Words of Wisdom from the 2014 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference

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Slice Conference 1The 2014 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, hosted by Slice magazine, was targeted at unpublished writers. Over two days (Saturday, September 6th and Sunday, September 7th), panels featuring successful authors, agents, and publishers set out to demystify the publishing process for the aspiring and the curious. Even for those of us who harbor no desire to write, the conference was valuable and enlightening.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the writing profession is a world unto itself, filled with a variety of platforms (literary magazines, flash fiction, digital, print…), an even bigger range of genres (YA, literary fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery…), a huge list of buzzed-about authors, and most importantly, a wide network of writers who have a profound understanding of their craft and consistently support one another’s work. Not to mention the groups of engaged readers who participate in conferences like this one, attend readings and book signings, and recommend books to their friends.

The overall environment at the 2014 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference was one of shared interests and open communication, with panelists eager to share their knowledge and attendees asking thoughtful questions.

There wasn’t much talk about how to write a book, how to draft characters and feed the narrative. Many panels were instead focused on the process and the business of publishing, and attendees were eager to learn from industry professionals and authors who’ve already walked the road to publication. They wanted to learn about publishing poems, short stories, novels, and nonfiction, and how to pitch them. They wanted to know how to make agents and editors take notice of their work, how to market and publicize themselves and their writing. They wanted to talk about trends and the market, the wave of New Adult books and the breakdown between YA and adult fiction. They wanted advice on when to put down a manuscript and start sending it out, what happens when you find an agent, or how to go on when you’ve been turned down too many times. They wanted to feel like they were part of a community of imaginative, similarly minded people, sharing an experience that’s so often a solitary endeavor.

Panelists did a great job defining a journey with more than one right answer, and explaining a process that’s completely subjective in a highly competitive marketplace. As Matthew Daddona, Assistant Editor at Penguin Books, said in the panel “How We Decide: What Really Happens Behind the Editorial Meeting Door,” the publishing business is based on speculation. It boils down to one thing: someone falling in love with your story on the first read. There are always anomalies, and for every time someone tells you this method won’t work or that narrative structure doesn’t fit, there’s a success story to be told that proves them wrong. It’s certainly complicated, but it makes achieving success all the more worthwhile.

Overall, the panelists’ words of wisdom were relevant to the audience’s many aspiring writers and to anyone who works in publishing. Here are some of our top takeaways for writers—and the industry professionals who work with them:

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Gabrielle Gantz, Meredith Kaffel, Rachel Fershleiser, and Erin Harris discuss social media at “Friends, Who Needs Them?”

1. Be patient!

Patience is almost as important to a writer as talent. In a entertaining panel called “Choose Your Own Misadventure,” writers Courtney Maum (I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You), Emma Straub (The Vacationers), Adam Wilson (What’s Important Is Feeling), Joshua Henkin (The World Without You), and Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth) described their various paths toward publication, all of which shared one common experience: waiting. Fierro and Maum delivered especially heartfelt accounts: both published their first novels ten years after acquiring agents. Their waiting periods were filled with frustration and heartbreak, but also with personal and artistic growth. Ultimately, the seemingly endless years they rewrote and struggled on their work made them, they explained, both stronger writers and stronger people. All of the panelists urged the audience to wait until their novel is “truly, finally ready” before querying agents. Revise until you can’t stand to work on it any more, take a few months off to reassess your work, reread your favorite writers to draw inspiration, workshop it with people you trust—but always, always be one-hundred percent sure it’s ready before pressing “send.”

2. A great writer is also a savvy editor.

As an editor who loves discussing the nitty-gritty parts of story construction, I was excited to attend a panel called “When to Keep Them, When to Delete Them,” in which authors Amy Shearn (The Mermaid of Brooklyn), Scott Cheshire (High as the Horses’ Bridles), Elissa Schappell (Blueprints for Building Better Girls), and Micah Nathan (Losing Graceland) described their editing process. As Schappell noted, a writer who writes without editing is either terrible, or a genius, as self-editing is inherent to the writing process. Being a good writer means not simply producing content but knowing how to construct sentences and stories; all of the panelists either outline their books or diagram them in the middle of writing, and all stressed the importance of self-editing your work before it reaches an agent or publisher.

3. If you’re forced into doing something, you’re not going to do it well.

The above concept was voiced by agent Erin Harris (Folio Literary Management) speaking on social media for authors, but it’s a sentiment that resonated throughout every panel. Whether networking online or working on their books, authors should always use their authentic voice rather than assume a voice they believe will garner attention. In social media, this means concentrating on outlets that let you be yourself—if you’re not comfortable on a specific platform, people will be able to tell. When writing a book, the principle is similar. Many of the author panelists admitted they’d tried to write the book they thought they should write, rather than the book they wanted to write—but didn’t find much success with that approach. As Emma Straub wisely recognized, you don’t get to choose the book you write: the book you ultimately write is the book that lives within you, rather than the book you impose upon yourself.

4. Even if you’re offered a big advance from a large house, it might not be the best option for you.

The “Indie Presses Take Over the World” panel provided insight into the inner workings of small presses Bellevue Literary Press, Soho Press, Melville House, and University Press of New England. All of the panelists made it clear that the relationship between a small press and its authors is inherently intimate, and this intimacy can sometimes work in a book’s favor. For example, a publicist at a small press working with a few titles has a chance to engage deeply with each book, and might have especially distinctive ideas for its publicity campaign; on the other hand, a publicist at a large house might have too many titles to be quite as engaged with their list, and might not even have time to read all the books they’re promoting (I know, #notallpublicists). Small presses may have fewer resources, but use them on all of their books, while big houses have more firepower, but may focus on a few “lead” titles. Writers who seek a close relationship with their publishers might want to ask their agents to submit to independent presses, and writers dissatisfied with their experiences at large houses should look into indies.

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YA authors E.Lockhart, Matt de la Peña, Jason Reynolds, Robin Wasserman, and Brendan Kiely discuss “Coming of Age: The Blurry Line Between YA and Adult Literature.

5. Divorce your ego from the process.

Being able to take criticism is one of the greatest skills a writer can master, stressed Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You.

6. Everyone has different tastes. Keep going until you find someone who likes your work.

Everyone looks for something different when reading a manuscript for the first time. Even among the small segment of agents and editors the conference panelists represented, tastes varied widely. Rob Spillman, editor of the literary magazine Tin House, prefers passionate, voice-driven work that takes risks and doesn’t feel too tidy. Emily Griffin, editor at Grand Central Publishing, said she relies on being drawn in—or not—in the first two pages. And Anna Stein, an agent at Aitken Alexander Associates, needs characters to feel authentic.

7. Welcome revision; don’t be afraid of it.

Don’t be too eager to query your manuscript, said Joshua Henkin. We live in a culture of immediate gratification and immediate success, but that’s not the key with writing. Once you’ve finished the last word of a manuscript, let it sit for a month and then look at it again. Get other people to read it before you query agents—if possible, a variety of industry people, avid readers, and people who don’t read very often. Listen to their feedback and see if you can use it to improve. But writers and editors should both remember that edits are suggestions, and ultimately it’s the author’s book.

8. There’s no need to place an adjective before all of your nouns.

All writers have heard this before, but it’s always worth repeating (we’ve probably committed this error ourselves in this article)!

This was the third annual Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, organized by the co-founders of Slice Magazine, Maria Gagliano and Celia Blue Johnson. Conference sponsors included Amazon.com, Sixpoint Brewery, Hachette Book Group, ICM, Penguin Random House, Sanford Greenburger Associates, The New School, Electric Lit, Henry Holt, The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Lit Wrap, Book Architecture, Coldfront, and Poets & Writers. For more information about Slice and the conference, visit their website.

This article was contributed by YPG members Zoey Peresman and Sarah Woodruff. To learn more about Zoey and Sarah, visit out Contributing Writers page.

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