J. Michael Gonzalez

My First Writing Convention

*Warning, long post ahead!

I meant to write this some months ago, but life sort of happened, and then—as life is wont to do—kept on happening. But nevertheless, I went to my first writers' convention in August 2018: Writing Workshop SF. I had never gone to such a thing, so I had no idea what to expect. When I signed up, I had two projects in the works: Secrets of Tevithic, and a SciFi novella (we've since shifted to a full novel and abandoned the novella mode) which I've been working on with a collaborative writing partner, Rick (fake name—not sure if he wants to be publicly associated with me :)

When I was looking over the material on the workshop's site, I realized that there were two services they offered along with a handful of classroom sessions that looked interesting. It started early in the morning and lasted all afternoon, so I opted to get a room so I could save myself the hassle of traveling to the venue at the last minute. After some discussion with Rick, I signed up for 3 literary agent feedback sessions with 2 different agents. The site makes it very easy to do, but little did I know how much stress I'd bought myself. I also signed up for 2 review sessions with a fellow author—it seemed like a good idea to get feedback from an objective professional that wrote the same genre of fiction. Friends and family can give a good perspective, but sometimes it's useful to get feedback from someone that isn't emotionally involved with you or your work.

To be clear: I didn't have anything completed. I wanted to test out my pitches on some industry professionals and see how some potential query-letter material might be received.

That's the set up.

I arrived at the hotel late in the afternoon the day before the workshop. Rick wasn't scheduled to show up until later that evening (just before last call, as it happened), so that gave me some time to order my thoughts and do a little research on making a good agent pitch (which I won't go into here—there are many, many resources for that, many of which are highly tailored to your book's audience). I spent much of the afternoon writing pitches for Secrets and for my Unnamed SciFi project. As I worked, I could feel my stress-level building: in less than half a day, I was going to put my ideas before real literary agents, and I was suddenly feeling SUPER freaked out about making a good a impression. It felt as though my life depended on making a good pitch, as if this was my one and only chance to get validation for my ideas: if the format and content weren't perfect, the time spent on my book would be proven worthless.

Side Note: I know better now how it works, but this being my first time, I had no frame of reference, so my anxiety demons were running off the chain. As a general rule, and knowing what I know now—memorizing a pitch is probably not the best way to approach this exercise...and if you're working with a good agent, making a pitch is actually an extremely enjoyable experience, even if it doesn't turn into a deal (which it's not likely to do).

Back to the book report (so to speak).

I finished preparing both pitches, then spent more time honing them, then trying to memorize them so I could make the best use of my time. When Rick arrived, we did a couple of whiskey shots to celebrate our temerity and to celebrate the fact we were actually doing something about our literary aspirations. We reviewed the schedule, then went back to the room to go over our pitches. Rick was trying to craft a pitch for another sci-fi project he'd been working on while I included his feedback into the two pitches I'd already crafted (one of which was for our collaborative sci-fi project).

Some time after midnight, he crashed, but I couldn't get myself to sleep. Instead, I struggled with my pitches, memorizing them, practicing them, pacing back and forth in my room well into the night (and well into the wee hours of the morning), essentially doing everything in my power to stress myself out even more. (It's one of my talents; sue me) When I finally realized I was flaming out, I went to bed, but for the life of me, couldn't sleep; I had maybe a short stint with some very unrestful fear dreams before my alarm was chiming an hour or so later.

I met Rick for a continental breakfast; it was a trip waking up to a lobby full of aspiring writers, hearing some of the conversation, and wishing I had the temerity to insert myself into some of the talk. The resultant energy moving about the lobby was really very cool. Honestly, for the first time, I started to see the other writers in the room as fellow sojourners rather than competitors for limited, dwindling resources. I think that was the point where I made the active decision that I would be relentlessly supportive of other artists; I have the great fortune to have a lucrative skill to fall back on while I build my writing career, but not everyone can say that, and not everyone can make a living and still have as much free time as I do.


As it happened, I drew the early straw. I had so thoroughly freaked myself out, I could hardly breathe. I had to stop and force myself to calm down, to fill my lungs with each breath before I hyperventilated; passing out and/or vomiting on the floor was NOT the way I wanted to start my first agent pitch or my first workshop. I was led into a room with a mish-mash of folding tables, tables adorned with name tags identifying the agent working that seat. There were perhaps 10 or so agents working the room along with a handful of reviewers giving feedback on extended samples, so it was kind of a bizarre experience stampeding into the room with a gaggle of other aspiring writers, then the group of us stopping short as we looked for our speed-meeting partners. I found mine and took a seat.

The moment had arrived; it was now, and the stress could finally find release as I settled in and pitched. Action settled my nerves, as bits and pieces of painstakingly memorized (and mostly forgotten) pitch came back.

I won't name names, but it wasn't a great experience. The agent I met (I'll call her Sally) didn't do adult fiction. I write adult fiction. Not a great start (and a lesson in reading the workshop materials a little more thoroughly in the future). I mentioned that I didn't have a completed work, yet. Sally explained that normally, it's better if you come with a completed, ready-to-go product because agents are running a business: she had cats to feed, and they can't feed themselves on speculation (paraphrasing her words)...but it was my money, my time, so I could use it however I wanted.

Okay. Good to know. I went ahead and gave my pitch, but it was clear it was a miss from the get go.

"120k words is way WAY too long," Sally had interrupted what was basically the first sentence of my spiel. And that was pretty much the end of that. I don't think I gave her my pitch after the opening line, since it was clear that it was a flop. When she started talking about her cats, any doubts I had were erased. It was a pretty weird interview. In the end, when my 10 minutes were up, she asked me if I could walk out with a sad face, as if she'd let me down really hard. She said something about making an impression on the other agents in the room. I started to laugh, thinking she was joking.

She wasn't joking.


I put on my best "Wow, I can't believe how disappointing that was" face and walked out.

I'll skip over most of the sessions I sat in on; I was so exhausted and stressed out, I didn't absorb much. I think I went back to the room and slept for a couple of hours. Rick was better off, and his notes reflected that.

My next meeting was with Lisa Abellera, once again pitching Secrets. I was more exhausted than stressed at this point, but my anxiety demons weren't quite so willing to step back. I won't give a play by play, but I explained that I didn't have a finished product yet. Lisa just smiled, saying it was my time and that she was here for me in whatever way she could help. That set the tone for the rest of our conversation. With that calming bit of feedback, I launched into Secrets. She just sat, eyes closed, completely focused on my words. Her feedback was immediate and useful: The set up was interesting, but the main character lacked agency—too much was being done to her and not enough being done by her.

We discussed this some, then spoke about book lengths; she was emphatic that for adult fantasy (her wheelhouse as a literary agent), 120k words is pretty close to ideal. She also had a couple of books that she suggested might be worth reading, and then explained why it's important to be able to name a book that's similar to the one you're pitching—it's a marketing calculation: if your book is reaching the same audience as book X then she can make an educated guess about its profitability. It's not (as I had thought) an exercise in comparative content or writing style. That surprised me, but in retrospect it made a lot of sense.

We ended our conversation with me explaining that I'd be seeing her again in about an hour to pitch a different project. She smiled, seeming genuinely enthusiastic that we'd get another chance to talk, giving me feedback even as I backed out of the room. She was so pleasant, helpful, and encouraging it made it all worthwhile.

If I ever land an agent, Lisa seems pretty close to the ideal.

I met up with Rick in the main meeting room where perhaps half or a third of the workshop participants had gathered. We had opted to submit the first page of our sci-fi novella to a panel of literary agents for a public reading, followed by a panel discussion of the prose. It was all anonymous, but it was interesting listening to them; much of their feedback was genuinely helpful, some of it was indifferent, some of the feedback was downright savage. Rick had to go do his pitch session for his own project, but our work came up while I was there and he was gone.

And let me tell you...it was fucking brutal. Rick and I had traded off writing bits of the first scene, but I think it was my bit that started the ball rolling. Which means I took panel discussion right on the chin.

"Overwritten" "Confusing" "No tension" "lots of splinters"

It was an action scene, so those all hit pretty squarely. Some of the feedback was pretty stupid, feeling as though the agents in question were reviewing something that was *far* outside of their respective wheelhouses, making it difficult for them to find meaningful things to say.

But a lot of their feedback was good...though it took a couple weeks find all the tiny little shards of my pride and my ego and glue them back together so I could put their feedback to use. I will say that the panel of agents were graceful, complimenting and thanking all those that submitted their first pages. They tried very very hard to get through all the submissions: they definitely took the responsibility seriously.

I was crashing a little bit at the point, but we had one last meeting with Lisa which maybe I'll elucidate upon in a later post, and then two meetings with Caitlin Seal for feedback. Caitlin was awesome. She had some fantastic feedback about Secrets; her feedback was SUPER insightful and though she didn't hold back her criticism, she didn't hold back her positive feedback either. Honestly, even though she only reviewed 10 pages of Secrets, I feel like the resultant work is going to be MUCH stronger as a result!

Time well spent!

Rick and I met Caitlin together (my sessions with her were almost back to back) to discuss our sci-fi project (the one which the panel of agents had just dissected); her view was that the agents were almost all very poor fits for what we were writing, and that she didn't share any of their confusion (though she did support some of their other critique). Overall, it was another incredibly helpful session, and Rick and I both felt greatly vindicated after that meeting. It softened the panel's feedback, but also made it easier to admit the flaws the panel pointed out.

Don't get me wrong, I will absolutely submit pages anonymously to public panels again; but they tend to egg each other on if they don't like something, which can make for a challenging experience, so if you ever do it (which I *highly recommend*) come prepared for some brutal love.

We bailed shortly after our last meeting with Caitlin, heading back downtown to get some lunch and to decompress.

So that was my first writing workshop. I look forward to going back, perhaps with a completed copy of Secrets, ideally with at least one round of content editing.

Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, but it took a little while to get back on my feet and get back to work.