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Trip Report: Southern California Writers' Conference

by Matthew Arnold Stern

Would you drive 150 miles a day round trip to become a better writer? I did.

I attended the Southern California Writers' Conference in San Diego 15--17 February, 2002. Because I was going on my nickel, I had the brilliant idea of commuting from my home in Orange County. I probably could have saved on hotel costs just as effectively by crashing at one of those all-night read and critique sessions (which lasted until five in the morning).

The conference was well worth the money and well worth the drive. I got information that will help me finish my novel, including an excellent critique by the San Diego Writers' Monthly Lifetime Achievement honoree, Betty Abell Jurus. I got a better insight on how the publishing industry really works, which will help me when my novel is ready to submit. Most importantly, I got a lot of support and encouragement from the other attendees at the conference. The agents and publishers were also willing to share their knowledge.  

Here are the top ten things I learned at the conference:

1. Put together a great pitch for your book: One of the speakers said, "Imagine that you are standing on a corner, waiting for the light. An editor from Random House comes up to you and asks you about your book. How can you describe it before the light turns green?" Put together a great brief summary of your book that can excite an editor or agent. If your book cannot be easily summarized or explained, how can you change it so it can?

2. Learn to edit manuscripts yourself: There are plenty of editing services that can polish your manuscript, but the editors might not understand your intentions or appreciate your nuances. Instead, use techniques such as reading the manuscript aloud or reading it backwards to polish your material before submission. When you get feedback, review it critically and revise according to what works best for your book.

3. Put together an effective query letter: Keep your query to one page. Include a hook sentence, the pitch you put together for your book, a brief biography, and a thank you. Don't use any gimmicks, like cutesy fonts and scented paper. Don't mention that you are sending multiple queries; agents or publishers assume this.  

4. Query agents who would best represent your book:  Agents send manuscripts to editors who they feel would be the best fit for that type of book. So, you need to find out which agents would best represent the type of book you are writing. Most agents list the genres and styles of writing they prefer to represent in their submission guidelines. Also, pick up a novel similar to yours and look at the acknowledgement page. Who is the agent that the author thanked? Then, research where the agent is now. Agents change jobs frequently, so get the latest information.  

5. Don't give an agent or editor a reason to reject your manuscript: Make the manuscript as flawless as possible and follow the submission guidelines set out by the agent or publisher. Anything that stops an agent or editor from reading, such as typos, unclear sentences, incorrect format, inappropriate shifts in point of view, are likely to get a manuscript rejected. Manuscripts that don't follow the submission guidelines or sent unsolicited are likely to earn a trip to the slush pile. 

6. Consider sales and marketing: Sales and marketing departments at publishing houses sit in on meetings where editors select which books to buy. Are you writing a book that can sell well? 

7. Know that first novels are an easier sale than second and third novels: Publishing houses would love to find the next John Grisham, so they are willing to consider a first-time novelist. Once you've sold a novel, publishers consider your previous sales and profit record. If your record for your first novel isn't up to their expectations, publishers might not consider your next one.

8. Be prepared to market your book yourself: Unless you're a John Grisham, Steven King, or other author who commands a seven-figure advance, publishers aren't going to pay for a national book tour for you. Use some of your advance to travel to promote your book. Line up your own book signings and interviews.

9. Network: Like any other business, publishing runs on personal connections. Your manuscript is more likely to be read by someone you met or has heard of you, than if it is just another envelope in the inbox. This is why conferences like this one are so valuable. Also, get involved in writers' groups and e-mail lists. 

10. Support the industry that you want to support you: Buy books or check them out from the library. (Publishers also make manuscript buying decisions based on checkout records from libraries.) Go for books from new and mid-list writers, because your support enables them to get published again, and you will find some great writing. Purchasing best sellers also helps the publishing industry, because their sales fund the purchase of books from new and mid-list writers.

The organizers of the Southern California Writers' Conference will have another conference in Oxnard 4--6 October, 2002. Use the links to the left to find out more about this event and visit some useful Web sites that I found out about at the conference. 

My advice: if you go, get a hotel room. Oxnard is a lo-o-ng drive from Orange County.

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