A few people have asked how I finagled a contract with Tyndale House Publishers. It wasn’t easy, and even though I felt this uncomfortable compulsion to finish this project, I had no guarantee the book would be picked up. The following is a guest post I wrote for my agent, Rachelle Gardner. Whether you’re a writer or business owner, I think there’s a lesson here to be learned. When God puts a desire on your heart, run after it. Please.
I’m not a writer, per se. I’m a speaker who learned the craft of writing and secured a contract by her second writers’ conference.
But intense work was involved; especially since I didn’t know how much longer I had to live.
Let me explain.
At age 36, my cardiologist predicated a heart transplant was in my future. Nothing ignited my inspiration like a failing organ.
I put a hot pink sticky beside my bed that read:
“If you had six months to live, what would you do with your life?”
Documenting my four near-death experiences was always the answer. And since writing made my throat constrict, I thought if I pitched my story at a conference to a publisher during a one-on-one meeting, surely they would purchase my memoir and pair me with an editor.
Only that didn’t happen.
But what I gathered at my first three-day conference changed my vision. A new plan emerged once I learned what publishing houses were looking for:
• standout writing
• a compelling story
• strong following/platform
For a new writer, conferences are the perfect place to hear firsthand from an editor if your vampire trilogy based in Amish country has a great storyline. We all want to know if our idea is sellable. That’s why these fifteen-minute appointments with editors and agents are worth the full ticket price.
Here’s the good news.
Most editors offer candid feedback. If they see raw talent, they’ll encourage you. They might think your memoir won’t sell because you’re not a celebrity, but the storyline is interesting enough for a YA novel, and you can run with it. And if they slip you their card and offer hints on what direction to rework your piece, then you have the perfect formula for your project.
The editors I met at my first conference told me my storyline intrigued them, but I needed to:
- Improve my writing
- Get published in magazines or newspapers (they wanted to know I was serious about the craft)
- Develop my platform
- Find an agent
A few said to dump the idea since inspirational memoirs typically don’t sell, but that simply primed my competitive spirit. I decided to let their opinions spur me to work even harder.
Not knowing how much time I had left, I immersed myself in following:
- Attended two critique groups a month and reworked my piece based off of honest feedback
- Enrolled in a writing course
- Studied bestsellers in and outside of my genre. I wanted to know what sold — and why?
- Read books and blogs and magazines on writing, every day
- Picked up a volunteer-job-turned-paying-gig and was published in 20+ newspapers
- Hired two different editors to rework my proposal
- Started blogging
- Prayed daily for guidance since my story really wasn’t mine
Two years and a second conference later, three publishing houses handed me their business cards. I contacted my top pick. And they didn’t want the proposal, but the full manuscript. Two weeks later I signed the contract, gained a nice advance, and a pretty swell agent.
As a side note, can I offer one more observation for encouragement? Sitting in the audience during both of my conferences, the emcee asked for first-time attendees to stand.
70% of the participants rose to their feet.
What’s my deduction? Most people who attend conferences are first-timers learning the craft of writing.
Which is wonderful.
But put yourself in the editor’s seat. After six hours of interviews, reading potentially mediocre work, who stands out? The 30%. The second and third and fifth-time attendees—they’ve done their homework and shown they’re serious about this profession.
A writers’ conference can open doors to your publishing dreams. Attend. Listen. Learn. Grow. Write like never before. Then return to the next event fully equipped, and increase your odds of publication.
Better yet. If you’re new to this scene, do the homework beforehand and be that standout newbie nobody sees coming. And if you need a little fire to get you motivated, I’ll even lend you my hot pink sticky and a disparaging comment to spur you towards success.
* * *
At twenty-five years old doctors discovered a football-sized tumor embedded in Dabney’s lungs. But the greater fear stealing her focus grew inches below the mass: a six-week-old baby. Her cancer and her decision to keep her child began her battle with nine life-threatening-illnesses, four of which were near-death experiences.
Dabney lives in South Florida with her husband and four children.
How to Make the Most of a Writer’s Conference was previously published on Rachelle Gardner’s blog July 26, 2013.