By Lissa Provost
The Heroes Journey through the San Francisco Writers Conference
You’ve just typed “The End” on your Magnum Opus, the manuscript you’ve been working on for years. Your heart and soul and thousands of hours of work are backed up on a flash drive that fits on a keychain, and on the cloud, and you printed a copy with the date of completion just to be sure it’s legally protected by copyright and can’t be lost to an electromagnetic pulse. You pour a glass of champagne and toast to your achievement in the quiet of your kitchen because it’s 2 am and it would be rude to call your writing buddies.
The adrenaline pulsing through your veins won’t let you sleep yet so you start surfing the internet looking for agents to represent this future bestseller and you keep stumbling across this phrase under the most desirable agents’ submission guidelines, “only accepts submissions through writers conferences.” When did this happen? What’s wrong with the query letter process? You want to get your manuscript into the dang slush pile as soon as possible, but they’ve shut down the slush pile!
Okay, you take a deep breath and start researching writers conferences. The San Francisco Writers Conference keeps coming up at the top of lists of conferences so you click on it. Ooooh, it’s kind of expensive, so you look for why. It has over 100 speakers and about 400 attendees. The other conferences had 2-4 speakers for 100 attendees at a small regional conference or 50 for 2000 attendees at a major New York Conference. The San Francisco option has an impressively small ratio. And they have the longest list of agents at any conference. An agent is what you want, so that’s a big deal. And they have something called Speed Dating with Agents.
You’re a rational person so you contrast the time and energy you know you’d have to spend researching agents on the internet and querying blindly with meeting agents in person at a conference and decide its worth it. After airline, hotel, food, etc. it’s not much different than going on a cruise, only instead of a vacation where you gain ten pounds and a sunburn you’re going on one that can change your life and launch your career as a writer. It’s an adventure as exciting as bungee jumping. You will remember it for the rest of your life.
Checking in at the conference you stare up into the seventeen story high atrium that is the lobby of the Hyatt Regency SF Embarcadero and realize you have arrived. This is the stadium in which you will fight for your dreams. You pick up your badge and program, the magic key and treasure map that will help you on your journey. You signed up for Speed Dating and your badge tells you which session you’ve been assigned. You’re ready.
The first few sessions help orient you for success. You’ve flagged faces in your program of agents and experts you want to talk to, signed up for a free independent editor consult, publicist consult, and coaching consult. One of those experts is teaching a Master Class…in person! Webinars are nice, but to sit at the feet of a master in a small group for three hours is so much better. You call your sweetie and they tell you to do it, and Happy Valentine’s Day! You picked a good sweetie. They’re so supportive.
The Master Class ends at nine so you have time to catch the end of No Host, No Pitch Nightcaps and Networking up in the Eclipse Bar in the hotel atrium. One of the faces you flagged is sitting chatting with other attendees. You order a drink and drift over to join the group. Someone says hi and asks your name. This precipitates a round of introductions. You mention you’re excited to meet this expert because you really like something specific they’ve done. They thank you and ask you about what you’re writing. They nod politely while you talk way too long about the future bestseller you’ve just finished.
“That sounds interesting, but you need to work on your pitch. You’re doing Speed Dating, right?” they say. You nod. They continue, “I know so and so is teaching about pitches and queries in a session. You should go.”
Another person in the group chimes in, “yeah, that’s really helpful. And you can sign up to practice your pitch tomorrow night. Signups are by registration when it opens in the morning. You’ll feel much better and less nervous after that.” Other heads in the group nod. Two others are already signed up.
“Okay, I’ll do that,” you say. The party is breaking up and you’re getting tired so you excuse yourself with, “Wow, I think the adrenaline is finally coming down and this drink is kicking in. I’ll see you all tomorrow?” The others are smiling and waving. It’s been a good day.
In the morning you rush down to registration to sign up for a Practice Your Pitch Session before breakfast, but you have to wait until after breakfast. No worries. You get a bagel with fixings, some fruit and coffee. This is the Find Your Tribe Breakfast so you look for a table sign that says your genre. One of the people from your group last night is sitting there. You talk about your stories and what breakouts you plan to go to as the table fills up. Then, Andy Jones walks on stage to start the Pub Quiz and you relax into the morning getting to know your fellow writers. You don’t win a prize but you do exchange contact information with several of your table mates. You have a writers group at home but everyone is writing different genres. It’s nice to connect with writers in the same genre.
The breakfast keynote knocks you back in your seat. You are inspired and motivated and feel like you’ve gotten insider information now. They share their experience candidly. You can use that knowledge. As the keynote ends you rush out to buy their book and get it signed. You’re going to read it carefully and then give it to your writing buddy for their birthday because you want them to be inspired too. While you’re in the Grand Foyer you remember to sign up for Practice Your Pitch and you glance at a few of the exhibitors before heading out to the morning breakouts.
About ten minutes in you realize you got confused and walked into the wrong breakout. You start to sneak out but the speaker catches your attention talking about something you didn’t realize could apply to your story. You quickly mark your program with a note to buy the recording of the other session and stay in this one to hear the rest of what they have to say.
The breakouts are amazing, but a little overwhelming. In between, you go up to ask questions and get clarification from some of the speakers. They are so nice and helpful, sticking around to talk to everyone. Sometimes the volunteers have to shoo them out of the room so the next session can start. The only problem is you’re starting to wonder if your manuscript is really ready to submit to agents. You’re learning so many new things that could make it better.
One of your breakfast table mates catches you in the hall and invites you to join the group they’re forming for lunch. Someone in the group is insisting the out-of-towners need to eat at Boudin in the building next to the hotel for the authentic San Francisco Sourdough experience. Another group walking by says they’re heading to the Ferry Building for local organic fare. A few people switch groups but you like bread so you stick with the Boudin group.
After lunch you go straight into more breakouts. You’ve got the lay of the land so you find the ones you intend to, but the self-doubt is building. You have to leave one breakout a little early to make your independent editor appointment. You’re worried at this point. You’ve never submitted your work to a professional editor. You’re pleasantly surprised by the meeting. The editor is all human, not even two percent monster. They seem like they want you to succeed. But they do point out a few flaws you didn’t know were there. They explain how you can fix them, so you’re not heartbroken, but that’s going to take time. Maybe you should cancel your speed dating.
“Absolutely not,” the editor tells you. “First, you need the practice. Second, working on your pitch will help you clarify your writing. Third, if they ask for pages you don’t have to send them tomorrow. You can send them ten months from now when you’re done with your edits.”
You take a slow deep breath. “Okay. I can do this!” you say.
The editor smiles at you and gives you their card. “You can!” They affirm. You shake hands and head out to catch the next breakout on your list.
It’s Valentines’ Day and you’re in a strange city where you don’t know anyone, so you signed up early for Dinner with Harvey. At 5:00 you meet in the Grand Foyer and head out walking in small groups to a fancy local restaurant. The walk is beautiful. San Francisco is amazing in February. So much warmer than where you came from. No one from your breakfast table is in this group but you recognize some of the speakers. Harvey is happily meeting new people and making introductions. He goes around to each table pouring wine and making sure you know who you’re sitting with.
One of the folks at your table is an exhibitor. They’re actually the CEO of a company you’ve seen advertised online. They ask you what you’re writing and pretty soon the whole group is discussing what they write and why they write it. The CEO is explaining how their business could serve each of you and it’s interesting. It has to do with marketing, which you assumed a publisher would do for you, but the other writers tell you that’s rarely the case for new and unknown writers.
Your Pitch Practice session is at seven so you rush back. Five other diners are headed to the same place. You walk together and the crisp night air revives you after the delicious meal almost put you to sleep.
One of the breakouts you went to helped you shape an elevator pitch for your book. It’s better than before, but sitting in a group of eight with a facilitator, listening to everyone’s pitches, you begin to see where the problems are. When your turn comes you read your pitch, a little embarrassed, but the facilitator is encouraging. The group helps you figure out what to keep and what to cut and in the end you have a pitch that you feel confident in. It’s such an encouraging feeling to end a rather overwhelming day with.
You text your sweetie hearts and kisses and start to head up to bed when you notice a commotion coming from the ballroom and remember there’s one more event tonight, the Writers Coffeehouse. You’ve come so far and paid so much, you’re not going to miss one second of content. Coffeehouse means coffee, right? Yes it does. There’s coffee, tea, and cookies, and a panel of writers and publishing professionals answering rapid fire questions from the audience. One of the Keynote Speakers is among them. You have so many questions at this point. But others are asking most of them so you wait a bit to try and ask one the others have missed. “That’s a great question. Let me explain how that works,” one of the panelists responds. It makes much more sense now.
When you finally get back to your hotel room your head is so full of thoughts about everything you’ve learned that you don’t even notice the stunning night view of the bay outside your window. You think you won’t be able to fall asleep with so much going on in there but your body is done with all that and you’re out as soon as your head hits the pillow.
Saturday morning begins with another keynote breakfast. Then, it’s a marathon of breakouts. You sneak out of breakouts to go to your Publicist and Writing Coach consultation. You fill your plate at lunch to keep up your stamina. You happened to walk by one of the Poetry Summit breakouts and are tempted to walk in but there are too many other breakouts you think you need more. Maybe another year you’ll join the poets. You do go to one of the Writing for Hollywood Summit breakouts. After all, your story would make a great movie.
All day long you’re writing questions on index cards but not getting a chance to ask them. It feels like you’re in an information acquiring marathon. You didn’t even get a chance to get the lunch keynote’s book but Neal at the bookstore has extra signed copies. You breathe a sigh of relief. That was your sweetie’s favorite author and you want to give them the signed book to thank them for being supportive of your dreams. You only get to the bookstore at the end of the breakouts on your way to Ask a Pro. Thank goodness for Ask a Pro. You sort through all those piled up questions quickly and choose which Pros you want to ask.
Dinner is on your mind after Ask a Pro, but another attendee is talking to you and invites you to walk up to the Gala with them. “What the heck is a Gala,” you wonder aloud to them.
“It drinks and food and networking,” they answer. You look horrified. They laugh at you and pat your shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay. You can hang out with me until you’re more comfortable.”
“I’m not usually antisocial,” you say. “There’s just a lot more social activity here than I’m used to.”
They nod understandingly. “That’s probably true for most writers. You know, if you need a break there’s quiet space.“
“Ah, I forgot about that. It’s a little late though. We’re already here.” You take your drink ticket from the nice lady at the entrance to the Gala and get in line for a cocktail. They’re serving something called a Writer’s Block and you pick that. After some local cheese, fruit, and more of that heavenly San Francisco Sourdough you feel more amenable to conversation, and when the event switches gears to Poetry and Jazz you stick around to satisfy that piece of your soul that wanted to dip into the Poetry Summit breakouts. For three hours you relax, sip drinks, laugh, come close to tears, and enjoy the best lineup of featured poets and open mic you’ve ever been to, with smooth jazz and the lights on the bay as background.
It’s a good thing you were able to relax last night, you think as your anxiety builds in the morning. You wouldn’t have been able to sleep without that fantastic distraction. At breakfast you’re encouraged to attend breakouts while you wait for your Speed Dating session. It’s the last thing you want to do, but a table mate tells you to please do it. Nurturing your anxiety by giving it space is counterproductive. The Sunday morning breakouts are more craft focused and you feel encouraged by them. You’re learning some of the same things the independent editor told you, but the speakers have time to elaborate.
At long last your Speed Dating session has come. You line up in Bayview Foyer A and one of the volunteers comes by to offer last minute advice and encouragement. Your new pitch is gripped tightly in your sweaty palm in case your mind goes blank. The doors open and everyone rushes in to line up to pitch agents. You notice your fourth choice agent has a short line so you jump in it first. You’re nervous but not as much as if it were your first choice so you manage to get your pitch out. They tell you they don’t really handle your kind of book but point across the room at two other agents that do.
One was on your list. The other was not. Their line is short too so you head there next. They ask for pages and give you their card. The other agent pointed to was your second choice. They and your first choice both have long lines. You decide to heed the recommendation and go for your second choice knowing you might not get to your first choice. They ask for pages and the line for your first choice is now much shorter. Your first choice looks pretty tired at this point. You pitch and they answer, “I’ve heard too many pitches to make sense of them anymore but you’re here and that tells me you’re dedicated, working hard on your craft, and you’re going to send me your best stuff, so I’m gonna ask for pages.”
“Is that why so many agents are only taking submissions through writers conferences?” you ask.
“Exactly,” they reply. “The quality of submissions is far superior. Even without pitching I know I’ll get better submissions from the people who go through the trouble to come here. And you’re probably going to go home and fix a bunch of stuff in your manuscript before submitting, right? Because you learned a lot.”
You smile, your nervousness somehow gone. “Absolutely,” you agree. Then, your time is up.
You leave Speed Dating with four requests for pages because you managed to fit in one last pitch by choosing shorter lines.
Heading up to your room, you can barely contain yourself. You squeal loudly and jump up and down as soon as you close the door. Then, you text your sweetie. “Four requests for pages!! Four requests for pages!!!!!!!” You race to the bathroom because it hits you all of a sudden that under anxiety you’ve been ignoring your body. You post on Facebook for your writing buddies to see. Then, you reapply your deodorant and head back down for the closing session, one last meal with Harvey, and a Master Class you know you need after learning how much you need to learn.
Monday morning the sun streams into your hotel room and wakes you gently. You have no breakfast or breakouts to rush off to. Looking out at the bay you feel like a new person. You feel like a professional author ready to go back home and get to work. You pack your bags and check out of the hotel. The agent business cards are in your pocket so there’s no possibility of losing them with your luggage. Your sweetie is waiting for you and can expect to welcome home a simultaneously tired and refreshed partner, grateful for the getaway and overflowing with conversation.
Two months later they see how much progress you’ve made and insist you go again next year. You book right away to get the lowest price and free Speed Dating for returning attendees.
Ten months later you send out pages to your agent contacts and one of them requests a full manuscript. You know it’s ten times better than when you first typed “The End” so you send it out with confidence.
Twelve months later you come to the next conference with a new manuscript, ready to improve, and with a lunch meet up planned with your second choice agent.
“The End” is only the beginning. You avoided endless frustrating research and querying, for a manuscript that wasn’t ready, by getting out to the San Francisco Writers Conference and exposing yourself to the publishing industry and community to learn what condition your work was really in and how to bring it up to a level that could bypass the slush pile and get an agent’s attention.
San Francisco Writers Conference
Director of Operations
Poetry Summit Coordinator
(Opens for Submissions Feb. 13, 2020)