Wordsmith Roundup: What to Do with What You Learned

Madeline Miller Speaking at Wordsmith

You prepped your materials, read up on our blog post about what to expect when pitching an agent, put on your extrovert hat, and attended Wordsmith (and hopefully had an amazing time—we sure did). But now it’s been over a week, and you’re not sure what else to do. What’s more, Wordsmith 2020 is a whole year away (you know because you’re already marking your calendar for October 3–4, 2020). You don’t want to say one way or another, but you might be panicking. Don’t. Because we’ve compiled the best takeaways and next steps as well as tips and tricks to keep in mind for next year.

Wordsmith Takeaways

  • Everyone’s path looks different. You hear this all the time, but let me reiterate—there is no one way to get published. Writing can be brutally lonely (see takeaway number two), and it’s easy to see everyone shouting about their success on Twitter and feel like the kid who needs a pity out in no-out tee ball. You are not that kid. You’re just waiting for the perfect pitch. (See what I did there?) The publishing process takes a (tick, tock) long (tick, tock) time (tick, tock). It’s normal to be a year or two into querying and still waiting for something to click. Just stay open to revision and serious about researching who would be the best fit.

  • Find your crew. John Donne was onto something when he penned that no (wo)man is an island. Not only do writers almost always need someone else to point out what’s not working in their writing (someone who isn’t afraid to be honest—so that’s a no to your brunch babes), but it can also be really hard to keep yourself in a positive head space when it seems like all you’re getting is one "no" after another. A writing community helps keep you sane, makes your writing the best it can be, and can definitely be guilted into buying your book when it comes out. 

  • Writing takes work. Yes, you’re screaming at your screen, I’m two years into it, I know. Forgive me, dear reader, but it must be said again. Because writing the manuscript itself is only the beginning. Pitching/querying is a whole mountain in of itself, and then after you get picked up by an agent, you’ll spend the first couple months revising and the next chunk of months out on submission stressing, and once you sign with an editor (after your agent spends weeks if not months agonizing over your contract minutiae), you’ll spend the next few months editing once more, but this time *jazz hands* on deadline. And then you’ll do it all over again with your next book. As Nickelback so resonantly asked, are you having fun yet? I don’t say this to discourage you: on the contrary, this cycle can make for the most fulfilling career imaginable. But you need to be prepared for the physical and mental work creating a book takes (see: find your crew).

  • Be a champion of your work. Here’s a big bummer: Stephen King is taking your lunch money. Because of the increasingly striated budgets most publishers are working with, the big bucks are going to the sure wins, which means there’s less left over for debut or up-and-coming authors. This doesn’t mean your work isn’t worthy, but it does mean you’re going to need to push a little harder to get it out there. Yes, a publicist will be on your side, but building up a platform prior to that point can only help. Before you hit me with an “I’m melting” reaction to Twitter, let me say: this doesn’t have to be on social media (although it sure helps). You can build up an academic community, a geographic community, an organizational community, a community within whatever field you specialize in. Basically, you need to be able to stand up and shout, “Hey, I’ve got something important to say,” and know people will be there willing to listen. 

Next Steps after a Writing Conference

  • Revise: You pitched your work to an agent, and they gave you their card. Very exciting, congratulations! You’re so stoked, you want to send out your manuscript right away. Curb that enthusiasm. Chances are, you went to some excellent classes or maybe even a consultation and realized edits you need to make. Go ahead and make those before sending out to an agent. I promise, they’ll be even more interested in the cleaner draft of your work

  • Read: Ah, everyone’s least favorite two words: comp titles. Why are they so important? A few reasons, but a big one is that when you can compare your work to other titles within your genre, you’re showing you know your genre. Which is important. So read what you write. Check out what was longlisted for the National Book Award or the Goodreads Choice Awards for a range of titles and then eat them up. The more you read, the more you write, the better you become at your craft

  • Find CPs: You read the section above on finding your crew, and your internal (or external) introvert screamed, But how?? There are a few methods (very helpfully expanded upon in this article by the Write Life): online, through organizations, and through social media. There are thousands of fellow writers looking for support (and commiseration); all it takes is a little research to get there. 

  • Study the process: If I may shout about our endnote speaker, Courtney Maum, and her new book, Before and After the Book Deal (available for preorder from Catapult). I know reading about the process isn’t everyone’s cuppa, but some of the best advice you’ll get is from other people who’ve gone through it. Publishing isn’t the most transparent industry, and though there are good people working to change that, it can still feel cloudy. But there are resources: Behind the Book (featuring none other than Courtney Maum when she was a debut author), The Writers’ and Artists’ Guide to Getting Published, and the Bloomsbury’s annual Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are all good places to start.

Tips and Tricks for Your Next Conference

  • The value of facetime. Conferences are a great resource for getting your manuscript in front of agents, but writers who attend with a representation-or-bust mindset often leave disappointed. Because here’s the thing: As an agent, I may not be interested in your work, even if it’s in my genre. And if I am, I’m still going to ask you to submit your materials through a traditional querying process, and while I’ll prioritize getting to them, it’ll take time. Those success stories you hear about don’t happen over one weekend, so if that’s what you’re holding out for, at best, you’ll leave with a maybe. I’d suggest broadening your mindset from what you need to do to what you have the opportunity to learn. An agent may not want your work, but how often do you have one-on-one time to ask publishing questions? Take advantage of that. And take advantage of the collective wisdom in the room—from speakers/faculty and fellow attendees alike. You could leave with quality revisions, a writing group, and insight into publishing trends as well as a maybe from an agent.

  • The art of the soft pitch. Industry secret: many agents figure out editors to send a book to by doing something called a soft pitch—essentially, chatting with editors about what they’re interested in and floating their not-quite-finished manuscripts in conversation. If an editor is interested, they’ll say so. How this relates to you: almost every conference has a happy hour, right? And while agents do not want to be approached with a cold pitch, we do want to connect with writers on a human level. A very human thing to talk about is what you love to write. If you’re having a conversation—talking about your work in terms of art instead of sales—agents will often want to engage. If they’re interested in your work, they will say so. If not, you’ll have an enlightening chat. Either way, the pressure is off for both parties. 

  • Pitches vs. consultations. It may seem counterintuitive to go to a conference and not pitch your work, but that frames conferences as entities best fit for writers with finished manuscripts, which isn’t the case. Conferences are helpful for writers at any stage of their career, and one of their key offerings is consultations—a chunk of time where you sit down with an agent or editor and go over your manuscript pages and/or have time to ask any and all publishing questions you may have. Getting craft feedback from your CPs is invaluable, but giving expert feedback on the business of publishing is something your writing group isn’t in the position to do. Be honest with yourself about where your manuscript is and what will be most helpful to your process. Again, there is no right way to do this. If you need more guidance on the industry side, no one will judge you. It’s your career; do it your way.

  • Keeping it positive. There's nothing worse as an agent than getting a pitch, telling a writer it’s not up your alley, and having them argue back. Or pout. Or give you the ol’ stink eye. None of those reactions is going to change an agent’s mind—if anything, it’ll reinforce their position. There are a lot of reasons an agent may turn down your work: they have a book too similar, they don’t rep your genre, they stay away from certain topics within a genre, they have too many authors within that genre, etc. Of course it feels personal in the moment, but it really, really isn’t. You have one agent, but agents have tens of clients. Each book takes up hours and hours of their time. And, oftentimes, they do not get paid for those hours (yes, you read that right: your agent works for free until they sell your book). So they have to love it. If they don’t, both they and you will be unhappy. You could potentially be working together for the rest of your writing career (see: life)—do you really want that relationship to be strained? Even if you don’t get what you came for, try to keep in mind that it’s just another step along the way

Being a writer is hard; hopefully this to-keep-in-mind list makes it easier. Spend the next year revising, reading, and researching, and you’ll be ready to go for Wordsmith 2020. We hope to see you there