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A Workshop, A Manuscript, A Book

Or Why Attending a Writers Conference Can Help Your Career….

Or How I Became One of the First MWW Success Stories ….

By Jama Kehoe Bigger

I never pitched an agent. I never wrote a proposal. I never wrote a query. I never mailed the manuscript to the publisher. I never submitted any sample writing, any biography, any synopsis.

I never followed the professional protocols for turning a manuscript into a book.

And yet, one day I received a phone call from an editor at Fleming H. Revell publishers. An editor I had never met. A publishing house I had never submitted to.

“I love the first chapter and the chapter The Date, and we want to publish your manuscript,” he said.*

What? My manuscript? My untitled manuscript?

Not your typical path to publication.

But a pathway made possible because of my trips through Midwest Writers Workshop.

It was 1976 and I was a 20-year-old college student with a desire to write and an idea for a book, an English major at Ball State University. That summer, an (accidental?) bumping into a friend-of-a-friend, a casual conversation about writing, a mention of a writers’ conference (in my very city, at my very university), a leap of faith, a saying “yes” to a new adventure, all led to me sitting in a classroom in Ball State’s Carmichael Hall, listening to author and humorist Tom Mullen talk about writing for the inspirational marketplace.

I had found a mentor.

Life-changing. That’s what Midwest Writers was.

That class, that creative environment, that support and encouragement from faculty and committee and participants was like water and sunlight and nourishment. It made me grow.

I was hooked on the importance of a writers’ conference, the value of Midwest Writers Workshop.  For the next few years, I registered and signed up for classes in nonfiction and poetry. I learned to be a better writer, listening, asking questions, taking notes. I kept growing.

I found writer-friends. And become part of the MWW community.

Then in 1979, the inspirational writing class I attended was taught by Floyd Thatcher, an editor with Word Publishing. He was friendly (just like Tom and all MWW faculty seemed to be!), offered keen advice on tightening my writing, and believed in my story.

Very rough first draft, which went on and on and on for pages before the "story" (action) began.

Very rough first draft, which went on and on and on for pages before the “story” (action) began.

Eventually, after rewrites and rewrites, I summoned enough courage to mail my (unnamed) manuscript to him. When he called and said, “I was moved by your story, but it’s not quite what our company publishes,” I almost dropped the phone. Until I heard his next sentence. “But I hope you don’t mind, I mailed your manuscript to another editor I know.”  Then I did drop the phone.

A few weeks later, Victor Oliver, editor at Fleming H. Revell, called.

I had found an editor.

And I had found a publisher.

And I became not just a writer, but an author.

This path of mine to publication, this walkway was created with stone after stone.  Courage. Registering for the workshop. Courage. Asking for advice. Courage. Revising editing improving. Learning. Courage. Sending out my words. Courage and hope. My story.

The Dive 2

Final (and published) revision of Chapter 1

Attending MWW was my right first step out of the sometimes secluded life of writing and into a community that was chock full of resources, connections, inspiration. And above all, friendships.

Then Came a Miracle1I could go on and on about the impact Midwest Writers had on me every year that I attended. After my book was published, I became a presenter, then a committee member, and then director. In some capacity, I’ve been part of MWW for 37 of its 40 years.  MWW is part of who I am. And I am grateful.

What will your Midwest Writers story be?

(In the spirit of Literary Citizenshipget the book, read the book, review the book.)

* This call came two weeks before I got married. It was a very good summer!

 

Writer + agent = MWW success

MWW12 participant Summer Heacock (@Fizzygrrl) shared the good news that she is now represented by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown Ltd.

How did that happen? They met at MWW!

Q: So what’s the story, Summer?

Let’s see. Here is a Cliff’s Notes version of my agent tale:  When I signed up for MWW12 I was actually planning to pitch my YA/Fantasy manuscript. In the time between registering and the actual conference, I ended up trunking the YA and focusing on revising my Women’s Fiction manuscript written four years ago. I had queried if and obviously not reached the finish line the first time around.

On the last day of the workshop, I ended up with a fantastically dramatic request from Sarah that turned into interest in a full manuscript a few days later. From there she sent me amazing notes for an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) and I worked on those and ate my body weight in Jelly Bellies while I did.

I had some very random and possibly terrifying interactions with other agents who were considering the manuscript as this was all going on, but ever since I met Sarah at MWW, she was the one I was holding my breath for. Once she had the revisions, I soon had an offer from another agent and had to send the fabled OFFER OF REP email to Sarah literally while she was in the middle of Hurricane Sandy.  So, that was weird…

After well, you know, her office was opened again a week later after storm insanity, she got the manuscript, and a few days later, emailed me to set up The Call.  I tried to be very suave about everything, but after hearing her notes and ideas, when she officially offered me representation, I was all but yelping YES into the phone.

Q: In your opinion, why should readers of our newsletter register for MWW13?
Because it’s awesome. Seriously. Aside from being impeccably run and more organized than a writer’s gathering has any right to be, I have never learned so much about the industry in such a short time.  One of the things that makes a conference in Indiana special is that we are never going to be as jam packed as bigger cities. It made meeting people and connecting with the professionals a dream.  I made friends that I still talk to and see regularly. And well, it ended up with my landing an agent, so, yeah. You can count me as a big ol’ fan.

Q: How do you put those cool moving photos on your blog?

Oh man, the GIFs (a special moving type of picture) are my favorite part of blogging. I swear, I get a bigger kick out of them than anyone. I will literally be sitting in bed laughing like a crazy person for an hour while I search.

I use Google and hope for the best. I search the Internet and sometimes come across really hilarious or appropriate ones and giggle until it hurts. My husband, Drew, is also a computer ninja and makes them for me occasionally.

Q: Do you plan to make MWW 2013?  And lastly, where are you from?

YES.  Yes, I really do.  It is a very genuine dream of mine to one day be a speaker or faculty at one of the Workshops. So yes, I will be there until someone bars me from returning, 🙂 And I live in Lebanon, Indiana.

NOTE: Kelsey Timmerman gets the excitement on video!

MWW12: Summer Heacock's big news!
MWW12: Summer Heacock’s big news!

TWEET from Sarah LaPolla @sarahlapolla

That video makes me totally miss the whole @MidwestWriters crew. Conferences really do work, writers! Find ones in your area & attend them.

Q & A with agent Lois Winston

Lois Winston, Ashley Grayson Literary Agency

Winston, LoisQ: What should participants bring to their pitch sessions with you? 

One page query letter and the first 2 pages (double-spaced) of their manuscript.

Q: What are you looking for? 

The Ashley Grayson Literary Agency was established in 1976 and handles both literary and commercial fiction, children’s fiction, and some nonfiction. I currently represent authors who write romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, women’s fiction, mystery, young adult, and horror, but voice is more important to me than genre, and I love books that make me laugh out loud. I’m not interested in category romance, erotica, regencies, inspirationals, westerns, or paranormal books that feature vampires and shape-shifters.

Q: What mistakes do most writers make when approaching agents?

Three top mistakes I see:

1.       Many writers query too soon. Polish your work until it’s the best it can be before you submit, and you’ll receive fewer rejections.

2.       Know correct grammar and punctuation usage. Too many writers don’t know the most basic of grammar and punctuation rules (and no, that’s not what an editor is for.)

3.       Don’t take rejection personally. This is a business. If your work isn’t right for me, it may be perfect for someone else. Or you may need to reread mistakes #2 and #3.

Q:  Will you accept someone pitching an uncompleted manuscript?

I would prefer to see authors with completed manuscripts.
Q:  Finally, if you do not represent what participants write but someone else in your agency does, would you ever pass the person on to that agent? 

Yes, I do pass along manuscripts to our other agents if the manuscript is not right for me but might work for someone else at our agency.

 

Speaking of agents, we have a MWW success story to share.

During our 2009 MWW, agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of the Nancy Coffey Literary Agency met with workshop participants for pitch sessions and signed three authors as clients. In fact, Joanne now represents MWW attendee Veronica Roth who writes YA and has contracted a 3-book deal with Harper Collins Children’s books.

Roth cover

Veronica’s first book, Divergent, has been on the New York Times Bestseller List at #6 for three weeks! We encourage you to register for MWW 2011. Maybe you will be our next success story.

MWW success stories: Dan Johnson and Lonnie Whitaker

We’re always pleased to pass along the good news of publishing successes from our MWW participants.

DE JohnsonDan Johnson, Schoolcraft, MI (2006 MWW alum), is author of The Detroit Electric Scheme (St. Martin’s Minotaur Books, September 2010) dejohnsonauthor.com. Dan is also our 2010  Friday luncheon speaker, “How I Got Here from There.”

Q: How did you discover MWW and how did it help your writing career?
I found information on the MWW on the internet and attended in 2006. It was the most instructive conference I’ve been to, before or since. I’ve been surprised to find that very few conferences give you the “nuts and bolts” knowledge that new writers need.

Q: Please condense the overall story of your book.
1910 Detroit: Will Anderson, heir to America’s largest electric automobile manufacturer, has been framed for murder. Worse, the woman he loves is in terrible danger, and Will knows it’s his fault. He follows her through the gutters of Detroit, trying to save her and find the killer at the same time. As the evidence mounts, Will gets closer and closer to the truth-a secret that could cost Will not only his life, but also the lives of the people he loves most.

“The surprise ending leaves you gasping and shaking your head at Johnson’s masterful plotting and the menacing tension that forces otherwise good characters to behave despicably. Every bit as powerful as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, this gem of a debut showcases an author to watch very closely.” —Booklist (Starred review)

Q: What is the best advice on writing you’ve ever received?
“Let your characters boss you around.” I’ve heard versions of this advice in various books and classes, but it still amazes me how my characters hijack my story if I let them. When I don’t let them, they fight back. And they always win.

Q: Is there something else people might find interesting about your journey to publication?
My journey to publication was humbling, surprising, and ultimately thrilling. I have a good story to tell about the tenuous thread that leads to being published, and how maximizing your opportunities is essential.

Lonnie Whitaker, High Ridge, MO (2001 MWW alum), is author of Geese to a Poor Market, (High Hill Press, released summer2010).

Q: How did you end up coming from Missouri to attend MWW and how did it help your career?
In early 2001, I sold a 500-word story (my first) to a regional magazine and the process hooked me–I wanted to learn the tricks I imagined my journalism friends knew.  I started searching online for a workshop and found MWW.  It’s the same distance from St. Louis to Kansas City as it is to Indianapolis, so the distance didn’t seem too bad.  I spoke with Jama and signed up.  The lineup in 2001 was terrific. I signed up for a critique session and drew Karl Largent.  He told me that writers write, but authors get published, and that I was an author.  At the end of the session he challenged me. “You’ve got the ability–the question is what are you going to do with it?”  That 30-minute session was a turning point.  As the cliché goes:  when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Q: What is the overall story of your book?
In 1955 Rita Sanders leaves a cheating husband and returns to her childhood home in the Missouri Ozarks.  She lands a job at a honky-tonk on the outskirts of a bible-belt village owned by a retired navy petty officer, and her religious mother disapproves. With the reappearance of her estranged husband, the prodigal daughter discovers there is more than one snake in the garden, as her husband and mother conspire against her for custody of her son.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received to help your writing career?
“Never have your protagonist running quickly when he could be sprinting.”  Again, Karl Largent at MWW.  That became my starting point for learning the craft of commercial fiction and tight writing.  As a reminder, my business card has a quote from Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective–kill it.”

Q: Did you learn anything interesting on this journey to publication?
I had to learn how to make moonshine to write one of the chapters. Just because I grew up in the Ozarks doesn’t mean that’s one of my talents.