Unpacking the PNWA Experience

I feel like I just returned from four days on the moon instead of from four days at a writer’s conference at the Sea-Tac Hilton, so completely was I transported out of my daily existence. Even though I joined the Pacific Northwest Writers Association a few months ago with an eye toward the conference, I signed up at the last minute, still unsure if I was ready, unconvinced I could learn anything new about writing. But a small voice niggled in the back of my mind, and I’ve been working on listening to the voice instead of dismissing it as I’ve done most of my life.

I’m so glad I listened. I could not have imagined a richer four days. The workshops were all excellent—each one exceeded my expectations. The other writers were open and supportive, friendly, and talkative—all of which surprised me, I guess because writers are notoriously introverted (well, at least I am), and since there were NY agents and editors at this conference, I expected a sense of competitiveness.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. I sat down at the table with the Memoir sign and within 10 minutes I was joined by three other women. We took turns sharing our stories and giving each other feedback, all instant compatriots linked by our love of words, all of us with four incredibly different stories.

I sat in a workshop called “First Page” in which attendees submitted the first page of their book to be read aloud by a volunteer. As she read, the panel of judges (5 agents/editors) were to raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading (this to give the writers in the room a sense of what catches an agent or editor’s attention or makes them hate one’s work). Once three hands were up, the volunteer stopped reading and the panel members told the audience what made them stop reading. The first handful of first pages didn’t get very far before the hands shot up. Common complaints from the panel included confusing openings, too much narrative, too much tell and not enough show. I began to regret handing over my first page—I wasn’t sure I could handle my work being judged like this. But then, a couple of pages got read all the way to the end and the panel had kind words. I started feeling better.

And then. Then I saw the volunteer reader holding my page (I could tell—it was double-sided). I started sweating (beyond the “normal” hot flashes I’ve been experiencing of late), my heart pounding. I entered that out of body orbit and I tried to pay attention as the volunteer read my first page. She got through the first paragraph and one hand was up, but the other panel members seemed engaged. Second paragraph—the one hand that was up seemed to flag a little (and honestly, this panel member didn’t seem to like much of anything). Other panel members were still listening, smiling even. And at the end, everyone applauded. The panel members complimented me on my clear writing, crisp language, and engaging story. The one male member of the panel said he wanted to know what happened to that little girl and felt for her and her dilemma.

Validation. I floated out of that workshop. What had been a casual decision to attend it at all turned into the most critical moment of the conference for me. People liked my story! Visions of publication danced in my head. Editors and agents will beg to represent me, I thought. And, in fact, all of the agents and editors I pitched to later that day invited me to submit my work to them for consideration, and I have since my return on Sunday.

But a few of the agents/editors I spoke with wondered what my “hook” was and how my story was relevant, and this question has me deep in thought as I work to finish my memoir which, for those who are wondering, is tentatively titled Co-Parent: How I Became a Divorced Lesbian Mother of Two Adopted Multi-Racial Girls in the Not So Gay 90s. I thought my hook was evident: same sex marriage is all over the headlines. What’s more relevant than a story about same sex divorce and custody? Still, a couple of these women asked why anyone would want to read my story, when it happened so long ago. Which makes me wonder . . . why do we read history? And how can I make my history more relevant?

Interestingly, the agents/editors who asked these questions were all of my generation—late 40s to late 50s—and those who were more enthusiastic were younger. And this disparity also has me wondering if those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, no matter how liberal we might be, still carry traces of homophobia with us in spite of recent cultural advances.

So, I’ve decided to crowd-source my “hook“—what will make my story appealing to readers outside of the narrow “divorced adoptive lesbian mothers” demographic?

I was heartened to find this Doonesbury cartoon in the Sunday paper—it made me feel that my story was indeed relevant, but I’m no Gary Trudeau. I need to convince agents and editors to take a chance on unknown me.

11 thoughts on “Unpacking the PNWA Experience

  1. I don’t understand the confusion about your “hook” and the relevance in today’s market. It seems pretty clear to me. In fact, I’ve always thought you had one of the strongest hooks in our writing group. I’ve read a lot of memoirs over the past few years (some published by big name NY houses) and I don’t necessarily see a hook. Sometimes, it’s just great writing. I imagine it’s just because the story didn’t resonate with them personally, but once you find the right agent you’ll have a powerful advocate. I believe in what you are trying to say. It’s a good story. Keep going!

    1. I totally meant to give a shout out to the writing group in this piece–gah. Sometimes I get so focused on what i’m trying to say, I forget all that I want to say.

      I’m so glad all of us RWBers and LK memoir students had a positive experience. It goes to show we have a great mentor in Laura.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Hi Pamela,

    I was at the PNWA conference, actually sitting behind you in the first page session, though we didn’t actually meet. But I loved hearing your first page and got to experience vicariously the excitement it gave you to hear the positive feedback 😉 Many congrats and I wish you all the best with your journey to publication. I think your book sounds fascinating.


  3. Hi Pamela. I also attended the PNWA Conference for the first time. I, too, was surprised to find an atmosphere of gregariousness and fellowship. The experience left me feeling energized and encouraged. I’m glad you got some encouragement, too.

    To address your question, maybe you could use your experience to show how society’s (and the legal system’s) perception of parenting roles is shifting as a result of same-sex marriage and divorce. The traditional complaint of divorced men (true or not) is that family courts favor women, almost automatically awarding them custody and property. Do divorcing same-sex couples force us to re-examine our assumptions, and perhaps make basic changes in the system? I’d think that would interest anyone who cares how our culture is changing. A drawback of doing that is that it might dilute the personal nature of your memoir.

    Having said that, not every book that’s published is “relevant” to every reader, but I think your book is a human story, and humans like to read about other humans.

    1. Morgan–thanks for the feedback. In fact, I was treated like the father in this case–it made me so empathetic to divorcing dads. Something def needs to change in the legal system with custody as there are no good answers as it stands.

      I am pondering making the book more academic, more political maybe as a way to get it out there. Something to think about.


  4. Beautiful unpacking of your PNWA experience, Pam. I’m so glad it worked for you and that you stepped even further along the path (and also a little relieved, because I’m planning to attend next year). The first page experience sounds a bit scary, but also powerful. Thanks for sharing this so elegantly.

    1. Thanks for the follow and the kind words. I highly recommend attending–so worth it. I was terrified but I also made a commitment to myself to get the most out of the conference and to put myself out there, regardless. Scary, but totally worth it. Writers and book people are kind.

  5. We’ve both posted on this… and I couldn’t agree more, that it so exceeded my expectations. Add to the thrills of the conference, the chance to get to know you and J better… win-win. When was this session with the first page? Wish I’d been there, as this is so intriguing! Love the idea, and would have loved to have heard all those first pages, and the feedback from the panel.

    Like others, I see your hook and don’t really understand the confusion. Maybe it’s the packaging? Wording can really change how people read things and perceive them. Maybe a new phrasing for the “pitch,” to draw the reader in. The hook, stays the same, but the bait changes. 🙂

    1. Yes! Exactly–I need to change the packaging. I’m struggling though, after thinking one way for so long. So, now that I have some free time, I’ll be able to ponder it more thoroughly.

      The panel was on Saturday and I just happened to go sort of by accident–I snagged Jolene’s ticket since I had not registered early enough, and she was going to another workshop. They asked for my page as I walked in, and at first I declined. Then I thought, what the hell? I had been toting my proposal around all weekend, so I turned it in

      Best decision ever. Along with going to the conference. Loved hanging out with you and getting to know you too. Hope for more–coffee for sure!

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