Posted by: Kristi Tuck Austin | October 15, 2010

James River Writers Conference recap


JRW Conference poster by Rachel Topping


On October 8-9, published authors, literary agents, editors, and hundreds of writers swarmed the Library of Virginia for the 8th annual James River Writers Conference.  Local authors turned out to speak on panels and chat with writers over mini muffins and coffee (lots and lots of coffee, there were hundreds of writers there, after all).  I was excited to see Michele Young-Stone and Diann Ducharme, both local authors who’ve spoken to River City Fiction.

There were plenary sessions and concurrent sessions on craft, genre, pitching an agent, and publishing.  If you’re a writer—fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, poetry—check out next year’s James River Writers Conference or this month’s Writing Show.

A few conference highlights

I cannot share all the wise and witty statements from the conference, but here is a taste.

Pitching an agent with Katharine Sands

Katharine Sands is a literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann agency and author of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.

“You cannot hire an agent. They must be seduced.”

Ask yourself, “Why does the world need this work?”

What do you want agents to remember about your work two hours after your pitch?

Include three elements:

Setting: what is the story world?

Protagonist: what do you want agents to remember about your protagonist?

Problem:  what gets the story moving?

Katharine Sands states the three elements in this way:

Place: give an establishing shot first; make it fast

Person: introduce a character the agent wants to know

Pivot: enter the story at a particularly interesting place; show what is at stake for the characters

The pitch should give a flavor of what is to come, enrage the agent’s appetite for more.

Be specific, not general.

Say your pitch with enthusiasm.

In pitches and queries, don’t waste time with empty salutations.

When deciding on an agent, you can ask an agent why he or she wants to be your agent and what books she represented like yours.  You should not ask how much money she got from other authors or if you can call her clients.

Pacing with David L. Robbins, Sarah Shaber, and Charles Todd

David L. Robbins has published nine novels, is co-founder of The Podium Foundation, and founding co-chair of James River Writers.  He lives in Richmond.
Sarah Shaber is an award-winning author of the Professor Simon Shaw mystery series.
Charles Todd is part of the mother-son writing team responsible for the bestselling mystery novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge.

Pacing is reading to find out what the hell happens.

Start with an inciting incident.  Increase the stakes as move along, so the reader cannot not finish the book.

Establish early what the protagonist wants, what it costs if the protagonist fails, what he gains if he succeeds, and who or what stands in the way of that desire.

Do not stop the action to describe.  Sprinkle in description.

Make the reader empathize with your characters.

The opening should set the pace for the entire book.

Read voraciously, and you will develop an instinct for pacing.

Use strong verbs.

Kill useless words.

Get the story down on paper, then polish.

Establish a strong point of view, and use one pov for each scene.

Character 101 with Michele Young-Stone, Clifford Garstang, and Paul Whitlatch

Michele Young-Stone is the author of the highly-praised The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors.  She lives in Richmond.
Clifford Garstang is the author of the short story collection In an Uncharted Country.
Paul Whitlatch is an assistant editor at the Scribner imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Michele allows characters to appear in her rough drafts and then eliminates unnecessary characters during revisions.

Over characterization is a detriment.

Avoid stereotypes by inhabiting the character through shared emotions.  Observe the individual and empathize.  Clifford suggests An Actor Prepares.

Show your characters in action.  Give only a few details when they’re introduced.

Do not allow a secondary character to distract from the story.

Write nuanced characters.

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