Nothing like the afterglow feeling following a great creative or emotional experience, and this past weekend’s Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego was both. Whenever 200 writers get together after hunkering down all year over their computers, often in a state that is something like the combination of a golden cage and solitary confinement, the spirit is going to be charged. Add to that a weekend of workshops, constructive critique sessions, keynote speeches and banquet fare that would blow away most corporate conferences (and even Christmas parties), and you have what we had in San Diego – an awesome weekend.
So it should come as no surprise if you hear computer keys afire throughout the country this week, as writers spring into action to tighten their fiction and non-fiction manuscripts, integrate their workshop sessions into tip-of-fingertip knowledge, and sort out the issues in their stories discovered by the very same literary agents and editors who want to see the material again.
Which brings me to the main topic: Working with a sense of urgency. Nothing could be more vital to a writer’s career (or an artist’s, musician’s, or builder of apps, for that matter).
Last week, I was slammed with work – no other way to put it. I was finishing book proposals, madly revising and editing chapters, ghostwriting the front end of a book, writing press releases and query letters so that my clients would be ready to present their work at three different conferences which, of course, had to land on the same weekend. Meanwhile, I was wrapping up the proposal for my new book in progress, Just Add Water, the biography of international surf star Clay Marzo – who happens to have Asperger Syndrome.
Amidst all this, an email came out of the blue – or, rather, New York – from my agent, Dana Newman. My fiancée, Martha Halda, has been working on a memoir, A Taste of Eternity, about her near-fatal 1999 car accident, ensuing near death experience and how both have transformed and defined the past 13 years of her life. We sent Dana the proposal in December, but, like every other agent in this country, she’s swamped. So we sat patiently, while fine-tuning Martha’s early chapters so she, too, would be prepared at the Southern California Writer’s Conference.
That changed instantly: Dana had received strong interest in A Taste of Eternity from Berkley Books and Harlequin Non-Fiction, both major publishers. She wanted to know if she could send Martha’s proposal, now.
One thing you learn fast in this business: you’ve got one shot to win over a publisher. There’s usually not a second chance for the same book. Knowing that, I advised Martha to tell Dana we’d get it to her on Tuesday. I wanted to get back into her proposal, update it, and make tweaks. And Martha wanted to improve her all-important sample chapters.
So, amidst a hundred and one other things to do, we jumped. The sense of urgency was absolute. We got up early, and worked under one of my old friends – the daily newspaper deadline, where you haul ass and get it right at the same time. By noon, as promised, we hit the “Send” button.
That’s what it takes when an opportunity arises. The ability to jump on it, act with that sense of urgency, cannot be overstated. At the Southern California Writers Conference, keynote speaker Michelle Scott spent plenty of time talking about the same thing. Michelle has written 29 books under several different imprints. Since she is in her early 40s, you know it’s been at a greater clip than one book a year – more like three or four a year. She understands urgency like writers of her stature and output: when an editor or agent calls, and says they need something quickly, you jump and you deliver.
“I’d written a book for Penguin that I figured was the beginning and end of those characters,” she said. “Penguin saw it differently, as a series. So I had a day to write one-page outlines of second and third books I’d never even thought of. I ended up doing nine books in two different series over the next six years.”
She also shared an experience of going to dinner in L.A. with a friend who brought someone else along – an editor from Amazon.com, which now has five publishing imprints to go with its megalithic book and product-selling operation. “He’d been to a horse ranch that day. My friend told him that I wrote a book about horses; I own and love horses. The editor asked for a synopsis and a partial manuscript. I got it right to him. I sent it that night from my hotel room,” she recalled.
My hope is that Michelle’s message, and the concept of acting fast when opportunities arise, sticks tightly to every writer. Many at the Southern California Writers Conference, and others, received positive feedback and interest from visiting agents and editors. In this hypercompetitive atmosphere, the word “interest” should be synonymous with “review, revise, perfect and submit – soon.”
Jump on it.