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5 Things I learned at the Atlanta Writers Day Workshop:

Today, I attended the Atlanta Writers Day Workshop. Let me just say, “Wow! I am overwhelmed- but in the best way possible.” I made some new connections with writers and others in the publishing industry. Listened to expert advice on how to publish, hone my craft, build my platform, write a query letter- and much more. Pitched to two literary agents Diana Flegal and Ali Herring. Even bought this book on writing contemporary fiction.

It was an amazing day- made the 20 hours of driving well worth it. Here are some lessons I learned.

1) A good roasting is the beginning of a better beginning.

So, there was this session where writers could anonymously submit the 1st page of their manuscripts. These were read aloud at random and critiqued by a panel of judges- all in front of an audience. Of course, I hoped mine would be selected and read and everyone would stand up and clap and I’d sign a contract before I walked away from the workshop. (Ok, so I’m not that disillusioned, but a girl can dream, right?)

Let me just say, that did NOT happen. There was a built-in stop-reading which would activate as soon as three judges raised their hands when they were no longer interested in the 1st page being read. So, to my excitement, my first page was selected. However, before the 1st paragraph of my 1st page was read, numerous agents had raised their hands… ok, like pretty much all of them.

The criticism felt harsh. I listened, making notes and trying to act like I had no clue who the crazy person was who would mention a nameless whore in the 1st paragraph of her story, or write about a drunken man staggering down the thoroughfare, or use the cliche scoundrel. I’m over there with my head down like, “Geez, smutty writer (whoever you are). Why would you do all that junk?”

Anyway, by the time their roasting was finished, I was pretty sure I would never get a contract with a reputable publishing agency of any kind… ever… in my lifetime…

But… as I sat there and listened to them critique the other 1st pages, I kept an open mind and things started formulating and I began thinking, “I’m getting a very rare opportunity to hear what agents are wanting. And I can make these changes. I can rewrite the 1st page (and 1st chapter) and make it better- much better!” So, although I didn’t leave with a contract in hand, I left with some extremely helpful (and hard-to-get) feedback which will exponentially improve my craft from here forward.

(And, to be fair to myself, my novel is not smutty, nor am I discriminatory against women, as I think one of the panelists may have believed (to be fair- she did not know the author was a woman). The opening scene was meant to show irony- but I discovered it did not come across in the way I intended.)

2) Self-published books are a deal breaker for traditional publishers.

Nine years ago, I went to my first writer’s conference. There, I learned that self-publishing was like getting leprosy in Bible times- the culprit for a slow, alienating death. However, a few years later, Amazon (and other independent publishers) developed a treatment for self-publishing, and the long-feared fatal disease became less scary (at least, more like the chickenpox). As time went on, more and more writers went this direction and some even had great success. So, when the time came to publish, I went the self-publishing route as well. Now, I had hoped my books would enjoy the same Cinderella story as some of its self-published predecessors, but that didn’t happen.

So, I looked at my options. 1) Stay self-published. 2) Pitch Bord to agents.

Since I’d like to be with a traditional publisher, I tried option 2. Today, I discovered that what seemed to me like a logical next step towards that goal is not exactly true. The hard truth- traditional publishers will not pick up self-published books unless they become wildly popular. And, ironically, if your self-published book becomes wildly popular, you must be doing something right and you might as well stay self-published and keep all the profits to yourself. Oh, well. That’s good advice and I can focus on option 1 again. And pitch my next book to an agent istead of self-publishing. Another lesson learned.

3) The best time to build my platform was yesterday.

So, I already knew this and I’ve been working on building my platform since that first writing conference in 2010. BUT it was a good reminder and I learned some awesome, super helpful tips on how to build- and maintain- my platform from Brian Klems, who is literally a beast at this and a very funny guy. After the session and a brief chat with him, I know I’ll be better able to put my focus where focus is most needed.

4) One agent’s opinion is not another agent’s opinion.

Back to the panel of judges. The most interesting thing about their critique for me was when the agents’ opinions on a 1st page opposed one another. Why does one like one 1st page while another hates it? Who knows? Even they didn’t know. But c’est la vie. It is what it is. And what it is is a subjective industry. Which is ok, actually, because if one agent doesn’t like your work, another will. Which leads to my next point.

5) This is a darn hard industry to break into.

So, you had better have tough skin and unbreakable determination. Some writers receive dozens, if not hundreds (or thousands), of rejections, criticisms, bad reviews, lost followers. It’s inevitable. Get used to it. Most writers won’t become well-known or even sell 10,000 books in their lifetime. And that’s ok. God (and your proud momma) still likes you and that’s what matters most…

But on the flip side of this are some of the most talented and well-loved writers in the world. They are the ones who sell millions of copies and, as I learned today, keep the publishing industry afloat when other authors’ books tank. So, I salute you, authors who’ve made it into the boat. The rest of us are just trying to keep our necks above the choppy waters of publishing but you’ve made it and, for that, you should be applauded.

BONUS— Like those very well-known authors, there are some amazingly talented, extremely kindhearted people in this industry who are sitting in those boats with their arms outstretched. Those agents, authors, editors- and other people with various titles- are calling commands to those of us in the water, telling us how to swim to the boat. We hope to be in the boat with you someday. Until then, we will look at you and marvel at your accomplishments and glean from your knowledge.

All in all, I was so blessed to get to attend this workshop. The information was invaluable. Hopefully, I’ll one day be able to pay it forward, too!

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