Below are some highlights and lowlights from my first day volunteering at the San Francisco Writers Conference on Friday.
Creating Spiritual Alchemy by Putting Spirit into Words: My first assigned session. My duty was to keep time by raising placards at 10 min left, 5 min left and STOP. I introduced myself to the speakers. Then Andrea Hurst, the moderator, reiterated my duties: “He will hold up the signs.” It’s going to be one of those days, I thought. Not that I mind passing as a guy, but surrounded by women in sweater turtlenecks, sheer floral blouses, hankerchief scarves, and blazers from Talbots, I knew I’d get lots of double-takes in the women’s bathroom.
Eric Brandt (Exec Editor at HarperOne) told us, “Jesus books always sell.” Reverend Alan Jones ranted about the commodification of spirituality. During the Q&A, a person asked what to do about the fact that her book could reach many people, but unfortunately the subject of spirituality made their stomachs turn. Stop proselytizing? Everyone left believing that she can write the next Eat, Pray, Love, which means I’ll see many more spiritual memoir submissions at the literary agency in which “a moment changed my life and opened my heart to the peace and wisdom in the universe.”
The Right Word at the Right Time: Or dialogue 101. In summary: use dialogue to characterize and move the story, no “chit-chat,” fictional dialogue isn’t real dialogue, no adverbs, and use only the tags “said, ask, and reply.” The speaker, Sheldon Siegel, a charismatic Jewish corporate lawyer from Marin County reminded me of my dad, if only my dad wrote courtroom thrillers. He told the crowd that it’s okay to open a book with dialogue. This means I’ll be reading many more “commercial fiction” submissions in which I cannot tell who is speaking, where the characters are, and what is going on until the third page.
Lunch: As a volunteer, I wasn’t invited. But there were empty seats and so I got free food: creamy orange bisque soup that could’ve been lobster bisque without lobster; mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and salmon; cheesecake and coffee. Score. From the speakers: Kevin Smokler quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Daisy Maryles, editor of Publisher’s Weekly, rattled off statistics like, 200,000-300,000 books are published each year. There sure are an awful lot of unread books.
Q&A Session with Nonfiction Agents: With no more volunteer duties, I attended this by choice. In a packed room, I even had the balls to raise my hand. The moderator (agent and conference founder Michael Larsen) sensed my balls, made eye contact and said, “The gentleman in the back.” I stood and asked about the necessity of a book proposal for a hybrid of personal narrative and reportage. Ted Weinstein, a local nonfiction agent, said I could probably get away with proposal, rather than having to write the whole thing first, the standard procedure for memoir.
The session had the quick pace of an auction and the best question came from a guy who asked: “If I have two books, one a memoir about being a gay bullrider and the other about gardening, do I need two separate agents?” The answer is: the “gay bullrider” book sounds more viable than another gardening book in a saturated gardening market. The other answer is that agents are not looking to sell individual books, but build careers. Of course this means more query letters at the agency from people offering their careers by saying, “I have five novels and an idea for a trilogy, all with screenplay potential.”
I also learned from Kathryn Sands (agent at Sarah J. Freyman) about the genres: faction, reality fiction (aka post James Frey creative nonfiction—ouch), stunt memoir, and chick non-fic, but Sands doesn’t believe in categories. She described knowing she has a good manuscript by having a “dowser” moment. Her body starts shaking and she can’t wait to share the info. I recommend slipping her some muscle stimulants along with your manuscript.
From Idea to Contract: Agent Ted Weinstein on the business of book publishing, or the Ted Weinstein Show: a salvo of advice and aphorisms recyclable at any writer’s conference. “We work for money, we live for acknowledgements.” “Oprah has done more for books than any other human being.” “My agent’s an asshole. My asshole.” “If you’re coming to us for feedback, you’re making a big mistake.” “It’s the role of the West Coast agent. We’re like Lewis and Clark to the rest of the world.”
After the session, I got in the front of a long line of people to speak with him. I introduced myself to him, described my project, and received the standard “send it to me,” as well as a decent, but somewhat cryptic piece of advice.
The Gala Party: I had not expected to stick around for the schmoozing. The one thing I didn’t mention so far is that throughout the day I met other volunteers, several writers, and former USF classmates. I bumped into a random friend and received a few introductions through the agents I read for. So, by the time the party rolled around, I wanted my free drink and actually had people to schmooze with. Many strangers introduced themselves and everyone offered recommendations for agents and books to read, as well as helpful tidbits from their own lives. Some say that “Writer’s Conferences are institutionalized discouragement,” but I think they are expensive group therapy. For the most part, I did a good job of not mocking people in my head. Especially since many of them are published authors and I’m not.
My best move of the day occurred when the bartender turned around. I snagged an extra free drink ticket poking out from the coffer. In a room full of writers, that qualifies as smooth and I received a round of high-fives from my new friends and a glass of wine that would’ve cost $8. I stuck around, chatted some more and was one of the last people to leave the hotel.