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Epic Giant Conference Write-Up: Backspace Writers Conference


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#1 anticipa

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 07:45 PM

I'm not exactly sure of the protocol of these write-ups! But I thought I'd do one to let everyone know what Backspace Conference is like.

Backspace was hosted at the gorgeous Radisson Martinique Hotel in New York City, a pebble's toss from awesome shopping and delicious food. 26 literary agents attended, along with an editor from MIRA and John Gilstrap, the (HILARIOUS! and INSPIRING!) author of NATHAN'S RUN.

---------------------
PANELS


Backspace had four agently panels, each with a separate topic. The four panels had different groups of agents, and each session was wonderfully informative. They also left time for questions from the audience in each panel.

Panel 1) Why Queries?
This panel was interesting. The way it dealt with the 'why querying' question led to a lot of discussion re: the broader spectrum of the publishing industry, from what querying trends indicate (BE UNIQUE, especially if you write in a hot genre - they see the same tired tropes ALL THE TIME!) to the reality of stating one's epublishing credits (if they're not impressive enough, you're screwed. But if they're too impressive, they may think you've already sold to everyone who could be interested in your book... so you're still screwed, though it's a better type of being screwed). The panel also gave a bigger picture of the agents' agencies. One agency was very devoted to creating a brand for the author, while that wasn't so much an issue for the others; one agency might have all its agents giving a collaborative effort on a project, while others might be a little less interactive. It's important to do research on the type of AGENCY you're querying, as well as the type of agent.

Random notes:
-Whoever invented the idea that summer is a 'quiet querying time' is apparently delusional
-Hit the high points in a query ASAP
-Agents may only request if they have an editor in mind who might fit the project
-Just because an agent has a big track record of sales in one area doesn't mean they don't want to expand to other genres
-Fit and working style is of primary importance. Make sure to ask what type of working style the agent has if/when you get The Call
-Just as getting too many vampire/werewolf queries is unattractive, so too is it unattractive to get a bunch of queries that have snide little comments about "totally different from those typical vampire books". It shouldn't take tearing down someone else's work to build up your own.
-Signing a client has about a million variables to factor in. But the first is that the writing is where it needs to be, always.

Memorable quote: "It can only be fixed if it's already good."

2) The First Two Pages, and Beyond
This panel had a really great dialogue about what type of author the agents are looking for - someone who will market themselves aggressively, that is. There was also lots of internet talk, what with the changing pub climate, etc.

Random notes:
-Agents' interests change, and there's no way to predict or control what they might like one week to the next. Taking things personally is an awful idea.
-Beta readers are your #1 friend. Don't use your family.
-On self-publishing:
It has advantages, but that now means there's a glut of possibly-substandard work out there. Not all books were meant to be published; make sure yours is as polished as possible before even CONSIDERING putting it out there.
-More on self-publishing:
If you know you want to pursue traditional publishing, think twice before self-pubbing stuff, in case it doesn't do well. No data is better than bad data.
-On the internet:
The internet is like a giant neverending dinner party. Keep meeting people; keep interacting and networking. It's also like being onstage. Or like speaking into a microphone when everyone's listening to you. Be at least a little self-conscious.

Memorable quote: "Consider yourself Googled."

3) What Literary Agents Want
The most subjective of the panels, this was a great way to find out the personal taste of each agent on it. Every panel had a brief introduction at the beginning in which the agents stated name, agency, what they represent, but this one really went more in-depth. There were a few things that popped up with everyone - killer voice, writing that reels you in, a story that doesn't let up. One of the literary fiction agents said she hates receiving literary fiction submissions that "don't have plots". Go figure, huh?

Random notes:
-There always needs to be tension. You always need to know your stakes every second of the story, and the agent needs to NEED to keep reading.
-When you submit short stories or other work, keep in mind you may pique an agent's interest if he/she's reading the literary journal you get published in. One of the agents on this panel contacted an author after reading her short story and asked if she was working on anything longer.
-Revise intelligently on both the macro AND micro level. This means from sentence to sentence. If a word isn't serving its purpose, why is it there?
-There's a lot more rejection in this business than acceptance, and the ones who get rejected most are the agents. On behalf of every one of their clients. Daily. Think about it.
-Originality and different angles on a subject are wonderful ways to approach a query.

Memorable quote: "Without pace, it's not writing - it's typing."

4) What Agents Love About Agenting
I will say that the most "on-topic" session was #4 - they stayed really close to the title, anyway. It was also the most enlightening for me. The questions asked really showed the personality of each agent, from speaking about their first sales to the one thing they love most about the job. It's also a great topic because it emphasizes how much agents are advocates for writers. People get bogged down in the depression of rejections, but this panel highlighted the fact that agents never go into a query wanting to reject something. They're just looking for a great story that fits their taste.

Random notes:
-If you get an offer, GET BACK TO OTHER AGENTS! Including the ones who only have your query. It's an unpleasant surprise for an agent to request a project only to find out it's gotten agented without their knowledge.
-Questions for The Call:
"Why do you love my book? What about it do you connect with?"
"What do you envision for my work?"
"What's your plan from here?"
"How do you like to be contacted, how often, etc.?"
"What is your agenting style?"

Memorable quote: "I would hope that if you query, you know you're contacting someone you want to work with."



There was also a mini-panel with an agent (who was funny as HELL) and the editor from MIRA. This one was called Agents & Editors Working Together, and it was essentially a walkthrough from the submission process to publication. Super fun and informative.

Random notes:
-In women's fiction, character and emotion are chief
-Every imprint has a mission, a "type"
-A pre-empt is a type of offer that prevents an auction from occurring
-How many copies does the publishing house think they can sell?
-Voice should be fresh, distinctive, and engaging.
-An important part of the agenting side of submissions is making it seem like the author is a promising prospect. Pub houses, like agents, aren't looking for a one-hit wonder - they're looking for career authors. A type of author who raises an expectation in the reader and consistently fulfills that expectation.
-Lots of communication is involved in the editing process; it's an open dialogue between the author and editor's vision.
-First thing to get sold is usually WORLD ENGLISH RIGHTS - images, audio, eBook rights as well as rights in australia, canada, england, and the usa. basically... english rights. you know. in english.
-Things like blurbs, galleys, ARCs are handled a brief time before publication
-When the author starts feeling entitled, the author-agent team is no longer a team, and that's when problems start happening.

Memorable quote (from the hilarious agent): "People focus so much on how to market themselves and stuff, when the writing itself is the problem. The sentences are not good."

----------------------

WORKSHOPS

Oh, boy, where to begin?

Okay, so there were two types of workshops. We did each twice.

#1 QUERY WORKSHOPS

I actually did a blog post on this one, so if you'd like to read it, you can definitely check it out:

http://themightyjung...-dont-tell.html

#2 FIRST TWO PAGES

We got to read our mss' first two pages, and then we got awesome detailed feedback. Our agents didn't stop us in the middle (except sometimes to make the occasional passing comment), although I've heard of similar workshops where they'll cut you off where they would have stopped reading and won't let you continue. I was actually going in expecting one of those, so this was sort of a gentle surprise.

It's interesting. When you read your first two pages aloud, it sounds totally different than it does in your head. Which is primarily why it's an excellent editing technique - but it can also either be to your advantage or disadvantage. If you get into character, you may have more voice than is on the page. But if you read blandly, you may cheat yourself of voice.

This was actually something I had a problem with. Mostly 'cause my main character's a dude. Me reading aloud from his perspective felt a little awkward, especially since I was no longer alone in my bedroom doing it. But hey, if you have issues with grammar, this may be the format for you - with someone reading aloud inserting natural breaks, it was almost impossible to focus on grammar errors! (And I go out of my way to focus on grammar errors. XD)

I've heard of this workshop (and the query workshop) getting vicious. But the agents our group worked with were never more than firm, and they were never disrespectful or vitriolic. There was a lot to be learned about openings here, unsurprisingly, but here's the thing - I can't transcribe most of what I learned. I talk about this in the query workshop blog post above, but the experience of sitting before an agent as they mull over the stories before them is eye-opening in a way that really can't translate to the internet. I will say that subjectivity rules supreme, and about all we can do is make the writing as clean as possible. Then it's no longer our job to make an agent like it. It's our job to FIND the agent who will like it.

My style of writing really appealed to one agent. Another found it baffling. Seriously - to each his/her own.

The most common advice was show, don't tell. Of course. :P The rest was mostly specifics that wouldn't help y'all at large.

OH, BUT! Something I'd been dying to know, I finally got to ask some agents! A lot of the time we're told to dive into the beginning in medias res - in the middle of the action. But then, if it's too action-packed, we get the reaction, "I don't have enough time to connect to the character!" So my question was, where does the line fall?

The answer (oh, this answer...!): It varies.

And of course, that makes perfect sense. It varies from genre to genre. It varies from voice to voice. It varies from type of conflict to type of conflict. The thing is that there's a narrow window between "boring and draggy" and "what-the-hell-is-happening-and-why-do-we-care", and it's our job to know our story well enough to know where that line lies. Of course, outside perspective helps. :wink:

Hint: even if you're not diving into a badass action sequence, stuff must still be HAPPENING. The other parts of the story just have to make it interesting without the booms and explosions, until we get to the booms and explosions. (And by booms and explosions I mean inciting incident.)

------------------------

EVERYTHING ELSE

The fellow authors: hilarious, epic, already best buds.

The coordination: awesome, easy to follow, never rushed or overlong.

The agents: beyond professional, generous with their time, and made the pitching process as easy as humanly possible. Oh - and they were filled with personality. Yay for agents being fun and interesting people too! All of them were class acts, and any author would be lucky to have them representing their work. If you'd like to query a Backspace attendee, here's the list:

http://www.backspace...ce.com/faculty/

I took notes on the tastes of each agent, even the ones who didn't rep my genre, so if you're curious about who might fit your novel, don't hesitate to PM me.

Actually, speaking of pitching, that's a unique facet of Backspace: they don't have pitch sessions. Each panel had a 15 minute break between, and so did the workshops - and that's along with a half-hour mixer both afternoons. All in all, there were about three hours built in to the conference to pitch casually to agents - either that, or just ask questions. I definitely approached one agent to tell her I loved her hair. I felt a little creepy, but she was totally cool. (It was BRIGHT PINK! How could I NOT?!)

Anyway, I can't imagine what a pitch session would be like, but this was a fantastic way to approach the pitching thing, in my opinion. It took all my available guts to walk up to agents and be like "HEY LETZ TALK ABOUT MY WORK" when I didn't have to, but hey, that's a part of what I was there to learn how to do. And the casual atmosphere helped me. So. Much.

More on pitches in general at my blog. (Jeez, shameless advertising...)

http://themightyjung...t-ii-pitch.html


I really hope this helps! I've never been to another conference, but I can't imagine anything being as awesome as Backspace. (Like, literally anything. Including cake. And I love cake.) Best two days of my short life, no lie. If you're looking for a conference to attend in the future ... well, you know my recommendation.

Riley

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#2 RC Lewis

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 08:00 PM

So awesome, so jealous. Thanks for sharing your experiences. So many wise words in there. :biggrin:
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#3 Paul Dillon

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 08:13 PM

Thanks Ant,

Great write-up

#4 DMcWild

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 12:18 AM

Hi Riley,

What a wonderful job of writing and detailing some great information.

Looking forward to reading more on your blog.

Thanks,
Don

#5 Cat Woods

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 06:53 AM

Awesome, Ant. Thanks for sharing the spoils!

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#6 Rick Spilman

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 08:01 AM

Thanks for the review. Glad that you had a good experience. Karen and Chris put on a good conference.

I heard that there was some excitement during one of the two page readings.

#7 mwsinclair

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 08:23 AM

I really enjoyed that, Ant. Is it in NYC every year? I've been so busy lately I haven't paid attention to this type of thing, but I'd like to plan for 2012.

#8 anticipa

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 11:41 AM

I heard that there was some excitement during one of the two page readings.


Hoo! Word gets out fast! Yeah, I think it was the mystery group - some lady absolutely flipped at an agent's comment and started screaming. Then she ran out.

Legendary.


I really enjoyed that, Ant. Is it in NYC every year? I've been so busy lately I haven't paid attention to this type of thing, but I'd like to plan for 2012.


I believe it's twice a year! There was a Nov. conference and a May conference this year - I think the May one was 3 days instead of two. And yep, I believe it's always in NYC.

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#9 mwsinclair

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 11:52 AM

some lady absolutely flipped at an agent's comment and started screaming. Then she ran out.

Legendary.


Care to expand on that? Sounds kinda interesting.

#10 anticipa

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 11:59 AM

Unfortunately, I didn't actually witness the incident, so I don't know specifics. All I know is that the agents interrupted her reading to make a comment, and she ... did not take kindly to it. We heard her screams from a different room as she fled the scene.

Also, the agents had her contact information, and it seems more than a little boneheaded to throw a screaming fit when word (as Rick has showed) travels so fast among publishing-inclined folk.

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#11 Diana O.

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 12:12 PM

Thanks for the info Anticipa! Very helpful! And it led me to your blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. So your shameless promotion paid off. :wink:
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#12 Rick Spilman

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 01:00 PM

I am sorry. I probably shouldn't have mentioned it. I wasn't there. I heard the story from an attendee who was an observer.

Apparently one woman reacted very, very badly to a comment in one of the two first page sessions. It sounds like her reaction was wildly disproportionate to the comment. I was told a certain amount of screaming and running about ensued and security had to be called. On one hand, one has to feel sorry for the distraught writer. Then again, all writers need to to learn to cope with rejection. Having been to a range of writers' conferences, it occurred to me that I am surprised that more of this sort of meltdown doesn't take place from time to time. I have seen the occasional tears, but that is about it.

For the record, I have attended three Backspace Conferences and generally recommend them. They are run by Karen Dionne and Chris Graham, both of whom are great folks and run a good conference. For anyone in the New York area, they are a bargain. I haven't attended Backspace in over a year because I try to go to a different conference yearly. I've met some wonderful writers and good friends through the Backspace community and the conferences.

There seems to be a pretty good wrap-up of last May's conference here:

2011 Conference Wrap-up







#13 Sakura Eries

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 01:36 PM

uwah! makes me wish i lived closer to NYC!

thx for the write up, Antic!

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#14 mwsinclair

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 01:57 PM

Well, I'll definitely have to keep it in mind for 2012.

#15 J. Lea Lopez

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 04:41 PM

Great write-up, ant! I loved reading your quotes during the conference on twitter. This sounds like a fabulous conference, and I'll definitely have to keep it in mind. We should get an AQC group together and all go to the same one. Unless AQCrew gives us our own conference.... :-)

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#16 mwsinclair

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 05:12 PM

Unless AQCrew gives us our own conference.... :-)


I don't expect that to happen. But the idea of organizing some sort of group or meet-up at another conference isn't a bad idea, in my opinion. If it happens, I hope it's something I can attend.

#17 AQCrew

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 06:13 PM

Really, Matt?

We assumed that you were planning on hosting it at your house with Rick's boat docked near-by as a supplemental "open bar" site. Lifejackets option. Shirley Temples only for Ant and RC Lewis. Cat Woods is responsible for chaperoning all under-age members of her Juvie Crew.

Everyone else -- the theme will be: come dressed as your favorite AQC member.

We, of course, will be DJ'ing.

#18 J. Lea Lopez

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 07:17 PM

Really, Matt?

We assumed that you were planning on hosting it at your house with Rick's boat docked near-by as a supplemental "open bar" site. Lifejackets option. Shirley Temples only for Ant and RC Lewis. Cat Woods is responsible for chaperoning all under-age members of her Juvie Crew.

Everyone else -- the theme will be: come dressed as your favorite AQC member.

We, of course, will be DJ'ing.

Tee hee!

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#19 J. Lea Lopez

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 07:19 PM

I don't expect that to happen. But the idea of organizing some sort of group or meet-up at another conference isn't a bad idea, in my opinion. If it happens, I hope it's something I can attend.

Same here! We could do an AQC takeover of some conference haha.

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#20 anticipa

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 07:41 PM

Really, Matt?

We assumed that you were planning on hosting it at your house with Rick's boat docked near-by as a supplemental "open bar" site. Lifejackets option. Shirley Temples only for Ant and RC Lewis. Cat Woods is responsible for chaperoning all under-age members of her Juvie Crew.

Everyone else -- the theme will be: come dressed as your favorite AQC member.

We, of course, will be DJ'ing.



Oh my God. AQCrew being a DJ. My prospects for the future just got about forty million times awesomer.

And it's a costume party?! :laugh: :laugh: :laugh: I'm going to be all of Tom Bradley's avatars AT THE SAME TIME.


But seriously. If we're planning a conference takeover, I'm there in a heartbeat! Just tell me how much money I need to con off unsuspecting innocents for the plane tickets :wink:

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reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

i blog! i tweet!





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