The DFW Writers Workshop's gong show is an epic event. Every year at the DFWCon, the writer's conference run by the Workshop, aspiring author's submit their queries to a panel of judges, high-level agents and editors, for feedback and maybe for success. The gong show's host read queries one by one. At the moment a judge finds something wrong with the query, she bangs on the gong. Three gongs, the host stops reading, and the judges provide a critique as to why it didn't work. If the host reads your query to the end, then you've hit it big. Applause and cheers. Maybe a full request.
The show's fun, but it can be brutal.
It's like a trial or a gladiatorial game. Your query versus the panel. Sometimes their critique cuts sharply or smashes bluntly.
But you can't fear the criticism. You've got to put the query out there. Make it a learning experience to hone your craft or to find out if your story is gonna work. Brave the experience, and sometimes it can lead to something amazing.
I experienced one DFWCon before, so I knew what to expect from a Gong Show. Not many queries make it to the end. But I took notes, learned from the panel's feedback, and honed my pieces with the help of critique partners.
Prepared and confident, I submitted two queries, slipping them neatly folded into the box of doom.
That morning, I pitched my completed manuscript: an MG fantasy adventure about a young chef battling it out in a magical cooking competition. Despite the nervous buzz in my gut, I managed a fine session with a fantastic agent and got a full request. Things were looking up, and I hoped my good fortune would continue throughout the conference.
The Gong Show happened the next afternoon, the last day of the Con. The final event. The make-or-break moment (If it even happened. It's not guaranteed you'll get your query read).
The two hosts kicked off the event by introducing the judges armed with a gong and mallet. That year, there were agents off stage who could be judges, too. That made the panel of ten or more judges, upping the odds for a rejection.
One of the hosts began reading the entries. Deep-voiced and enthusiastic, he was like the radio announcer for the literary pantheon.
The gong show was intense. The panel relentlessly gonged the first several queries; none survived.
Then the host began reading mine, and I braced for the worst. So much for confidence. Line after line, I could feel a buildup of energy from the crowd and the judges. One of the agents off stage got up and struck a gong. Two more would mean the end, but before I knew it, the host read the last line and held up my query. The crowd exploded with cheers. Shocking. Abso-freaking-lutely shocking. Frozen with disbelief, I sat there until my writing friends told me to stand and bow, which I did without looking too much like an idiot. A couple of agents requested full manuscripts right then and there. Crazy.
Except, the query that was read was not for my completed MG fantasy that I brought to battle, I mean, to pitch. It was for another manuscript, CARDSLINGER, which was incomplete.
You see, although it was a story I would read, I had no idea if a Wild West/card game/mythology/adventure mashup would connect with, well, anyone. I feared it wasn't worth the time and effort to finish.
But with its success at The Gong Show, CARDSLINGER got its giddyup.
Three years later, after dozens of revisions, I sent it out to the world, including one of the agents who requested it from the stage. She loved it, and I got "the call" with an offer of representation.
Now, CARDSLINGER is a real book, published on August 6th, 2019 by Carolrhoda Books. It never would've happened, if I didn't face what could've been a heartbreaking disaster.
Learn, create, and be relentless. Go to conferences. Join critique groups. Give and take feedback. Brave the unknown, the slush pile, or a panel of cold-blooded agents.
I just finished writing my fourth novel, but you won’t find the first three at Barnes & Noble or even on the ninety-eighth page of an Amazon search. They gather dust on my hard drive.
Revisiting old projects can be cringe-worthy, but I’m a big fan of sharing and comparing failures, so these are the books that died on my hard drive. They taught me a lot. Maybe they’ll teach you something, too. At least, perhaps, they’ll make you feel less alone.
My first book, “Kalos,” hit the page as a YA fantasy with too many characters and not enough plot. It chewed up the conventions of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight, and spit them back out in a grayish mess. I loved it. And I queried it hard core. Countless emails earned me a single request for the first five pages (yep, five), and nothing more. The non-responses killed me. The form rejections killed me. But they also lit my fire. They urged me to learn anything and everything about the publishing industry, to meet other writers, and to improve my work.
My second book, “Stupid Good,” seemed so killer when I wrote the last word. After the catastrophe that was “Kalos,” I’d found my genre: contemporary YA. Rooted in the real world, I discovered my voice and wrote characters that felt luscious and alive. More confident than ever, I brought this book to the DFW Writers’ Workshop. There, I found my people. People who would compliment my work when it shined and rip it apart when it lacked luster.
A few agents read “Stupid Good,” but in the end, they all turned me down. They said things like “this story has nice elements, but...” and “there’s so much to admire, but...”
I had to keep climbing, and for the first time ever, I had a community to show me the footholds.
Isla from Everywhere
After a revise-and-resubmit, my third book, “Isla from Everywhere,” hooked an agent at the DFW Writers’ Conference. Joanna Mackenzie brought a brilliant new eye to the story and helped me refine it for two years. Together, we nearly snagged a publisher.
This. Book. Almost. Happened.
But... the editor asked for (you guessed it) a revise-and-resubmit, and in the end, declined.
I have to admit, shelving this book hurt. I’m not a crier, but I cried. In the car. In traffic. On the way home from my nine to five. But “Isla” taught me the most important lesson of all: time spent writing is never wasted. Even when it seems like you shot two-and-a-half years on a project that no reader will ever read, you didn’t. Every word, every page, every draft makes you a better writer.
I won’t tell you the title of book four, because – heaven help me – this one might work out. It started living in my head last June, and right now, it’s on submission.
This novel stands on the shoulders of the first three. I know my genre, I know my voice, I know how to plot a story from beginning to end. And, guess what? Some of the characters from “Stupid Good” came back to life. I gave them new names and new circumstances, but their personalities prevailed. All those hours spent on books that went nowhere stacked up to a book with a chance.
Last time I went on submission, I found the courage to email David Arnold, my all-time favorite author. He actually wrote back (cool dude, right?) and said, “Turn off your email notifications, and drink lots of wine/beer/whiskey, etc. ( <---- Official submission advice.)” Words to live by, for sure. And yeah, my cork collection will probably grow over the next few weeks as I wait for the final word, but this time around, I know something new: I will keep going. If my fourth book ends up on my hard drive, I’ll keep writing. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again.
Writing is a solitary pursuit. If you are to become a writer, you are meant to bottle yourself up in your room and write. No interference. No distractions. Just fingers to the keyboard and a heavy dose of commitment. Right?
That’s the narrative I lived by for years. Mostly, because I didn’t know there was any other way. Then I learned about the DFW Writers Workshop and the DFW Writers Conference, a yearly event that brings in speakers, authors, and agents from across the United States.
- In 2015 I went to my first DFWCon. The first person I had a full conversation with will be my Maid of Honor in two months.
- Last year, in 2018, I pitched my novel and talked to the woman who became my agent three months later.
- This next conference, June 22-23rd, 2019 I will be speaking at the conference for the first time.
- In 2020 my book will be published.
My life has literally changed because of one entity. I have reached my dreams because of the conference’s existence. That’s power, the power of being able to meet and connect with people in this community.
It’s scary. I know. It’s scary to commit yourself to a weekend and to pitch your work in front of an agent. I too hid behind a keyboard for years and emailed my queries. But facing down those fears is what got me an agent. Because of my rambling and ability to answer the agent’s follow-up questions, I was able to articulate my story in a way that 500 words on a screen could never do. Pitching like this, talking to other writers, forging connections, it all opens your eyes to understanding how the publishing world works. In two days I learned what took me weeks of rewriting my query – I learned what my story truly entails and how to explain that in a few sentences.
You might not think that’s possible, but being around writers, learning from them and getting the chance to talk to agents, it’s the ultimate opportunity. I’ve met wonderful people. In fact, people so wonderful and supportive that I can’t even coherently explain how much they mean to me and how much they helped me reach my dream. All I can tell you is they are more than friends or even my tribe. They are my second family and I met them at DFW Con.
Soon, the day after this year’s conference, I’ll be leaving Dallas and all these amazing people I have grown to love. But, I forever hold onto their influence over my writing and you can bet I’ll be back to DFW Con for as long as it keeps opening its doors to me. And I trust it will, as it will for any newcomer or veteran of this thing called writing.
Hope to meet you there on June 22th-23rd.
You can register here.
You have two or more characters in a scene talking about something. Maybe it’s the plot. Maybe it’s character development. Maybe it’s just a scene conveying their growing friendship or burgeoning antagonism. Whatever the purpose, you end up with what amounts to pages of dialogue without much else. The dialogue might be great and the scene might get everything you want done. But it’s still a bunch of talking heads in a nondescript, uninteresting setting.
One of my biggest influences as a writer is the comic book medium. Before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I read comic books. Specifically, superhero comics, though I occasionally dove into Transformers or humor titles like “Groo the Wanderer.” While comic books and novels are different media, there is certainly a crossover in the danger of talking heads. While you can sometimes get away with it in the novel, comic books that are only drawings of faces and dialogue bubbles aren’t generally well-received. There are exceptions to the rule, but even in the world of comic book superheroes, you can’t have every discussion take place during a fight with a supervillain or a natural disaster.
The answer is baseball.
The X-Men love baseball. Or basketball. Really, any sport where characters are moving around, get to show off their powers, and discuss their relationships works. This is why the infamous Danger Room was invented. It’s not because it makes sense for the X-Men to train in a room that simulates peril. It’s because it’s a great place for characters to do super things while hashing out their problems.
We could watch the X-Men sitting around talking about their struggles, or we could see the X-Men talk about their struggles while punching robots. Or talking trash while rounding the bases. Or even merely lounging around the pool with some good old-fashioned horseplay.
Basically, doing ANYTHING is better than doing NOTHING, and the goal of that anything isn’t to distract but enhance. If that anything manages to shine some extra light on the characters in some way while we’re at it, so much the better.
Iron Man talks while building a thing. Captain America talks while doing gymnastics. Storm is gardening and makes it rain. Wolverine sits at a bar, drinking and smoking and being rough. In almost any scene, you can have it take place someplace more interesting, giving your characters more to do than just talk at one another.
Granted, you may not have a Danger Room with crushing walls in your story, but there’s almost always some way to play ball, so to speak. Even if that is, well, just playing ball.