The 5th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference – Day Two

September 18, 2013, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Day Two

To read about Day One, click here!

8:30 am:

Bestselling Author Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann, Author

Day Two began with introductory remarks by New York Times bestselling author Lisa McMann.

Lisa is the author of the WAKE Trilogy, the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, and other books with tween and teen characters. She talked about her road to publishing success. She spoke of the joys of balancing a writing career with her life as a wife and mother.

She also spoke of the abuse she faced after becoming an author, such as bad reviews and hateful “fan” mail.

9:45 am:

The First Ten Lines Critique Session

Conference participants (including me) could submit the first ten lines of their manuscript (anonymously, thank goodness) for professional – and public – critique.  The critiquing panel consisted of the three visiting agents – Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle, as well as author Lisa McMann.

Here are a few pointers about submitting to agents:

  • Number one rule for all agents is  FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Agents are looking for reasons to say “NO,” and incorrect formatting, misspelling the agent’s name, sending attachment when explicitly told not to send attachments are all reason to instantly reject a query letter and sample.
  • Grammar is important. Hire a proofreader, especially if grammar is your weak point.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Make sure your verbs carry the emotional weight of the story. Stay away from adjectives and adverbs.
  • Avoid lengthy italics. An overuse of italics in a manuscript looks amateurish and is a symptom of unpreparedness.
  • Vary short and long sentences to create tension for the reader.
  • Don’t quote unknown or obscure books. This pulls the reader out of story.

11:00 am:   

Getting Ready for My Very First Pitch to a Literary Agent (Yippee!)

The Hampton Roads Writers Conference offered the opportunity to meet with one of the three visiting literary agents and present a ten-minute pitch. I jumped at the chance. This would be the first time I’d ever met with a real-live literary agent, and obviously, the first time I’d pitched my manuscript. Yes, I’d written query letters and attended agent roundtables at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but this was my first sit-down, face to face meeting. I was meeting with Ethan Vaughan of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I had only ten minutes with Mr. Vaughan, beginning at 11:15 am., but I was ready.

. . . Or, at least I thought I was ready before I’d attended Chantelle Osman’s Perfecting Your Pitch session  (See day one.).  According to Ms. Osman, I’d done several things wrong. I’d written my pitch (and even made a copy for the agent.  Talk about being overwritten!)  I’d practiced my pitch until I could recite it in my sleep, and I’d even timed it perfectly. If I didn’t pause, it would take eight of my ten minutes, leaving me two minutes for questions and answers.

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Ms. Osman explicitly said that pitches shouldn’t sound rehearsed.  Oh well, too late to change it now.

I arrived at the small conference room on the second floor of the Westin Hotel early. One table, two chairs. Mr. Vaughan wasn’t there yet. No one was there. I was his first pitch of the conference. Was that a good omen or bad? The timekeeper – the man who’d tell me when my ten minutes were up – arrived.  He told me I could take a seat but I declined. I wanted Mr. Vaughan to choose which seat he wanted first, and then I’d take the other. I didn’t want to do anything to make him feel uncomfortable. (I felt uncomfortable enough for the both of us. )

Waiting, waiting - photo of a clockface

Waiting, waiting

I watched the clock. 11:00… 11:05… 11:10. I paced the hallway outside the conference room, practicing my new Tai Chi moves. Part the wild horse mane, white crane spreads its wings, needle at sea bottom. 11:12. . . . 11:13. I could hear people coming down the hallway, talking. 11:14  . . . 11:15. I hurried back to the room, notebook with the copies of my pitch in hand, big smile on my face.

Introductions

I eagerly shook Mr. Vaughan’s hand and told him how impressed I was with his literary agency, Kimberley Cameron & Associates, their book list, and their well-known dedication to their authors. Mr. Vaughan enthused about Ms. Cameron’s devotion to her agents and her clients, which I found both heartwarming and endearing.

photo of Ethan Vaughan

Ethan Vaughan, Literary Agent

I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes left! No time for small talk. I plunged in. I read my pitch as fast as I could. Head down, monotone, my mind blank.  AND I MEAN BLANK!

If you’d asked me at that moment what my book was about – the book that I’ve worked on for years, the book I’ve dedicated my life to, the book I’ve dreamed about, the book I’ve given up being with family for — if you’d asked me at that moment, I couldn’t have told you who the main characters were, let alone the plot. I was as stiff as a robot.

I looked up to take a breath and knew I’d made a mistake. My pitch was too long and too detailed.  I’d given him more of a synopsis than a pitch. Mr. Vaughan was very kind. He asked questions and I tried to answer. I told him this was my first pitch ever and I was very nervous. He says I did a good job (proof that literary agents do indeed tell lies) and gave me a few suggestion for the “next time” I pitched to an agent.

I left knowing I wouldn’t get a contract but proud of myself for giving it a shot. I’d met many writers who were too shy to pitch their stories, or too afraid. I was shy and afraid, too, but I learned something very valuable in the process. Mr. Vaughan was polite, considerate and helpful. He gave me suggestions for the next time I pitch my  story, which was a very generous gift, indeed.

— Carolyn O’Neal

Carolyn O’Neal is a co-founder of BACCA Literary

Hampton Roads Writers Fifth Annual Conference

Carolyn O'Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

Carolyn O’Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

DAY ONE:

It’s a three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Virginia Beach, unless you hit Navy traffic. Then it could take weeks. I was careful.  I left C’Ville at noon on Thursday, Sept 19th so I wouldn’t get caught in the 5:00 rush.   I wasn’t heading to Virginia Beach for a late summer tan or a fishing trip in the Atlantic. I was going to Virginia Beach to attend the Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference. It ran Thursday, Sept. 19th through Saturday, Sept. 21st. The organization describes itself like this:

Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) is a nonprofit, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based group of professional and aspiring writers, friends, and supporters of the arts who have joined together to promote the craft and passion of writing and the love of reading and literature in Virginia. We aim to encourage readers and writers of all ages and talents, as well as acknowledge and celebrate awareness of local and contemporary authors and their work. We serve as a resource to our community by creating and supporting literary events throughout the Hampton Roads area.


I signed up the minute I discovered I could pitch my novel to a real, live literary agent who represented my genre. Ten-minutes, one-on-one pitch session. I was excited to get on the road. I grew up in Norfolk so driving through Norfolk to Virginia Beach packed an emotional punch: The tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay, the condos thrown up as soon as Norfolk tore down the old Ocean View Amusement Park.

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

I drove by my old elementary school and my parents’ house. I noted the new front porch and a beat up pickup truck parked in the driveway. Mom and Dad never would have let their car look like that. I considered visiting their gravesites but this wasn’t the time to wallow in the past. This was the time to get ready for the future.

The Westin Hotel in Virginia Beach was a great choice for the Conference.

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

Clean and friendly, plus the Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) Conference attendees received a reduced rate. As I checked in, I was greeted by a familiar face, Cliff Garstang from SWAG. Cliff was preparing for his first presentation that evening. I don’t remember when or how I heard about the HRW Conference. Probably from Cliff.

Since I was going to the conference mostly to pitch my story, I had e-mailed HRW earlier asking about their refund policy. Lauran Strait, the President of HRW, was great. Her responses were timely and polite. She told me the formal refund policy:

Registration fully refundable until July 26, 2013; from July 27 to Aug 23, 2013 all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $25.00; from Aug 24 to Sept 11, all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $50.00; after September 11, no refunds will be issued.

I let her know that I was driving three hours to Virginia Beach from Charlottesville and had to book a hotel room for two nights. Lauran understood the effort and expense so she added a special caveat.  If the agent I was going to see canceled at the last minute, I would still receive a full refund. Not only that, she also made sure I was on schedule with my submissions. I’d signed up for a couple of events that required submissions, including a “First Ten Lines Critique Session” and an optional (fee-based) 10-page manuscript evaluation by agent Dawn Dowdle. Lauran even sent e-mail  reminders of when the submissions were due.

After settling into my hotel room, I went to register for the conference. I was given an impressive agenda:

Kevin Maurer, award-winning reporter and New York Times bestselling co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, and Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of the WAKE Trilogy , the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, will deliver keynote addresses. Other presenters included fiction writers Clifford Garstang, Lydia Netzer, Jeff Andrews, andChantelle Aimée Osman,  author and Certified Public Accountant Jack Downs, poet Jeanne Larsen, and agents Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle.

Chantelle Osmam, President and Owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment

Chantelle Osmam

I attended my first breakout session Thursday evening, 6:30 – 8:00 PM on the topic of PERFECTING YOUR PITCH, presented by Chantelle Aimée Osman, owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment..

Chantelle was exhausted. She’d just arrived in Virginia after a murderous flight from Arizona. After a couple sips of coffee, she began.

Start with your Teaser Pitch.

Give the genre and 2-3 sentences that provide the agent with the basic idea of your novel. Avoid generic statements. Chantelle used the Wizard of Oz to illustrate a Teaser Pitch:

After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.

Next, give the agent your Expanded Pitch.

Tell the story in an organized fashion.  Add details, avoid backstory.  Highlight heroes, goals, conflict, risk, pivotal elements, turning points, and the end.

Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. Through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland.  There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home.  So she sets off on a dangerous journey.  Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion.   And they travel with her.  However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends  …   (Oz pitches courtesy of Christopher Lockhart.)

Chantelle leaned in close and looked us in the eyes.

“Pitches sell you, not just your writing.”

  • If you don’t appear passionate and excited about your own work, no one else will be. You’re starting a business relationship, so be professionals. Dress appropriately (generally just slightly more casual than the person you’re pitching). Be respectful, appear open to ideas and suggestions. Be flexible. The person you’re pitching to has more experience in the industry, and can help.
  • Practice, but don’t sound rehearsed. Comedy pitches should be funny, thriller pitches should have suspense. Switch up words each time to be spontaneous. Be specific, avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Watch your audience; if they appear bored, change tactic. Be prepared to start and stop for questions or other interruptions. If you fumble, recover. Provide verbal milestones to orient the listener  (“at the midpoint” or “in the final scene”.)
  • Avoid overselling, comparisons, describing every side plot and each character’s backstory, disagreeing.
  • Make sure you have a professional synopsis and other information to leave behind ask ab out how to follow up.
  • When e-mailing the agent, be sure to put where you met in the subject line.  For example, ‘Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013.’”

Rules of Synopsis:

A literary synopsis is a condensed statement that  conveys the narrative arc of your  manuscript.  A synopsis shows major characters and events, from beginning to end.

  • Begin at the beginning, end at the end.
  • Break it down into 12 beats. Act 1 (3 segments), Act 2 (6 segments), Act 3 (3 segments)
  • Highlight on main characters
  • Use attention getting/action words. This is not just a recitation of facts.
  • Use 3rd person, present tense
  • Tell entire story, avoid cliffhangers.
  • Have synopsis read by people who haven’t read book and don’t know story. Can they understand plot and main characters?
  • Use normal font, e.g. Times New Roman. Nothing unusual.

That was day one.  Watch for future blog posts to learn about day two’s agenda events, how I pitched my novel, and what I learned from the conference.

Logo for Hampton Roads Writers

Carolyn O’Neal