What I learned at the San Francisco Writers Conference: Be True to Thine Self

The 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference was held February 18 – 20, 2011 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. This was my second time attending the event.

Although it was cold and rainy the first two days, the conference itself was, once again, fantastic. It was sold out. Writers from all over the country attended to network with fellow writers, find an agent or a publisher, learn from the many seminars given and/or have independent editors give them feedback and guidance on their work. I myself attended the conference for all of those reasons. My biggest reason, though, was to find an agent.

Mindful of the lessons I learned last year about knowing the market for my work, I prepared for the conference by researching the agents scheduled to participate in the conference's famed “Speed Dating With Agents” event, and by searching for other books similar to the ones I have written (preferably bestsellers) and being able to describe who buys such books.

Since my romance novel has morphed in the editing/rewriting process from being a plain romantic suspense novel to being a romantic legal thriller, I searched Amazon.com for similar novels. To my delight, I found several other romance novels featuring lawyers and judges as heroes and heroines. I even discovered a great series of novels involving an African-American woman attorney as the heroine written by Pamela Samuels-Young. I checked a number of books out of the library for the sake of research and, being the queen of procrastination, found myself reading them when I should have been writing. But I digress.

It was a lot harder for me to find books comparable to my second novel. This is the same book that gave me angst last year when I attended the conference. This novel is about a young African-American woman who is released from prison and is determined to turn her life around – not just for herself, but also for her son. She never told the baby's father that she was pregnant when she went to prison and she kept her mouth shut when they wanted her to testify against him for a deal. But when the state files a petition against him for child support and he retaliates by seeking full custody of their son, she's left with no other choice. To save her son, she'll have to gather evidence that he was the ringleader of the conspiracy of which she was convicted and testify against him. The question is will she live long enough to do that?

One of the great things about the San Francisco Writers Conference is the multitude of opportunities you get to interact with agents and editors alike. One of those opportunities is an activity I participated in last year called “Meet the Pros.” Basically editors from various publishing houses sit at tables of ten with nine writers at a time. Each writer gets an opportunity to pitch their book and then get feedback from the editor. You get to listen to each author's pitch and the feedback they receive.

The last time I did this, I pitched my second novel and was told by an editor that I was writing gritty urban street fiction. I was annoyed at this characterization of my work until I did some research and discovered that, while I was not writing gritty urban street fiction, the book did fall into the category of urban fiction which is really just a euphemism for Black fiction.

When I attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, an agent told me that my second novel would be a lot easier to sell if it was a romance novel. She's right. The problem is that the book is just not a romance novel. Although there is romance (and certainly sex) in the book, it doesn't follow the conventions of a romance novel. And when I try to force it into being a romance novel, it just doesn't work.

Knowing that I wanted to pitch this novel again this year, I searched diligently for comparable novels. The closest thing I could find was gritty urban street fiction, although my novel is not really set in the streets and my characters don't really use the street vernacular you find in such books. I did, however, find romance novels featuring heroes and heroines who had just served prison sentences and were trying to turn their lives around. I decided to pitch the novel as a romance novel and try to force a square peg into a round hole.

I pitched the novel to an editor of a publishing house known for publishing a varied and eclectic mix of novels. She turned to me and said: “Honey, unfortunately, the only people who want to read about Black people getting out of jail are other Black people.” In other words, she was saying that the book would not have mass appeal and that I should target agents and publishing houses that target the African-American reader. At first, I was demoralized. How could I sell this book to agents and editors at the conference if I couldn't make them believe it would have mass appeal?

Knowing that I was participating in Speed Dating for Agents the next day and competing in a pitch contest that night, I went back to my hotel room and got to work on my pitch and in pinpointing the market for my book. With the editor's words ringing in my ears, I finally figured it out. Although I didn't find books exactly like mine, I did find a fiction book on Amazon.com featuring four African-American woman who were the wives, daughters, mothers, etc. of men serving time in prison. The book wasn't set in the streets and was written in English (not slang). According to the site, the people who bought that book also bought books from such bestselling African-American authors as Walter Moseley, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Brenda Jackson. The lightbulb went off. That's how I needed to package my book to the agents I was going to pitch the next day. The African-American market is a large market that is probably hungry for more books featuring African-American characters that don't fall into the realm of gritty urban street fiction. I know I am.

I wrote up a pitch for the book that stayed true to its theme and didn't cast it as a romance novel. That night, I competed in a pitch contest. I beat at least thirty other authors and came in second place. Since the contest was judged by three agents, that bolstered my confidence in my ability to successfully pitch the book to agents the next day. The next morning, however, after waiting in a very long line to get into the room to meet the agents, I panicked and tried to pitch the book as a romance novel to the first agent I approached. She was not interested at all. In retrospect, I can understand why. Because I wasn't true to myself or the book by trying to depict it as a romance novel, neither my passion nor the concept of the book shined through and I was unable to capture the agent's interest.

As I got up to get in line for the next agent I wanted to see, I cursed myself for being a fool. My original pitch had won over more than thirty other authors' pitches the night before. If it wasn't broke then why the heck was I trying to fix it?

I pitched the book to five other agents that morning, each of whom gave me their cards and asked to see the first 50 pages of the book and a synopsis. If they like what they read, then they'll ask to see the rest of the novel. If they like that, then they will offer to represent me.

So, what did I learn from this? The same things I keep learning over and over again. I relate to people best when I am true to myself (as opposed to trying to be someone else). My passion shines through when I am my authentic self. And, as for my second novel, what it is, is what it is, is what it is. And that's just as it should be.


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