Saturday, July 28, 2007

Three Strikes - you're back to the drawing board

I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer's conference in Seattle this weekend. I went for my first time about 8 years ago and found the experience to be very inspirational and exhilirating. This year I decided to register primarily because my good friend Pat had entered their writing contest and was a top-ten finalist. I wanted to be there to support her at the banquet in the event that she took home the blue ribbon.

While I have primarily been writing technical articles for work, I do continue to dabble in what I have come to refer to as "pleasure writing" from time to time. I have taken 2 writing courses in the past year, and I continue to devote some brain time to writing ideas and outlines. However, I did not go to the conference this year with a completed project in hand - and I really had no intention of meeting with agents or editors. But when my registration packet arrived with 2 appointment cards, one for an agent and one for an editor, it was hard to not take that as a "sign" and attend those appointments.

My first appointment was with an agent. She was a very nice woman who I would have been happy to have represent me - if I had a completed project. I opted to "pitch" the idea of my transplant memoir to her. I had circulated this idea at this same conference 8 years ago - talking to 3 agents at that meeting. None were intensely interested, but one did give me a referral to a friend of hers that she thought might be. I probably should have pursued it then. This year's agent told me that the idea was not marketable as a book because it didn't have enough "mass appeal." She suggested I condense it into a magazine article and try to sell that. Perhaps it was the fact that I accidentally mentioned that I have been working on this book for nearly 10 years now that turned her off? Ugh. Strike one.

My appointment with an editor wasn't much better. I sat at a round table with 5 other anxious authors, all taking turns pitching their story to this very nice agent who represented a publishing house in New York. It didn't seem to matter much that she was primarily looking for projects in the romance genre. We all carried on with our polished pitches as if we could somehow convince her that she couldn't leave town without our project (assuming we HAD one) in her briefcase.

Two people before my turn, a woman pitched her idea of a memoir centered around her grandfather who was a homesteader in Oregon. The editor suggested she try to sell the project to a local - more regional - publishing house. She went on to say that memoirs only work in the mass market if they are written by someone famous. Ugh.

When it was my turn, I launched into my pitch with a little bit of reservation based on what she had told the woman writing the homesteader memoir. Nonetheless, she heard me out and then smiled and said, "Have you seen an agent yet?" I shook my head yes. "I'll bet she told you to consider turning this into a magazine article..." WHAM. Once again, she reiterated that there is no mass market for this project. I wanted to argue - but it seemed futile at that point. Perhaps it was finally time to bury this idea. After all, I had lost my momentum somewhere around 8 years ago. Perhaps it was after that last writer's conference where the idea was met with lukewarm reception?? Strike two.

The very next session I attended at the conference was about women as influential writers. In the course of the presentation someone asked a question about copyright laws and quoting song lyrics. The other big project I have been working on for the last 2 years is my "Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Rock Music" book. This is a project I was truly excited about. I had nearly 100 one-line song lyrics saved on my laptop (the one that broke down last summer and I haven't had time to resurrect). Come to find out that you cannot quote song lyrics without first obtaining permission from ASCAP and the publisher of the song. The speaker said one small clip of lyrics in a book she represented once cost $300 just to obtain the rights to reprint the lyrics. I have nearly 100 clips saved! Suddenly this quaint, hip project has gotten very expensive. I asked if I could create a character that often quoted song lyrics as a form of communication (an idea I had for a protagonist in a mystery novel). The speaker said that water is simply too dangerous to tread in and quoting lyrics should be avoided if at all possible. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Strike're...broken?

For a moment I felt completely defeated and hopeless. I had put a tremendous amount of time into the transplant book - even though it wasn't anywhere near complete. And I was so excited and fond of the song lyric book. It was like falling in love with a puppy and then being told I can't take it home. I was ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat. I even said to Pat, in a temporary moment of extreme self-pity, "Maybe this is a sign that I'm not meant to be a writer?"

Fortunately, I came to my senses. I have decided that while I didn't leave this years' conference feeling exhilirated and inspired - I did leave feeling more focused and deliberate about my work. So what if I don't have a primary project needling at my brain at the moment - at least I know where NOT to put my energy. That has to count for something.

Oh - and Pat didn't take home a blue ribbon. For now, she has to be happy with being a top-ten finalist in a contest that netted nearly 1000 applicants across 12 categories. In my opinion, that's pretty damned impressive. At least she had a completed project!

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