One conference qualifier: how many writers will pitch, attend and contend?

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Up on the mailing list for the Writer’s League of Texas, a debate broke out over the price for the WLT Agents Conference here in Austin. One member and former director said WLT wasn’t priced to meet the economy’s downturn. Another former director disputed the additional message — that a $79 two-day conference in Denton, Texas next month was a better value and more affordable.

The WLT Agents conference was as inexpensive as $319 — so long as you paid for it seven months in advance (Nov. ’11) and you’re a member. One thing that would help: earlier commitments from attending agents, so you might see if there’s someone you want to pitch to before you register so early. (I know, people in hell want sno-cones, too.)

If you’re being thrifty, yes, the WLT Agents meeting is not $79. But that Denton conference looks like a different kind of meeting than the Agents conference, so I don’t believe these are really in competition. I’m not sure how a $79 conference could be the same kind of investment as $319 worth of speakers and agents. You could do both, really.

Budgeting for conferences can be tricky. There are good price points outside of the Agents conference. After attending WLT’s Agents meet one year, and then volunteering at another, I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference last February. Fine meeting, but priced right at the Agents. (Agent Laurie McLean was at both.) SFWC has a very deep list of speakers to go along with the agents attending. It’s a real publishing town there, a step beyond a writer’s hotbed. Here’s what I can testify: the organizers (Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada) really reached out to make sure that out-of-town writers like me were welcomed. Even in a meeting that had more than 300 attendees.

See, that’s the other thing to consider while deciding about a conference, something even more important than price, at least to me. Consider the number of attendees the conference accepts.


How to Pursue Contest Entries: 10 Guidelines

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Contests are a great way to get your writing finished enough to share with the world. In the early days of my quest to learn fiction, I entered more than a few. I started by entering contests run by well-known literary publications. It might have gotten the writing completed (my short stories), but the fees would be used elsewhere now, after what I’ve learned.

I have 10 guidelines I like to have a contest meet. You can score your contest prospects along these marks. It’s really hard to get a 10. And you will want to submit in a passionate way to overlook the entry fee, the Number 1 guideline below. It’s your tuition, after all — you learn something from everything you do to support your writing. My guidelines:

1. I like an entry fee of under $20. Anything higher feels like fundraising to me.

2. I like a contest that completes and will anoint a winner in less than six months. Three is better. Life is short. Just decide, already.

3. I like a contest where I have a good idea of the number of first-round judges, and who they are. Otherwise, it’s usually grad students who volunteer. Not to be dismissive of less-practiced writers, but I never was crazy about 24-year-olds judging my stories.

4. I like a contest where I don’t have to be someplace to receive the prize. Travel costs money too, and I want to use my money for book research trips.

5. I like a contest with a cash prize, not a book contract. Publication in a lit journal Of Note might be worthwhile, too. If your goal of entering a contest is to get your writing noticed.

Another Workshop Finalist

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We received word this week that Gordon Rives Carmichael has landed in the finalist pool in the Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest. Gordon’s work has come past our manuscript table here for more than a year, with lots of evidence of polishing and extending his skills.

Gordon, we congratulate you. Best of luck in the finals selection; the conference is June 26. Even being nominated, as the Oscar winners say, is an honor.

This sort of milestone can only happen if you get your writing out there, in front of readers. Offer something up soon.

Hooray for a Pulitzer’s worth of stories

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Short stories get short shrift. These gems of tales, usually less than 3,000 words, usually can’t find a publisher or a publication, but everybody professes to enjoy reading them. Count among the satisfied the jury of the Pulitzer Prize, which awarded the 2009 fiction prize to a collection of stories by Elizabeth Stout, Olive Kitteridge.

To be precise, this lovely book is a “novel in stories,” a collection of tales with recurring characters but not bound up with a narrative though-line. Reading a novel in stories is easy for people who only read once in awhile. You always feel like you’ve gotten everything there is to tell in a novel in stories, so long as you finish the chapter you’re on. Every chapter is a self-contained story.

Six years ago, I saw a novel-in-stories slammed by a prize-winning novelist. Ann Patchett came to Austin to give a keynote speech at the Austin Writers League “Why Fiction Matters” conference. Patchett spoke knowing she’d just won the PEN/Falkner award for her novel Bel Canto. In the course of her talk Patchett said in passing, “and then there’s the novel-in-stories, a form I loathe, by the way.” We didn’t all want to know what she liked to read, or thought was worthy. But some of us knew something Patchett didn’t. The conference organizer Karen Stolz had published a successful novel in stories, The World of Pies.

So maybe — since Stout’s novel in stories won the Pulitzer, like fiction of Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon — Patchett might want to revisit her judgment about the worth of novels in stories. She could reconsider while she’s dusting off the section of her bookcase that’s still waiting for a Pulitzer prize. Bel Canto is based on the Lima Crisis news event, but Olive Kitteridge doesn’t need that kind of based-on-a-true-story leg up. It’s Elizabeth Stout’s world of coastal Maine residents. Booklist said in a starred review

But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this “novel in stories.” Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope.

Never let it matter that anyone, no matter how awarded their career might be, reviles your writing style. You can find single-star reviews for Bel Canto on Amazon, after all. Be your own judge and let yourself — not just your writing or publishing — be the beauty in the world.

Celebrate our finalist!

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Lisa Carroll-Lee, who’s been in one of my writing groups for more than two years, has landed another short story as a Finalist in the Austin Chronicle 2009 Short Story Contest. The Chronicle has a really lean word limit, but Lisa has made it to the Top 10 with her story, Monsters of Nature.

We saw Monsters in October at our manuscript group meeting and gave her our responses to her flight of fancy about furry children. Congratulations to Lisa, and best of luck in the finalists’ round. As they say at Oscar time, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Lisa has made the finalist cut before on the contest. The Chronicle will publish the top three of this year’s 2,500-word gems on Feb. 13.

Enter Amazon’s tourney to get published

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If you need a deadline to finish that long-malingering novel, Amazon provides one. In two months submissions start for the Amazon On-Demand publishing contest. Penguin Publishing Group and Amazon will accept up to 10,000 entries between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8. Sue Monk Kidd and Sue Grafton judge the finalists.

The beauty of this contest is that there are no entry fees. Amazon’s Vine Voices reviewers get the first cut at winnowing the entries, but in the final two round, Monk and Grafton will do the choosing.

There’s a $25,000 publishing contract as the grand prize. For complete information and an entry form, see the Amazon page that contains the Frequently Asked Questions file on the contest.

Contest submission period begins February 2nd, 2009 at 12:01 a.m. (U.S. Eastern Standard Time) and ends February 8th, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. (U.S. Eastern Standard Time), or when the first 10,000 Entries have been received, whichever is earlier.

To enter on February 2nd 2009, go to or, register and submit your entry following the instructions on the entry form. In the mean time, go to to sign up for contest updates and valuable online content that will help you get your submission ready. To register and enter you will need to submit:

  • The full/complete version of your manuscript (the “Manuscript”), which must be between 50,000 and 150,000 words;
  • Up to the first 5,000 words, but no less than 3,000 words, of text of that manuscript, excluding any table of contents, foreword, and acknowledgments (the “Excerpt”);
  • A pitch statement (cover letter/summary) of up to 300 word (the “Pitch”)
  • Other registration information as asked for on the entry page (such as name, contact information, book title), and
  • An author photo (if desired), which must be in .jpg format (at least 72 dpi and 500×468 pixels)

Publishing can take years, but persevere

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The Austin Writer’s League left behind its history, years ago, to become the Writer’s League of Texas and have statewide reach. But way back at the start of the decade, the annual Manuscript Contest for the AWL caught a winner who’s now won a book contract from Holt. From the League’s newsletter, by way of the author:

Jacqueline Kelly of Austin sold her first novel to Holt. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate will be published in the spring of 2009. She won the 2002 Manuscript Contest Mainstream Fiction category with the first chapter of this book.

The news arrived in a PDF version of the League’s newsletter Scribe, which was once a monthly printed item but now will show up in our e-mail in-boxes every other month. It’s great to hear of a book success so long after winning a contest. Making a contest cut is good. A deal is another step up. And Holt is, well, a step up from Xlibris, Authorhouse and other help yourself subsidy houses.

As Gilded Age publisher Henry Holt once observed, a “book is a thing by itself. There is nothing like it, as one shoe is like another, or as one kind of whiskey is like another.” There’s nothing like a book, guilded with a fine cover and bound to be bent in the bed or the bathroom.

Six years to a deal, seven years and more between starting and publication. Keep at those keyboards, join those groups and work your manuscripts. Persevere, or continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success. Have faith that by the time your book gets a deal, paper and ink will still be the dominant medium of writing and publishing. Not that there’s anything wrong with PDF publishing — but many of us aspire to something with a spine.

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