The Rule of Three, Addendum

Yesterday got off to a depressing start when I saw that the short story I submitted two days ago has already been rejected. However, a quick rejection is much better than a slow one, and the editor took the time to tell me what he liked about the story and what he thought I could do to improve it. So at least I have some guidance when I put it through another round of revisions. In other words, this was a “good” rejection, as rejections go.

I have some general remarks to make about writers’ conferences, and this seems to be the best place to make them. I have tried to anticipate questions you might ask, and here I will give you my answers, based on the fourteen conferences I have attended.

~If you are an aspiring novelist, should you go to a writer’s conference even if you don’t have a finished novel?  Absolutely. Go to learn and meet some fellow writers. Pick a local conference where you might meet others from your “neighborhood.” You’ll enjoy it so much more without the stress of pitching something at your first conference.

~If you do have a finished novel, should you be ready to pitch it at your first conference? No. Let me say that again. No. I was given this advice over and over before I went to that first big ACFW conference. I ignored it, because I figured I was only going to get to go three times, so I needed to make the most of it, right? That was a huge mistake. It would have been so much better and so much less traumatic if I had just gone to learn and figure out how the system works. All those people who said I shouldn’t pitch at my first conference were right.

~What if “mentoring” or “critique” appointments are offered? I say jump on them, but only if you’ve read a large enough sample of the mentor’s writing to know you’re on the same page when it comes to style and tone. These types of appointments can be very helpful. Or devastating. Or both.

~Are the big expensive conferences worth the extra expense? I can’t answer that for you. If you want access to a bigger choice of agents and editors, then you’ll have to go to big conferences. Generally the quality of the classes is high. If you can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year going to conferences—and many people can—why not go for it and learn as much as you can? It may speed up your journey to publication.

~What if I’m just a terrible writer and that’s why no one has ever wanted to represent or publish my novels? What if I’m truly that bad and can’t see it or don’t want to admit it? Valid question. Sometimes I think maybe I really am that bad. As a writer, I may not be Nobel Prize material—but I’m certainly not terrible either. I have read many books, including some that sold very well, that were crappily written compared to mine. As an avid reader for over 50 years, as an English degree holder and English teacher, I think I have enough experience to know true garbage when I see it, and my stories do not fall into that category. People who have read them seem to love them. So, logically, I have to assume I have been begging at the wrong door all these years. My writing has improved tremendously during that time, but the response from the “gatekeepers” has not. I believe I’ve been knocking on the wrong gates, and it would be stupid to continue doing so.

~Why didn’t I apply for a scholarship to Realm Makers this year? I had several reasons, actually. I feel that asking for a scholarship would be like canceling out my donation of a cloak for the raffle. I feel that there are bound to be young writers who might actually have a chance of making it in the Christian publishing world, whereas I do not. I want them to have that chance. And I also believe I would not qualify for a scholarship. We always seem to fall into that limbo where we can’t afford stuff (like medical care) but are still too “rich” to qualify for assistance. I hope I make it back to Realm Makers someday, but I hate to think that the only way to do it is to be a charity case.

So, I’m still feeling a little sorry for myself, especially as all the photos are pouring into Facebook showing everyone having the time of their lives—but I’ve accepted the fact that it would not have been helpful for me to go this year. I would have loved the classes, but I know I would have struggled with the emotional impact of not being able to pitch my six novels to anyone who might have the remotest interest in them.

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The Rule of Three, Part V

I planned the series of posts for this week to distract me from the fact that my favorite writers’ conference is going on without me right now. But, as I prepared to write this post, I realized that I also have some deep-seated ambivalence toward this event.

First, some history. The last time I attended the big ACFW conference, it was in Dallas. I was going through a devastating crisis with one of my kids and almost didn’t go to the conference at all. Then, as it happens, there was a very polarizing incident which occurred during the fancy awards banquet. I had no idea anything had happened until I checked my email after getting home and saw that it had blown up with people weighing in on the incident.

Without rehashing that event in any way, I’ll just say the result was that many of us who write speculative fiction felt disrespected and/or marginalized by the group at large. One person decided to take action. She made the bold decision to start a whole new conference, a conference specifically for Christian writers of speculative fiction. (Note: NOT just writers of Christian speculative fiction.)

When I heard the news, I was thrilled. I was determined to go to that first Realm Makers conference. I knew it was going to grow into something amazing, and I wanted to be in on the ground floor. I loved their commitment to keeping expenses low. The conference was held at a university and we stayed in the dorms for $20 a night. That first year, my total cost for attending the conference was under $400, and that included paying for a room for my daughter Lina who drove me up there in her car.

There were about 80 of us that year, and the contrast with ACFW could not have been more stark. I felt welcomed with open arms. At mealtimes, I would cruise past the various tables before deciding where to sit. Did I want to join a conversation about superheroes, Star Trek, horror movies, or high fantasy? It was nerd heaven.

The next year, I was unable to attend Realm Makers as it was held much farther away and it conflicted with another event that was non-negotiable. However, I was determined to make it to year #3, when it would again be in St. Louis. That was my first lengthy solo road trip—in our non-air-conditioned Suburban, which passed the 300,000 mile mark that week!

To time my arrival correctly, I ended up paying for a night in a hotel on the way, but still my overall costs came to less than $500. A bargain! The conference had already grown to 150 people and now there were multiple classes offered in each time slot. There also was an impressive selection of editors and agents with whom you could schedule appointments.

A couple of my dear friends were there that year, which greatly added to my enjoyment of the conference. The classes were excellent. At long last, I had found “my people.” I thought for sure I’d be attending Realm Makers every year for the foreseeable future.

Then came last year. The cost of the conference increased, and it was held in Pennsylvania, 1500 miles away. Acting in faith, I registered early for the conference, hoping I’d have enough summer class students to pay for my transportation.

No one wanted to take my classes. Still, I had a backup plan which I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I was speaking at a local conference, and they paid me $300. If I stayed with relatives and friends on the way, and if I didn’t eat out at all, I could just cover my gas money with my conference pay. It took me three days to drive each way (I am so not a long-distance driver!).

Just a few weeks before I left for the conference, we received the devastating news that my husband was losing one of his regular contracts, which meant a serious loss of income for us—income that has not been replaced. So I knew even before I began my epic solo road trip that it might be my last trip to Realm Makers, or to any other conference for that matter.

It was a difficult few days for me. On the one hand, of course it was great to attend classes and to see some of my writer friends. On the other hand, I felt more strongly than ever that I was on the “outside” when it came to being published, and that I would never figure out how to get “in.” I came to realize that the path I’d been on for seven years was not leading to publication. In short, I gave up on the Christian publishing industry. I don’t believe I will ever write something that Christian publishers or agents can like.

At the banquet last year, they announced that this year’s conference would be held at a resort hotel in Reno, and I knew in that moment I would probably never be able to go to Realm Makers again. Still, a part of me hoped it would somehow work out, and I kept this weekend free “just in case.” Now, so many of my friends are in Reno enjoying the excitement of being together and learning together. Realm Makers is no longer the “scrappy little conference that could.” It’s now a full-blown top-notch professional conference with a big-name keynote speaker. I knew this would happen eventually, but I thought it would take a little longer! If I had gone this year, it would have cost me well in excess of $1000 for the conference, hotel, and airfare. That is now way out of my league. The Rule of Three seems to have stopped me in my tracks this time, even when I didn’t want it to.

But, I hear some of you asking, why did you make a cloak for the raffle then? Because I still believe in what Realm Makers is doing, that’s why. I want other aspiring writers to get the chance to go and soak in the all-encompassing nerdulence and take the classes and cosplay for the awards banquet. The raffle raises money for scholarships, and as long as I can still afford to make a cloak each year, I probably will.

Does that mean I have given up on pursuing publication? No. I only gave up on being published or represented by anyone in the Christian publishing industry. Since that approach did not work, I am casting a wider net. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be querying agents in the general market. I still believe there is an agent out there who will love my work and want to see it in print. I don’t believe that agent works for a Christian agency or works with Christian publishers. I have zero hopes or expectations in that direction.

Does that mean I wouldn’t attend Realm Makers again if it became financially feasible? Not at all. I would give my proverbial eyeteeth to be there right now. If I ever go again, though, it will be for the classes and the fellowship and the wall-to-wall nerdiness—and that would be worth it. I can’t imagine I’d even consider setting up any appointments, because I can’t imagine the outcome will ever change.

Tomorrow: a follow-up post wherein I try to answer some of the questions that I know my posts this week have raised.

The Rule of Three, Part IV

My foray into teaching at the ETBU writers’ conference led to another opportunity to teach at a local conference. A lady who took my class at ETBU asked me if I’d be willing to teach the same material at a one-day conference last July. Of course I said yes, especially since I was going to be paid enough to cover my gas money to a conference I really wanted to attend later that month.

I had never heard of the East Texas Writers Guild nor of their conference before being asked to speak. What a pleasant surprise this experience was! The Guild is a class act and one of their members was in touch with me frequently in the months leading up to the conference. I was allowed to bring a “helper” and was treated like a celebrity. (At least it felt that way to me.)

I enjoyed the conference so much that this year I went back as an attendee. Again, it was so well organized and they had all the bases covered, including goody bags for everyone and a well-stocked buffet table and plenty of soft drinks and coffee (not that I can have either of those things!).

The conference is very affordable and is only one day. For me it’s less than an hour’s drive away, so I’m sure I will go to this one a third time, and maybe more. If you are new to writing conferences, this is a great one for getting your feet wet. No high pressure.

The Rule of Three, Part III

Three years ago, it struck me that maybe I should stop going only to Christian conferences. In fact, when I first started writing I had never intended to go to Christian conferences at all! But I did because that’s what everyone said to do. Then I saw an ad somewhere for the DFW Writers Conference, and found that it was much more affordable than ACFW, and also always conveniently close! And it was early enough that I could get a great discount too.

I was nervous about going. During my forays to ACFW, I had been told the following things about secular writing conferences:

—Everyone’s always drunk. It’s all about drinking.

—Everyone, including the presenters, uses foul language all the time. It’s wall-to-wall F-words.

—Everyone is super-competitive and not supportive or encouraging at all.

—No one there is going to be interested in any form of Christian fiction or even “clean” fiction.

Still, I wanted to give it a try. That first time, my husband came with me and did some sightseeing in Dallas while I was at the conference.

What a pleasant surprise it was! There was a “cocktail party” in the evening, but that first year I didn’t go to it. The second year I did (they had plenty of soft drinks). I didn’t see anyone even close to being drunk. The drinking was not a big deal at all.

I heard very little offensive language. One of the presenters let a word slip once, and immediately apologized for being unprofessional. The other writers in attendance were likewise circumspect in their language—at least the ones I talked to.

The classes were fantastic, and the presenters were first-rate. This conference had a feature that was so incredibly educational, which they called the “gong show.” During the first part of the conference, aspiring writers anonymously submit their query letters into a basket. It’s totally voluntary. During the gong show, a bunch of agents line up on stage and there are a series of gongs and mallets in front of them. A guy with a wonderful “radio voice” starts reading a query from the pile and each time he gets to the point where one of the agents would stop reading, that agent bongs his gong. At the third gong, the man stops reading and the agents all explain why they lost interest. So helpful! (And often hilarious.)

I wasn’t worried about my fellow attendees being too competitive, because to be honest I couldn’t imagine them being worse than what I had experienced at ACFW—and they weren’t.  Some were chatty, and some were not, but no one was unfriendly. The second year I went to a free workshop the month before the conference and met some people I could hang out with and they were very encouraging.

And unhelpful? I didn’t find that either. The second year I went, I drew a “lot” that gave me a chance to bring a writing problem before a panel of experts. I was struggling with the beginning of one of my stories. Not only did one of the agents on the panel request my proposal, but one of the fellow attendees offered to critique my first 50 pages and she gave me fabulous feedback. So helpful. And she did it out of the kindness of her heart.

Both years I went, I had serious interest from agents in my work, which unfortunately didn’t result in representation, but the reality is that I found more interest here than at any Christian conference I have attended. I love this conference and was sad I couldn’t afford to go this year. I hope I get to go again. I haven’t even got to three yet with this one!

The Rule of Three, Part II

As it turns out, there was a local writing conference held every year at the university where my daughter Lina got her degree (East Texas Baptist University). It was very affordable and within easy commuting distance, so no hotel room or airfare was needed.

This conference was short—just a day and a half, but it had some great classes. I broke my rule of three and attended four times, the last time as an instructor. I taught their first and only speculative fiction class. This conference had a kind of scattershot approach, with classes on everything from writing devotionals to screenplays. I always walked away with something new and helpful. My final time at this conference, I took a class on poetry that fed my soul and got me writing poems again, and for that I am still grateful.

I also won a couple of writing contests put on by this conference, which is a nice thing to have on one’s resume.

The appointments available were not really of interest to me, but that was okay. I went to learn and rub shoulders with other writers and enjoyed it immensely. After the fourth time I went, the conference was discontinued, much to my dismay, because otherwise I would have continued going. It was an unbeatable value.

The Rule of Three, Part I

Eight years ago, I made what was for me a momentous decision. I had been told, over and over, that the road to publication lay through writers’ conferences. I had two “finished” novels and I badly wanted to be published, so I saved up all year and that September I went to my first writers’ conference: ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). ACFW is huge—the biggest Christian writers’ conference in the country. This is kind of like deciding you want to learn to swim and somehow getting into the Olympics.

It was (and is) very expensive. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all if I had realized at first that the conference fees did not include lodging at the fancy hotel. (I really was that clueless). By the time I paid the registration fees, paid for a hotel room, and bought my plane ticket to Denver, I was out close to $1000, which was a real hardship for us at the time or any time since.

I was so excited about going. I had talked it over with my husband and had told him I would plan on going to that conference a maximum of three times. If I didn’t feel I was benefiting from it by then, and if I hadn’t snagged an agent or editor, I would stop going.

That first time, though, I went in with very high hopes—not necessarily that I’d find an agent or editor, but that I’d make a bunch of new friends. Writer friends. I packed tea making supplies and my two favorite china mugs, so I could share tea with my new friends. I had been part of a “newbie” email group for a few weeks, and one other lady in the group had offered to meet up with me shortly after I arrived in Denver. I couldn’t wait.

I met up with my new acquaintance, and I could almost see her thoughts. She saw I was fat, and also old (compared to her) and she lost interest instantly. She never spoke to me again.

It turned out that was a portent of things to come. All the fabulous friends I was supposed to make already had friends and didn’t want more. As an introvert, I put forth massive amounts of effort to talk to people and get them to tell me about themselves. I was summarily brushed off over and over and over. If there was an agent or editor at the table, everyone focused on sucking up to him/her and I had no hope of even having a “hello” returned.

To make matters worse, my appointments went very, very badly, especially one with the YA editor who told me that I had not written a YA book and that in fact my story was unpublishable. “There is no market for this book!” she said in her perky little voice. That phrase reverberated through my head for weeks afterward.

The classes were excellent, and I learned a great many things that I needed to know. I learned them while feeling utterly rejected and lonely, but I did learn. Many, many tears were shed during that conference.

I did finally end up making one new friend—on the shuttle ride to the airport, but the reality was that weekend was one of the most emotionally devastating experiences of my life. When my husband asked if I’d had a good time, I had to say no. However, I was not sorry I went. An experience does not have to be enjoyable in order to be valuable, and that conference was very valuable. I learned many things about writing and publishing that it was crucial for me to know.

So, I went to ACFW two more times. By then I was much more experienced and I had an actual friend to room with and I kind of got included in her friend circle enough that I didn’t feel so much like an outcast. But during my third ACFW conference, I realized that three times was enough for me. Despite my efforts to fit in, these weren’t “my” people. Most of them were romance writers. Those of us who write speculative fiction were on the fringe, and it was difficult to find an agent or editor who would even be interested in my stories.

If you write mainstream Christian fiction or romances, you would probably love ACFW. After three tries, I realized it was not a good fit for me. It’s not as if that’s the only writing conference around, though . . .

Late to the Party

When I look back on this summer in years to come, I believe I will think of it as the Summer of Hunger & Harry Potter. I have been fasting so much since the end of April that hunger has colored the whole summer for me, and will continue to do so. But, the benefits for my health have been considerable, so I don’t necessarily mean this as a complaint.

One way I have resisted the strong desire to eat is by reading through the entire Harry Potter book series. By random happenstance, I finished reading the last book on the 20th anniversary of the day the first book came out.

I know some of you are shocked. Some of you are shocked that I have only just now read these books for the first time. Some of you are shocked that I was willing to read them at all.

First of all, why did I wait so long? After all, these books are blockbuster bestsellers in the very genre that I hope to break into myself. Professionally, I need to be familiar with them, but there are two reasons I waited. First, I had zero interest in reading any of the books until I was sure the whole series was finished. I do not like waiting years for a new book to come out, because by the time it does, I feel obligated to reread all the preceding books so they will be fresh in my mind. I don’t have enough years left in me to keep doing this over and over. Now I won’t start a series unless I know for sure it is complete.

Secondly, when these books came out, I was immersed in a conservative homeschool culture that made it very difficult to admit that one might be interested in any fiction that was not overtly Christian. Even C.S. Lewis was questioned in some quarters. The general opinion seemed to be that letting your kids read Harry Potter was tantamount to buying them a one-way ticket to hell.

Cowardly as it might sound, I needed to have friends and belong to a support group, so I toed the line. I read enough about the books to know that I would probably not mind my kids reading them, but I was not willing to face the social ostracism that would certainly follow. I’m sure I damaged my reputation by allowing my kids to read both Tolkien and Lewis, but I was still accepted in the group.

The obvious follow-up question then is, why read them now? What has changed? Several things have changed. First of all, the book series has been finished, so I could read through all seven books one after the other. Secondly, as I already mentioned, this series is the most successful young adult fantasy series of all time, and since I also write young adult fantasy, it really is imperative for me to be familiar with them—and to know why they remain so popular.

Thirdly, I am no longer accepted in any homeschool group, so I don’t really care if they judge me for reading these books! I have reached the point where I figure that my remaining life is much too short to spend it trying to gain the approval of people whose opinions I don’t necessarily agree with in the first place. The homeschool scene is no longer a place where I feel I belong, despite the fact that I have three years left in my teaching career.

So, having done the deed, having read the books, what do I think? Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

*I love the world building, the scope and depth of it. It is very well thought out, very detailed, very imaginative, very beguiling.

*I love the seven-year story arc, one book for each year of Harry’s schooling, with each successive book getting darker and the stakes getting higher. J.K. Rowling clearly had all the major plot elements planned well in advance. (Unlike me, for instance.)

*I was surprised by the huge role that racism plays in the series. Not black/white, obviously, but wizard/muggle. None of my friends who are fans of the books had mentioned this to me, so it caught me off guard. The villains are all racists.

*I was likewise surprised by the author’s apparent antipathy toward government. The Ministry of Magic is portrayed as worse than incompetent and becomes a body of institutionalized evil and racism. It kind of makes me wonder what Rowling thinks about her own government!

*I was disappointed in her portrayal of teen romance. It is very G-rated, which I love, but it also seems almost devoid of emotion. To me, teen relationships are all about the intense emotions, and I don’t feel she did a good job of depicting that.

*I love her focus on loyalty in friendships. Since I myself value loyalty very highly, this is not surprising, but I love how the relationships continue and deepen from book to book, and how willing Harry’s friends are to come to his aid even at considerable risk to their own safety.

*I don’t think the “witchcraft” depicted in the book can be taken seriously by any educated person in a Westernized civilization. I certainly don’t think it would threaten anyone’s Christian beliefs. It’s a fantasy, and I think most people totally get that. However, I would not recommend this series to someone who grew up in a third-world society where real witchcraft is a pervasive and dangerous part of the culture.

*During the years I abstained from reading this series, I read plenty of articles about how horrifying and satanic it was. I also read several articles that basically said these books are the most Christian thing written since the Bible and therefore it is fine to be obsessed with them. While they certainly do have themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they are in any way “Christian.” That also does not bother me.

*At first I was bothered by how the kids in the story use magic frivolously to “hex” and “jinx” each other, especially since sometimes the results caused distress or embarrassment. However, I had to admit that this is very normal teenage behavior. In real life, kids can’t jinx each other, but they sure do play practical jokes and say things that are just as damaging and humiliating as any jinx in Harry Potter.

*I love that even the good characters are not perfect. No one’s a saint. They all have their foibles and they all do things they probably regret later. That’s how it should be, especially if they learn from their misdeeds.

*Rowling commits many of the modern “sins” of writing. She uses an unnecessary number of adverbs, indulges in head-hopping, tells instead of shows, and lets the action lag at times. At writers’ conferences, they make it sound like all of these sins are unpardonable, and if you commit them, you will never get published and no one will ever read your books. However, the reality is that you can get away with the most egregious writing transgressions as long as you have an engaging story, and since Rowling delivers on the story, all is forgiven.

So, now I can finally “get” all the Harry Potter references I’ve been hearing for years. I know my Hogwarts “house”—Ravenclaw. I didn’t take any tests to determine my patronus, because I already know what mine would be: a cape buffalo.

Happy Birthday, Harry.