Portland Writer’s Workshop

On February 20th I attended the Portland Writing Workshop, hosted by Chuck Sambuchino. Mr. Sambuchino is the author of a handful of non-fiction books about the nuts and bolts of finding an agent and preparing a manuscript for submission. He’s also the author of “How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.” I’ll leave it to you to determine which genre that one belongs to.

The information on self vs. traditional publishing, how to write a query letter, marketing yourself and your book (Mr. Sambuchino calls all of this your Platform) was all stuff that could be found on line for free, but the concise, entertaining, and digestible way Mr. Sambuchino presented everything made it worth the inexpensive tuition alone. One aspect of Mr. Sambuchino’s presentation that stood out (and was impressive) is the way he handled some pretty off the wall questions. It would have been easy to be dismissive, yet he answered everyone thoughtfully while still keeping his lecture on track.

Want an example? One of my aspiring peers basically asked, What if my book’s a runaway success and someone wants to make a movie? I don’t think it’ll make a good movie. Mr. Sambuchino was clearly surprised by the question, but settled on saying that if there’s no cinematic value to the book, the agents and editors will see that as well, so you don’t have to worry. Sure, I could delve into the subtext of that response, but I was impressed that he chose not to point out how very few of us will ever have the good fortune of having to fight off Hollywood’s desire to dramatize our stories.

My favorite part of the day was  an hour and a half of “Speed Dating” with a panel of five agents and editors. Attendees were invited to supply copies of the first page of our manuscript for review. Mr. Sambuchino read the page aloud, for the audience, while the panel followed along on their own printed copy. When a given panelist would “shove the book aside” they raised their hand. When three hands went up, the work was rejected and the panel would discuss why they put it aside.

Twenty-five first pages were read. Twenty-one were rejected before Mr. Sambuchino reached the end of the page. About half were rejected within the first paragraph. Very few made it close to the end before being voted off the podium. Only one made it with no objections at all.

From my notes of the panelists’ comments, two consistent offenses made them stop reading: the Info Dump and Lack of Action. The Info Dump is especially challenging for new authors, including myself, and for SciFi and Fantasy authors who feel the need, often correctly, to tell the reader how their world differs from the real world. Notice I wrote, “tell the reader.” That’s the issue. As difficult as it is, we need to show the reader that there’s an evil wizard dragon troll that sucked all the love out of the kingdom. Don’t have your protagonist reminisce about it in the middle of a sword fight in the first paragraph. Have a sword fight, why not? Show us the problem soon after. The Lack of Action was often tied to the Info Dump, but not exclusively. If your novel starts with two people having coffee in the morning, something interesting has to happen. They have to have a witty conversation, set up some conflict, grab the reader and go — something beyond considering the dull taste of this batch of espresso, and wasn’t Stumptown coffee much better? Why’d I buy this crappy Folgers?

In many ways the exercise is a gimmick, and one of the panelists even said as much. A compelling, funny, and frenetic first page can be great, but 100,000 words of the same could be appalling. Many times the panelists commented that the author should cut the first three paragraphs and start there. This possibly means they would not reject the entire manuscript based on the first page, but it might not mean that either.

Despite initial reservations about attending a workshop I learned about through a cold-Twitter message, I’m glad I did. At some point (soon?) I’m going to be done with “The Hound of Aneirin” and will need to move on to query letters, etc. But for now, I have more editing to do, and a new list of mistakes to avoid.

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