In a few days, I'll be in New York City for the 2013 Backspace Writers Conference--not as an attendee, but as the conference's organizer.
We're going to see some wonderful projects at the conference. Some authors will sign with agents they meet this week. One panelist on Friday's program whose debut historical fiction sold to Plume last December attended the Backspace Writers Conference in 2012, where she met and signed with her agent.
But most of the authors who attend won't experience this happy outcome. Not due to a lack of talent, or because they don't have sufficient drive or ambition, but because their work simply isn't ready.
This doesn't mean that coming to the conference will be a waste of time. Some authors who've attended a Backspace conference in the past have taken what they've learned, reworked their project, and signed with agents they met at the Backspace conference a year or more later.
Nor does it mean that these authors will never reach their publishing goals. All it means is that they need to write better.
I'm not talking here about the mechanics of writing, though craftsmanship is important. Like a clock, a novel has many moving parts--pace, momentum, tension, plot, characterization, story arc, character arcs--and they all need to work perfectly together.
"A novel is a large, complex, fluid and difficult-to-manage undertaking," warns literary agent and writing instructor Donald Maass in his how-to book Writing the Breakout Novel. "It is a tough art form to get right, one tougher still to master."
I'm talking about writing better in a big picture sense. Better books. Better stories. Good isn't good enough. Authors who are not seeing success commensurate with their ambitions need to dig deeper. They need to tell a story that resonates with readers by putting more emotion onto the page.
They also need to write the right book. One author who attended the 2005 Backspace conference came away disappointed. But he also came away determined to find a story that would get agents and editors excited. 8 months later, the book he wrote as a result sold to Random House in a 3-day auction.
It's difficult to be objective when the writing is our own. Even with the help of critique partners and beta readers, aspiring authors can only take their work so far without professional feedback. This is why Backspace and other writers conferences can make all the difference.
Workshops and retreats that include publishing professionals as instructors are another option. Writers retreats have traditionally been the province of MFA students and literary fiction authors, but some, like the Salt Cay Writers Retreat taking place on a private island in the Bahamas in October, are open to genre fiction writers who want to take their fiction to the next level.
But authors don't have to attend a conference to get professional feedback. A few literary agents and editors run open mike nights on their blogs where authors can send in their query letter or opening pages for feedback.
Aspiring authors can even purchase a critique. During the month of May, a number of agents are offering full and partial manuscript critiques with phone consultations at bestselling author Brenda Novak's charity auction to raise money for diabetes research.
This advice might seem simplistic, but it works. It also applies across the board. If you're not yet published and you want to be, write better. If you're a published author, but you haven't yet broken out, write better. If you've published your novel yourself but you're not seeing the sales numbers you'd hoped to, write better.
My advice to writers is also why the 2013 Backspace Writers Conference will be our last. It's been a wonderful run, and we're truly sorry to see the Backspace conferences come to an end. But organizing the Backspace conferences for the past 9 years has had a significant impact on my writing career. While I've been organizing conferences, many of my author friends have published three or more novels to my one. I have a "big book" that's been put on hold for years that needs to be written.
Because I, too, want to become a better writer.