1. Sharks – You know a shark the moment you see one. You recognize your own cold, calculating glare in their eyes and you instantly think, “there’s my competition”. I would consider myself a shark. Dressed in my blazer and dark purple polo, I had practiced my elevator pitch about a dozen times in the mirror prior to coming. I had a swagger about me that said, naively, I’m the real deal…even though I haven’t officially published anything.
And what do sharks do? They go where the fish are swimming and take bites where they can (I assume, anyway…). Sharks come in a variety of types, of course. You have the whale sharks, who are super nice and just kind of drift along, chewing an agent or editor’s ear when they can. You have the vicious hammerheads who butt in whenever they can and dive into a feeding frenzy, usually coming on way too strong in the process. And then you have your majestic Great Whites who are just simply “the real deal”. They know where to feed, when to feed, and they end up leaving having sunk their teeth into something truly special.
Okay, I’m really starting to reach on that whole shark metaphor. What kind of shark am I, you might ask? I’d say I’m more of a whale shark in transition. I’m still learning to be ferocious. Still scraping after flounders when I’d rather have some choice seal. We’ll get there, but for now, I rarely bite.
2. Wanderers – This might be the largest group of people you find. I would also call them the “perpetual pre-novelists”. This group is always just on the verge of possibly some day getting around to almost writing the second-to-last chapter of that “forthcoming” masterpiece. Year after year they show up and are approximately 17 words closer to that goal. They ask questions throughout the workshops and some are applicable but others are completely out of left field. Case in point, one of our speakers opened up the floor to questions this afternoon, and a woman raised her hand basically just to tell us that she had written 100,000 words—or half of the finished book. The speaker kind of shook his head and then asked her if she had a question to go with that random statement.
Another wanderer today showed up in frayed-end jean shorts and a black t-shirt wearing an Indiana Jones fedora and had a beard that could have passed for a live badger. I gathered that he hadn’t bothered to register online for anything, but demanded a meeting with one of the two agents on hand. Before you ask, no, he didn’t have anything printed out and ready to present or share.
Wanderers are the easiest group to identify as amateurish, but my advice is to never underestimate one. All it takes is a wanderer finally finishing his or her book and suddenly you’ve got another potential shark in the tank. And who knows, that shark might be the deadliest one yet. After all, he or she may have been swimming a whole lot longer than you!
3. Survivors – If there was one group of people I was completely unprepared to encounter, it had to be the “survivors”. At my first conference, I would say this group of people accounted for roughly 1/3 of those I met. Before I say anything else, I just want to say that my heart broke for many of these individuals. You will see why in a moment. I assumed this conference would be nothing but sharks and wanderers and, as I started talking to people, I began to slowly realize what was really going on behind the scenes. It shook me a little.
So many of the people I met—mostly women—were either survivors of cancer, had lost children, or survived some other unspeakable family crisis. At one point, I went to a breakout session workshop on “writing non-fiction”, which I attended to help hone my upcoming “Naked in Korea” release. Unfortunately, the so-called workshop rapidly descended into a healing circle with broken women to whom I simply could not relate, being a 26-year-old shark who has only experienced relatively shallow things, evidently. The experience took me down a peg, which was probably a good thing. For the next half hour, instead of getting useful feedback on my book, I had to hear about how writing is a “transcendent, spiritual” process and I had to keep from rolling my eyes because I could tell that, for the people around me, this was very helpful advice. The woman beside me kept telling me how God had chosen her to write her book, not knowing that I’m probably the last person you want to join you down that road.
Nevertheless, I found myself pretty floored by the stories I heard. The experience put much-needed perspective on what had been The Sean Chandler Show since 8:00 a.m. this morning. Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book! I didn’t mind being dragged back to Earth.
At first, the “survivors” kind of annoyed me. And that is not meant to short-sell their heroic struggles against pain and adversity. I empathize with them, I really do. All I’m saying is that many of their books are only therapeutic and will never be finished because, well, I’m not sure their experiences really have endings in the first place. I would nod my head and show how sorry I was while they told me about their struggles and of course I would feel something, but I couldn’t understand why they had bothered to come to the conference without anything to pitch. The conference became counseling and I felt like a shark swimming in a pool of emotion. It wasn’t helpful, just…enlightening.
Serious authors need to be on the lookout for these sorts of groups. It’s probably best to avoid workshops full of them, but it’s also necessary to listen to what they have to say. These people clearly have stories they want to share but most of them will never finish their books, much less find publishers. Speaking to you might be the closest they ever get to having someone hear their tales. When dealing with books, one should always be on the lookout for a few torn pages.