Second in a two-part story…
(read part 1 here)
The two and a half hour drive home from my first Writer’s Workshop in rush hour traffic a couple of Fridays ago gave me a lot of time to think. If I had any hope of ever becoming a novel writer before I entered that nondescript hotel meeting room in Milwaukee, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
The day started out promising. Bob (not his real name), our host, was upbeat enough. A room full of average Joes and Josephines eagerly absorbed the jargon and buzzwords he tossed into the crowd. Craft a query letter. Start a blog. Create your platform. Build a fanbase.
Bob wrapped up his spiel for the morning as a handful of East Coast literary agents gathered in the hallway. Bob persuaded this bunch to take a puddle jumper from New York to a Podunk, Wisconsin hotel to be the centerpiece of his Writer’s Workshop. I tried to imagine why. Were they actually expecting to find the next Hunger Games or 50 Shades author in America’s Dairyland? How much was Bob paying them? Maybe it was the lavish lunch he treated them to at the Outback Steakhouse next door.
The afternoon went like this:
Event #1: a professional critique of that all-important first page. The agents sat at a long table across the front of the room. One by one, Bob picked a first page from the pile of first pages we submitted earlier and began reading out loud. The agents were instructed to raise their hands when they would’ve stopped reading had this been a submission. After four agents raised their hands, Bob would stop and the panel would launch into their critique.
I could tell they were pulling some punches, but overall they were fairly harsh--- only one page made it all the way through. Even so, each time Bob chose a page to critique I crossed my fingers (literally) and hoped it’d be mine. My first page had all the qualities the panel wanted, I just knew it. But Bob, somehow, never picked mine and then we ran out of time.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Event #2: your own, personal “pitch session.” For an additional fee we got a 10-minute “pitch session” with one of the agents--- a cross between speed dating and a lap dance (not that I’ve experienced either). Ready, aaaaaand: GO! They released us into a room with five or six agents, each seated at a separate table. We found the agent we’d paid for and started talking.
My hopes were still relatively high as I tried, in 10 minutes, to describe the book I’d spent the last 2 or 3 years writing. The book about my life altering near heart attack, the physical intrusion of an emergency quadruple bypass, the lingering post-op depression, and subsequent therapy sessions. How the therapy brought out deep-seated issues from my childhood--- handguns and alcohol, murders and assaults, the pipe bomb incident and a near plane crash.
I’ve pitched ideas before. I was lucky enough to pitch a comedy show to WLUP radio (that lasted at least ½ hour) and story ideas to Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (that went over an hour). Job interviews routinely run two hours or more. But 10 minutes? I’ve had longer conversations with Greenpeace guys who stop me on the street.
My speed date coolly told me my deeply personal memoir was merely a disease story.
“You have a niche idea, a very small niche: heart patients,” she informed me. “It’s like a cancer book. People with cancer don’t want to read a book about cancer.”
Then Buzzword Bingo: start a “blog” (ding!) she told me, to build my “platform” (ding! ding!) and develop a “fanbase.” (Bingo!) I told her about my ChicagoNow blog--- not impressed. And our time was up.
The rest of the afternoon Bob explained social media, capped off with a Top Ten List including pearls of wisdom like: “keep writing,” “always write the best thing you can,” and, maybe most telling, “don’t believe everything you hear.”
I pulled out of the Comfort Inn parking lot feeling more discouraged than ever. I am a niche at best, like the agent said. So a book about me would be a niche, too. There’re no car chases in my book, no biblical codes or wizards or any shades of gray. It doesn’t end with a fistfight. If cancer can’t pique my speed date’s interest, what hope do I have with lame open-heart surgery?
And my blog, this blog… it’s a niche, too. I’m not a mommy blogger or a sports blogger. I don’t dole out make-up tips or “life hacks.” I write about my feelings after life-changing heart surgery--- yawn.
As I crossed the border into Illinois I reached the conclusion that maybe, as my father used to say, I was pissing up a rope with this writing thing. If I let history repeat itself, this is the part where I give up, pack it in, and switch to something else, like I’ve done with several other career paths.
Selling hope? Maybe I ought to ask for my money back.
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