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New York Writer's Digest Conference Recap

Ah, New York City. Bustling metropolis and home to the Writer's Digest Conference 2015, the third stop on my world-travelling Lilly Grant tour. 

I arrived on Friday morning and hopped an express bus from Newark Airport to Grand Central. On the way, I struck up a fascinating conversation with a woman from Israel, and made a new friend. She just happened to be reading this:

The Lightning Thief, in Hebrew. Printed from right to left.
I made a new friend, and she walked away with a few chapters of my book to read on her connecting flight. Then it was on to the Roosevelt Hotel for the conference!

Oooooooooo, so excited. Day one keynote was Chuck Sambuchino and his keynote on how to write an effective query letter, followed by some furious revisions on the pitch for Gwendolyn Gray. NEED MORE CHARACTER DEVLEOPMENT. What does she want? What stands in her way of getting it? I thought I had mastered desire+obstacle=story from Lou Berney at the IU Writer's Conference, but I hadn't yet worked it into my pitch. 

Other worrying advice? Your first book MUST stand alone. Even if it starts a series. No cliffhangers, just stick to the three act structure, you have to give your reader a complete story. Alarm bells start going off in my head: currently, Gwendolyn ends with some resolution, but also a giant cliffhanger. 

Cue the FIVE STAGES OF WRITER'S GRIEF: stage one, DENIAL. Don't worry. My ending's fine. It works! It's compelling and interesting, a new twist on the three act structure. She LOSES the climax! How cool is that? Plus, if they get to the end and want more, isn't that a GOOD thing? I AM THE GEORGE R.R. MARTIN OF MIDDLE GRADE FICTION, DANG IT.

Stayed in the grand ballroom for an amazing session with agent Paula Munier on how to pitch and sell your novel. "A stand alone book with series potential." Internal conflict rising, I move to ANGER. Who are these people to tell me how to write my book? I don't need to change a flipping thing. I'll hook them with a great pitch, and my ending will wow them.

Next, off to Gabriela Pereira from DIYMFA for a great presentation on the seven steps to a better middle grade novel. More talk about that stand alone first ending. Fantastic tips on archetypes and decision points.

Another panel with Paula Munier on plot structure, from her new book Plot Perfect. This lady knows what she's talking about. Every book needs a USP, a unique selling proposition that sets it apart from all the others. It needs a strong one-line hook to sell it. We go over the salient points of solid plot structure, and again, we get to that pesky ending business. I make another writing friend at least, and I move solidly into the BARGAINING phase.

I pluck up the courage to ask Paula, "What if you have a strong three-act structure with a resolution, but your character LOSES the climax? How many plot threads can you leave dangling?" I don't have to change it that much, right?  "Why would you do that to your reader?" D'oh. And she's right. Downshift hard into DEPRESSION.

So far, day one has been an emotional roller coaster. I'm wiped. I skip the opening keynote with Jonathan Mayberry, which I know COMPLETELY regret, but I get a nice trip over to 30 Rock instead. 

Did you know there's a LEGO STORE at 30 Rock?

Lego 30 Rock
Lego Brent
Ah. Soothing. Just what I needed. A little minifig-narcissism. Back to the hotel, where I meet some AMAZING new writers, and we all head off for Turkish food together. I remember I had a large pile of meat.

Included are Anel, Linda, and Laura, my new buds
Back to my hotel room, where the black dog pounced HARD. Nothing like the crippling depression and insecurity of a writer who thinks their stuff isn't good enough. Also kicking myself for going to bed at 8:30 my first night in NEW YORK CITY, but I'm suuuuuuper tired, so who cares.

Saturday-wake up feeling FANTASTIC. So what if my ending doesn't work? Today I'm pitching to AGENTS. My pitch is GOOD. I am SOLID under pressure. Charisma and salesmanship? Check. Compelling pitch? Check. Extensive research to get the most out of the session? Check and check. Lie through my teeth about the ending? Also check. And Dunkin Donuts across the street has OREO CHEESECAKE DONUTS so, yeah, lets do this. A morning pitch practice with new friend Sara has me psyched.

But first, it's time to get some more schooling on my query letter from the fantastic Janet Reid of QueryShark. Again, emphasis on character, desire, worldbuilding. Strengthen my pitch some more and start memorizing. She gives tips on putting your genre and word count AFTER the meat of the query, to avoid any auto-rejections until after you've hooked them in.

The next few sessions sort of fly by, as I'm focused on my pitch time at 1:00. I get some pitch help from Ralph and Joseph, awesome writer guys. I LOVE this conference! Socializing and making friends seems effortless. Common interests, right?

And then... IT'S TIME. I grab some NY pizza from 2 Bros, down the street, and get in line an hour early, my two slices of pepporoni drawing dirty looks from jealous writers. Yeah, I thought ahead. Even have my orange crush, for CRUSHING it. Practicing my pitch and listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1 for inspiration and hoping I don't sweat pure pizza grease all over the agents.

The doors open. The ballroom is ringed by tables of agents. I know their names, I know what they represent, and I head right to my first choice. I sit down, and PITCH MY FACE OFF. For the next hour, its a frantic dash from one side of the room to another, doing desperate calculations comparing the length of an agents line, their ranking on my wish list, and the dangers of losing my current spot. It was MADNESS. 

At one point, I ended up in line with Abigail Lambert, and we chat about our middle grade books. She was fantastic, and we hung out several times over the next couple of days.

I won't go into specifics or drop names, but every agent I pitched wanted to see more pages. BRAINGASM! (Two editors said no, that it wasn't right for their list right now, but pitching an editor directly is a moonshot anyway.)

I swagger out of that ballroom like a GOD, with precious business cards clutched in my sweaty pizza-scented fist like a handful of golden tickets. I take exactly three steps, and the crushing reality of my troublesome ending smacks me in the face for my overconfidence. The surrounding writer's could probably HEAR my shoulder's slump.

I trudge my way up to my next session, something about revising, which just twists the knife further. Ugh. I DON'T WANNA PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME.

But then... Eureka! The next panel is Staying Sane While Writing  with Nathan Bransford, agent and fellow middle-grade author. Oh, his words sooth like a Listerine breath strip. Hearing him talk about his experiences freaking out about writing, and hearing how far an agent will go to help revise a story or idea they believe in (even going so far as to rewrite the entire book from scratch) moves me from depression and insecurity into stage five, ACCEPTANCE. The dam bursts, and the thoughts come roaring forth. This is my favorite part of writing. Before Nathan's done talking, I have an entire page crammed with ideas on how to fix my ending, ideas which will also vastly improve my second book. I thank Nathan profusely afterward, and head off to the rest of the conference, which I now enjoy with a light-headed euphoria after being released from my emotional chains.

What a perfect moment for an inspirational and emotional keynote by Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.

It looks like I'm wearing a Yamulke.
The coktail reception that night was a BLAST. I talked to several agents I had pitched before the conference, and got some amazing advice from Paula. She warned me not to pitch my agents from the pitch slam right away (which was good, because at the point I was so PUMPED I was going to go email them from my hotel room that night.) If you pitch right away, she warned, it looks like you didn't learn anything at the conference, or weren't paying attention. It seems like you think you have nothing to fix or polish, which just seems cocky. Wait, fix, polish, and submit. 

The cocktail reception ended, and the night evolved. Chuck Sambuchino (editor of Writer's Digest) sits at the hotel piano and starts running through his IMPRESSIVE repertoire of party sing-alongs, in which I gleefully participated. Sweet Caroline is my karaoke jam. 
Ve and Chuck wail away.

Afterwards, I had a blast hanging out with new friends Ve, Jason, and Deb. Ve and I had traded pitches earlier that day, and we had fun pitching each other's book to Jason and Deb based solely on what we could remember after several... hours of fun. Interesting hearing your book summed up from someone else, to see if your pitch gets the main idea across accurately. 

It was late. I was on cloud nine. So I took a trip to the center of the universe: Times Square.

Yes, it really does feel like the center of the universe.
 Quick stop at the Disney store to buy Teddy some souvenirs. 
Add caption
The Disney Store on times square is packed with children all the way til 1 AM. Crazy town. 

Just when I thought my night was over, BAM! Third wind. I end up on the rooftop of the Roosevelt hotel, sharing refreshments with the amazing people over at Writer's Unboxed.  Late night, rooftop club, New York City, talking with acclaimed professionals? For once in my life, I felt like one of the cool kids.

Going where the action is.
We close the place down. Sometime way past midnight, I'm still too awake! This is the city that never sleeps, after all. So I head down to the hotel bar, and spend the next couple of hours chatting up some amazing new friends. I love the fact that I can sit down next to any random person in a conference badge and have a great time.  Ron Delaney Jr. is who I would like to be in five years. Jueneke is my amazing new critique partner. And I apparently need some business cards, though I guess it doesn't matter because I'll NEVER be able to afford to do this again.
Sleep. Wake up. Shower. The next day passes in a blur of awesome and good feelings. 
Gabby teaches me the 3+2=1 technique of writing, and now I have a solid revision plan for my book: strengthen the two decision points, and rewrite the ending. We go grab Starbucks.
Abigail and I go to a steampunk panel, and I plot how I'll put dieselpunk and atompunk into my sequels. Thanks to Jonathan Mayberry, Steven Harper, Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine! I buy books and get them signed.
The Steampunk Panel. Paula Munier is off to the left.
Abigail and I head down to the grand ballroom and take FEROCIOUS notes from Phil Sexton on the dirty secrets of the publishing industry. Always ask to see the SPINE design. Thank Phil!

Tim Johnston comes on for the final keynote, but I'm too heartbroken that the conference is ending to pay much attention. This has been a magical three days. I'm just a teacher from Indiana who got lucky and scored a grant, but for three days I felt like a WRITER. I felt among equals. I was inspired and blown away, and feel that I might actually have a career on my hands. I'm wrecked, knowing that I'll never make it back here on a teacher's salary. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and my summer of adventure is coming to a close.

So of course, when you're feeling a bit melancholy after saying goodbye to your scores of new friends, it helps to take a stroll through one of the greatest cities on the planet for one last look.

The Chrysler Building

Owen the Bear, photobombing again
Midtown Comics? Uh, yeah!
Present for myself at the comic store.
Holy crap! In NYC, UNLIKE London and Paris, there are FREE PUBLIC TOILETS on the street. Go America!

NY Public Library 
Empire State Building

So long New York. Ugh... hello, Jersey.

And that was my summer of adventure. It took me from here...

To here...

and finally, it ended here.

Flatiron Building
So long, Year of Brent.



Hello, new adventures.

And a huge special thanks to Eli Lilly for making it all possible.


  1. Great recap! I had a great time too! Good to know most of the agents requested pages, keep it up man!


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