Writers Talk Shop, Novel, and Pitch Conference
Commentary by conference attendees
A Conversation Between Writer Sara Beth Jonassen and Michael Neff
Sara Beth Jonassen has been dedicated to the craft of fiction writing for fifteen years, workshopping extensively with The Writer's Studio in NYC, her native hometown. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University at Albany, where she studied with author Laura Marello (winner of the Aniello Lauri Award for Fiction) and workshopped with Doug Bauer and the NYS Writers' Institute. She turned down a fine art scholarship at The Cooper Union in NYC to pursue a career in fiction writing. Her short story, Biting the Peach, was published in the 2004 spring edition of Gertrude Magazine.
Pitching itself was a fascinating process, and most helpful, especially when I was questioned in return by acquisition editors. Their questions informed me on where the market is moving, what a commercial writer should consider when presenting themselves to a wider audience, and how to better prepare the pitch for future sessions, which in turn, taught me how to improve the novel.
Being on a small budget, I went right to the New York Pitch Conference, feeling that the conference would pay off for my writing career more quickly. I've never lost that conviction.
- Sara Beth Jonassen
MN: Invisible Medicine is one of the more unique stories I've heard at this conference. I find it intriguing. What led you to write it?
SJ: My inspiration came from reading the letters and journals of some of America's earliest overland emigrants, namely women who risked everything (often the lives of their children and their financial security) to follow their husbands across the Oregon Trail. It surprised me that so many early pioneers were hardworking families with ample financial stability back in the States. But despite this security, they were desperate to find a better life, which resonated with me about our cultural values today, how what we have is never quite enough. The letters and journals were often compelling and honest accounts of a grueling trip towards a foggy idea of prosperity, which many of the women of the time didn't seem to question, disenfranchised as they were. My inspiration was to provide these brave women with an unforgettable adventure in frontier America, deserving of their courage and tenacity.
MN: Can you sum it up for us?
SJ: Invisible Medicine tells the story of a sisterhood of women thrust together by cruel turns of fate and catapulted to heroine status during their yearlong migration through the pristine wilderness of 1848 North America—a grueling trail stretching from the sage-dotted Great Plains to the lush temperateness of Willamette Valley. A mystical Lakota medicine woman introduces the women to 'Invisible Medicine', an unseen force, akin to serendipity, that she believes makes her impervious to bullets, arrows, daggers and lances, and also invokes the physical Universe—the elements and the animals—to conspire with her peacekeeping mission. Unexpectedly thrust into the adventure of their lifetimes, including a confrontation with a sadistic cavalry lieutenant intent on slaughtering as many natives as his troop encounters in Oregon Territory, the women must abandon the precepts of their former lives and embrace the full power of Invisible Medicine if they are to make it to Willamette Valley with their consciences—and their lives—in tact.
MN: Thanks! That's one book I would definitely read ... So what made you choose to attend the conference in New York?
SJ: I'd finished drafting Invisible Medicine, and thus began the long process of querying agents, but to no avail. After about a year of querying without much more than a generic dismissal letter, I read about the New York Pitch Conference on-line at an on-line literary magazine, and immediately applied. I was intrigued by the idea of jumping right into pitching my novel to acquisition editors face-to-face—a thought which terrified me, but thrilled me too. I also had the sense that I would come away learning much more about the market and its specific needs as they pertain to a writer with a finished manuscript than I would by attending the usual style of conference.
MN: Do you feel Invisible Medicine is improved as a result?
SJ: Absolutely. I've since refined the pacing of the novel to better hold the reader's interest. Also, I've omitted characters, revised with a more consistent POV, and readjusted elements to highlight the action and tension more efficiently. Most importantly, I've learned that what works best about an entire manuscript can often be pitched in a clear, concise way, helping me to streamline the novel's movement to better support the feel of the workshopped pitch.
MN: What did you find most effective about the pitch sessions?
SJ: I learned that summarizing a large body of fiction in a clear, concise way goes a long way towards solidifying the major draw of the novel in the first place—critical for a writer who sometimes has difficulty seeing the forest from the trees. After the Pitch and Shop, I returned to my revisions with a clearer sense of where and how to emphasize the strong points of the premise. Pitching itself was a fascinating process, and most helpful, especially when I was questioned in return by acquisition editors. Their questions informed me on where the market is moving, what a commercial writer should consider when presenting themselves to a wider audience, and how to better prepare the pitch for future sessions, which in turn, taught me how to better improve the novel.
MN: What about the approach as a whole?
SJ: The conference helps a writer turn a good premise into an excellent premise, and then translate that premise into a viable commercial manuscript. By helping to refine a novel's pitch, while also addressing the elements of fiction as they apply to the current market, it can be an invaluable resource to writers who wish to breathe new life into a manuscript. In addition, the faculty was unending generous with their time and guidance, pointing writers of every style and genre towards their own empowerment by offering clear, useful suggestions at every turn.
MN: How would you compare the New York Pitch Conference to other writer conferences?
SJ: I've not attended other conferences. Being on a small budget, I went right to the New York Pitch Conference, feeling that the conference would pay off for my writing career more quickly. I've never lost that conviction. I haven't come across any other conferences that help writers with a finished manuscript to pitch their premise to an acquisition editor from the industry, which truly made the New York Pitch Conference unique. And all throughout the lengthy conference, there was a buzz of energy present in the halls, a real sense that the faculty and attending editors genuinely hoped to discover fresh voices and promote undiscovered talent.
MN: Where does the novel go from here?
SJ: I'm currently in the process of revising, gearing the manuscript more towards the broadest possible readership. I continually refer to the revised pitch from the Pitch and Shop conference to keep me on track throughout the revision process, and my revisions have already begun to pay off. Instead of writing myself into circles, the work is focused.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
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