This year, I bit the financial bullet and decided that with my novel coming out in March, I just had to go to the Write-to-Publish Conference this year (June 3-6) at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Bless Lin Johnson’s soul (she’s the director). She’s been sending me brochures advertising the conferences for years, but I simply never found the finances (or the courage) to take the next step. I know; it’s silly. I’ve been involved in publication work of some kind and publishing short stories and articles for years, but the thought of going to a writers’ conference freaked the fire out of me. Anyhow, God seemed to be prodding me like a little lamb who didn’t want to follow the flock, but I decided to do the right thing after all. Not a fun step (because I’d rather stay cloistered in my north woods office), but definitely a necessary one. Especially this year.
And boy am I glad I went to the conference this year! Where do I start?
The one-one-one meetings with agents and editors made the conference worth every cent. Before I talk about the agents I met, I probably need to briefly explain what agents do and why I feel I need one. Publishing has become more exclusive in recent years. Most publishing houses, even Christian ones, won’t even consider projects (these are called “unsolicited manuscripts”) unless the author has approached them through an agent or met an editor at a conference. (My publishing story for my first novel is an unusual one.) For a 15 percent take on sales, an agent improves writing and book proposals, provides career advice, and looks at contracts and makes sure the author is being treated fairly (advances and royalties). He or she also knows what the various Christian publishers are looking for and can shop the author’s projects to the houses that are the best fit. The long and short is that a career novelist (someone who would like to do more than produce an occasional book) needs to have an agent in today’s world. As a freelance editor who lives on a shoestring budget, I’d love to make a little more money on my advances, though I’ll admit upfront that money is not my chief motivation for writing. But I’d really like to focus on the writing and not have to think about which publisher to approach for which book and what x, y, and z in my contract mean. An agent helps in those areas, too.
I met with three agents: Chip MacGregor (MacGregor Literary), Rachelle Gardner (WordServe Literary), and Diana Flegal (Hartline Literary). I thought I’d be shaking in my boots, but for whatever reason, God kept me mostly cool and collected. I’ll be honest. It is intimidating to sit down with some of these people, considering their credentials and experience. But these agents were warm and sensitive and did a good job at making me feel at ease. I simply talked about Fatal Illusions, described my background to this point, and said that I’m seeking an agent. I offered a free copy of Fatal Illusions and a packet with summaries of future projects. All the agents either accepted the materials at the conference or asked me to mail them later. So what does this mean? I’m not exactly sure other than that I didn’t receive a direct “no,” which you could say is pretty big in my book. Or perhaps they were all being polite and will decline later. We’ll just have to wait and see how the Lord leads. All three of them are impressive in their own ways, and it would be difficult to choose among them.
Other notes worth mentioning? I took along copies of my novel and sold eight. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but I sold more copies than some of the more established authors I met, so I was encouraged. The food at Wheaton College is amazing; I’m certain that I gained weight while I was there, but I hope to lose what I gained now that I’m back to my running routine. While at the conference, I had lunch with Linda Weddle, an editor and friend I knew when I was an editor at Awana Clubs International in Chicago. I also met Suzette Jordan from JourneyForth books (BJU Press). My conference mentor, Dean Williams, met me just outside the auditorium on my first morning and was so helpful in giving me advice and showing me where to go. I met so many folks and made so many new friends—the networking was amazing. On Thursday, I had lunch with Christian novelist Travis Thrasher. I’d previously met Travis online and was thrilled when he invited me to lunch when he had only one meal available. We talked shop and enjoyed getting to know each other beyond the Web. Travis has published eleven novels and is gaining more notice in the CBA. His prolific talent is an inspiration to me. Novelist Mary DeMuth spoke during our evening sessions, and I appreciated her God-centered message and writing encouragement.
The Freelance Career Track class with agent Chip MacGregor was outstanding. Last year, Chip was voted the second highest-rated agent in the country among both secular and religious agents, and you wouldn’t believe this guy’s credentials. The fact that he even spared fifteen minutes to listen to my pitch still makes my jaw drop. I mean, he’s brokered more than 1,000 book deals. (Just read about this guy.) Anyhow, the continuing class with him for four days was chock full of valuable information. I couldn’t write stuff down quickly enough—it was that good. He certainly knows the business, and I walked away knowing lots of things I didn’t know before. I also attended stimulating workshops with Rachelle Gardner and Diana Flegal and walked away inspired and motivated.
I also met with David Long, senior fiction acquisitions editor at Bethany House. (I had previously read the prologue to the Fatal Illusions sequel at one of the evening critique groups he was moderating.) This meeting was a long shot, but I’ve always been interested in Bethany House. Anyhow, he agreed to let me contact him about future projects, so at least I found the open door I was looking for. I also met Jeff Gerke at Marcher Lord Press about a young adult fantasy novel I wrote several years back (he critiqued my first chapter—one of the conference perks), and he invited me to send him a proposal. I’m not sure where all this is going. I can only focus on one novel at a time, and though I enjoy fantasy novels (or “speculative fiction,” as the industry calls it), I may have too many irons in the fire. Several folks have also told me that I need to focus on adult suspense fiction and be sure I communicate a clear “brand” (reflecting what readers expect) before I launch into other genres. I haven’t reached a clear decision in my mind yet (and not everyone seems to agree), so we’ll wait and see and prayerfully consider my options.
The long and short is that the conference was a slam dunk for me. I met some wonderful people who clearly love the Lord. I learned more about the business of writing and networked with several industry professionals and got my name out there. Somehow I found the courage to attend a critique group each evening and read my work aloud twice. Don’t ask me where the courage came from because that sort of thing is not my cup of tea. I guess God did it. I also met with WinePress Publishing and will probably be getting some editing projects from them. Several conferees also expressed interest in my editing services once they learned about my editing experience and background.
How did this conference change me? I know of at least one specific change in my life as a result of the conference. I’ve made a commitment to write each morning from 6-8 a.m. (thank you, Chip MacGregor, for the advice). Please hold me accountable to this schedule. I used to write during the evenings after my regular work, parked in a favorite chair in our living room with my laptop while my daughters watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for like the seventeen time. Not the most conducive environment for productive writing. I definitely need to be more businesslike and disciplined about my writing time.
We’ll see where the writing and opportunities go from here. Am I glad I went? YOU BET! I’m now waiting on the Lord to show me the way, but I’m so glad I took a step of faith, made the financial sacrifice, left my comfort zone, and went to the conference. The benefits appear to be worth every penny. I give God the glory for whatever He chooses to do through this conference.
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