The next exciting panel I attended at SXSW was called “Tell & Sell Your Story,” with panelists that included author Stephanie Klein (@stephanieklein), professor Michael Chaney (@mjchaney), agent David Hale Smith (@davidhalesmith) and writer Ned Vizzini, moderated by agent Alex Lerner.

The panel was billed as one that would discuss how to write a book proposal, how to find an agent, apps you can use, and writing software. Much of this came toward the end of panel, but the first part was highly valuable too. One of my favorites moments was when Klein (who is fabulous and whose work I am going to have to discover) stated that for an author, balance is bullshit. As someone with a full-time and a freelance job, it felt good to hear someone else say it, although I already knew it. It only mirrored my sentiments that you can always do something if you make the time for it.  They talked extensively about how to structure a writing day – everyone has their own method – but some of the suggestions were to create structured, absolute writing days, where you do nothing but spend the whole day writing and don’t break the roll. I haven’t been able to do this since college, but I should probably find a way to do this again and see if it works for me.

Then they discussed writing itself, and again, Klein said something that resonated heavily with me. She said the moment we start to censor ourselves is the moment our writing becomes inauthentic. If you’re worried that someone’s going to be put off by something you wrote, then THAT’s where the gold is. Because The Redheaded Stepchild is a story that’s so close to my heart and doesn’t always speak positively about some of the closest people in my life, I’ve often wondered if I should tone down some of the prose and fictionalize it a little bit more. As such, it was reassuring to hear that I should do nothing of the sort. After all, they’d probably be offended no matter what. And hey, a lot of it IS fiction.

They then asked, how do you get people to read what you’ve read? They stressed the importance of having your own domain for your material, which was one of the first things I did when I decided I wanted to seriously pimp The Redheaded Stepchild, but that having a website means using a unique structure depending on the medium. I always use my own voice, but I’m going to structure my blog posts much differently than my actual writing, as well I should.

After that, they got to the meat of writing a book proposal, and the consensus was that it should have all of the following:

  • The pitch, which has to be written in your own voice, not the cover letter voice you’d use in a resume. The agent should get an idea of your voice after reading the pitch.
  • A chapter summary that everyone hates writing, but summarizes what happens in the story.
  • A market analysis of what makes your book unique compared to similar titles.
  • One or two sample chapters that showcase your best writing and let it speak for itself.

Or something like that. I’ve drank a lot since then. Finally, they outlined one of the best plans for finding an agent – find similar titles to yours and look in the acknowledgments. The author almost always thanks his agent, and that agent can’t turn around and say he doesn’t represent your kind of work.

So what did I learn from this panel? First of all, I need to continue the practice of not censoring myself with my writing. I’ll probably hurt someone’s feelings along the way, but I’d much rather live an authentic life than a safe one. Next, I’ve got to revise my pitch. It sounds like a cover letter for a resume! I’ve got to inject my own voice in there and show them why I’m a writer. I’d heard the agent trick a couple months ago when I went to the Pitchapalooza event, and it bears repeating that I definitely need to do my homework finding books out there that are like mine. I’m sure I’m not the only branch on that tree.

More panel reviews to come, and thanks to the panelists! For audio of the entire panel: http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_IAP8326