Conference Takeaways From WDC18

This past weekend I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. It was my first writing conference, and I learned a lot from the presenters, panelists, and the other attendees. I’ll start off with valuable advice I received and then talk about my personal experience.

Takeaways from the Conference

Writing Process

This section has more to do with process and less to do with content or selling.

Isolate the “Literary Tracks”

I’m going to lead with this and spend the most time on it because it’s the most valuable and actionable advice I got all conference. I’ve blended an interesting approach to iterative revisions with the concept of literary “tracks” as from The Anatomy Of A Story into a structure that makes most sense to me. Consider the literary tracks of a story:

  • Plot structure.
  • Reveal sequence.
  • Tension and conflict.
  • Figurative language and imagery.
  • Narration.
  • Characters’ thoughts.
  • Dialog.
  • Anything else I might be forgetting.

Now take these and focus on just one or a few per draft or revision. You can experiment with how you might group these, but this is the order that makes sense to me:

  1. Plot structure and reveal sequence. Consider this the “planning”, “outlining”, and “rough draft” phase where we’re trying to nail down what happens in the story in a broad sense. Don’t focus on flowery prose. This needs to be rough. If we grow too attached to lengthy passages of well-written scenes, we might struggle to make tough revision choices that could cost thousands of words up front but ultimately improve the story as a whole. We’re getting this step out of the way first.
  2. Tension and conflict. Some parts of the story may be more interesting than others. Page-turners will keep readers interested the entire time. No boring parts. Search the story for anything boring and decide if you can remove those parts. If not, then (following some of my favorite Mark Crilley advice) it can’t just happen. It has to happen in an interesting way. And the best ways I know how to make something interesting are to raise tension and add conflict.
  3. Continuity. With major sweeping changes out of the way, it’s worth another revision pass or two making sure any inconsistent details and out-of-character moments are cleaned up. Beta readers can help with this, but please just do your first continuity pass before putting beta readers through it.
  4. Narrative voice and figurative language. At this point we probably know the tone of the story and the emotions we want to invoke with each description. This is where we work on flowery prose and nail the desired reading level.
  5. Dialog. I can also see merit in combining this with 4. However, I’m aware of my bad habit of letting my narrative voice leak into my characters’ voices, so this separation makes sense for me. With this step, we make sure each character has a distinct but consistent way of speaking. One way is to make a pass through the novel with one character at a time in mind, though that might be excessive for minor characters.
  6. Grammar.
  7. Grammar.

I started a new project and plan on following this process and see what I like/change. In future posts or on my social media, I will refer to this with the “Project Selection” codename.

Other Writing Process Takeaways

  • Word roots matter. Using Anglo-Saxan words might make the text less dense. Latin words might have the opposite effect. Pay attention to how the etymology of your words, especially in figurative language, affects how the book “reads”.
  • Editors will find ways to improve your story. There are two takeaways here:
    • Be your own editor. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have an editor. But rather, you should acquire the kind of skillset and habits that editors have to raise the quality of the work you output before sharing it with another editor. One common recommendation was to hire an editor to edit just the first 50 or so pages of the manuscript. Study what they did and apply that process to the rest of the manuscript on your own. Get some practice in while you edit.
    • Give only your best work to an editor. Why pay someone to improve a story when you already know how to improve it on your own? The editor will waste their time (and your money, if you are contracting them directly) giving you feedback you already knew rather than focusing on what you need them to. This can also apply to beta readers and writing critique groups.

Book and Story Content

These are the takeaways about the content of the book itself.

  • You can break one rule. But only one. This might require the context of the presentation to understand fully, but I’ll try to get the gist down. Dune used omniscient perspective. The Wizard Of Oz was all just a dream. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s narrator had a strong accent. There are all kinds of “rules” of writing, and all kinds of works that broke those rules successfully. If the whole point if your story requires breaking some rule, go for it. But be warned. These rules exist for a reason, and breaking them without good reason can hurt your finished product more than help.
    • Editors and agents will likely reject your manuscript if you can’t follow the conventions of your genre.
  • Sequels and Series: Do not end book 1 on a cliffhanger. Wrap up the main conflict of the story. Cliffhangers are a thing for serial television series, but not for books. Your audience isn’t waiting a week for the next installment, but a year or longer. Don’t betray reader expectations when you don’t even know if you’ll ever get the next book published. Please don’t make this the one rule you break.
  • You are competing with the bestsellers of your genre. Most readers prefer to read something familiar, whether that’s from an author they trust or a popular one recommended either by friends or reading lists such as the bestsellers. Your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and first chapter should remind the reader why they should read your book instead of the proven bestsellers.
  • Tension and conflict drive story. That much is obvious on a macro scale, but can be easily overlooked. Every page needs conflict. I can attribute every book I can remember getting bored of to this very issue.
  • Book covers must be practical. Book covers need to fulfill the function of book cover. If it’s designed to be too flashy, beautiful, edgy, etc., you run the risk of killing your book before it has a chance to live. Do an image search for bad book covers for some examples.
    • The spine is the part most people will see. It’s arguably the most important real estate on the entire cover, so make sure it’s readable.
    • If it will be available electronically, see what it looks like shrunk down to the thumbnail size as seen on ebook stores.
    • The title and author must be easy to read. Everything else–font and color choice, controlling eye movement, balancing mood with eye-catching–is secondary.
    • That said, there is much to be said about the value of a great design. A crash course in marketing and advertising with product design can go a long way here.

Book Business

This section is tricky because as much as I learned at the conference, I really don’t feel one conference and some surfing around on the internet can imitate experience-informed data. I’ll keep this section more vague. I highly recommend getting an agent or attorney to take a look at your contract if you see anything that might limit your options for the current or future works. It should be easy enough to get an agent if you already have a publisher handing you a contract.

A number of authors and editors shared their “war stories” in the industry. Without just repeating those stories and either getting details wrong or otherwise misrepresenting them, I will just skip to the takeaways takeaways I got from them:

  • Option Clauses: An option clause may be part of book contract. It gives the publisher the option to publish your next book(s), and you can’t query anyone else until the option is expires. That could be a month, or it could be months, years, or indefinitely. It can tie up your next in a genre, or it could tie up any book depending on the wording.
    This article explains these and similar clauses to investigate.
  • Multi-book deal: This is often when a publisher buys a series. You might want this. You might not. The risk here is that you will probably be 6-12 months into writing book 2 by the time book 1 is published. If book 1 isn’t successful, you could be stuck with unstarted, partial, or finished books 2+ in a largely unknown series that might suffer consecutive flops just because of the first book.
  • Sequels: Some genres, such as Fantasy, have an informal expectation that most books will be part of a series rather than a standalone. If you intend on your book being a standalone story rather than a series in a genre where most books are part of a series, be prepared for negotiation between to keeping it a standalone deal and changing the story so that it would better suit sequel potential.
  • Consistent branding: Consider using similar fonts, color schemes, and art styles with your book covers, even when they are not part of the same series or from the same publishing house or medium. As you put out more works, these design aspects (with the easiest example being the “shape” of your name in the cover font) will remind readers of you.
    • Bonus points for keeping the consistent branding on business cards, a personal website, and whatever other medium your writing platform reaches.
  • Ask for metadata: This can be anything from the blurb to the reviews. Pay special attention to the keyword tags. These are what make your book show up in searches and linked to related books. Poor keyword choices might make your book difficult to find, or it might show up in irrelevant searches or next to other books for the wrong audience. Some platforms only allow a limited set of keyword tags.

My Experience

  • I met a number of fellow writers over the course of the weekend. I really got the sense that writers are allies. There is no point in sucking up to successful authors. You can just query their editors or agents directly. Authors’ platforms target different audiences. Their fanbase is not your fanbase. When authors network, it’s to help each other, not to seek favor.
  • The presentations on writing process were all suggestions (and very good ones at that) which worked for some people but that might not be applicable to everyone. TL;DR takeaway here is that if your process isn’t working, change it. These talks are just ideas on what to try when you do change it.
  • The ones on book and story content were pretty straightforward and come down to “learn your genre”. While obvious, however, I believe this is probably the reason why even the veterans will always have something to come back to. One panel I attended, for example, was on the current state of Science Fiction as a genre: the conventions and trends; what’s working and what’s not. This kind of information changes over time for all genres.
    • On that note, I might as well drop my takeaways from this panel. It seems the Science Fiction genre has undergone a strange transformation lately where a lot of the futuristic technology of “Science Fiction” is now becoming current or near-future technology (or is made obsolete by it). As a result, Science Fiction’s themes and audiences are split: the “Science Fiction of today” and the “Science Fiction of the future”.
    • It was also noted that on many occasions in history, the Science Fiction preceded the science itself. It’s becoming more and more feasible to start with the fiction and derive the physical manifestation out of it.
  • Similarly, the book business is a rapidly changing environment, and newcomers and veterans would do well to keep up with these changes. Conferences don’t substitute for experiences, but the knowledge can help prevent misunderstandings before they happen.
  • The pitch slam was exactly what it is hyped up to be:
    • Direct feedback from agents and editors on your pitch. Unlike a cold query, you are sure to get some kind of a response from them here.
    • They want to like your project. At least in my experience at this one event, the ones that pass tend to give actionable feedback as to why. It could just be that the project is outside of their normal field of work and it’s just not the right match. But I’m more inclined to believe that it’s your fault.
      • By that I mean you should have checked if your project is what that editor or agent was looking for. If so, it could be your story idea or the delivery of the pitch for it had issues or didn’t stand out enough.
    • You can see their faces light up when they’re excited to hear more about the project. Or if you picked the wrong person, maybe you won’t get the visible reaction you were hoping.

My Pitch Slam

Homework

I checked the list of editors and agents at the Pitch Slam a month in advance and checked in once in awhile with updates to those. I chose a list of nine agents and, from their descriptions and what I could find about them on social media, determined which traits they seemed to be drawn to. I was pitching in Science Fiction, so these traits were:

  • Character (turns out literally all of them want strong characters),
  • Sociopolitical tension,
  • Thrilling plots,
  • Unique settings,
  • Multicultural narratives,
  • Worldbuilding,
  • Dark themes

From there, I came up with ways to describe each of the traits of my project as concisely as I could. I set up my journal by cross-referencing what the agents were looking for and the aspects of my story that lined up with those. Perfect in theory… right?

The Event

I made a few mistakes:

  • I didn’t really give comparison titles much thought until the day of the event. I only had decades-old comparisons.
    • They are supposed to be recent titles to give them an idea on how to approach a marketing plan.
    • Having only older comparisons can also show that you aren’t familiar with the current market within the genre, so it’s harder to know how to market. That makes it a riskier project to want to work with, so it had better be a pretty darn good project.
  • I forgot to note which agencies or publishers they represented. As a result, many of my top choices were crossed off the list because I didn’t want to pitch to two editors from the same publishing house.
    • I ended up pitching to one agent “blind” (not knowing what they were looking for) because I ran out of names I planned for.
    • This session was a little more awkward, because “Project Giants” is a riskier blend of genres with themes several agents specifically said they didn’t want. That wasn’t the case this time but I don’t want to push my luck at future events. Do this research even if you are cold querying.
  • I wasn’t ready to take notes. When the first editor told me what to send them, I may have forgotten exactly what they asked to to see. I learned my lesson right away.

Even so, I got used to pitching and following the personalized plans after leading with two messy sessions.

The Results

I had 4 out of 6 agents or editors request a query and more materials for my work, codenamed “Project Giants” (not the official title). Hype! But I have some work to do with “Giants” before it will be ready to take to the next level, so sadly I might end up passing on most of these requests. My concern is that my pitch made my story sound better than it was, which is a sign that I’m not 100% behind my project.

TL;DR

The conference was a great learning experience. I recommend writers from every stage of the process attend a writing conference if they get the chance and it’s within their budget. Seriously. This was not a cheap conference, and if you don’t have the disposable income to attend these events, the information is all available either online or by asking a friendly, experienced author, agent, or editor. The magic happens when you are there, in person, meeting other people in the industry in person.

Extra:

Favorite Play: Waiting For Godot – Samuel Beckett