Monday, June 30, 2014

Blast from the Past: My Experience at the first Southern Mystery Gathering Conference, or “What I Learned at Camp”

It was the summer of 1998, the summer before I suddenly became a single parent of two young children and stopped chasing the book-deal dream, but just for fun, let’s pretend it was this past weekend since I found my old notes and the info is still worthwhile. (I’ve updated any agent info included.)

I went to the first ever Southern Mystery Gathering, put on by the southeast chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and I have the oversized t-shirt and tote bag to prove it. It was held at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville on the hottest weekend of the summer. As I frantically searched for a place to cool off, I discovered that those people do not believe in air-conditioning. In fact, they swore that it had never been that hot before. That was why the cabins, the lodge, the meeting rooms, and the dining room were all saunas. The person responsible for sending us to a place that was not heaven went into hiding in Florida, and thus there was no murder committed that weekend.

Me and author Teri Holbrook
There were eight of us in my cabin, and two just happened to be authors participating in the workshops. I really expected the big deal people to be hidden away somewhere, but there was Teri Holbrook, author of three thrilling mysteries, poking her head into the bathroom to visit with me! Or maybe to hurry me up ... Anyway, I discovered that published authors are regular people, as those I met were friendly and happy to talk shop and answer questions.

While I spent most of my time trying not to succumb to heat stroke, I did learn some tips that I can share with you. For instance, there are pros and cons in attending the first-ever conference. The cons are that the amenities may be less than you imagined, half of the scheduled agents may not show up (and your submitted manuscript may disappear with one of them), and some of the workshops may be somewhat disorganized and not what you expected. However, the pros are that fewer people attend or even know about that first conference, and therefore the buffet line at lunch isn’t long at all. Also, when you meet agents or authors, there aren’t many people vying for their attention, allowing you the time to talk at leisure with them and glean valuable insights.

Now, having finished writing a mystery novel, I was most interested in how to attract an agent or an editor, and that’s the kind of information I collected and recorded. Thus, what follows is that information.

Before you start looking for an agent, you need to WRITE THE BOOK. That idea was emphasized repeatedly. Agents don’t like to be dazzled by an eye-popping query only to discover that the writer doesn’t have so much as a chapter to send them. Author Evelyn Coleman learned that the hard way. She jotted down an idea, queried six agents, and quickly got six positive responses. She had assumed that nobody would ask to see the book before she actually got around to researching and writing it. [As of that day in 1998] this children’s writer and author of What a Woman’s Gotta Do hasn’t gotten around to writing that book. Without a doubt, she didn’t make a good impression on those six agents.

So, write the book first, but don’t stop there. You’ll need to edit it, polish it, and finally categorize it. An agent will want to know whether your book fits his interests. For instance, Jeff Gerecke of the JCA Literary Agency in NYC [currently dba the G Agency] looks at hard-boiled crime and women-in-jeopardy novels in the mystery genre, as well as books on pop culture, history, and business. You wouldn’t want to waste time sending him a mystery of the cozy type, or anything in another genre such as romance or science fiction.

Do your agent research. Agents really appreciate that. You can check the library for books listing literary agents and also look to see if any authors whose writing style is similar to yours have mentioned agents in the acknowledgments at the front of their books.

Next, present yourself as professional by following the standard format for manuscripts. You can easily find information on format in any writer’s market book or website. Agents listed two things that you should never use as attention-getters because it just annoys the phooey out of agents: brightly colored paper, and weird fonts. The agent will assume that you are trying to prop up a weak story and won’t give it a second glance.

Now, as a way of telling you what agents are looking for, I’m going to tell you what they don’t want. This information came from Susan Graham of the Graham Literary Agency [now dba About Words Agency] in Atlanta. She called it: The Top Ten Reasons agents Reject Manuscripts.

10.       Wimpy or unpleasant protagonist
9.         No point of conflict / just a slice-of-life story
8.         Disjointed flow, hard to understand
7.         No sense of place, or bad setting
6.         Story starts in wrong place, often too far in advance of the conflict *
5.         Mechanics: grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors
4.         Use of stereotypes or clichés
3.         Been done before and done better
2.         Problems with premise, plausibility, motivation, originality
1.         Telling instead of showing — the #1 problem!

Susan went on to say that multiple submission queries are fine, but when an agent asks to see your manuscript, you need to put in writing when you send it how long the agent will have an exclusive look before you pass it on to someone else. It can be anywhere from 2–6 weeks, your choice. The important thing to remember is that you are in control. That was a new idea to most of us at the conference.

When you query an agent, your letter should grab their interest. That won’t happen if you take several paragraphs to describe your book. What you need to do—but is excruciatingly painful—is to write what your book is about using only two sentences. To give yourself a better idea of how to tackle that assignment, you might try choosing your favorite book in your genre and in two sentences write what that book is about. Then go to the bookstore, pick a book by its cover, and then in two sentences write what you think that book is about. Then read the flap. (Tip: use active language rather than passive.)

Here, I'm sandwiched between
authors Gwen Hunter and Tamar Myers.
Finally, we were given a suggested reading list that included Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein, Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamont, and The Courage to Write (which, if it is the one by Ralph Keyes, wasn’t published before 1998, as far as I can tell, but it's all I could find).

All in all, it was a positive experience, and the negatives just make the story more fun to tell! I recommend that every serious writer, when presented with the opportunity, attend at least one writers’ conference.

*Tamar Myers’ habit was to write four books a year. She advised me to start my book the way she starts all of hers: with a dead body. After that attention-getter, she backpedals to hours or days earlier and works her way up to the beginning point and then forward to solving the crime.

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