Toward the end of a brilliant 2015 San Francisco Writers Conference conference organizer Michael Larsen asked the classroom of participants how many aspired to be published by one of the big five New York publishers. Perched in the very back I raised my hand reflexively.
“One?” Larsen asked his eyes sweeping the room. “Really? That’s it?”
Of course that wasn’t it, but no other hands shot up. Had the same question been asked at the start of the conference every hand would have shot up. But a jammed packed four days with a collection of literary talent that makes this conference unrivaled on the West Coast had so overloaded the participants with information, the reaction time just wasn’t there. I heard from several that at times all the information, some of which often conflicted, created confusion in what had surely been resolve at the conference’s outset.
Which, I suspect, is exactly the point. As Larsen said more than once, “If something can stop you from writing, let it… But if nothing can then don’t ever stop.”
Or as many agents and editors said time and again, there is no blueprint to success. Every agent and publisher has preferences and quirks and a certain level of fatigue with the sheer volume of writers desperate to get their book sold. For every serious, well-prepared, excellent proposal, another gaggle bordering on idiocy are also shoved in front of those who sell books. Having been both the prepared and the idiot, I can commiserate.
The industry is not for the faint of heart. I return as I do so often to my wise sage, Jimmy Dugan of A League of Their Own who said, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy anyone could do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”
Throughout the conference agents, editors and experts in the field told writers to harness their expectations. If your only goal is to be the next John Grisham it might make any hope of actually doing that impossible. Agents often cautioned writers to find better comparisons than every best seller in your genre. Be realistic, they said, because this is a hard, hard business to succeed in and your up against a huge pool of talent all trying to get what you want.
I was a spectator at the conference. I was there to help, not pitch my books. Michael Larsen had awarded me a scholarship to the San Francisco Writers For Change conference last fall, so I volunteered to be his aide for the entire conference as a way of saying thanks. So even though I too felt my emotions riding the highs and lows of being close to those agents who could simply slide a contract across the table and help green-light my dreams, I could temper it a bit by knowing this was not my time. Throughout the weekend I felt great empathy — and not an insignificant amount of envy — for those grabbing a bat and swinging for the fences to make their dreams come true.
At one point as I listened to a panel of 15 agents, I realized I had already been turned down by half of them. During the conference I received in my e-mail yet another turn down from an agent I pitched a few weeks ago. I took those as signposts leading me on through the fog. Somewhere through this process the fit will come. I started learning more about the other agents on the panel who hadn’t had the privilege of turning me down yet. “Your time will come soon,” I thought, taking notes about them.
With so much to learn, so much to sift through and so many obvious challenges for writers to overcome — as if sitting down and writing a book isn’t difficult enough–I came away with something a bit deeper than just knowledge.
- I learned to embrace the now. If you spend your whole life looking ahead to the perfect agent, the perfect publisher, the big success, you miss the real reason most of us write: to hone our craft and express our art.
- I learned to trust defend my conviction, not my book. It sounds strange but even while making my living as a professional writer, I have wanted nothing more than to write books. I will always endeavor to that end. But the vast majority of pages I’ve written will never be read and the books I write will shape-shift and evolve through edits, revisions, title changes, development and (hopefully) evolving skill. I embrace this evolution even while knowing I’ll always be the first one to shoot up my hand when asked if I want (expect is a better word) to be sold to a big five publisher in New York. That is my conviction. My work is my conviction. But the specific projects will continue to evolve and improve.
- I learned to ignore discouragement. Life is hard. Being successful at any one thing is hard. Critics and naysayers surround writers like Gen. Santa Ana at the Alamo. I have a pile of declines from agents, publishers, editors for various projects that could drown me if tied to my ankle and dropped with me in the San Francisco Bay. It doesn’t matter. All I need is one: one agent who believes in me, one publisher who takes a chance on me, one moment that launches me. Until those parts come together in divine harmony, I will ignore the discouragement and continue to do what I love: Write.
- Most importantly I learned that I will continue to work on all the various aspects of publishing like platform, and proposals and brand, but nothing matters more than pages of a story that excel. This is my first and foremost goal, passion and focus: a story well told.
The San Francisco Writers Conference was memorable for me because I came away something deeper than knowledge. I came away with resolve.