Conferences


I attended the New England SCBWI writing conference back in April, and one of the most intriguing panels I attended–and the one that’s stayed with me the best–was called “And Then There Were More: The Art of Writing a Series with Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.”

I’m a fantasy author, so–be it for better or for worse–series are part of the landscape. And when I plan a trilogy, I only know one way to do it. I’m an outliner, yes? So if I was going to make three books, I’d outline all of them at once. I’d think big, come up with a large conflict, and then break it into three, self-contained arcs that inch closer to the “true” final battle. This is how I think.

But know why this panel stuck with me? Because Ms. Paquette explained that you can’t really think that way if you’re getting published with a traditional publisher.

So, my friends, if you’re one of those folks who wants to go the big, big publisher route, gather ’round and listen. Here was her advice.

A publisher might not agree to a full series right off the bat.

The crux of Ms. Paquette’s talk was that, if you’re getting published with a big publisher, guess what? You can’t choose whether you get a sequel or not.

You can want one. You can tell the publisher you have ideas for a series. That’s great! Publishers love knowing you’re ready to write more. But do you actually get to say “Hey, guess what, I’m taking a three book deal or nothing?” Well, probably not. (Not if your agent wants to steer you clear of the chance they say “Great! Nothing it is!”)

Instead, the publisher gets to decide if you get one book, two books, or whatever. And if you’re new, unproven, or they just aren’t sure about this project yet, they may want to wait and see.

So they only sign a contract with you for one book. They want to wait and put out the first book before making any decisions. They want to see if there’s any interest in it. Is it selling well enough to justify a sequel? If so, awesome! Let’s do more! If not, oh well! We all got one book out of it, didn’t we?

…And that means you have to change how you think about planning a series.

So, you can’t guarantee you’ll be given the number of books you want. How on earth do you write a series?

Ms. Paquette recommended:

  • Write one standalone novel, which has potential for more novels, but doesn’t require them.
  • Put all your best ideas in there, because:
    • If you want a chance at a sequel, you need to blow sales out of the water. Your best shot is the idea that you love the most.
    • Your readers will only choose to read book #2 if book #1 blows them away.

I mean, this makes sense, right? The idea that you have the most passion about is the one you’ll write the best.

And if you were planning a trilogy with two small crises you kind of care about, leading up to one mega-ending that you love dearly, then you could shoot yourself in the foot. if Vaguely Interesting Conflict #1 sells so-so, what publisher would want to pay for Middling Book #2? Who would read 500 pages and two books of buildup just to reach the thing you really wanted to write about in book #3?

So you frontload that stuff. You use all your best ideas in book #1.

This turned my thinking around,and… also made it really hard to plan.

OK. Fair warning: I do a lot of how-tos on this blog where I give advice about writing. What follows is not advice. It is me, whining.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I plan linearly: If I do a series, I think of one big crisis and break it into pieces. But let’s think about that: if I put my best ideas first, in book #1, then… I can’t really plan like that, can I?

This is really hard for me! Ok, so I should… write one standalone book with my best ideas. But have more ideas! Just not the ideas that made me desperate to write
this thing. Just other ideas, which are hazy ideas, which could become full-fledged books, if they needed to. But which aren’t yet! But still have those ideas, because the publisher wants to know you have a plan.

Ooof. So many variables.

I mean, I’ve done this before. Justice Unending is a standalone novel with series potential. It’s one book, it has a crisis, and it resolves it. It has an really, really open ending that leaves room for more novels. I just didn’t plan any. I wrote one book and did not, in the process of writing that book, think about what book #2 could be about. That’s great for pitching (apparently) and terrible for my own personal planning, because it’s way harder to feel like I’m done and then to think, “OK, but if I was going to do more, what would I do?”

(Apparently I should, though, since all the book reviews mention wanting a sequel.)

And my current novel–which is not a sequel to Justice, sorry!–is just a standalone adventure in one mysterious land, designed so that this adventure in this country would be resolved, and any other sequels (if there were any) would just be other adventures in other places. You know, almost episode-style.

But this is tricky. It is, undoubtedly, way easier to plan if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and this is something I struggle with mightily. Because writing in limbo–the book that can be book one-of-one and also book one-of-three–is hard.

This is the sort of thing that makes self-publishing way easier. At least then no one’ll tell you you can’t have a series if you want to have a series. But if you’re going the traditional publication route, you’ve got to be a little more flexible.

All’s fair in love and marketing, I suppose.

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So, uh, I’ve never attended a full-fledged writing conference before. I’ve gone to one-day workshops (I even wrote a post on the last one I went to, the 2015 Writer’s Digest Workshop!) But the real deal? Multiple days, in a hotel? I’ve… never done that.

And after many years of dragging my heels, I finally went to one. I attended the annual New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators conference (which I am now going to just call “NE SCBWI,” even though that’s only slightly easier to type.) I only went for one day and I didn’t do any critiques or queries, so I really just did the bare minimum one can possibly do. But I still learned a ton!

The absolute best part of the conference was the networking.

My favorite experiences happened during:

  • An after-hours regional meetup, where people could meet other authors who lived in their area
  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • The periods when were were waiting for the keynote speeches to begin.

Every time we were herded into the ballroom, I would hunt down a half-populated table, sit myself down, and introduce myself to everyone there. I usually found at least one person who I had something in common with–a similar genre, a similar location, or a similar place in my publishing career–and we’d have a nice chat.

The panels were neat and the speeches were cool, but my absolute favorite moments–the “Oh, I met someone who wrote steampunk!” or “I had an awesome talk with a career author!”–happened completely by chance.

Lesson Learned:

  • Bring loads of business cards. Lots and lots of business cards. Mine are old (I made them before I published Justice Unending, so they have very little meaningful branding on them) and I forgot to replenish my stash before I left… But holy moly, I threw those out like candy. YA writer? Lives within 20 minutes of me? We had a fun conversation? CARDS, CARDS, CARDS FOR EVERYONE
  • Speaking of business cards, it can be helpful to make notes on them. “Guy at lunch who wrote MG fantasy” or “lady at breakfast who wrote a steampunk” can help you with the next step, which is…
  • … Email every single one of those people when you get home to say how nice it was to meet them. It’s very hard to make a lasting friendship in the ~10 minutes you talk during breakfast. But if you connect with them afterwards, you may be able to meet up afterwards!
  • Be prepared to talk about your stories–not in a pitchy sort of way, but a one sentence, “It’s about a girl who gets possessed by an immortal…” kind of summary. You’ve probably prepared a 2-sentence elevator pitch for agents/critiques/pitch events, but your peers just want to know what kind of book you’re writing.

The panels were interesting, but not exactly life-changing.

I only attended one day of the conference, so I definitely missed out on some panels that would have been really cool. Still, the panels weren’t the best part of the conference.

They were interesting, yes. I met some cool people. I heard some inspiring tips. But I didn’t come away from the panels thinking, “Holy moly, I never thought of that before!” But when an experienced author or a well-established agent says, “This is what really gets me excited” and you think, “Hey, maybe I can do that!!” that’s pretty inspiring. And that’s the whole point of these things, right?

Lessons Learned:

  • Panels are hit or miss.
  • If you have time before the class, introduce yourself to the people sitting nearby. At least those people are likely to be interested in a similar genre and topic as you are, since they’re at the same panel as you are.
  • Consider using a notebook. I tried to take mine on a laptop, and I spent the entire day worrying about my battery life. It’s far easier to just take notes on paper, even if that means you might need to transcribe it to computer later.

You probably should have something ready(ish) to pitch.

I didn’t, and… I kind of regret that. Kind of. There were two (maybe three?) kinds of pitch-related opportunities at this event.

The first one–and the one I was aware of– was the good ol’ “pay money for an opportunity to pitch to an agent” thing.

But I was surprised about the other kind: the incidental, accidental kind of pitching. I was in a panel where an agent took volunteers to read their first few lines. There were casual pitch events where your peers gave you suggestions on how to improve it. There was a panel event where you put your name in a hat and got to pitch to a panel of agents if you were chosen. There were tons of free events where you could get suggestions, even if you weren’t directly sharing with an agent.

Finally,  some of the agents who attended the event said they’d accept pitches from attendees, even if they weren’t otherwise open for queries, which meant that attendees now have a limited, 3-to-6 month opportunity to query certain agents.

I figured, “Hey, I don’t have something that’s ready for an agent, so I won’t spring the $50 for a meeting!” And then I didn’t prepare a pitch at all. That was a mistake, because there were a lot of other ways to get feedback.

Lessons Learned:

  • There may be other opportunities to pitch your story, even if you don’t pay for one.
  • Even if you don’t pay for agent queries/critiques, it’s helpful to have a brief pitch ready.
  • If you do intend to query, it can be helpful to have a manuscript more or less ready to go around the time you go to your event–just in case, like with NE SCBWI, the agents say their inboxes are open for your pitches!

Overall, it was a super fun experience!

I got halfway through breakfast before I realized that I… should have signed up for more than one day.

It was a fun experience, and in all the most unexpected ways. It was very different than the one-day workshops I’ve attended in the past, and in a much cooler, richer way.

They’re definitely expensive, but if you can manage to attend one? It can be a great way to meet other authors.

First off, I want to make a confession: I signed up for this thing totally on impulse. I really, really wanted to go to a conference this year, but I had missed all the big ones, all the local ones, and all the appropriate ones. So I decided, “Hey, who cares? I just need to to go to something, right? I’m only going so I can meet people, anyway.”

What I’m trying to say is: This was a good conference, but it was totally not for me.

One look at the official website should show you why–and it should have keyed me in, too! So shame on me! Because it’s really pretty obvious: this is a workshop for beginners.

So let’s talk about it!

The Panels

The entire event was presented by Chuck Sambuchino, who’s best known as the editor for the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the author of several comedy and non-fiction books on how to write.

And he’s good. He knows his stuff, he’s inspirational, and he’s funny. He also speaks at roughly five thousand words per minute, so I’m going to guess he really likes his coffee, too.

There were five panels:

  • Your Publishing Options Today: An introduction to traditional publishing and self-publishing with an overview of the pros and cons for each.
  • Everything You Need to Know About Agents, Queries, and Pitching: This covered queries, synopses, and finding agents.
  • Chapter One Critique-Fest: The agents read the first page of several manuscripts and raised their hands at the point when they’d stop reading. Then they all explained what did and didn’t work for them.
  • How to Market Yourself And Your Books: A one-hour summary of Chuck’s book, Create Your Writer Platform, which went through why you need a social media platform and how it can (and can’t) help you.
  • How to Get Published: 10 Professional Writing Practices That You Need to Know NOW to Find Success as a Writer: Just a nice, rah-rah, inspirational speech with ten common-sense tips on writing.

Did I get a lot of out them? Er, not really. But I’m not the target audience here. I’ve queried three novels. I know what agents are, I know how to write queries, and I know what to do when you get a full request. I might not have an agent yet, but I at least know how to get there.

But would this kind of workshop be useful for a beginner? Definitely! It provided a high-level overview of where to publish, how to query, how to find an agent, what agents think when they read your stuff, and how to promote yourself along the way. For someone who has just started writing and has a gist of what publishing is about, this would be great.

Mostly, Chuck is just a really good speaker. None of this was new to me, sure. But I was very rarely bored. Chuck is fun enough to listen to that the panels were entertaining even when their content was pretty basic.

So What Did I Get Out of It?

I was in a stupid-lousy situation, really. I had already queried Justice Unending, my 65,000-word YA fantasy, to all the YA agents attending. (It’s also pretty much done–I’ve finished its query runs and moved on to small/medium presses.) I have the first draft of a MG fantasy done, but I finished that a couple of weeks ago. I’m really not ready to pitch that thing.

And I’ve already mentioned that I didn’t get a lot out of the panels. So what did I enjoy?

Networking!

Seriously. I don’t get out a lot. I definitely don’t meet a lot of other writers. I’m reasonably new to the Boston area, I’m shy as heck, and I haven’t really reached out to others. So hey, committing myself to a conference kind of forced me to get out and meet people, right?

And that was worth the price of admission. Sure, sure, yeah–I could probably have achieved the same thing by being less shy and going to SCBWI events. Or joining a writing group. Or something. But this was the kick in the butt I needed to go out and talk to writers. And it was fun.

So, overall…?

I don’t know if Writers Digest throws these mini-workshops often, but if you’re new to publishing, new to writing, and want a great, big infodump on how it works, then these workshops aren’t a bad deal. It was a one-day event, it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, and Chuck was a great speaker. As far as conferences go, that’s about as low a barrier to entry as you can get.