Tag Archives: Writer’s Digest Conference

Let the Querying Begin … Again

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy (patient and supportive) followers know: if I’m neglecting this blog, it’s because I’m letting my other writing take  center stage.   Still I wanted to update my home page because I have some exciting entries coming up, including a guest blog and hopefully an author interview.  Several of my fellow bloggers,  Louella Dizon San Juan and Robyn Oyeniyi have recently self-pubbed and I have to say I am so proud of them and very much in awe.  I’m also in the process of writing reviews for Amazon, which is a daunting task in itself!  For my part, I’ve decided to hold out for now and go the traditional route, which means all (well, much) is riding on one teeny weeny little document that can make or break me.  I mean, of course, my query letter.  A query letter is your calling card to agents (one of whom will hopefully rep your book one day, and go on to find you a deal with a publisher).   The most important part of your query is the plot summary, which you write to entice–just as the blurb on the back of your book will do for readers.   It should be grabby–not gimicky–intriguing enough for an agent to ask for pages, and–according to various sources at the many, many query letter writing, and pitch prep seminars I’ve attended-NO  MORE THAN TEN SENTENCES LONG.

Of course, your query letter is meaningless if your book isn’t done–really done.  I have learned this the hard way.   When I first wrote Birch Wood Doll, I struggled so much with the query letter; I just could not find a catchy way to summarize the plot in ten sentences.  I revised my letter over and over, never satisfied that I had correctly portrayed my book while making it sound interesting.  This, I have to say, was a red flag.  The reason I struggled with my query letter, the reason it sounded like a different book each time ai rewrote it, was that Birch Wood Doll, though I had gotten to the end, was not finished.  What was it even about?  It didn’t know.  I didn’t know.  Sure, it was a biracial jewish girl with an eating disorder, torn between two men, struggling with dual identity, unresolved about her career in ballet versus her academic life at University.  And her father is dead.  And her grandmother threatens to disown her.   And her friend falls off a building high on cocaine.  And there’s this guy who whittles her a doll made of birch and … Yikes.

So I took the book back, whittled away myself, figured out what I was trying to say and finally … no I didn’t get it published, but I was able to come up with a heck of a pitch. No fewer than five agents asked for partial or full manuscripts when I attended the Pitch Slam at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference.

Just for fun, here’s my “Before” pitch for Birch Wood, followed by the “after” letter that worked for agents.

BEFORE:

Birch Wood Doll (mainstream fiction, complete at 85,600 words), is the story of a biracial, bulimic ballerina’s search for self and true love.

Navigating two cultures, two divergent career paths, and two lovers, Amy, a biracial (black/white/Jewish) dancer, uses sex, cigarettes and starvation diets to cope with stress.  Forced by her wealthy grandmother to give up a ballet contract and attend Princeton University, Amy meets and falls for two men: smooth, sexy Jack, also biracial, quick with a love song and access to cocaine—and sweet, noble Kole, a white, rural-bred, wood-whittling, football player who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Over the next fourteen years, as her identity  unfolds in the context of the love triangle, Amy learns—with the help of a symbolic doll made of birch—to let go of the past, trust her instincts, and find her own way to self-respect, wholeness and love.

Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Amy’s story is inspired by my own experiences as a Jewish, biracial dancer who took a leave from Princeton to join the Cincinnati Ballet, as well as by my own eating disorder struggle and recovery.  Like Amy, I stopped dancing to become a clinical social worker and later hung out a shingle as a psychotherapist.

This wasn’t my first attempt at a pitch by any means (I’d be too embarrassed to share that) but, I think any agent who made it to the part about “over the next fourteen years …” probably checked out then.  Now here’s my after-pitch, the one that more or less worked.

Birch Wood Doll, set in the 1980s and 1990s, is the story of a young, biracial ballet dancer’s search for self and true love.  Amy loses half her racial identity at 10: she’s mixed but looks “any race,” her black father dies and her white mother’s family tries to erase his memory.  Amy grows up searching for ways to define herself.  At first it’s ballet; she’s a gifted dancer with a knack for self-starvation and a cool stone-face to rival Morticia Addams.  Then—convinced she can only find herself when she finds love—Amy turns to men.  When she’s forced to give up a ballet contract to attend Princeton, Amy falls for two male classmates who satisfy opposite needs.  Jack is biracial too; he helps Amy rediscover her “lost black childhood.”  Kole is a linebacker, generously proportioned, which gives Amy a nice break from her eating disordered mindset.  Through college and beyond, Amy holds her position at the center of the love triangle, certain that either man could be the soul-mate who resolves her conflicts and heals her pain.  The devastating, unexpected result of her choice will break Amy’s heart but ultimately teach her who she is and open the door to real adult love.

It turned out that none of the agents who went for my pitch wanted to represent Birch Wood Doll, but the book did wind up being a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist.  Based on feedback the Nilsen people gave me, I now believe that Birch Wood is one last sweeping revision away from being really, truly done.  I’ll get to it, but for now, I’m focused on my YA book, Second Company (formerly known as Twice the Dazzle) …

…which is, I now believe, really, truly done itself.  Of course, a few months ago, I believed it was done, though I had not in fact heard back from all my beta readers.  And because I couldn’t resist, because I just couldn’t wait—even though my query letter wasn’t perfect yet either–I queried a few agents.  No big deal, querying before you’re ready, except that you may be wasting an agent’s limited time, as well as wasting opportunities for yourself.  Those agents I queried before I was ready are agents that might be great for my book, but agents I can’t query again.  Nor can I get away with querying other agents in their agencies.  That’s considered bad form too.  But you live and learn, sometimes the same lesson a few times over before you get it.

The good news is that my beta readers liked Second Company a lot (some said Love!) AND were really great about giving me fine-tuning suggestions.  One more revision, another month of well-worth-it hard work.  (Another tightening of the query, too.)

Now my query letter is good; my book is the best it can be (I believe).  I have changed the title (on the advice of a well-published friend) as well as reordered my chapters, so it begins in the middle of the action, rather than with an emotionally introspective scene.  You can read my new, improved first chapter here.  So I am really ready.  I’m also strong enough to say, bring on the rejections, because they’re not personal, because everyone gets them, and all you really need is one solid, enthusiastic “Yes!”

Wish me luck.

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I Like It. Now Add Suspense.

What will happen next?

What will happen next?

So, about two weeks before Hurricane Sandy and three weeks before our fire, I had a consultation with the brilliant Arielle Eckstut, agent, entrepreneur, and one half of the amazing husband-and-wife team known as The Book Doctors.  I’d first met Arielle and her husband David at one of their famous (in the literary world) Pitchapalooza workshops, held at Montclair’s beloved Watchung Booksellers, back in January.

I’d just come from the pitch slam at the Writers Digest Conference, where I’d successfully pitched my adult novel to five different agents. (To be clear: by “successfully,” I mean they had all asked for pages, not offered to rep me.) Anyway, I didn’t feel I needed to work on my pitch for that book, but wanted to try something new.   So, the night before the Pitchapalooza workshop, I wrote a brand new pitch–just for the fun of it–for a book I had not written yet: a YA ballet novel which would become Twice the Dazzle.  To make a long story short, David critiqued my pitch and then told me to let him know when the book was done. Nine months later, I emailed him with just that news. He read a few chapters and suggested I have a consultation with his wife, which is just what I did.

Arielle helped me tweak the pitch letter and fine-tune the list of agents to-be-queried.  Then, after reading several excerpts of my actual book, she gave me some great advice.  She loved my writing, she said; she liked the characters and the story too.  But …

“You play all your cards in the first hand.”

Meaning, via the dreaded info-dump trap, I had given away my characters’ back stories and motivation in the first chapter.  Suspense was the thing my book needed. Entice the reader along, Arielle encouraged me, trickle out clues as to why they might be this way and what happened before. Draw the readers in with the suggestion of what a glance, a touch, a turned back might mean later on.  Lead up to a big reveal. Make BIG MOMENTS your landmarks.

So, I got right to work. For example:

The first chapter (which used to be a prologue) involved the seventeen-year-old twins, Oliver and Olivia, simultaneously flashing back to a traumatic moment from their childhood, when their mother had abandoned them in a taxicab.  For some reason, I was convinced that I had to begin with this scene; it shed light on the twins’ own relationship as well as both twins’ relationships with each of their parents. You saw Mom’s mental illness, Dad’s brutal temper, as well as Oliver’s delight in wearing the tutu that chubby Olivia couldn’t squeeze into (foreshadowing both the gay theme and the weight struggle/body image theme). All in all, an exhausting two and a half pages (artfully handled or not).

What I needed to do, Arielle had explained, was take the story of the early trauma and hint at it, revealing it organically later on. She’d helped me figure out where and how to do this, and also–since I wasn’t going to start with the flashback any more–where I should start the book in the first place.

When the hurricane hit, I was about two thirds of the way into my revision. I barely took a break though.  As soon as we were staying with friends-with-power, I resumed the process. Then came the fire. Then the work screeched to a halt. Twice the Dazzle, about seven eighths of the way revised was dangling in the air. Until now.  I had a conversation with my husband last night, during which we agreed that, while the kids and the various home-reconfiguring issues need to be my priorities right now, as well as my therapy practice, I can’t put the book aside–not when I’m this close to the finish line.  Of course, I can’t quite do what I did before the fire, which was write the whole time my kids were in school. But I can still write, even if it’s an hour or two here and there. I can still finish this thing and be ready to query by, say, February.

I’m beginning today by putting the new, improved, post-Book Doctor Consult Chapters 1 (Olivia’s voice) and 2 (Oliver’s voice)  here on this blog for curious followers.  Comment if you like.  Know that I’m around here somewhere, trying to make it all work.

L

Writing is Identity

With so many great blogs out there about books and writing, why blog about books and writing?  Especially since my blog is supposed to be about body image and identity.  Well, writing is identity.

I’ll confess, ever since I got back from the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC last weekend, I’ve been struggling to come up with a decent post.  A (minor) shoulder injury has put off my next installment of “To Dance Again;” my kids haven’t done anything special to inspire a new mixed-race-parenting piece—nor have I had any ah-hah moments about my own biracial, Jewish, black, ex-dancer-shrink-ness.

Frankly, though I’ve been proof-reading, not really writing, I’ve thinking of nothing but my writing, which is itself an identity topic.  My writing is made up of all the pieces that make me myself.  (I think most writers would agree.)

I am in full writer mode this week.  My kids get it: they scrounge for their own snack and start their own homework, work out their own little squabbles, knowing that somewhere upstairs in the fire-hazard, dust-bunny haven of the study, is Mommy-as-Writer-Lady (they know I’ll be down to cook and feed and hang out later).

I haven’t posted here for a whole week; I’ve been too busy giving my novel one last comb through before sending requested pages to agents I met at the conference.  (Still insanely giddy over the fact that they were interested enough to ask!)   And now that I’m finally posting, what do I post about?  Writing!

Here’s why I write: Certain aspects of being human either vex, amuse or fascinate me.  I need to get them down in my own quirky way, ultimately to see whether or not others feel as I do.  In The Marriage Plot (which I haven’t finished yet), Jeffrey Eugenides’s Madeleine finds in Barthes “the reason she read books in the first place … a sign that she wasn’t alone.”  In Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (which I will post more about at another time), when Rachel says, “…the other black girls in school think I want to be white … I don’t want to be white … I want to be nothing,”  I think, yes, it’s something I’ve felt before.

So maybe you’re not biracial, black or Jewish, maybe you’ve never obsessed about whether your thighs touch when you stand with your feet together, maybe you’re not an only child or even female.  But when you read me you just might see a small part of yourself reflected back.

Now, let me take this opportunity to say what a thrilling, magical weekend I had at the Writer’s Digest Conference (#WDC12 in Twitter-speak).   I met so many fascinating people: other aspiring authors, some successful ones, editors, agents and others in this great, old, but rapidly changing field of publishing.  Though everyone says, “go to conferences with an open mind, ready to learn everything you can,” I’ll admit I went mostly to pitch Birch Wood Doll.  Once I got there, though, I inhaled information, from “Writing about Yourself in the Digital Age,” with A.J. Jacobs , to “Conflict and Suspense” with James Scott Bell, to a fantastic kid-lit seminar with Mary Kole , which convinced me to make my next project a YA venture.  Of course the Pitch Slam—60 agents, 400+ unpublished authors, 3 hours—was the high point.  I was fortunate enough to walk away with business cards from five of the agents on my top-six list.  I got home and immediately read through BWD again for typos and awkward phrasing, sent everything out on Tuesday and found myself coming down with a cold and an utter loss for words.

Fortunately, I had signed up for a Pitchapalooza workshop at Watchung Booksellers  last night.  I decided not to pitch Birch Wood Doll, since my pitch had been successful at the WDC.  Instead I challenged myself to formulate a pitch for the (as yet unwritten) YA book, just to see if “The Book Doctors” would think it sounded worthwhile.  The good news is that they did.  And with that project to look forward to (yet another novel heavily featuring body image and identity) my blogging voice seems to have returned.

Lastly, to the wonderful fellow writers I met last weekend—Grace, Joanna, AG, KSZ, Harry and others—I am rooting for you all!