It started off with a deep cut sliced into the pad of my index finger. I dropped the scissors put pressure on the wound. By the time I made it to the bathroom, sticky red blood coated my hand. I washed. The soap and water stung, pink-tinged suds sliding down the porcelain sink into the drain. Luckily, the scissor blade had caught my flesh at an angle, not straight on. A flap of skin hung on at one end. I didn’t need stitches (a blessing as I had no time for a doctor). The conference, for which I’d spent month preparing, started in two hours!
There’s something about writing conferences, or perhaps it’s just my personality, that likens the experience to a roller coaster. One minute, I’m soaring. The next, plummeting. I had an amazing time at this years Las Vegas Writer’s Conference, but the laceration on my finger was but the first of many wounds.
First came a pleasant experience. I picked Before Copy Editing as my first class and headed into the meeting room. Claudia Suzanne, the presenter, began the class talking about ghost writing. I slumped in my chair and threw a backwards glance at the door. Could I sneak out without causing too much disturbance and join another class? I wanted to learn about editing, not ghost writing. But just when I closed my notebook and began to gather up my pens (black, blue, and a yellow highlighter in parallel alignment at the edge of desk), her seemingly irrelevant oration veered on topic. For the next 90 minutes, I couldn’t write fast enough. The ride had begun and my boxcar careened upwards, the world a vivid watercolor below.
The next day, my finger bandaged and my spirits soaring, I had my first pitch—ten minutes to convince an editor or agent my new book, Learn Away the Indian, was the manuscript of their dreams. Jeff Kleinman, founder of Folio Literary Management, and agent of recent Pulitzer finalist, The Snow Child, sat waiting for me. Be confident, I told myself, not sycophantic.
After introductions, I launched into my pitch. “Learn Away the Indian is a 91,000 word work of historical fiction about…”
As I spoke, he skimmed a copy of my first page, looking up occasionally, his brown eyes intense but interested. Then came the punch. He liked the premise of the story, but the writing concerned him—too “down-market” for his tastes. I struggled for breath and kept listening. He said it could be literary and pointed to one line of my work he particularly liked. But then, to make his point, he underlined several other sentences that were clunky and artless in construction. He gave me his email and said I could send him a few chapters, with unspoken implication that unless I improved my writing, he’d ultimately pass.
Ouch! My rickety boxcar had fallen, jostling low amid the bowels of the ride, peeling white scaffolding around me like a web.
Later that day, several more agents weighted in on my first page during a lunch-time panel. They made it less than three paragraphs before dismissing the work as unclear and having too much description.
I had reached my nadir.
But, thankfully, the ride was not over. I attended several other great classes, including one taught by Mr. Kleinman. At the end of the final day, I pitched to Peter Joseph, an editor at St. Martin’s Press. He liked my pitch so well he asked me to email him the complete manuscript!
Up and down. Down some more and up again. That’s how my weekend at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference unfolded. In the end, I learned a ton, not just from the classes, but from my interactions with other attendees and conference faculty. My opening paragraphs do have too much description and my work is not the quality of literary fiction. But Jeff Kleinman is right—it could be. And with a lot of work and a little luck it will be.