Monday, October 18, 2010

Boston Book Festival 2010

My first concern when I stepped off the train was, "How are the outdoor booths going to survive in this brutal wind?" But they did because they were surrounded on three sides by white tarp. Just the first example of the superstar planning that went into this event. (link to the site here)


I arrived just before noon and went directly to the Writer Idol session. The description of the session on the site is:

In this freewheeling session, a professional actor will perform the first page of YOUR unpublished manuscript for the audience and a panel of four judges, including Esmond Harmsworth, Sorche Fairbank, Ann Collette and Caroline Zimmerman, all agents and/or editors with years of experience reading unsolicited submissions.

And yes, even though I have an agent, I submitted a page. Why? Well, this is a page of something old I'm trying to edit. Before I send things out, I like to get them into the best shape possible. I figured I would take advantage of the free professional critique, hear how someone else interpreted my writing in a reading, and listen to the critique of the other works.

The process went as follows: the actor randomly selected a page and read it. When he reached a point where an agent would stop reading, he or she would raise his or her hand. Once two hands were raised, the submission was rejected and then the agents gave their reasons why.

The take away. Of the fifty or so pages read, not one made it through without at least one hand. Only three made it to the final. So always query widely because you WILL get rejected by someone.

Comments on Fiction and YA fiction
The biggest problem in the pieces read was too much description or backstory and not enough action. The agents said this can be fixed with heavy-handed editing. You can't be afraid of cutting segments or moving them to later chapters if you want to get published. Also, trust your reader. They can figure things out.

My piece was the opposite. Too much action and the agents didn't care about my character. This can also be fixed. I have to put more in. There was also a part that didn't come across the way I intended, so I need to correct that as well. I have to say it was really helpful to hear someone else read my piece. It gave me a lot of insight into how I want to change my pacing and sentence structure.

Interestingly enough, two of the three pieces that made it to the end were YA fiction pieces, and I think this is because YA writers are more accustomed to the marriage of character and action. The piece that won was an adult mystery that did a great job of blending humor with action. The panel did comment that if this particular piece continued with heavy humor though, it may be too much.

Comments on Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction
There were more of these types of submissions. I admit, I don't read a lot of non-fiction nor do I write it, so I will only relay what the panel said about it. (warning: it wasn't really positive)

Memoir: For the first time I heard the term ME-moir. If you are writing memoir, you need to make your story relatable to others. No one wants to read your personal history...unless, and I quote from one the agents, "You're famous or an extremely talented author, which never happens." (ouch) The other case is if you are writing a medical book (or similar) and happen to be famous in that field, or have a well-established list of credentials.

The other comments were that dating books are overdone, as well as personal journeys through medical illness.

None of this means you shouldn't write it! It just means you'll have a REALLY hard time getting published if you do.


Next, we tried to attend Home & Away with authors Bill Bryson and Tony Hiss. The line stretched about two blocks outside of the theatre after it was already filled. And they say the printed book is dead. I beg to differ.

So instead, we went to Talking about Justice with Nobel Prize-winner, Amartya San, Michael Sandel and Dambisa Moyo. Again, I'm not a big reader of non-fiction, especially politcal non-fiction, but since I had dragged my friend to Writer Idol, I had to make a compromise. If I can get him to weigh in on his thoughts, I will post them here later. As for me, I did manage to stay awake and learned a thing or two.


The last session of the day I went to was, It Books: YA Writers Discuss What’s Hot. (Also packed, I had to stand outside the doors along with fifty other people)

An all-star group of bestselling writers get together to discuss what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to YA fiction. Francisco Stork, author of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors shares the stage with Kathryn Lasky, celebrated author of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, now a major motion picture, Harvard sophomore and writing phenom Noni Carter, author of Good Fortune, and Kristin Cashore, bestselling author of American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults Graceling and Fire.

I am going to get my complaint out of the way first. (And this has nothing to do with the presenters) A better title for the session would have been: YA, What I Wrote and How I Wrote It. Everytime I attend a session called, "What's Hot..." or "Publishing Trends..." I hear the same thing: "You must write the book that needs to be written." So, if you go to one of these sessions, don't expect to take away some profound inside industry information because you're not going to get it.

Of course, they did have some interesting things to say about their writing process. Kristin Cashore admitted she writes her novels by hand and that she usually goes through about four revisions and then copy edit revisions before a book is done. I also loved her quote, "When a writer tells you what they wrote is crap, they're not trying to be modest or humble. It really is crap. It's all of the editing that makes it good."

Those may not be her exact words, as I'm going off memory, but that's the basic idea. It was really good to know that even NYT bestsellers start with the same crap we do.

Will I go again next year? Yes, but I will be very selective about the sessions I attend and make sure I get to them early.

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