Tag Archives: Washington Post

Write Now: Of Pitching and Publishing

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 11 May 2017.

Recently, I was listening to literary agent Malaga Baldi expound on the kind of books that pique her interest. What she described were not big-ticket thrillers, YA dystopian fantasies, or anything with “Girl” in the title.

She was talking about intimate, quirky books that had something unique to say in an appealing, engaging voice. As she spoke of what she finds exciting in the kinds of stories she represents, I thought, “Yes, exactly! I would want to read those books!”

Perhaps you were listening to Malaga, too, since she was speaking at the Friday night “How to Pitch an Agent” panel at the fifth-annual Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, held at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on April 28th-29th.

I had the pleasure (and — I won’t kid you — sleep-depriving terror) of being this year’s conference chair. I’ve been volunteering at the Independent since I signed up at the second conference in 2014 — first as an assignments editor, then as a reviewer, a conference committee member, the chair, and, starting today, as a monthly columnist. Taking advantage of that impeccable timing, I wanted to recap some of this year’s conference highlights.

As always, the big draw of the conference was a powerful combination of pitch opportunities and publishing luminaries. When every attendee has the chance to pitch a manuscript or book proposal to several agents selected from a roster of 20, the electricity around the pitch room is palpable. Independent president David O. Stewart likened the buzz to “being by a nuclear reactor, there is so much energy.”

This year, the lucky winner of our drawing for a free conference registration — whose enthusiasm was truly infectious — managed to schedule pitch sessions with seven agents over the course of the day, and all of them asked to see a few pages or his full manuscript.

We also understand that one of our agents offered an attendee representation on the spot. Success stories like this emerge from every conference, which is what keeps both our attendees and our agents returning year after year.

But as great as the pitch opportunities are, they’re only part of the story. With Judith Viorst as this year’s keynote speaker, and panelists who included Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles, fellow longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, legendary children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and 2017 PEN/Bingham prize winner Rion Amilcar Scott, attendees found themselves inspired, entertained, and motivated.

Panels this year included genre focus on ghostwriting, memoir, biography, children’s literature, and short stories, and on such topical issues as bridging racial and cultural divisions through literature, writing about war — with a focus on current ongoing conflicts — and on the use of illness or disability as a literary device.

In his discussion on “the State of Books” with author Susan Coll, Ron Charles remarked that simply keeping up with the onslaught of 150 books a day arriving at the Post is “like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory,” and, at best, the Post is able to review 1,000 of the approximately 55,000 books it receives each year. His advice is to market to women in book clubs, because that’s where the high-volume sales are these days.

On the panel “Across the Cultural Divide,” classics professor and epic poetry lover Carolivia Herron shared that her children’s book Nappy Hair is still banned in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. On the same panel, Neely Tucker (a white man and Washington Post reporter) noted that many people mistake his byline as belonging to an African-American woman. “One reader wrote, ‘I can tell from your writing that you hate white men.’ I thought about it and wrote back, ‘You might be right. I can’t think of a single white man I’ve ever wanted to date.’”

Kelly Kennedy, author of They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq, told powerful, wrenching stories from her time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Jack Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, alluded to where he believes the disgraced president is spending eternity when he said, “I envision Dick Nixon looking up at us all…”

Finally, beyond both pitches and panels, one of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of the conference each year is the connections that attendees make. In 2016, for example, a writers’ group formed as a result of the conference and has been meeting all year; four of the six members were back again at this year’s conference.

Certainly, my own experience has been that the Independent encourages and nurtures a community of writers and readers from which we all benefit, and there’s a lovely symmetry to a book-review site holding a conference focused on helping authors find a path to publication.

Consider the Washington Writers Conference trifecta of an author pitching at the event, garnering a book deal, and having the resulting work reviewed in the Washington Independent Review of Books. That could be you. So between now and next year’s conference, all of us at the Independent wish you a productive year of writing!

Want to hear more about the 2017 Washington Writers Conference? Veteran journalist and conference stalwart Gene Meyer offers a great wrap-up on his website, and you can see photos on our Facebook page, where the video summary will soon be posted!


Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

There’s Still Time

I feel as though I’m always late. And I don’t mean on the little day-to-day stuff, though I’ll be the first to admit I feel my personal clock runs perpetually about five minutes behind everyone else’s. No, I’m talking about a more existential kind of lateness, like that the moment I finally decided to start writing my novel was the moment the Washington Post stopped printing “Book World” as a stand-alone weekly feature. (And has Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Post done anything to hint at its resurrection? No. He just buys Goodreads instead. That’s fine, Jeff. We were pretty sure you weren’t serious about the paper anyway.) And then, with just a few months to go before publication of my novel—oh, so close—here is Jonathan Yardley clocking out after “thirty-three years and four months—a third of a century almost to the minute” and three thousand book reviews. Yup, I’m late again.

Arguably, I’ve been late for a long time: my own almost-third of a century since I was propelled out into the world clutching my diploma, the one that trumpeted my degree of limited practical application. Perhaps the stark relief of securing a job ahead of graduation stunned me into forgetting my love of writing. And I forgot for a long time.

As I approached thirty, my mother gave me the excellent advice to choose what I did with my life, and to guard against allowing my life to simply happen to me. “Because before you know it, you’ll wake up one day, look in the mirror and say, ‘When did I get old?’ And you’ll realize you didn’t do what you wanted to do.” Roger Waters of Pink Floyd grasped this unhappy phenomenon early on, when at the advanced age of 29 he wrote the lyrics to “Time”:

And then one day you find / Ten years have got behind you. / No one told you when to run. / You missed the starting gun.

and this:

The time is gone, the song is over. / Thought I’d something more to say.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t heed Mom’s (or Roger’s) advice as completely as I might have. If I had, perhaps my first novel would not have waited until the year I turn 53 to make its debut.

On the other hand, this puts me in the same class with Richard Adams, who was my age the year that his first novel was published. With its tale of imperiled talking rabbits, Watership Down was an unlikely runaway bestseller in 1972. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes came out when he was 66, and the great granddaddy of all late-to-the-party writers is perhaps Norman Maclean, whose transcendent A River Runs through It and Other Stories was published when he was 73.

It’s probably a little silly to be ticking these examples off as though they prove something—perhaps nothing better than that there are not so many examples to be ticked off. But I’m not the only one who’s taking a bit of heart from the concept. Electric Literature recently posted an interactive graphic put out by Blinkbox Books showing the age at which well-known authors published their breakout books, to prove that many great authors flower later in life. It’s perhaps telling, though, that Adams is the oldest debut author listed.

There are, however, other examples besides McCourt and Maclean who didn’t make Blinkbox’s cut, and I came across one of these recently as I struggled to catch up with the newspapers that constantly pile up in my house. (As I said, I am late with everything. We can debate the time-investment-to-value-realized calculus of reading three-week-old newspapers some other time.) The item in question was a review by Michael Dirda of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Dirda caught me right away when he said, “But few of us will ever manage such dramatic rebirths as Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who never published a book until she was just shy of 60—yet became one of Britain’s most admired novelists.”

Reviews like this make me wonder what the heck I’ve been reading for the last thirty years. Why am I not already familiar with Fitzgerald’s work? It seems that in the time I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing precious little reading also, which is a far, far more dire waste of time. More than anything, realizing how much good reading I haven’t been doing is what makes me want to find the giant rewind button.

I understand, of course, that I could just as easily have reached my 53rd year without getting a book published. It’s simply painful to acknowledge that it’s been longer than a generation since I could have made anyone’s list of young writers to watch. As we all discover eventually, you cannot unwaste time; you can only resolve not to waste any more of it. I hope I’ve learned that lesson in enough time.