To reach readers, learn from writers

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

It takes skill and courage to write a memoir, and then like trees falling in the forest, our intimate stories thunder silently on the page, until someone reads them. Persuading others to read what we’ve written seems daunting and foreign, unrelated to the central project. And so when writers get together, in addition to discussing their craft, they also ponder the challenges of reaching readers.

Take for example the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I recently attended their annual meeting, along with about 150 of my fellow writers and aspiring writers. The first session in the conference was a panel of four literary agents who had trekked down from the New York area. Agents often turn up at writing conferences, like scouts looking for the latest talent, which is one of the reasons aspiring writers attend such events. Once you convince an agent your book is worthy, they take it around to publishers and try to sell it. When the publisher bites, the book lands in bookstores where lots of readers buy it and everyone wins.

As a volunteer at the conference, I moderated the panel, took questions from the audience and asked some of my own. There were not many surprises, and in the end, the information from such panels can be found in magazine articles on the subject. “Write well.” “Increase your credentials, so publishers and readers trust you.” And by the way, beware of agents who ask you for money. The industry standard is that they make money only after the sale. Each year, I study the agents for some clue as to what makes them tick, and each year I become more aware of their human side. Agents are people. They want to be treated with respect, and since they are going to represent you, they want to believe in you and your work. Ultimately, the agent becomes an emissary and ally.

At most conferences, writers have an opportunity to briefly interview an agent, a compact 10 minutes in which to reach towards fame. My meeting was with Stephany Evans, the president of the FinePrint Literary Management agency. She reiterated the familiar point that in addition to good writing, publishers expect writers to come equipped with an audience. It sounds crazy, and yet, when Stephanie explained it with a warm regard, accompanied by specific information and advice, she transformed the news from a death blow to a challenge. When I tap into the human aspect of the publishing business, I find it all rather exciting.

Another insight into the business end of writing came from keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry, author of award winning supernatural thriller “Ghost Road Blues.” The title of Maberry’s keynote speech was “I can write that.” Jonathan explained that throughout his 30-year writing career, when deciding what to write, he let the almighty paycheck be his guide. If they were willing to pay for it, he was willing to write it. This sounds incredibly materialistic, and yet once the paycheck is in hand, Maberry shifts his focus to creativity, pouring himself towards his audience with the passion of a performer.

If you think looking for a paycheck makes a statement about Maberry’s selfishness quotient, consider this. When he mentioned that he had written or sold something like eight books in the last couple of years, someone asked Maberry how he explains his tireless energy. “A few years ago, my career was on the rocks, and my wife, Sara, enrolled me in a writing class, not to further my writing, but to connect me with other writers. It worked. Once I began hanging around with writers, my career took off. You all are the reason I have succeeded.” His expansive gesture towards the audience filled me with a sense of connection with him, with the writing project, and with my fellow writers.

Someone else asked him how he handles the feeling of jealousy when he meets someone more successful than himself. He said, “I never see writing as competitive. The more you succeed, the more I succeed. If it turns out there are a whole row full of bio-terrorism thrillers on the shelf next to mine, that’s not my competition. That actually helps me sell more books.” Jonathan is always a great listen, in a larger audience, as well as in workshops and in one on one coaching sessions. And as the winner of the most prestigious award in genre writing, the Bram Stoker award, he is an acclaimed writer as well.

Every time I attend a writing conference, like Maberry, I too feel lifted and recharged, which is why I am currently on the board of two writers conferences. And I’ve even tried starting a few groups of my own. And at each meeting, while I am learning craft from other writers, and feeling the camaraderie of their company, I am also letting people like Jonathan Maberry and Stephany Evans, remind me that if I want to find lots of readers I have to learn how to reach out to them.

Notes:
For more information about hundreds of writing conferences, check out Shaw Guides.

The other regional writing conference where I volunteer as a board member is the Philadelphia Writers Conference. Their 2008 meeting is June 6-8.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

3 thoughts on “To reach readers, learn from writers

  1. Informative post, Jerry.

    I wish I had the time to attend a writer’s group in my area. I know they are out there, but it takes time to find the right group, and then it takes time to connect with the others in the group, and write, and read the works of the other writers, etc. Time. And gas money.

    Ugh!

    I guess that’s why I’ve gone the blog route. I have met many interesting people through my blog and have learned much from them. Blogging forces me to write and read and interact. Again, time. But I don’t have to get out of my jammies if I don’t want to, and my little Honda Prelude can stay relatively full for the drive to work.

    Much to chew on and think about here. Thanks for the time you put into helping us grow as writers.

    Brian

  2. I have just found your comment on the Pete Seeger program on my blog, which led me to yours. I admire your focus and the amount of information on writers and writing in your April posts. I can’t read any more tonight, but I’ll be back! Writers are some of the most interesting people! June

  3. Hi June,

    I forget how I found your site, but I just visited it again and find it so lovely, I’m adding it to my blogroll, under friends and miscellaneous. I love how you link your life with photos. Isn’t the internet great?

    Hi Brian,

    Yes, the internet is also a great way to connect with writers, in some ways easier (stay in jammies, save on gas), and in some ways harder (nose to screen, missing sound of voices, sort through oceans of incoming). The key is your passion for wanting to grow, and then finding the best way to do it. Thanks for your praise, and being part of this little corner of the web universe.

    Jerry

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