Traversing the writer’s road is no easy task. But, it is an adventure and one that has me following a trail of bread crumbs from one event to another.

Last night I was back in Winston-Salem, only this time it was at Wake Forest University. A forum on the future of publishing was being held in the auditorium at Carswell Hall.

Ladette Randolph and Hannah Tinti were involved in this session, but this time as editors. Ms. Randolph, is the editor-in-chief of the literary journal ‘Ploughshares’, and Ms. Tinti is editor-in-chief of ‘One Story’, a magazine she co-founded.

Joining these two brilliant writers/editors, were Chuck Adams and Christopher Schelling. Mr. Adams, an acquiring editor operating out of Chapel Hill, NC, currently represents Algonquin Books, though he has worked with other big name publishers. Mr. Schelling is a literary agent at Ralph M. Vicinanza Ltd. Both of these men have represented well known authors and best selling books.

The moderator was John McNally, an associate professor of English at WFU. He addressed the panel with the issues currently facing the world of publishing, beginning with the struggling book stores, e-books, print-on-demand, and working through to the writers’ issues such as query letters, manuscript problems, and how to get your manuscript read.

I particularly liked Chuck Adams’ views on the next generation of publishing. He is definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy, excited about the larger field of opportunity opening up to new writers. The internet has made that a little easier. And Mr. Schelling was also in agreement that it wasn’t going to be the writer who suffered through this economy as much as it would be the book stores, especially independents. But how that affects the commission for the writer and therefore the agent, is yet to be seen.

I could appreciate the value of having an agent as I watched the way Mr. Schelling interacted with the writers. When Ms. Randolph mentioned an addendum on internet rights that her publisher wanted her to sign, he immediately turned to her and said firmly, “Don’t do it!” She said her agent was working that out for her, as it should be.

As writers, we’ve all been told that the first chapter is the most important, grabbing the attention of the reader from the start. Forget that. These four all agreed that it was the first paragraph that often decided whether or not the manuscript gets read. No pressure there, my fine writing friends! Ms. Tinti says to plant the seed of your voice early in your work, let her know in the first few lines what the story is all about.

And the query letter is still a mystery. What makes one stand out among the pile? Probably the best advice I took from the panel was a mixture of knowing something about the agent/editor/publisher, treat it as a business letter, reel in the reader of your query, and forego the tricks and humorous attempts to get it past a reader.

As Ms. Randolph said, “It shows in the prose!”

As for the event at WFU, the auditorium was full of hopeful future writers, editors, agents, and teachers. The lines to speak to one of the panel were long, but worth the extra time. Since I had already met the two women, I focused on the line for Mr. Adams. My question, genre crossing. I’m never quite sure how to stamp the material I’ve written with one category when it is a mixture of several.

He walked me through that process with questions to ask myself about the completed novel. The most important ones being, ‘how will an agent sell the material’ and ‘where would it be placed in a bookstore’.

With that in mind, I need to work on my first paragraph, carefully choose an agent, and send my mystery/suspense novel out into the world. Better get busy with my query letter!

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