Work/Life Balance: The Craziest Weekend Ever, Part II

Behold! The long awaited (not really) sequel to the blog post detailing the insane adventure of going to The Writer’s Digest Conference while simultaneously attempting to manage my son’s fifth birthday weekend. If you missed the first part, check it out here. It might explain some of my complete breakdown.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

5:30 AM: I woke up about eighty times in the middle of the night, so I am not really feeling up to this, but I know that I must. So, I pull myself out of bed before Ismael, my husband, gets the chance to tug me out by my foot. (He has done this before.) He has woken me up armed with coffee again, and breakfast which I can’t eat because my stomach feels gross again this morning. I have chosen to skip the first seminar I signed up for because it didn’t look like it would really apply to me. Still, this is the latest I can wake up.

6 AM: I rush to get ready. Again, because I am dragging myself around like a stubborn dog on a leash, I am running late. Also, the sky has seen fit to open up and drop all of its contents on the ground and umbrellas and puddles are not going to make things any easier. As I struggle to get myself together, continually fumbling objects, I whine to Ismael that I wish I could just stay home and play video games with him and Logan.

7:30 AM: The boys drop me at the train station. The rain is steady. I should be worried about the torrential downpour and my cute flats, but I’m not. I run upstairs and immediately discover that the train is only running uptown, not downtown. I will have to take it up to the last stop and then come back down. That will add about 20 minutes to my commute, but it’s not the end of the world. If anything, it will give me more time to memorize my pitch.

Deer in headlights, thy name is Justine

7:45 AM: The train arrives. I walk on and my shoe promptly slips out from under me. I fall onto my ass on a rain soaked subway floor. Don’t ever believe what they tell you about New Yorkers being mean. The entire train car rushes to help me up. It is early Saturday morning and the entire train car consists of seven people, but they all come to help me. But I’m okay. A little more shaken than I was five minutes ago, but there is a special level of adrenaline raging through me at this moment and I feel nothing. Nothing, that is, but the intense nervousness that comes with knowing your career may very well be furthered in the next few hours…if you do it right.

8 AM: The Order of the Key is a young adult urban fantasy about a girl named Jacklyn Madison who…DAMN IT! THAT’S NOT WHAT I WROTE! MEMORIZE, WOMAN! Then get ad-libby!

8:30 AM: Take 375. I hope these agents have a sense of humor.

8:45 AM: Vanderbilt and 45th Street has a slippery street from Hell. I nearly fall again because I am me.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, because when in this mess did I have time to take a picture?
Courtesy of Wikipedia, because when in this mess did I have time to take a picture?

9 AM: I have arrived! Success!

Seminar 1: “You Have Three Pages to Win Me Over: Essential Advice for Your Opening Pages” – This seminar is led by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Well-Known Author and Editor in Chief of Merit Press. The fact that I manage to take any notes on this presentation at all is a testament to Ms. Mitchard’s engaging public speaking. My brain is completely on the fact that the minute this is done, I’m pitching my novel. Still, I  enjoy Mitchard’s discussion. She spends time reminding us that agents want to love your book. They are not looking to reject anything. She explains that it’s important to have a powerful first three pages, filled with promise for an interesting premise and engaging characters. When writing your first three pages, it is best that the reader is able to see that this set up can go in many interesting directions.

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.00.57 PM
That’s me in the blue towards the back, waiting to pitch to an agent! Courtesy of

10 AM: Pitch Slam – The line curves around three times. There are probably around 200 people waiting to speak to 50 agents and publishing company representatives for 3 minutes at a time. The writer/agent equivalent of speed dating. This is, hands down, the most nervous I have ever been. I have had spinal surgery. I have had casual hangout time with certifiably insane people, I have given birth to a baby, and this is the most nervous I have ever been. To me, this is the equivalent of taking Logan around and saying, “This is my baby. Judge him, please, and let that judgment seal his fate.”

Chuck Sambuchino, who ran the Pitch Perfect session the day before, checks badges at the door to make sure we are in the correct session (there are three). I don’t know if I look like I’m going to barf, or if my bright blue shirt stands out, or if I look friendly, or what, but Chuck wishes me good luck. Maybe he said that to everyone and I’m just not paying attention, but it immediately eases some of the panic.

I go inside and wait on the line in front of my # 1 agent choice (P.S. I’m not naming names here, because professionalism). While I wait on the line behind three other people, I am near hyperventilating. And then, there is only one person in front of me. And then there are none, and I walk over to Agent #1 with a smile. I start talking, and I know I sound nervous, but she smiles and nods enthusiastically as I speak, and suddenly, I’m feeling better about this whole thing. Agent #1 says she would love to see more of my work and asks me to send her some sample pages and a synopsis. And she gives me her coveted card.

I have a card in my pocket! The rest is just cake, right? So I get on the line for Agent #2 with a whole different attitude. Except, that line is long. I wait. I wait some more. And then Chuck runs up to me. “Genre?”

“Young Adult, Urban Fantasy,” I answer.

He points me in the direction of an agent who was on my list of folks to see. “No line. Go, NOW.”

I don’t have time to get nervous. I go. I pitch. She gives me her card. Life is good.

I walk back to the line I had been in. It is shorter. I wait. I pitch. She gives me her card. Life is still good.

I go to the next line. No, wait, I’m standing in the wrong line. I’m on line for the wrong agent! The signage was a little confusing and I have lost time. I rush to a different agent and I’m told I will be the last one to pitch for her and this is my last pitch of the day. I pitch. She likes the idea, but doesn’t think she’s the best fit to represent me. Life is still good. I have walked out of here with three cards more than I had, three agents ready to see my work.

Now if I don’t get published, it’s not the fault of my pitch…it is the fault of my writing. Um…did the pressure just ratchet up a little?

11:10 PM, Seminar 2: “Creating Suspense: 13 Techniques for Making Your Readers Sweat” – Yet another seminar that had a compelling leader in Jane K. Cleland, mystery author. This was a lucky thing, because she pulled me away from texting my circle to let them know how the pitch slam went, instead drawing me into her seminar. The two main points I walked away with from this one? 1) Use surprises in small doses. Don’t have big explosions…have the clock ticking as the bomb inches towards an explosion. It is better to know something bad is coming then to watch something bad happen. 2) “Look”, “feel”, and “hear”, and other variations of those words are telling, not showing, words. Seek them out in your manuscript and destroy what you can.

12:10 – Lunch! Again, I am starving, so I run to Cosi. As soon as I get settled, a fellow attendee rounds all of the writers in

Cosi across from the Roosevelt, courtesy of Google Maps.

the restaurant up and we share our pitch stories. I strike up a conversation with a non-fiction writer who is pitching a health book that sounds interesting. She asks what my book is about. I clam up. I get to interdimensionals, cease to make sense and grumble “I can’t explain it!” with no absence of frustration. She laughs. “Seems like you did fine in there.” She’s right, of course, so I share my theory that the adrenaline rush has fried my brain. But the truth is more likely that I don’t feel like she will understand my book. There is a big difference between non-fiction and stories about interdimensional monsters. I still feel crazy about writing weird stuff, but when I was in that room, talking to the agents, I felt like I was with my people. After one internal cringe when mentioning the interdimensionals, I recovered, because, if these people published fantasy before, they’d seen just as crazy as me, and I was alright.

1:30 PM, Seminar 3: “All Kidding Aside: How I Became a Published Author and What You Can Learn from My Experience” – This panel, moderated by Writer’s Digest super-publisher, Phil Sexton, contains authors Joe Nelms, Sean Ellis, Jeffrey Somers, Kristopher Jansma, Julia Fierro, and Kelly Braffet. I don’t take notes from this panel as much as I fall in love with every single writer on it. All are clever and funny and all are sharing their stories of how they found their way into becoming a published author. Some stories are a little disheartening, others inspiring, all showcase great personalities. I spend most of the time adding books to my “To Be Read” list.

2:40 PM, Seminar 4: “Goodreads: The Platform That Can Make Your Career” – Once again led by Michael J. Sullivan, this seminar is where things begin to go downhill for me. As I sit, listening to him have trouble working the slide show, and allow his wife to take over because she knows what she is speaking about more than he does, I wonder how someone I enjoyed listening to so much the day before turned into this guy. I’m bored. Due to lack of sleep and my, now waning, adrenaline burst, I begin to fade. In the end, I leave early because I now realize I don’t have the books I bought on my lunch break with me, and I must have left them at the last panel, because I have clearly begun to mentally check out. I manage to retrieve the books.

3:40 PM, Seminar 5: Panel: “Independent Bookstores – Your Secret Weapon” – This panel contained Emily Pullen, Store Manager/Bookseller of WORD Bookstore, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Co-Owner and Event Coordinator at Greenlight Bookstore, Lena Valencia, Frontlist Buyer, The POWERHOUSE Arena, Michele Filgate, Indie Bookseller and Event Coordinator at Community Bookstore, Douglas Singleton, Buyer and Literary Journal Curator at McNally Jackson Books, Margot Sage-EL, Owner of Watchung Booksellers, and Dan Cullen, Senior Strategy Officer of American Booksellers Association. While discussion of indie booksellers was interesting, there was a lot of talk involving the idea that you must be a local to get your book in an indie bookstore. That prompted a search for indie bookstores in the Bronx. There are none. I quickly realize that, with three other seminars going on at the same time, I’m attending the wrong one for me. I begin to flag. A headache begins to thrum, my back begins to remember that I have fallen today, and I begin to text Ismael to see if he would mind a quick drive into the city to come and get me. The central keynote speech is after this, followed by a cocktail party I have already come to understand I could not possibly survive without wanting to throw up on someone’s pretty, pretty shoes.

4:40 – Central Keynote Speech – “The Rules of Writing and When To Break Them with Harlan Coben” – After calling Ismael and discussing the way the rest of the day would go, I head into the keynote speech and there is not a single seat available. I stand in the back of the room, bad back and all, and wait for the phone call from Ismael saying he was outside. Except, when it comes, I don’t want to leave right away. Harlan Coben is in the middle of a hilarious speech about the truth of the business, demanding that, if we have a better path in life, we should take it, because people who torture themselves as writers do so because they have no other choice. I laugh more during that hour than I did in the entire conference, and I’ve laughed a lot over these last two days. Coben probably earned more new readers with that speech than he could have done on a publicity blitz. His audience ate up everything he said and loved it. A very clever, very funny guy.

5:30 Exit: Alas, all good things must come to an end. I get into the car with Ismael and Logan.

Logan, being a superhero at his superhero theme party. And yes, that's a Super Grover t-shirt.
Logan, being a superhero at his superhero theme party. And yes, that’s a Super Grover t-shirt.

There would be a series of seminars the following day, but there would also be a birthday party for my son at an indoor playground with all of his closest friends, and that was where I intended to be. Upon returning home on Sunday, I would be zonked enough to fall asleep on the couch while Logan plays with his birthday presents.

For now, however, I have the cards of three agents in my pocket. As soon as I get into the car, Ismael scoffs. “And you wanted to stay home and play video games.” We laugh. He is a writer. He gets it. We are both riding high.

And the best part? I get to teach a nice lesson to my son.

“How was your day, Mommy?” Logan asked.

“Do you know how Mommy always says her big dream is to see one of her books in the store so anyone can buy it?”

Logan nods.

“Well, it’s going to take a lot more work, and maybe more stuff like this. But I think I at least got one tiny step closer.”

“Yay, Mommy! High five!”

And that made the entire weekend worth it.


Work/Life Balance: The Craziest Weekend Ever, Part I

Remember when I said this blog would be about putting the pieces of my life together and making a writer? Here’s proof. This post will be split in two, with one half going up today (I’m SO late. This was supposed to be up on the 15th), and the next on August 31st. Enjoy people!

Day 1: Friday, August 1st

Waiting for the 6 train on the road to the conference

I have taken a day off from my 9-5 to accomplish this, because if I had needed to cram anything else into this weekend, I would honestly fail all of the things on my to-do list. Guaranteed. Today is my son, Logan’s, birthday. He is turning 5. Today is also the weekend of the Writer’s Digest Conference at The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Now, thankfully, I live in the Bronx and work in the city, so I don’t have to travel to get to the conference. Still…it should be interesting to attempt to handle both.

5 AM: Oh My GOD, I am tired. How? Why? I am waking up all of thirty minutes earlier than usual! It could be the fact that I couldn’t sleep last night. Maybe.

I whine as I scrape myself out of bed. My husband, Ismael, is waiting with a cup of coffee before he leaves for work. He is normal as this is his normal wake up time. I am a quivering blob of a person and I’m too nauseated to eat breakfast.

6 AM: Time to wake up the birthday boy, my little five year old guy! I wake him up with my usual ‘Rise and Shine’ song, and throw in a bit of birthday song for good measure. I give him a medal, because he was asking for one since he saw Wreck it Ralph. He is absurdly happy about his medal.

720 AM: I swore I would be at the daycare the minute it opened at 7. I am late. Between trying to look presentable, trying to indulge my birthday boy so he didn’t feel the anxiety I am about this whole weekend, and making sure I have the last minute things together for his daycare party (cupcakes? Check!) and later tonight, when our family will be visiting, I just could not get out of the house. Ms. Dawn acts like I’ve come just when she was expecting me. God bless her.

8 AM: I am on the train. The conference starts at 8:30, I still have to register and get to the first seminar. Also, I still feel completely nauseated, probably exacerbated by being late, which I hate, which has been my constant state since I had Logan.

815 AM: STILL on the train. Shit. SHIT.

The view from my seat for the Writer’s Digest Pro Series

835 AM: I’m here! Registration was quick and easy and I moved right into the first seminar in the conference. Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail about everything that was said here, just because there are massive amounts of information that were given out in each of the panels over the following two days. But I will give out one major highlight per panel, and if anyone has an interest in learning more about a specific panel, feel free to let me know in the comments!

Seminar 1: “Moving the Needle: How to Boost Your Book Sales from 1,000 to 10,000 Copies Sold.” – This seminar was led by Out:Think Founder, Tim Grahl. Perhaps his most surprising tip from the conference was that you should never give out anything for free, a phenomenon I have often wondered about. If you aren’t shopping the indie circuit for eBooks, you don’t realize how rampant this practice is. People make books free for short periods of time and make some sales, but, as Grahl notes, most people are just stocking their Kindles filled with books that they never read. And perhaps there is some truth to that. I have tons of available eBooks that I never touch just because I never have time. And the ones that I don’t touch…they were free. As Grahl put it, “When people don’t pay for something, they don’t value it.”

9:30, Seminar 2: “Advanced Social Media Skills for Selling Books.” – This seminar was led by Kristen McLean, the CEO of Bookigee. Two big takeaways from this one. One was a takeoff of something Tim Grahl had started to say in the previous seminar. Be relentlessly helpful. Helping others is both selfish and selfless. You get to assist, but you also garner loyalty from others. People want to help those that help them. Another gem, you don’t have to be on every type of social media, but whatever you are on, you should use consistently. Be yourself, be helpful, interesting, and real. However, if you are trying to maintain a million different social networks and find you are having real trouble doing so, it’s best to drop off of the ones you are not naturally comfortable with, rather than allow uninteresting stuff to dominate your time.

10:15, Seminar 3: “Advanced Amazon for Authors.” – Led by Amazon’s Director of Author & Publisher Relationships, Jon Fine, this was interesting, but I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d just stumbled on a goldmine of information. That’s probably because my mindset is more aimed at traditional publishing (for now, anyway) than independent publishing. What did jump out at me was the ACX program, where a person can, using Amazon’s resources, create an indie audio book. Also discussed was KindleWorlds, the new fanfiction publishing platform from Amazon. I’m still waiting for KindleWorlds to license Women of the Otherworld and Stargate, so I can get my fanfiction sold. If only…

11:10, Seminar 4: “Author Branding: What You Need To Know.” – This seminar was led by Michael J. Sullivan, fantasy/science fiction writer and Goodreads Guru. The big takeaway from this one was that the most important thing you should do when building a brand is not to step outside of yourself. Alternate egos are difficult to maintain, so if you’re not being true to yourself when putting yourself out there, you are going to find yourself coming off as artificial or wishy washy. No matter what you choose to reveal about yourself, the person who should be coming through when you talk about your brand should be you.

12 PM: Oh my God, I am so hungry. I never ate breakfast, so by the time they break for lunch, I pretty much barrel my way over to the Cosi directly across the street from the hotel and scarf my lunch (Chicken TBM Melt, yo!) happily. I get back in time to go visit the exhibits. This was the only portion of the event I thought was a tad lacking. The exhibits that were there were great. The people were sweet and provided information generously. But for an event that had several periods throughout the weekend for viewing the exhibits, there weren’t many to view. Although, I did walk out with a bag of info packets and four new books from the Writer’s Digest Store.

1 PM, Seminar 5: “A View from the Top: Publishing Insiders on Taking Your Writing Career to the Next Level.” –  Moderated by Kate Travers, Director of Digital Business Development at Workman Publishing, this panel had a nice group of industry insiders: Kristin Fassler, Director of Marketing at Penguin Random House, Larry Kirshbaum, Senior Literary Agent at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency and Brandi Larsen, Digital Publishing Director at New American Library, Berkley Books, and Celebra imprints at Penguin Random House. The big takeaway fact from this panel, though they each discussed it in their own different and engaging manners, was that the publishing industry WANTS to find your book. They want to believe in your book. They are not looking for a reason not to publish your book. They truly want to find the next amazing story. So give it to them. Give them what they are looking for and they will take it and run with it.

2PM, Seminar 6: “When the Author Is a Critic: The View From Both Sides”. – This panel was a pleasant surprise. Originally, this space was a to be determined panel. Moderated by Porter Anderson, Journalist/Speaker/Consultant in the publishing industry (who I will forever know as he of the movie trailer voice) and contained Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven and Shanna Swendson, Author of The Enchanted Series. The two discussed and debated the benefits of small publishing houses, large publishers, and hybrid publishing (merging traditional and self publishing). I walked away from this one with the idea that the best strategy is to try what you can and find what works for you. We are in a very different publishing world now, and it is essential to have an open mind as you navigate.

Courtesy of If you look on the right 5 rows or so back, you can spot the back of my head. 😉

2:45 PM, Seminar 7: “Do You Really Want to Write a Bestseller? Here’s How.” – Once again conducted by Larry Kirshbaum of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, this seminar discussed the elements necessary to write a bestseller. Kirshbaum urges writers to make sure they have a strong premise and a strong first chapter. He is also very adamant about writers not overwriting and loading down their descriptions – get it in 1 to 2 sentences and then move on. His closing remark? You have to want it really badly, and if you do, you’ll accomplish it.

3:30 PM, Seminar 8: “Pitch Perfect.” – Led by Guide to Literary Agents guru Chuck Sambuchino, this was the big one for me, the most important seminar of the day, because I would be participating in the pitch slam being held early the following morning. So, I needed confirmation that the pitch I had meticulously practiced and memorized was correct. Guess what? It wasn’t.

The list of things that should be included?
a) Details- Type, word count, genre, title.
b) Introduce the main character.
c) Tell us something interesting about them and what they want.
d) What is the book’s inciting incident? What puts everything into motion.
e) What is the main conflict of the story.
f) Complications?
g) Stakes?
h) Unclear wrap up

The bad news? My pitch wasn’t ready. And to top that off, I had company coming over that night, so I couldn’t exactly rewrite it any time soon.

Me and my Logan

5 PM – Despite there being more conference for the night, my son’s birthday awaited, so I scrambled home to spend some time with my boy.

5:15 PM – Sitting on the 6 train, trying my best to spin a new pitch. It is not going well. Everything I come up with sounds awful. How do you encapsulate five years worth of work in a paragraph?

6:30 PM – Family time! My little man is gorgeous and thinks he is a grown up. My mother, sister, brother, closest friends, husband son, my FAMILY surrounds me and still I can tell I’m probably not the most pleasant individual right now. I’m intensely nervous about the pitch the following morning. My family seems to believe that failure is close to impossible for me, which makes them awesome and makes me feel silly for worrying. Still, I worry. But while I worry, I have the best damn family gathering / birthday celebration I can manage.

Me and my boys.

11 PM – People begin to depart. My best friend, Joy, demands to stay and help me work on the pitch. (My other best friend, Allegra, offered the same, but the gathering ran too late.) Joy and Ismael work until 1 AM to get the pitch as perfect as we can manage.

1 AM – Sleep claims me and the following day awaits.

Stay tuned for part 2, posted on the 31st! Want to know any more about these topics? Post below and I’ll elaborate on what I can.