Monday, July 29, 2013

Back on the Roller Coaster

My personal fave: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk's Giant Dipper (pic: entertainmentdesigner.com)
I went to my first writers' conference in a few years and found it as exciting and devastating as ever. They hold the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference a stone's throw from Sea-Tac airport, and the Hilton charges $10/day for parking with no in-out privileges, which ensures that everyone who attends the conference has neither the temptation to skip the sessions and wander the neighborhood, nor the financial means to do so. I did venture outside so far as the 7-11, where I went on a scavenger hunt for the item in the store most resembling actual food, but that was about it.

For other budding writers out there, I do highly recommend the conference. It's a great mix of sessions on craft and business, the other writers are friendly, and you get an opportunity to pitch to agents and editors (more on that below). They've also seriously beefed up the sessions on ebooks and self-publishing since I was last there, but since I've been-there-done-that, and since my son had an exactly simultaneous swim meet in Federal Way, I skipped those bits (and wheedled one get-out-of-parking-free pass from the nice Hilton guy).

But back to the roller coaster metaphor.

Have you ever been on a ride and thought, when the safety bar came down across your lap, or the five-point belt locked over your chest, what the heck am I doing on this thing? Let me OFF!!!!! ? Well, on a whim some months ago, when I was most in my Jane-Austen-knockoffs mood, I whipped up a few chapters of a frothy "Regency" romance and sent it in to the PNWA Literary Contest. (Note: my book isn't technically Regency, since it's set in 1808, but let's not split generic hairs. Best to call it "in Jane Austen's day.") Along about May I got a call from Pam Binder, the PNWA President, to say The Naturalist had been chosen as a finalist. Yippeeeeeeee, I thought, and immediately signed up for the conference. I pictured myself standing atop Victory Mountain, agents and editors clamoring at my feet. I was locked in and going for the ride.

Then there was Climb #1: I hadn't actually finished the thing. I was back to my Rome women's fiction book. But I had to finish The Naturalist, right? Otherwise, what would I give the clamoring agents and editors? Whew. School was getting out in a month, and I had to get 'er done. I buckled down and cranked it out. A story I loved.

The Rapid Descent Where You Scream Your Head Off and Despair: on the second day of the conference I sat in on a talk about women's fiction and romance, and one of the primary agents I hoped to pitch said unequivocally that she was "Regencied out." Regencied out?

You and me both, Homer. You and me both.
After hanging out on those sites and blogs devoted to Austen sequels, continuations, retellings, etc. etc., I couldn't imagine anyone could say this. The danged Austen only wrote six books--didn't we fans need a constant supply of Austenesque reading material to keep us going? How could anyone be Regencied out? To add to my kicked-in-the-gut feeling, this particular agent happened to look a lot like (and share mannerisms of) a friend of mine, so I felt like it was Molly (totally her real name) telling me she was through. So strong was that feeling that I went up afterwards and tried to explain myself: it's a Regency, sort of, but with a twist! Really, really, Molly--I mean Agent--you shouldn't write it off! The agent was friendly and polite and probably spent the walk back to her hotel room glancing over her shoulder, in case this weirdly insistent woman decided to follow her.

That's what I'm talking about. (pic: River Bottom Blues)

The Loop-the-Loop and Spin. I used to love rides that incorporated spinning and upside-downness. I viewed with scorn the moms who would sit on the bench, holding the jackets. Well, it's been some years now that the spinny things make me want to hurl, and when someone has to wait it out and hold the jackets, my hand shoots up: pick me! Pick ME! The spinning and wanting-to-hurl aptly describes the speed pitching session at the conference. You've got four minutes to make someone fall in love with you and your project. Like speed dating, only worse. Worse because it's not someone rejecting YOU for being dog-ugly or watching-paint-dry boring (bad enough), it's someone rejecting your BABY for being not cute enough. And they were able to come to that conclusion in four short minutes.

I hung on for this portion of the ride and managed to convince a few agents and one editor that my baby was cute. Two people requested full submissions, for which I wanted to ask them to marry me--except, while gay marriage is now legal in Washington, bigamy isn't, so I had to refrain. Another few requested partials. I was riding high.

But then another wave of stupid hit me. There sat Molly--I mean that one Agent--toward the end of one table, and I was drawn to her like a seagull to discarded French fries. Yes. Despite her declaration of being Regencied out, and despite already bugging her the day before, I decided to pitch to her. Halfway through my spiel, Agent-not-Molly says, "I've read this book before."

Can I borrow your sword, Panthea, when you're done with it?

"Noooooooo!!!!" I cried (aloud). "You read this? Someone already wrote this book???"

Agent nodded thoughtfully as I collapsed across the pitch table. "No, really," she said. "I just read this book."

Now, I grant you, romances can be formulaic, but every other person I'd pitched to had said something along the lines of, "I like this particular bit. It's different." Being told that not only was the book not original, but someone had already written the darned thing, point-for-point-- Well, that was like the roller coaster getting stuck while everyone was upside down, and the lady above you barfing on you. Exactly like that.

It took me a second to recover, courtesy of a Eureka! moment. But the Eureka! moment was nearly as devastating.

"Wait a second," I said. "You probably have read it. Did you read for the Literary Contest?" (The Contest lets an agent or editor choose the final winners.)

She had.

Which meant--thank God--someone out there had not already written my book, point-for-point, and sent it to her. That was the good news.

The bad news was that it meant I had lost the contest. Of all the agents who could have done the final judging, it fell to the one who was Regencied out. Waaaaaaaaaaa. Sure enough, later that evening, the winners were announced and stood atop Victory Mountain while I waited at Base Camp with the oxygen tanks. Bummer. Yes, yes, it's an honor to be nominated, but frankly that honor wears off after a week. To add insult to injury, the emcee announced triumphantly that both the 2nd and 1st place Romance winners' manuscripts were requested by none other than Agent-not-Molly.

Not that Agent-not-Molly meant to be cruel. She was actually very kind. After my collapse at the pitch table, she asked to see fifty pages of The Naturalist (maybe she needs kindling for her fireplace).

"Are you asking out of pity?" I demanded.

"No, no! I'd like to see it," she said convincingly, looking and sounding so much like Molly that I probably will bother to send it, even if it's just a waste of electrons into the void.

I came home a strange mix of elated and discouraged and told my husband in the space of five minutes how excited I was to send stuff in and that, on the other hand, maybe I would quit writing altogether. He heard me out because--heck--he's been married to crazy for almost nineteen years.

The writing life is just like the roller coaster. You wait in line for hours in the boiling sun to thrill and scare yourself to death; you wish you never got on, but then you have the time of your life, and, right after you're let off, you get back in line again. Here we go, folks!

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