Saturday, May 1, 2010

Fear and Loafers at the Writer's Conference

Today I attended my first-ever writer’s conference, “The Muse and the Marketplace,” sponsored by Boston’s leading writing center, Grub Street. I’ve never been much of a joiner or a sharer when it comes to my writing, but with a manuscript that thus far has only attracted the interest of a pay-to-publish press, I felt I needed to get out there and see what it takes to break the plane and enter the realm of the published.

The first day of the weekend-long event (I only registered for Saturday) began early for me, as I was scheduled to sit face to face with an agent at 8:30 am, shortly after registration opened. This was called the Manuscript Mart and it carried an additional cost; for me, however, it was the central reason to be here.

To date, I’ve sent my manuscript to more than 20 agents, each time getting a form letter or postcard expressing their regrets and their wish for my future success. It has been frustrating not to be able to get any specific or substantive feedback. With the Manuscript Mart, however, you pick an agent and submit a query letter, synopsis of the entire work, and the first 20 pages some weeks in advance of the conference. Thus, when you meet with the agent, he or she will have actually read it and will be prepared to discuss it with you.

Beginning yesterday afternoon, I started feeling nervous about the whole thing. Did I really want to know, face to face, what an agent thought of my work? Could I take it if the feedback was negative? With the previous submissions, there was always the comforting thought that maybe they hadn’t actually spent more than a couple of minutes looking it over, checking it for vampires before chucking it. Now there would be no doubt. The agent will either think it’s good – and that I’m good – or not.

Early as it was, it was too late to turn back. I had risen at 6:00am, dressed in the recommended business casual attire (shirt, pants, blazer – much nicer than my typical business wear), and driven to my office in Boston’s South End. The conference was in the swanky Park Plaza Hotel, a little more than a mile away. Being a long-strider, I made it in about 15 minutes. The warm morning, brisk pace, and sports coat added a patina of moisture that mingled with the mild anxiety I was already feeling.

I entered the hotel and got my registration packet, replete with itinerary and name tag on a red lanyard. The tag said, “Jason Rubin” on it. Anally, I inserted a caret (feel free to stop and reread the previous five words before proceeding) and my middle initial, so that it read “Jason M. Rubin,” my preferred professional name. Then I went to the room where people meeting with an agent checked in and waited to be told we were on.

It was in that room, which felt like a group of people waiting either to audition for a role in some production or waiting to be called in by the dentist to fix a lost filling, that I made my first demographic observation (which by day’s end was found to be fairly accurate of the overall attendance). Essentially, to quote Jan and Dean, it was two girls for every boy, with Caucasian representation at about 99.5% and probably 10 to 20% more lefties than you’d find in a more random societal sampling. Just about all the women were smartly dressed. The men ranged from my get-up to guys resembling IT geeks (comb-agnostic hair, short-sleeved shirts with odd-colored plaid prints; probably science fiction/fantasy writers). Comfortable shoes seemed to carry the day.

When the time came, I made my way to the room where 14 tables were set up, two chairs each. One chair at each table was taken up by an agent. The empty chair was for the writer. My agent (I like the way that sounds) sat at Table 13 (I’m not superstitious, so no worries). Her name was Katherine Fausset from Curtis Brown Ltd. My first choice of agent was sold out and she was a late add to the conference roster but despite the fact that she herself doesn’t handle historical fiction, I was very pleased with the experience.

For one, she had extensive hand-written notes on all three pieces: the query letter, the synopsis, and the sample. Another good thing is that she talked very rapidly so she crammed a lot of feedback into a constrained 20-minute session. She had very good recall about the details of my work and gave me very useful input into what she liked and thought was marketable, and what could be fixed. Overall, she gave me reason to believe that there is a market for my story, and with a little more work someone somewhere would be willing to represent it.

Of particular joy to me was that she liked the way my story began, which was something I was unsure about, having reworked it extensively based on feedback from my friend, author Ellen Kushner, whose novel Thomas the Rhymer was a stylistic influence on my work. Katherine liked the fact that my book is based on a 17th-century English folk song (“unique and potentially a marketable hook”), and thought the plot was “lively” and the work itself “imaginative and sexy.” I won’t bore you with the negative things. Suffice to say, I emerged satisfied, relieved, and considerably drier than when I went in.

Following that, I had some time before my first of two pre-lunch conference sessions began, so I went to a room where the editor of an online literary magazine called The Drum was recording flash fiction (500 words maximum) for consideration. I read “In the Nickel of Time,” a piece I had unsuccessfully submitted to the Harvard Book Store for a flash fiction anthology. The editor thought I read it very well, so we’ll see if it makes it to the site.

My first session was called “This is How a Caged Writer Sings,” led by Steve Almond, a writer I’ve read a little of but heard a lot about. It was all about drawing inspiration from songs, which is something I do anyway. He reinforced my belief that writing while listening to music is essential, and played a number of great tunes by the likes of Tom Waits, Joe Henry, and Bruce Springsteen on a Bose Wave system. Before the session even started, he was playing a song and asked the attendees if anyone knew who it was. I was apparently the only one who could identify the artist as Michelle Shocked. At the end of the session, he gave us an assignment for us to do on our own at home: Think of a song that carries emotional importance to you, and tell the story that that song takes you back to. I know exactly what I’m going to write about. Watch this space. I had bought his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, earlier and had him sign it. He wrote: “To Jason, 1. Crank the tunes. 2. Undress. 3. Dance naked. Steve”

The second session was called “The Essentials of Dialogue,” led by Adam Stumacher, who teaches creative writing at MIT (I bet you didn’t know MIT offered creative writing; well, they do and you don’t have to leave your trumpet at home, either). He gave a number of good, concrete tips and backed them up with readings that contain strong dialogue. He gave an assignment towards the end of the session that I had a lot of fun with. It was this: Two neighbors are in a pasture together and they come upon a dead horse. Write a dialogue in which they talk about how they’re going to move the horse; at the same time, one of the characters has something else they’re dealing with that needs to be incorporated into the dialogue. We had 10 minutes to work on it, and I got an idea quickly and ran with it. I was so pleased with what I’d done, I was hoping I would have a chance to read it, but when the 10 minutes were over, so was the session. Here’s what I came up with:

A: How’d it happen?
B: Don’t know. Just found her like this.
A: She bit anywhere?
B: Not that I can see. Don’t know if there’s an injury on the other side.
A: So how do we get rid of her?
B: Don’t know. Can’t keep her here, that’s for sure.
A: S’pose we could chop her up and take her in bits in a wheelbarrow.
B: Messy business.
A: Yup.
B: Maybe if I take the head and you grab her around the neck we can drag her.
A: Worth a try. Weird thing, though.
B: What’s that?
A: Just thinking of when I came home from school in sixth grade, found my mother dead on the kitchen floor.
B: That’s rough.
A: Heart attack. She was a smoker.
B: Sorry about that.
A: Well, it was a long time ago.
B: Smoker. That gives me an idea.
A: What’s that?
B: We could just burn her.
A: It would stink but that may be the best way.
B: What’d you do with your mother?
A: Went screaming to the neighbors. First dead body I ever saw.
B: Did you try to move her?
A: Naw. We just left her until the ambulance came.
B: She got a better send-off than this horse will, I hope.
A: Yup.
B: Well, let me get the gas can. You got a match?
A: Yup. I’m a smoker, too.
B: That’s kinda funny.
A: Well, I never thought much about it until I saw this horse and thought of my mother.
B: Are you OK with this?
A: Yeah. Let’s get it done. It’s just a horse, after all.
B: Well, even a horse is somebody’s mother.

Then it was time for lunch in the Imperial Ballroom. You could pay extra to sit at a “Five Star Table” with actual published authors, agents who represent actual published authors, and editors who refine the work of authors who will actually be published. I elected to dine with the commoners. It was a typical bar mitzvah lunch of roasted chicken breast with a few slices of mushroom in a sauce that bore a striking resemblance to marsala without ever really committing to it, three halves of roasted red bliss potato, several skinny spears of baby asparagus, and some carrot shavings for color. This was preceded by a mixed greens salad and followed by a key lime tart placed dangerously close to a yellow puddle of unknown sauce.

Conversation at the lunch table was polite and curious, as we shared the plots of our stories and talked about the sessions we’d had. I was thinking a nap would be in order, but soon it was time for the third session. Mine was about first-person narrative nonfiction. It was just OK. The presenter was funny but mainly read to us from notes and anytime anyone asked him a question, he always said, “I have two responses.” He never had three, he never had just one. He always had two.

The last period of the day was called “Hour of Power” (remember, writers thought up these great titles), which was a series of sessions that anyone could drop in and out of. I went to one about building a platform, but the presenter was terrible, also reading from her notes, which weren’t even well-written notes. Ultimately, there was nothing she was telling me that I didn’t already know, and her examples were not easily replicable. I ended up leaving it early but by then I was too tired to crash a different session. Instead, I sat on a comfy chair and read the notes thoughtfully written by my agent (we’ll always have the Manuscript Mart).

The sessions officially concluded, it was time for the cocktail/schmoozing hour. I’m very good at the first part, but the second isn’t such a strength. I ordered a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. The bartender took a small rocks glass and dumped a large scoop of ice cubes into it. Though it looked full to me, the bartender then tossed a second scoop of ice into the glass, which was now apparently filled to 200% of its capacity. Somehow, he managed to get some bourbon in there. I sat at a table and was soon joined by two women. We all chatted about the events of the day and the plots of our stories. When I finished my drink (the liquid part of it, anyway), I decided it was time to go.

It had been a long day, nearly 10 hours, and I had spent it listening to people talk, taking notes, sizing up this crowd of people who self-identify as writers, and wondering when and if my big break will ever come. As I left the hotel, I removed the lanyard from my neck and tossed it into a trash can. I began walking back to my office at a somewhat slower pace than before, and that’s when I saw that the streets looked very clean. Downtown Boston looked very pretty today. I didn’t notice that this morning.


Lisa said...

Jason - we met briefly at breakfast and I found your blog. Your writing here is funny, clever, and surely sums up my experience (though in different sessions) at the Muse.
Good luck with your novel! I know I have a bit of revising in my future based on my agent's feedback.
Check out my blog sometime if you are interested

Jason M. Rubin said...

Hi Lisa. Thanks for the nice comment. Glad you found the post, I'll be sure to check out your blog. And good luck to you, too!

Lazy Julie said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope to attend a Grub Street Conference some day. If they leave out the M. in Julie M. Baker, I WILL add it to my nametag...maybe with a smiley face. But then again, I'm better at the schmoozing than the cocktails.
Loved your dialogue about the dead horse, by the way.