This weekend I attended the Liberty States Fiction Writers annual “Create Something Magical” conference for the 4th time. Each year, I try to expand upon what I did the previous year, to stretch myself more as a writer. In other words, I try to do something that scares me. This time, that meant participating in the conference version of the “So You Think You Can Write” challenge.
On Saturday, SYTYCW invited participants to submit a 1-minute summary of a work-in-progress. (I wrote the pitch in the hotel Friday night, with the help of my friend and conference roommate Stacey Agdern.) After hearing it read out loud, the panel of four author-coaches would then decide if one or more wanted to have the participant on her team. (Similar to The Voice.) I ended up on the team of contemporary romance author Christi Barth. We sat down for a one-on-one, where she gave me manuscript and career advice. In fact, she sent me running off to pitch the novel to an editor or agent.
That evening, I sent her two short excerpts from my novel. This was perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of the whole process. Trying to find a 500-word excerpt that hits on all the right elements (while sitting in the middle of a party) is HARD. Once I pressed send, I drank a glass of wine and hit the dance floor. (The Book Obsessed Chicks book club from Long Island threw a pajama party with a DJ, cash bar, and dessert bar.) After the party was over, I had to go back to my room to make all the edits Christi suggested. At 1am, after fussing with the same few lines of description over and over, I set it aside and went to sleep. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more like a writer than I did in that moment.
I kept pulling my iPad out on Sunday morning to make tweaks to the excerpts. Finally, it was time for me to get up and read my first excerpt, the scene where the hero and heroine are reunited after three years apart. I could have let the moderator read for me, but this was the personal stretch: reading my own work out loud in front of an audience. (There were 20 other people in the room, which included the other participants and the panelists.) My insides were shaking, but I’m so used to reading out loud that I could do it in my sleep. Good thing, too. Years of reading books out loud to children, with inflection and different voices, took over. A small part of my attention concentrated on giving the reading my all, while the rest focused on everything you learn in public speaking classes — don’t shift your weight back and forth, stand up tall, breathe, don’t speak too fast, etc. I even had to remind myself that I was doing a reading, not giving a speech, and I therefore didn’t need to worry about audience eye contact.
After reading the first excerpt, I was passed through to the next round. For the final round, four of us stood up (one from each team) and read our excerpts aloud. After the first woman read an excerpt from her retelling of Red Riding Hood, I knew she had it. It was such a good selection, with tension, conflict, and some world-building description. I went third and gave it my all once again, reading a scene where the heroine is pulled back from a dangerous vision by the hero. With more time to decide, I would have chosen a different excerpt, but up until Friday afternoon I was planning to use a different WIP for this challenge (or skipping it altogether) so I’m amazed I even managed what I did.
The Red Riding Hood novel won the challenge, but the prizes were revised so that all of the finalists will receive feedback from the editor who chose the winner, whether she decides to make an offer for the novel or not. My coach offered to beta read the first three chapters for me, after I polish it for submission. Two of the other coaches complimented my reading skills, and I had a nice conversation with the winner, who noted my use of language. We both said we want to read the other’s novels when published. I ended up sitting with a bunch of the participants at lunch, where we discussed the challenge, writing, and genre.
Overall, it was a great experience, and I’m proud of myself for putting my work out there like that, and for reading it out loud. I got good feedback, and I have specific action steps ahead of me. One of the biggest and best questions my coach asked me about this novel was, “Can it be the first in the series?” In my original plan, it was fourth, but as it’s the most polished and complete WIP I have, it makes sense to rework my plans so I can get this one out there. And the answer is yes, it could be first. Reframing my thoughts in this way and shifting my perspective on what’s possible right now was the biggest gift I received from this experience.
When I decided not to pitch to any agents or editors at this conference, I had a short period of feeling bummed. I even had a bit of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) about it, thinking that I wasn’t making the most of the opportunity if I didn’t pitch. But I decided I would still make an effort to get the most out of it that I could, and when I heard about the SYTYCW challenge, I knew that was how I could do it. Huge thanks go out to the friends who encouraged and helped me get ready for it. If you’re thinking of attending a writing conference and you’re in the Tri-State area, I recommend this one. It’s a great beginner conference.