Get Out to Lean In Takeaways from CWC 2016

Chicago Writers Conference

This week we turned our blog over to CWC2016 attendee Ellen T. McKnight, a fiction writer published in literary journals and currently at work on a novel. She teaches writing workshops and hosts a blog about writing called Connecting through Story. Follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.

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Like many of you, I’d rather be closeted away with my writing than do just about anything else. But the kind of inner life that drives good writing isn’t always compatible with the extroversion required of writers these days. The idea of self-promotion makes us wince. We need help to understand how the inner and outer aspects of writing fit together. This year’s Chicago Writers Conference was a great reminder of the importance of putting ourselves out there.

For more of my guest post on the CWC blog, please click here.



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Book Research Take Two

Solid research is a necessary part of fiction writing. We depend on factual details to convince readers to believe in our fictional worlds. But getting our work into the hands of readers merits another kind of homework. If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you need to spend some time researching agents to give your book its best chance in an extremely challenging marketplace.

1. Finding agents through other authors

Beginning your query letter with a referral from one of an agent’s authors is an ideal way to get some attention. Unfortunately, that’s rarely an option. Agents also appreciate hearing that you admire an author of theirs whose books are similar to yours – a much more achievable goal. You can start with books you love and look up their agents, or go to a library or bookstore and flip through books in your genre. Pay particular attention to recent books and debuts: the agent for a Pulitzer Prize winner would be a stretch. Alternatively, you can reverse-engineer this by first researching agents online and then looking up their authors to see if any of them are a good fit.

2. Researching agents online

QueryTracker, AgentQuery and the Poets & Writers’ Literary Agents Database are excellent free online resources with filters to help you find appropriate agents. You can use them to generate a list or to look up individual agents. Each agent’s contact information, genres of interest, and authors appear in the same place. With that in one tab, you can right click on links to his or her website and Twitter feed as well. The website will provide more information on the agent’s interests and submission policy. The Twitter feed will give you a sense of his or her personality (which you don’t need to be on Twitter to see). Finally, the author links will open up Amazon pages so you can take a peek at their books. Another terrific resource is the Writer’s Digest Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog: he makes a point of listing agents in search of new work. I’d also recommend a quick Google search of your agents in case they have interviews online. As well as determining who would be a good agent for your book, you want to see if you have something in common – literary tastes, of course, but even growing up in the same town – so you can mention it in your query in hopes of making a connection.

3. Meeting agents in person

Agents often appear at conferences or other programs for writers. I’ve attended a number of conferences which feature agents, from the immense Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, with over 800 writers and 50 literary and film agents, to the trimmer Writer’s Institute in Madison, with closer to 300 writers and 9 literary agents. Conferences like these give you the opportunity to hone your pitch – by giving it repeatedly and in person, you learn rapidly what’s working and what’s not. Agents are also more likely to look at your manuscript if they’ve met you in person (a connection has already been made). The downside is that conferences can be expensive, time-consuming, and inefficient as a means of finding agents. They can also be daunting. When choosing a conference, you should pay attention to how much time they give for pitches. Some conferences engage in pitch slams with as little as 90 seconds per pitch. The Willamette Writers Conference and the Writer’s Institute both allow 8 minutes for pitches, enough time for a brief conversation. Attending one of these conferences provides a great education, but if the cost or fear factor is a problem for you, you can still reach agents without it, as described above.

What I’m talking about here is the kind of work it takes to attempt an authentic connection with a stranger whom you’re asking to consider being an advocate for you and your book. Think about how you’d feel if the positions were reversed. There may be ways to shortcut this, such as the Twitter pitch fests like #PitMad, #PitchWars, #PitchtoPublication, #AgentMatch and #SFFpit, but they tend to rely on a short high-concept pitch without giving you a chance to include a writing sample or past publications. That approach may work for some books, but not others. It also doesn’t allow for a learning curve. But you should be sure to check them out to see what you think.

Whatever you decide, the search for an agent requires and deserves some of the same seriousness of purpose that you brought to writing your book.



Pitch with Irony and Heart

Writers are all about finding the right words, but many have trouble when it comes to pitching their novel to others. They may have heard that they’re supposed to have a logline with a hook, but what does that really mean? Is it something that only applies to screenwriting, or to genre and literary fiction as well? Is there a way to do this that doesn’t end up sounding so superficial, it’s painful to say?

Nothing can eliminate all the angst and awkwardness here, but I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may help.

Irony is key to a good hook. Agents, editors and prospective readers have busy lives and lots of choices about what to read, so the goal of a pitch is to be compelling and succinct. A “logline” refers to a one-sentence description of plot, with a “hook” to catch people’s attention. The concept comes out of Hollywood, but it can be adapted to form the base of your pitch. Fortunately for us non-Hollywood writers, that doesn’t mean you need special effects. What we’re really talking about is irony. The way your protagonist expects to face one thing, but it’s actually something much different (and bigger). Or the way your protagonist starts out in resistance to the goals of the plot. Irony hooks your audience by setting them up for more conflict and complication to come. They want to read on to see how it resolves. As long as you’re not in Hollywood, don’t be concerned if this takes you a couple of sentences rather than one.

The truth driving your book gives it heart. As I discussed in my post on The Truth Behind Fiction, your own truth underlies your writing even if you don’t always realize it. We’re drawn to a particular character or sequence of events because they connect with something about life that we long to express. Ask yourself, what is it about this that matters so much to me? What is it that I most want these characters, and my readers, to hear? The deepest, most resonant truth of your novel should be part of your pitch. (See The Truth Behind Fiction for examples.)

A well-written pitch matters. Your pitch is the first evidence that you can write, so do yourself justice. Good writing includes deft word choice and appealing cadence. Active verbs help to convey that things happen in your book. You also want to be true to your work. If your pitch exaggerates your plot beyond recognition, you won’t be doing yourself any favors. You need to find the right balance between catchy and accurate. It can be easy to get carried away. Lastly, you should try to make it natural to say. For this, I recommend practicing different versions out loud with family and friends. Even if your pitch will usually be in writing, it’s important to be able to say it to others without being self-conscious.

In the end, your pitch should feel like a concentrated outward projection of your novel, true to its plot line, steeped in its irony, imbued with its depth.