Overheard at the 2016 Agents & Editors Conference

 

On June 24-26, more than 400 writers and industry professionals gathered at the downtown Austin Hyatt Regency for a weekend of events: one-on-one consultations with agents and editors, panels and presentations on craft and business topics, and two keynote speakers. We've gathered some of the wisdom shared at these events here.

  

On the writing process

“Writing a novel is intuitive, it’s instinctual, and that’s why I am in therapy.”

    ~ James Haley, author of Wolf and The Shores of Tripoli: Lieutenant Putnam and the Barbary Pirates, forthcoming this fall

 

“I’m a hugely inefficient writer. I have to produce a lot more than actually goes into a novel or short story collection.”

    ~ Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck and Other Stories

 

“Maybe it’s a writer thing, but when an outsider asks me about my overall theme, I just panic. I don’t know.”

    ~Dina Guidubaldi, author of How Gone We Got

 

“I have to fail at something before I realize it may need to exist in another form.”

    ~ Elizabeth McCracken author of Thunderstruck and Other Stories

 

“Momentum is what keeps writers alive. Don’t just sit on it.”

    ~ Renée Zuckerbrot, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin

 

“Sometimes it’s hard for an author, who’s lived with the material for so long, to take a step back and see what’s really there.”

    ~ Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, McIntosh & Otis

 

“I worked with an author for two years. He rewrote the ending ten times before finding it, and then it took six months to write.”

    ~ Bonnie Nadell, Hill Nadell Literary Agency

 

“We are all gentle on ourselves with false starts. Be gentle on yourself with false endings, too.”

    ~ Sara Kocek, author of Promise Me Something

 

“It’s hard to keep track of how many drafts. There were so many rewrites. It never felt like I found my ending until my second-to-last draft; then I had to go back and do some rewriting.”

    ~ Natalia Sylvester, author of Chasing the Sun

 

“We learn to trust when writing is galloping. And when to sit with grief until the tap opens and words flow.”

    ~ Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

 

“It’s all about voice. Ask yourself, what is bubbling? Do the homework. If you’re not reading memoirs, you can’t write memoir.”

    ~ Ethan Bassoff, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin

 

“It was the right story to be told at the right time...be careful not to treat the story as therapy.”

    ~ Clara Bensen, author of No Baggage

 

“Make the story about what they don’t know.”

    ~ Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses

 

“People are always going to care about memoir.”

    ~ Stacy Testa, Writers House

 

“Do the work. Don’t expect the reader to do all the work.”

    ~ Stacy Testa, Writers House

 

“We don’t write because we know things. We write because we want to know things.

    ~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

 

“I want to write great art. Publication comes second.”

    ~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

 

“The blank page doesn’t care that you’ve been published. It’s unimpressed. But you just have to push through and do your thing.”

    ~ Natalia Sylvester, author of Chasing the Sun

 

On the Craft of Writing

“You are a novelist, not a historian. Your first responsibility is to tell a good story.”

    ~ Susie Pruett, Board Member 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference

 

“I’m very aware when I’m reading a book that doesn’t have diversity or a sense of culture.”

    ~ Tricia Skinner, Fuse Literary

 

“Great dialogue, especially in romance, is so important.”

    ~ Allison Hunter, Janklow & Nesbit

 

“It’s not a romance story if you’re writing about a plateau.”

    ~ Rene S. Perez II, author of Seeing Off the Johns

 

“The book doesn’t really begin until I figure out who the characters are.”

    ~ John Pipkin, author of The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas, forthcoming this fall

 

“I’m drawn to characters who, even when they’re not on the page, they’re alive and thinking and breathing.”

    ~ Monica Odom, Bradford Literary Agency

 

“It’s really important to actively endeavor to write characters who are very different from yourself.”

    ~ Christopher Brown, author of The Tropic of Kansas, forthcoming in 2017

 

“When in doubt, blow something up. Introduce conflict to keep things moving.”

    ~ Mark Gottlieb, Trident Media Group

 

“There is never the lack of action until the end.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“The voice needs to carry the story--a story that only the writer knows.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“The characters and story deserve the ending they get...or it doesn’t work.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“I don’t believe in narrative arc. It’s a mountain range. But that’s not as catchy.”

    ~ Brian Yansky, author of Utopia, Iowa

 

“Literature is so much more interesting when it helps you understand people who are not like you.”

    ~ Mary Helen Specht, author of Migratory Animals

 

“You can stray from physical truth but not from emotional truth.”

    ~ Joshua McCune, author of the Talker 25 series

 

“I start by including all of my details from research. But then the boat starts to feel really low. It’s liberating to feel the boat rise. Get it all in there and then toss half of it out.”

    ~ Elizabeth Crook, author of Monday, Monday

 

“Start in a place that’s familiar and go somewhere with it--this place between the familiar and the strange.”

    ~ Katherine Arden, author of The Bear and the Nightingale, forthcoming in 2017

 

“Labels are useful in bookstores. But great storytelling is great storytelling.”

    ~ Renée Zuckerbrot, Lipincott Massie McQuilkin

 

“I know I’m close to the end when I’m detached from the story, not bringing anything new and not seeing anything fresh.”

    ~ Natalia Sylvester, author of Chasing the Sun

 

“Always cut the last sentence of your paragraph. You’ve already said what you needed to say and it propels the reader into the next paragraph.”

    ~ Natalia Sylvester, author of Chasing the Sun

 

“Do everything in your power to not make the ending precious because it will probably change.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“For me, the finish line was closer than I thought. I cut the last three chapters. Tying a big ribbon on it just wasn’t necessary.”

    ~ Sara Kocek, author of Promise Me Something

 

“A good ending is surprising yet inevitable.”

    ~ Sara Kocek, author of Promise Me Something

 

“The novel should be at the point that you cannot bear to read it again.”

    ~ Bonnie Nadell, Hill Nadell Literary Agency

 

“An ending is kind of like pornography--you know it when you see it.”

    ~ Bonnie Nadell, Hill Nadell Literary Agency

 

“Think about your ending even before writing your first lines.”

    ~ Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses

 

On working with agents and editors

“Be respectful and pragmatic with your publisher, editor, and agent. Do not email every little thought or suggestion, etc. because they are busy and the system can clog up. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets left in the barn.”

    ~ Brenda Copeland, St. Martin’s Press

 

“It’s really important that the agent you are querying is not the first person to read your ending.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“You can’t prevent neurotic authors from being neurotic--you just have to embrace it. The one thing I can offer an author is that I will get in the trenches and stay there until we are both ready to come out.”

    ~ Liz Parker, InkWell Management

 

“We are all part of this great chain of rejection. Know that it’s what I deal with every day. We are all in this together.”

    ~ Jessica Papin, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

 

“I was not the only editor interested in Kate’s book. When you have a great project, you have power, too. I was wooing her just as much as she was wooing me.”

    ~ Michelle Howry, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone

 

“I put so much into the book. I wanted an agent who listens. I wanted an agent who is involved. I found Jessica, put my kids to bed, and hit send.”

    ~ Kate Winkler Dawson, author of Death in the Air: The True Story of the Great Smog, a Serial Killer and the Strangling of a City, forthcoming in 2017

 

“From an editorial perspective, you shouldn’t care about rejections. Don’t take it personally. It’s all a matter of space in magazines or journals--space and time. It doesn’t mean the writing is bad or that you should give up. Keep writing.”

    ~ Adeena Reitberger, co-editor, American Short Fiction

 

On putting your work out into the world

“The bookseller can be your best advocate for matching readers with books they will love.”

    ~ Frank Campbell, Barnes & Noble

 

“Marketing is a living breathing thing that you will lose control of.”

    ~ Brian Contine, Penguin/Random House

 

“The best comp would be, It’s like the Bible, only better!”

    ~Clay Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Kirkus Reviews

 

“Even if your book is like another book, it should still be a journey of inspiration for the reader.”

    ~Clay Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Kirkus Reviews

 

“Readings and author events are about connection. The underpinning goal is bringing people together, not just selling books.”

    ~ Julie Wernersbach, Literary Director, Texas Book Festival

 

“Everyone has a story to tell.”

    ~ Meg Mattingly, co-founder, Backyard Story Night

 

“Be open to the idea of sharing the stage with someone.”

    ~ Becky Garcia, Malvern Books

 

“Talk to the people who are organizing your event. Ask what might make a more dynamic reading.”

    ~ Julie Wernersbach, Literary Director, Texas Book Festival

 

“Realize that marketing goes both ways. Have a conversation about what you expect from each other.”

    ~ Erin Hallagan, Creative Director, Austin Film Festival

 

“Be a part of a community where everybody’s at a different place.”

    ~ Tricia Skinner, Fuse Literary

 

“You should always be growing as a writer and exploring. Our communities can be kind of safe, but sometimes you need to get kicked in the ass.”

    ~ Tricia Skinner, Fuse Literary

 

“If you want to meet other writers, support other writers.”

    ~ Owen Egerton, author of Everyone Says That at the End of the World

 

“Paying those small submission fees makes you a good literary citizen. You are supporting these small presses and the writing community at large.”

    ~ Adeena Reitberger, co-editor, American Short Fiction

 

“If the people who are writing for the literary magazine don’t support that magazine, no one will. We have to watch out for our own.”

    ~ Callie Collins, co-editor, A Strange Object

 

“One of the best things to do is look at publications. Look for the places that publish writers that you like or writers who are similar to you. Start there.”

    ~ Sasha West, author of Failure and I Bury the Body

 

“One thing you have to keep in mind is that your marketing audience is not the same as your readership. For example, if you write middle-grade like I do, your audience is made up of librarians, teachers, and people who will introduce your book to your readers.”

    ~ Jeramey Kraatz, author of The Cloak Society series

 

“The writing mentor is the one who tells you your story matters. They are there to guide you and to give you that first note of encouragement.”

    ~ Syed Ali Haider, Program Director, Austin Bat Cave

 

“Seeking a mentor is a chance to further your career,  yes, but it’s also a chance to further your learning.”

    ~ Samantha Clark, Regional Advisor, Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

 

“In books, we discover that we really are all the same.”

    ~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

 

“We work together in publishing--big publishers, small publishers. We are a community and must think of ourselves as a community, instead of being in love with the idea of the talented individual. Language belongs to us.”

    ~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

 

“Librarians are the biggest community builders in this country. I love librarians. They really understand freedom of speech.”

    ~ Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

 

“I think one of the best things about having a book out is being able to turn around and help others in your community, pass along tips, and give them a leg up with what you’ve learned.”

    ~ Cory Putman Oakes, author of Dinosaur Boy

 

“It is important for your mentor to read for pleasure what you’re writing.”

    ~ Sara Kocek, author of Promise Me Something

 

“Books are conversations between us and the reader that have nothing to do with the words on the page.”

    ~ Bethany Hegedus, author of Grandfather Gandhi

 

On the Writing Life

“We all hear about the debut novelist who gets a 7-figure advance, but that’s not a business model to hang your hopes on.”

    ~ Renée Zuckerbrot, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin

“It’s about the crooked path, writers stumbling--the kind of friction we need.”

    ~ Scott Blackwood, author of See How Small

 

“Writing is its own consolation.”

    ~ Jennifer duBois, author of Cartwheel

 

“Create your own wave. Don’t be last. Be first.”

    ~ Katherine Arden, author of The Bear and the Nightingale, forthcoming in 2017

 

“You cannot just be something you did. Continue to explore.”

    ~ Ethan Bassoff, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin

 

“As you are starting out, the most important thing to do is keep writing. Don’t get too attached to one piece. Just keep going, keep writing.”

    ~ Adeena Reitberger, co-editor, American Short Fiction

 

“If you’re going to sustain writing for a period of years, it has to be about something you can be obsessed with.”

    ~ Mo Daviau, author of Every Anxious Wave

 

“Never assume you’re hot shit.”

    ~ Neal Pollack, author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature