Monthly Archives: June 2009

Pitching Our Stories: Notes from a writers’ conference

M. Jane Ross

Just home from the annual Writers' League of Texas Agents Conference—a weekend of intense listening, learning, getting to know some warm-hearted and talented Texan writers, meeting agents, and pitching stories. In a detour from my usual topic of food, I wanted to share my takeaways (the non-edible kind) from the weekend. Three key points rose to the top in the ocean of information that was the conference.

The state of the publishing industry

In two words: upheaval and distress! Publishers, and by extension agents and writers, have been badly affected by the recession. Book buyers simply have less money to spend. And beyond that, corporatization and consolidation in bookselling and trade publishing as well as huge transitions in the way we all read, how and where we buy books, and the kinds of books we are buying have thrown the book business into disarray.

Until recently, big-name publishers were very willing to invest in mid-list titles, books by unknown authors that were likely to sell “only” in the tens of thousands of copies. Now, those same publishers are looking primarily for front-list titles (blockbuster books by high profile authors, likely to sell hundreds of thousands of copies) or back-list titles (books that are likely to develop a required-reading quality in some area of the market and to become automatic re-orders at Barnes and Noble over many years). So where does that leave the memoir writer and the typical SCN author? 

Jane (r) with new conference friends Stacey Jensen & Ned Bailey

The market for memoir

Alas memoir writers’ prospects in New
York trade publishing are not promising, unless the story has both
exceptional writing —“sparkling” was the word used by several
agents—and a unique angle. Agent Jim Hornfischer gave the example
of an author he had agreed to represent as a result of pitch session at
a writers conference. The author worked as a volunteer in canine search
and rescue. Her story was a memoir about the work she did with her dog,
whether searching for the remains of the Columbia astronauts across the
fields of north Texas or finding missing children in her community.
Hers is a unique and poignant story with drama and a clear narrative
arc as the author learns to handle loss and to work with communities in

Few of us have a story this unique or dramatic.
More often, our memoirs are the stories of learning to deal with the
trials and losses that are inherent in relationship and in life, within
the communities (geographical, religious, professional, and other) in
which we move. But although our stories may not have the drama and
potential to attract a national book audience, as writers we can (and
should) stay focused on crafting that sparkling prose. And we can focus
too on reaching our own unique platform and audience by other means,
whether through self-publishing, blogging, or a small-press publisher.

Know your platform

Agents stressed repeatedly the importance of knowing your platform.
If you’re Dr. Phil, your platform is your TV show and the show’s
audience. For us non-celebrities, our platforms are the communities in
which we live, work, play, volunteer, pray, share, etc. If your memoir
is of caring for an aging parent suffering from Alzheimers and you are
active in an online forum for Alzheimer caregivers, the readers of that
forum are part of your platform. If you blog and write about herbs,
then your blog readers and other herbalists are part of your platform.
Your platform includes both the medium by which you connect with others
interested in your subject and the number of engaged readers you’re
able to reach through that medium. However you plan to publish your story, you need to identify your platform. You’ll include that information in your book proposal, and you’ll refer to it as you craft the marketing plan for your book.

The best takeaway from the conference for me personally was being reminded that there is a supportive community of writers out there, sharing this journey. Beyond that, I’ve made connections with reputable agents and learned what they are looking for so I can bring that knowledge with me when I talk to my editing clients and writing circle members. I’ll soon be announcing my manuscript evaluation service. The conference experience brought me fresh knowledge and connections so I can better help writers who come to me for assistance as they take the next step towards publication.

There's so much more I could tell you about the conference. But why don't you tell me what you'd like to know. Looking forward to your questions, which I'll answer in subsequent posts.

Rooting Your Writing in Place

This week I've been in Georgia O'Keeffe country in northern New Mexico, teaching a workshop on integrating nature into your daily spiritual practice. It occurred to me that the basics of the workshop could be useful for helping writers conjure up the specifics of place for writing about our lives.

So here are some tips from that workshop to help root your writing in the landscapes your life grew from.

Imagine yourself flying over the landscape you write about–not at the height of a cross-country jet flight, but more like that of a soaring hawk. What does the earth below you look like? How is it shaped? What parts are wild, cultivated, paved over? What do you see when you look east? South? West? North? What are the physical landmarks that bound those four cardinal directions? The human landmarks? What does the sky overhead look like?

Now come back to the ground. Where are you in that landscape? How do you know where you are, that is, what makes the place distinctive to you?

Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Keep them closed for at least a minute. What is different about the information you notice from your senses when your eyes are closed?

Take a few deep breaths with your eyes. What do you smell? What does the air feel like on your skin? Is it warm? Cold? Sticky? Dry? If the wind is blowing, what does it feel like? Can you smell anything on the wind? What direction is it coming from?


Open your eyes and look about you. Who else lives in this landscape besides humans? (Here's a sidebells penstemon with a wasp pollinating its flowers, for instance.) These other species, from the tiny microbes that animate the soil, help the plants grow and cleanse the air and water that passes through it to the big "charismatic" species like whales, cypress trees, pronghorn antelope, or bald eagles. Name ten domestic and/or cultivated species that share this landscape with us. Now name ten wild species.

Add this community to your daily life by stopping to greet one species every day. Notice what that species is doing, where it lives, what relationships define its life. Just as you know the human community and its characters, get to know the lives that make up the community of the land. Honor them with your awareness, and they will bring your writing to life, rooting it richly in place.