Last week was the annual Virginia Festival of the Book (put on by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities). I had the chance this year to attend some of Saturday's Pub Day panels, as well as the book fair. As usual after an information-packed conference like this I'm still digesting all of the fantastic advice and insights the panelists had to give, but there were three people in particular who stood out to me and who each had a very specific contribution that I want to share.
The first was Nick Valentino, author of Thomas Riley, a new YA Steampunk novel. I met him in the morning as I was grazing through the book fair. Events like this have the potential to be a bit awkward: there are so many genres represented that I simply can't be interested in all of them, leading inevitably to overeager authors attempting to sell me their books while I am meanwhile formulating how best to extricate myself politely without having to buy said books. Nick Valentino was different. He was interesting and energetic and a great conversationalist. We talked about the Steampunk genre (specifically Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, which of course he had also read), about the conferences we each recommended, about the many Steampunk-related gadgets he had brought to decorate his table. He was engaging and excited about his book, which made me excited about his book. For that reason it is now prominent on my wish list.
Rebecca Skloot was on the Book Promotion for the 21st Century panel, and after hearing her story it was not hard to understand why. Despite years of setbacks, she remained diligent and dedicated to her book and finally published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Because of her persistence she was able to turn those years into a foundation that launched her book onto the New York Times bestseller list. I am simply amazed when I see what she has accomplished. She truly understands the business side of writing. She has done the research, made the connections and created the buzz necessary to bring her to this point.
And finally, Simon Lipskar was one of the agents on the Agents Roundtable. Panels like this one are such a boon to aspiring writers, and I am always grateful to hear what the agents have to tell us. One of the questions for the panel was what each of them looked for in a query letter. They were almost unanimous in their responses to the question, but Mr. Lipskar was particularly eloquent on the subject (perhaps something to do with his knack for making the whole room laugh). He said that what he wants most is to hear the writer's voice in the letter. So often writers revise their query letters to the point that, though they may hit all the bullet points, the letter is flat and completely misses the mark. If he can't connect to the writer through the letter then he won't represent the book. This is a bit of a wake-up call for me since I have been in the process of drafting my first query letters. I'm so glad to learn these things now and not thirty queries into the process.
So I suppose on the whole the lessons from the VA Book Fest were simple but powerful. The three things I learned from these three people and must keep in mind going forward:
Get excited. Work hard. Be real.