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In my day job as coordinator of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, I get a LOT of questions in my email inbox. While many of the queries are conference-related, an amazing number are about the writing business. More and more, it seems, the questions focus on finding an agent.

I’m not sure I qualify as an expert, but I have learned a lot about the industry over the years, both as a writer and in working with and attending the conference. So I thought I’d address some of the very frequently asked questions I receive, mostly from people who are brand new to the process and who’re stressing out about it. If any agents or agented authors are reading this, please feel free to correct my assumptions or add your thoughts in the comments. This post is entirely my own opinions, for what they’re worth. Please always check the websites of agents you’re considering for their specific preferences and go with those.

That being said, here are the top five things I end up repeating in my answers to emails about agents:

1. This is a BUSINESS. I know you put your heart and soul into creating the baby you’re sending out into the world. It wouldn’t be worth trying to find an agent if you hadn’t. But once you’re ready to send it out, you need to separate your emotional connection to your book from the business of getting published. Easier said than done? Of course! It’s a lot like sending your kid off to school and then going to a parent-teacher conference to hear a stranger’s assessment of his skills and personality. It can be brutal. But if you don’t want to be seen as the crazy parent no one wants to deal with, you stay polite and have a reasonable conversation, even if you drive home privately convinced the teacher has no clue about your child. As personal as your manuscript is to you, to a potential agent, your book is a business prospect. Do they believe in it enough to sell it? And if they do, have you shown them that you’re going to be easy to work with, professional, and able to respond reasonably to criticism and editorial comments?

2. On a related note, a query letter is a business letter. Inject your personality, give a sense of the voice of your book, sure, but don’t let it go out full of errors, don’t tell agents how fabulous your book is or how it’s going to be the next big thing (again, the kid analogy applies. You polish ‘em up and send ‘em out in the world; it’s up to those they meet to form their own impressions). DO be clear and grammatically correct and interesting and let your story sell itself by writing a great blurb.

3. Agents are people. For the time they have our manuscripts on submission, they hold our dreams in their hands, so it can be really easy to be intimidated or see them as somehow different, scarier, maybe. But they’re human beings like the rest of us. Remember this when you write to them or meet them at a conference.

4. Don’t get caught up in the idea of a dream agent. You’ve researched her inside and out and you just KNOW she’s The One. You hang all your hopes on her. And then she rejects you because your work isn’t right for her. I’ve seen a lot of people react to that by saying, “But I know she’s the perfect agent for me!” Guess what? If she doesn’t love your work, she’s not the right agent for you, no matter what your research told you. Assuming you’re only querying reputable agents who actually sell books, the perfect agent for you is the one who gets it, the one who cares about your book as much as you do and with whom you can have a great working relationship. And just like finding a partner in life, chances are she might not be the one you thought she was going to be when you started looking.

5. This can be a SLOW process. Your manuscript is the focus of your attention, the one submission you have to think about, and every day that goes by without news can feel like an eternity. But for agents, reading your submission is just one thing on a VERY long to-do list that has to lean in favour of existing clients if they’re going to succeed. You’ll expect them to work hard for you if you become a client, so trust that they’re busy doing that for their current ones, too, and may take much longer than you’d like to get to your submission. In the meantime, query widely and keep working on the next book.

Do you have tips to add, especially for those dipping their toes in the querying pool for the first time?

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I had the pleasure of hearing Ivan Coyote speak at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October. She’s fabulous.

Before and since then, I’ve watched several of her performances on YouTube. They never fail to make me smile or laugh or cry or nod with agreement or all of the above, depending on the video. As a writer, I also wonder how she does it. What is it about the way she speaks that connects with me, with my friends, with everyone else in the audience? It’s a package deal, of course, of storytelling talent and presence and self assurance and all sorts of other factors.

Watching this particular video,

I realized one part of what it is, and it’s one I can work on in my own writing. It’s the same thing that makes the best comedians so funny, the saddest tales so sad: the details.

In this video, there are a few details that make the story for me, and they’ve stayed with me for weeks after watching it the first time. What works for me here – all of it works for me, let’s be honest – is partly the juxtaposition of the ridiculous-but-true details, like the re-naming of the hill, with lyrical details like the description of the clay cliffs. I’d quote it for you, but I think you should go watch the video instead. It’s masterful storytelling.

We sometimes get carried away writing, wanting every sentence to be beautiful, to be lyrical and lovely. But what really grabs me as a reader, as a listener, is the gorgeous, touching, lush essential detail in the middle of a simply told tale. Or the tiny, seemingly inconsequential one that speaks to a larger sense of family or community or love. And the funny, touching, unexpected-but-true little bits that connect audience to story, putting them right there in the middle of it. And isn’t that where we all want to be when we read or listen to a good tale?

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On Balance

It’s a new year of sorts, for me. In my world, September has always seemed like the start of a new year, even more than January 1, no doubt because from the time I was old enough for preschool, September marked the start of a new school year, first as an elementary school student, then high school, then university, then as a teacher myself, and then, with only a three-year gap, as a mother to a kid in school. And I have a September birthday, too, so September is well ingrained in me as the time for fresh starts, for setting goals, for buying new notebooks and launching back into serious work after a lazy summer.

This year, September saw me already deeply immersed in my biggest project, coordinating the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. I was aware of the usual September excitement, that need for fresh pencils and new clothes, of course. It’s too much a part of me to miss completely, especially with my daughter starting a new school year and my continuing in my volunteer role chairing the PAC. But even so, it’s now, in the first days of November, that I’m re-thinking my goals, getting ready for a new start, looking for balance.

When the conference ended, I was spent, exhausted, and completely lacking in any sort of reasonable brain function. It took a few days to get past that overload and become a productive human again. But by the time November rolled around, I was ready to get back to work.

I’m not doing Nanowrimo, but the spirit of it grabbed me, and I decided to work on the book every day this month. That’s a huge change. Last year (conference-to-conference year, that is), I wrote 300 words. In the whole year. Not Good. This year, I’m determined to find more balance.

For the first four days of the month, I stuck to my goal of working on the book every day, and I got a lot done. I’ve been through the entire manuscript, picking up threads and re-acquainting myself with the characters and getting ready to move forward. The wheels are sticky and slow to budge after such a long hiatus, but I can feel a little movement, and I’m hopeful working on it every day will have them turning smoothly in no time.

But today I’m faced with the challenge of trying to find that balance I’ve promised myself. I have a significant amount of SiWC work to do today, and it’s hanging over my head. But I also want to work on the stuff I was thinking about yesterday. I can – I must – do both. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

I think I’d like to write first, to be sure I do write, and then get to the work. But I’ve tried to do that this morning already, and the guilty, nagging sense that I should be doing the work on my plate first is interfering with the flow. But if I do the work first, I know the day, and the momentum, could both disappear before I have a chance to get to the WIP. It’s a challenge, and one I know I’ll be facing daily as I search for how best to be able to do both this year, plus spend time with family and friends, keep the house from failing apart entirely, run errands, volunteer at the school, be a good parent, not make a stranger of my husband… the list goes on, as it does for us all.

I failed at finding balance last year. I’m determined to get it right this time around. In big picture terms, by the time next September rolls around, I’d like this WIP to be finished, the conference planning to be well in hand, and to still have a family and friends who love me and who aren’t attacked by giant piles of laundry and papers when they come to my house. That’s do-able, right?

Care to share? How do you find balance in your own life?

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Yesterday, I had a great meeting with kc dyer, SiWC webmaster Dale McGladdery, and a guy we’ll call “Chris” who will be bringing us a fabulous Saturday Night Owl event at SiWC. (Hmmm…. Could that be a clue? Those of you playing along with our mystery on the SiWC blog might think so, but I’m not saying either way.)

Anyway, in separate conversations, both men asked me what I write. I answered, as I usually do, “Women’s fiction.” Both were utterly confused, if the blank looks on their faces were any indication. One asked me if that was a euphemism for chick lit. It isn’t. My last MS could most accurately be called chick lit, if half a dozen people wouldn’t immediately leap in to point out that “chick lit is dead”. But ignoring that, sure, the last book qualifies for what people think of when they hear the term. But I also have a couple of partially-written romances tucked away, and the book I’m working on now, the one that leads me to use the slightly vague “women’s fiction” is… a book. It’s fiction. There’s a romance in it. Two, actually. Maybe even three or four, if you count existing marriages and a possible date for a minor character. But it’s not a romance in the traditional sense.

What it is is fiction written by a woman for a primarily female audience. And so I call it women’s fiction, and that’s how I’d pitch it in a query letter. Except that the men who’ve read bits of it for me have loved it, too. Clear as mud? This book would probably go on the fiction shelf at my local bookstore, the same shelf as every other book that doesn’t clearly fit into a defined genre like mystery, romance, or fantasy. There’s a huge variety of types of books on the fiction shelf.

So I got thinking about the existence of the term. You almost never hear someone talk about “men’s fiction” even though there are lots of types of books that appeal more to men than women, generally speaking. So why women’s fiction? I know what I mean when I say it. I know who my intended audience is. They’re fans of other women who write fiction about women and mostly for women. So I guess women’s fiction really is as good a term as any, even if it makes men go blank when I mention it.

Before I could get too wrapped up in definitions and labels, as interesting as the topic is to me, I came across something local blogger Steffani Cameron said awhile ago: “For all of history, arts and passion are born because of what makes our hearts swell and break. Wars and uprisings and cultural revolutions wage because of matters of the heart.” That reminded me of a keynote speech agent Donald Maass gave a few years ago at SiWC, in which he talked about firing up our writing by tapping in to our passions. With characteristic straightforwardness, he asked the audience, “What makes you hard? What makes you wet?” and then told us to put it in our books. Good advice, no?

So how about I forget about the label for the moment? There’ll be time enough to define that when I’m ready to pitch this thing. In the meantime, Don’s and Steff’s words have reminded me to write with passion, whatever it is I’m writing.

I love people, the way they think, the way their lives unfold, how they interact and how they love, why they get into the situations they get into and what they do next. I love happy endings and exploring the bumps and detours along the way and wandering down the ‘what if’ paths of human relationships. That’s what I write. I’ll be hiding out in my word processing program this afternoon if you need me.

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Back from Away

Well, not away, exactly, but I was offline over the holidays, and am playing catch up today. Apparently not everyone went offline for a few days when I did; there’s a lot of stuff out there to catch up on!

Happy new year! I’m excited about 2010. Ten months from now marks my first Surrey International Writers’ Conference (www.siwc.ca) as the conference coordinator. As I’ve mentioned before, I started the job right after the 2009 conference ended in October, but the work really picks up now that the holidays are over. And I still have a book to finish. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions. I spent too many years in school as a student and as a teacher to really think of January as the beginning of the year. I always find myself thinking about new year sorts of things in September instead. But back-to-school after the holidays for my daughter means back-to-work for me, and I’m excited about getting on with both jobs. I’d love to have a second finished manuscript behind me by the time the conference rolls around. We’ll see!

Thanks to all of you who stopped by here in 2009. Hope to see you back in 2010.

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SiWC 2009

Well, Surrey’s over for another year, and thanks to a husband kind enough to turn off my alarm this morning and handle the getting-child-to-school routine alone, I’m not quite as physically and mentally exhausted as I expected to be today. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still far from functioning normally, as the quality of this post will no doubt reveal, but at least I feel like driving to the grocery store isn’t actually too risky an activity for my current capacity. Good thing, too, since the cupboards are bare.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to convey what a whole weekend at the Surrey conference is like in one post, but I’ll give it a shot.

This was a really different year for me at SiWC. As the incoming conference coordinator for 2010, I was in a unique position. I was at once shadowing kc dyer (coordinator extraordinaire), getting a sense of things from her perspective, meeting presenters, spending time with the board and so on while still being an attendee, sitting in on workshops, having meals with friends I see once a year, sitting in the bar, and all else that comes from being on that side of the registration table. It was an interesting challenge to find the balance between both roles, but I enjoyed it.

I arrived at the hotel late Wednesday morning, having picked up my good friend Pam from the airport en route. The Sheraton’s quiet on the Wednesday before the conference. Only a few people have checked in, and the hub of activity seemed to be mostly in the coordinator’s room, where we helped tend to some last-minute details including one that involved cardboard, chocolate, and ribbon. Any task involving chocolate is okay by me. A little time in the lounge that evening with karen, Pam, Michael Slade and later Jack Whyte, and Wednesday was over already. Never do days go by quite as quickly as they do in Surrey, and the rest of time continued in the same appallingly speedy fashion.

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur of friends, workshops, board meetings, meals, keynote speeches, comfortable lounge chairs, and altogether too little sleep. But even in the midst of the busyness, there were moments where things seemed to slow down long enough for me to realize I was seeing or hearing or doing something pretty special in that instant, and those are the moments I’ll remember long after this year’s conference blends and blurs with those gone by and those still to come. Some of them are simply ‘you had to be there’ things that I’ll take out, look at, remember, and enjoy before tucking them away again for awhile, flashes and moments that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. But some of them weren’t just mine, or, if they were, still speak to the general experience of camaraderie and magic that is at the heart of Surrey. Here are some of those:

– seeing my friend Pam arrive at baggage claim at YVR and come toward me with a giant smile, arms spread wide, echoing my own excitement that Surrey time had come again;

– watching Mike Carson’s face when he found out he’d received an honourable mention in the storyteller’s category of the SiWC writing contest and had won the non-fiction category. Both had been kept as a surprise, with the help of his wife, until the announcement of the winners, and he had no idea until his name was called;

– listening to moving and stirring keynotes. I’ve never heard an Anne Perry speech I didn’t love, for example, that didn’t move me to write and to embrace joy, sorrow, and fear to make my fiction the best I can make it, and this year was no exception. It was a great year for keynotes all around;

– picking up tidbits from presenters including Jeff Arch, author of Sleepless in Seattle, who echoed beautifully what most presenters seemed to feel about why they write what they write: “Strip away all the details and it’s an idea that wouldn’t let go of me;”

– sitting in the ballroom for Michael Slade’s Shock Theatre, in which his version of War of the Worlds came alive through the vocal skills of an all-star cast that included Slade, kc dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, and Jack Whyte, the keyboard prowess of an amazing high-school student called Althea, and the pumpkin-smashing power of Sam Sykes;

– getting a little dressed up for Saturday dinner, a rarity in a mostly casual life;

– hearing the standard smattering of applause for a door prize winner swell when the attendees noticed the guy who won was a mountie in red serge;

– watching at least two writers get the sort of thrilling feedback they’d normally only dream of hearing and seeing them moved and changed by it;

– enjoying the conversation of like-minded people for hours on end in the lounge, the ballroom, and at a small private party a few of us arrange every year;

– joining in on the chorus of Saturday night’s traditional rendition of “Mud, Glorious Mud”, led by the inimitable Jack Whyte;

– goofing around with old friends and new;

– celebrating successes, including one friend’s three-book deal in five countries since last year’s conference;

– being introduced to all sorts of new people, presenters and attendees alike, and having conversations with random strangers in the elevators.

There are more, of course. I could go on listing little details for pages, but those are the first ones that came to mind when I started jotting them down. Like every year, I came away eager to write, reminded of the universality of storytelling and its importance and of the need for each of us to nurture that thing, whatever it is, that feeds our souls and isn’t for anyone else but us. (My friend Laura Bradbury addressed the latter brilliantly the other day in her post about her jardin secret at grapejournal.blogspot.com. We all need one.) And I came away this year excited about the future, about the big job I’m taking on and eager to get going with it.

Were you at Surrey? What did you take away from it?

Next year’s conference is October 22-24, 2010, with master classes on the 21st. Mark your calendars!

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Surrey Excitement

Fall is in the air, complete with blowing leaves and weather that shifts from rain to brilliiant sunshine and back again several times a day. For me, the autumn air means one thing: Surrey. Exactly one week from when I’m writing this, at 9:00 on Thursday evening, I’ll be ensconsed in one of my favourite places: among writing friends in a comfortable chair in the lounge at the SiWC.

I attended a meeting at the hotel this afternoon. It was the first time I’d been there since last year’s conference, and even driving into the parking lot gave me a thrill of anticipation, the same as the one I get every year when I drive up for the conference itself.

The Surrey International Writers Conference is a highlight of my year every year. Where else can you get fabulous professional development, hang out with writer friends, watch a live performance of a radio play with a cast that includes no fewer than four bestselling authors and possibly a few little green men, and ride in hotel elevators that have a reputation for interesting encounters? Amazing stuff, and I haven’t even mentioned the swashbuckling sexy Englishman, the singing Scot, the storytelling lawyer… I could go on, but you get the idea.

I’m especially looking forward to this year. It’s my last as an attendee for now, because I’m taking on the job of conference coordinator as soon as this year’s conference wraps up. I intend to enjoy every moment.

The registration numbers are strong this year, already ahead of last year, so if you’re thinking about attending, don’t wait too long! A sellout is a definite possibility. And if you’re a writer, you should be thinking about attending. You definitely won’t be sorry!
SiWCPoster2009

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