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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Two Steps Forward, One Backspace

As I mentioned a couple posts back, I had the opportunity to attend the Backspace Writers Conference at the end of May. Let me come right out and say that this experience was everything I hoped it would be. I met a lot of awesome aspiring writers, pitched my book to some great agents, and, as much as anything else, walked away with a satisfying feeling of validation.

It really is energizing to spend a few days with writers--aspiring and/or published. In my daily life, so many people really just don't get what this is all about. They ask if I'm "still writing that book" or they don't get why my book hasn't come out yet. Or they suggest I get advice from the person who paid to print up her students' stories and thus calls herself, alternately, an "editor" and an "author." Or they smile and nod but clearly look at this as some foolish pipe dream that any sane person would have given up on by now. "Save me an autographed copy! Get me front row tickets to the movie premiere!" When I talk about looking for an agent, most people don't get what that's about. They think you just go out and hire an agent, or that an agent is some vaguely suspicious thing--"This person gets a percentage? For doing what?" If you do sign with an agent--like my wife did, with Amy Boggs of the Donald Maass agency--many people outside the field don't recognize that as a huge step toward reaching your goal.

The folks you meet at Backspace all get it, though. We all want the same things, and we're all comparing notes and sharing what we've learned. It's so nice to talk about these things and not have to first explain and second have it all sail right over someone's head anyway. (And not feel like people are rolling their eyes, either.) And the mix of people there--besides the aspiring writers there are the agents, the editors, and the published writers. I virtually never felt like I wasn't taken seriously by the pros. I got to hang out by the bar with professionals who understood my dream because it was their dream too, and not so long ago.

It's always hard to come down from that high--from feeling like a writer, dammit for several days in a row. It's a challenge whenever I attend a writers' conference (I can't help but feel like there should be an apostrophe after that S) or, heck, after my crit group meetings. It's not about not liking my day job--I do. But this is a passion too, and it's one that usually has to be fed in stolen moments. Stolen from grading and lesson planning, stolen from cleaning the house, stolen from having a hobby or watching television. Going to Backspace was like mainlining that feeling that I normally only get in small doses.

And I hope it doesn't sound too arrogant to say this, but this trip was also a positive for me because it made me feel like I had the goods for real. Obviously winning a scholarship helped in that department, but just getting the chance to exchange ideas, and to have people look at my work and tell me what was good and what could stand to be improved, all made me feel like it wasn't some pipe dream after all. That's not a competitive thing--writing isn't a zero-sum game, and my success doesn't come at the expense of someone else's.

There was a time when I kept writing once in a while because I couldn't seem to stop for long, but when I had pretty much concluded that I would never be published. That time couldn't be further away now.

I'll end with a pitch of my own, for any novelist who's serious about taking the next step. Go to Backspace. Get as ready as you can first, learn as much as you can, get as polished as you can. It's a good experience and a good education either way, but you'd be wise to prepare yourself to get the most from it. And save up, obviously. But even if you have to pay for it yourself, this conference is worth every penny. My only caveat is, do your damnedest to have a product worth selling. A good manuscript, a polished log line, and if you're shy, whatever source of personal courage you have to find to enable you to walk right up to people and start a conversation about your novel. I've seen this experience up close twice now, once when Lisa attended and now for myself, and no other conference I've been to compares.


Tom Emmons said...

Sounds like fun too! Not many people know what it's like to want to write like that. Most seem to write under duress, and it must bring back awful memories of school.

Still. You are bound to be published. And I get to drop another name! *win*

Karen Dionne said...

What a great summary of the Backspace conference experience, Joe!

BTW - no apostrophe after writers conference. I learned this from Dan Lazar at Writers House when I asked him why they didn't use one. Dan said it's because Writers House isn't owned by writers it's for writers, so you don't use the possessive. Likewise, the Backspace Writers Conference, or any other. For writers, not owned by them. No apostrophe. Easy!

Joe Iriarte said...

Thanks, Karen! It was such a fantastic experience for me!

Now I'm wondering who owns Miami Children's Hospital! ;)