A Great PNWA Conference Was Had

I know it’s cliche, but what a difference a year makes! When I attended the annual PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association) writer’s conference last summer, I did so not knowing anyone, unaware of the literary contest, and eons away from telling an agent about my book.

This go-around, I could hardly walk into a room or down a hallway without seeing a familiar face, being asked how Tailwinds Past Florence was coming, or being wished good luck in the contest. Sure, the Finalist ribbon dangling from my name badge helped with the latter, but what a treat it was to recognize so many people from last year, put Twitter profiles and personalities together, and feed off one another’s energy.

Yes, I even chatted with the woman whose car I rear-ended last summer. And yes, I even used the horribly corny line “we’ve got to stop running into one another like this,” as an ice-breaker. I then offered to abide a 50-foot buffer if she felt safer that way.

Conference Buddies

I spent much of the time between panels and pitch sessions hanging out with my outstanding critique partner Sandra. While only one member of my critique group was there all four days, along with fellow-finalist Jeff for the awards banquet on Saturday, I certainly expanded the circle of my tribe last week.

What a treat it was to drink and dine and chat with writer/presenters William Kenower, Gerri Russell, and Lindsay Schopfer; to befriend dozens of dedicated writers who, just like me, are taking the steps necessary to follow through on a dream. A lifelong one in many instances. And to collect personalized autographed copies from Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), the incredible keynote speaker, Natalie Baszile (Queen Sugar), and the eventual winner of the Nancy Pearl award, Lori Tobias (Wander).

Perhaps the biggest difference this year was that I know nearly all of the PNWA staff. And what a wonderful collection of people to volunteer alongside. I don’t know what I did to deserve the volume of support and encouragement the folks at PNWA funnel my way, but it certainly makes a guy feel welcome.

Pitch Session Intrigue

Unlike last year, my conference this time around was all about pitching. I spent the days leading up to the conference researching the agents and editors in attendance, trying to figure out which of the dozens of names would be most appropriate for me to pitch to. And, of course, perfecting my pitch.

Pitch sessions are essentially speed dating, something this husband of twenty years has no experience in. For those who are equally unfamiliar with the concept, allow me to explain. Authors funnel into a room, sixty or so at a time, and line up in front of the agents we want to pitch to next. Some twenty lines form behind a blue piece of tape. Steps ahead, the twenty corresponding agents sit behind a ballroom-length table, arm’s reach from another. Authors take their seat and launch into it, each trying to be heard over the cacophony.

Four minutes isn’t a lot of time to introduce yourself, your book, and hopefully answer and ask some questions. But it’s doable.

I attended a pitch practice session on Thursday and received both praise and some helpful advice on how to tighten my pitch and avoid a touch of confusion from my introduction. It helped.

I woke at 4 a.m. Friday morning, excited, reworking my pitch in my head.

Two o’clock came and it was on. I had seven agents and one editor that I wanted to focus on. Impossible in a single ninety-minute session. Fortunately, my early-bird registration earned me a second pitch block at four o’clock. I was nervous at first, but the agents are just people (so they say!) and it ultimately went well, a brief stumble aside.

“Here’s my card, send me the first fifty pages.”

Those are the words everyone wants to hear.

I heard some form of it seven times. The one agent to pass on account of having zero tolerance for anything magical/fantastical (my novel has a time-travel element) referred me to two members of her agency who might be interested.

In other words, I was effectively eight for eight.

Deep breath. Fist pump. Drinks are on me!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the concerns nearly every agent had. Tailwinds Past Florence, they said, sounds very interesting. It’s original. They love the experience I bring to it, but it’s an ambitious concept for a debut author, especially since I’m dealing with multiple points-of-view and a non-linear timeline.

Fortunately, I’m quick on my feet and explained that my antagonist, Alessio, has his introductory scene in Chapter 3. Hint, hint.

“Excellent. Send the first three chapters so I can see how you handle the POV shift.”

Or some version of that. Rinse. Repeat. Just as I hoped.

And, to be perfectly honest, I love this challenge. It is a complex plot, but I do feel I’m up to it, else I wouldn’t have been pitching. I hope they agree.

And the PNWA Contest Winners Are

After a rather triumphant Friday spent pitching agents (and an editor from St. Martin’s Press who also requested a submission), I returned on Saturday to spend the day moderating panels. My wife Kristin joined me in time for drinks and the awards banquet. Despite being allowed into the ballroom early, and provided with reserved seating, we still ended up sitting far off in the corner.

The prime seating filled in while Kristin and I spent twenty minutes chatting with one of the agents I pitched to. I didn’t mind. At all.

The PNWA Literary Contest, as I explained in an earlier post, had a dozen categories, each with eight finalists. The Mainstream category was first and I didn’t have long to wait to see if I was a winner.

Mine was the first name called: Third place in Mainstream.

Yes, that’s right, the novel born on the slopes of the Pyrenees has won its first award!

At this point I should probably define what the Mainstream category is. It’s a catch-all for books that don’t fit into a tidy genre (i.e. Romance, Mystery, Fantasy, etc.). It’s for books that, ultimately, blend conventions of different genres and aim for a higher quality of prose (which isn’t to say genre books aren’t well-written). Some would call it Literary. I consider it the upmarket commercial fiction that I enjoy reading. Perhaps a better explanation is to say that character development is as much, if not more important than plot.

But what a treat it was to be the very first name called. I was able to spend the entire dinner free from the stress of wondering if I was a winner, content to sit back and clap for the other names called.

Tailwinds Past Florence

After dinner, the award winners were invited along with the agents and editors to a cocktail reception in the courtyard. There I mingled over a drink and got to better know the agents I pitched to, along with others. Several more invited me to submit. Here’s my card, send me fifty pages. I’ll never tire of those words. And then the party moved upstairs, to a penthouse suite at the hotel. And two more agents who I talked with asked for those same fifty pages. One, I should mention, wasn’t even attending the pitch sessions. But when you’ve inked million-dollar contracts for your clients, you probably don’t have to.

A Reading From the WIP of Doug

Contest winners were invited to read from their entry the following morning, as one of the final sessions on the conference calendar. I was reluctant to do this, but attended anyway. I couldn’t be happier that I did.

While the room only had forty or fifty people in it, most of them finalists and prize winners, it was a real treat to stand up before a room and read the opening of my novel. But perhaps not why you think.

Each and every author who read impressed me, from Jodi Freeman, the winner of the Mainstream category to Bruce Funkhouser, the runner-up in Mystery/Thriller and so many others. I was in awe of my fellow winners and finalists. It’s easy, perhaps human nature, to doubt the caliber of company we keep when we find quick success. I know I certainly wondered exactly how good the others were if I could find myself on the stage on my very first attempt.

I wonder that no more. Though it was certainly a treat to have a line from my reading recited back to me after the panel ended, the real treat was simply knowing that this contest was no joke. That the people who entered — and won — were very talented, their entries polished, their writing voices clear and strong.

It was a successful conference for me, by any standard. But the one element that had me feeling as if this writing thing might truly, honestly be within my grasp, was that the contest readers and agent who judged the category saw my writing worthy of being included with the others.

If we are truly judged by the company we keep, I’m doing pretty well for myself. Because what the other winners read was nothing short of excellent. I can only hope they felt the same about mine.

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