwent three more complete revisions.
If a writer gets that far, he or she can still look forward to waiting two more years before seeing the first copy in print, a point that Pat Walsh reinforced during his talk, “Making the Transition from Writer to Author.” It wasn’t an entirely uplifting presentation; the realities of this dream aren’t very encouraging.
“We love doing debut fiction,” he noted, “though it’s impossible to sell these days.”
What stops most writers? Impatience, he said. Most writers send their work out before it’s ready to be seen.
“If I could develop a drug for writers, it would make them love waiting.” He also advised, “The only way to truly distinguish yourself as a writer is on the page.”
Becoming a good writer, he said, takes time, work and, of course, patience.
In one memorable season at his publishing house, Walsh published seven new writers. Six of them had two previously completed novels stuffed away in their desks. The seventh had four.
He told about another author who sent his novel in unsolicited, with a notably bad cover letter, the kind of submission that ordinarily would have gone straight into the trash bin, save one detail that caught his eye. On the title page of the novel was a notation: “Draft 212.”