San Francisco Writers Conference

I spent a productive few days at the San Francisco Writers Conference, attending for free after winning the Grand Prize in their 2022 writing contest. Highlights were the many informative “breakout sessions” with agents, acquiring editors, independent editors, writing coaches, and book publicists. Aside from a few useful contacts, the conference gave me good ideas for honing my book proposal, which I continue to carefully craft.

As a full participant (last year I attended as a volunteer) I could schedule eight-minute consultations with editors and other industry professionals. Every fifteen minutes a group of attendees with appointments were ushered into a “holding room” consisting of a single long row of chairs. At the appointed time we swept into a hotel ballroom dotted with dozens of experts spread twenty or so feet apart, each seated at a little white-clothed table with a vase of flowers. At the time of my first appointment the arrangement of tables was random; we had to recognize our consultants from head shots set up on boards by the registration table. This led to people wandering about calling “Linda?” “Mr. Jones?” By my next session, fortunately, they had arranged the tables alphabetically.

I found I could get a surprising number of questions usefully answered in eight minutes. I had a good session with a guy who would be an excellent choice for an agent, once I decide to send out pitches. He thought I had a good subject and had made a good choice in a “comp” (a successful book with similarities to mine. At the top of my list is Salt by Mark Kurlansky.)

The advice I heard was not always consistent. I asked one “book coach” and literary lawyer about permissions. I have a few epigraphs to which I may need to track down rights, including a D.H. Lawrence poem (set to enter the public domain in about three years) and a couple verses from the 1948 song Ghost Riders in the Sky (“’Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky/on horses snorting fire/as they ride on hear them cry…”) He advised that not only would I need to secure the rights to all of these creative excerpts but also get permission from every last scholar from whose works I include a quote. That surprised and dismayed me. I could risk not doing this work, he said, but that would not be his advice. “It depends on your tolerance for risk. We lawyers are conservative.”

Many careers ago I had experience on the other end of the permissions game when I briefly worked for a well-known literary agency in Manhattan. Among my early responsibilities were lugging home fat manuscripts of bad novels from the slush pile and handling permissions. Requests would come in for permission to use a story by Ken Kesey, say, or Erica Jong, and I would write back saying how much it would cost. Here was a chance to shine! $100 for a chapter in an anthology? No! I’d ask for $200. I doubt I impressed anyone by driving hard bargains as the Permissions Department, but now, with some trepidation, I imagine someone like my 22-year-old self reviewing my requests.

I brought up the same issue later with the acquiring editor of a publishing house that would be a good home for my book. To my relief, she thought there would be no problem quoting scholars without permission. Even short quotes in epigraphs should be OK, though for an entire poem or a song lyric I might err on the side of caution.

I learned a lot from workshops with book publicists, a role I had not looked into much before. These days, even if you do find a traditional publisher, most authors are expected to do a lot of (even all) a book’s promotion themselves. Some experts gave advice about how to choose, hire, and work with a professional publicist, others on the sorts of things you can do yourself. One tip produced a flash of inspiration: I plan to design a custom Fire in the Mind matchbook, like the ones restaurants once gave out to their “matchless friends.” Now that smoking no longer takes place inside restaurants you don’t see this much, but dozens of vendors still make them, for weddings and other events. Something fun to give out in lieu of business cards.

A little ceremony after the Saturday “banquet” honored us writing contest winners. Here I am with honorees in various categories (poetry, adult fiction, young adult, etc.) Yes, we guys were distinctly in the minority at this conference.

Fire in the Mind wins SFWC Grand Prize

Fire in the Mind won the Grand Prize in the 2022 San Francisco Writers Conference Writing Contest. For this annual contest, literary agent judges read excerpts from unpublished manuscripts and choose First Prize Winners in four categories. The Grand Prize Winner is then selected from among the four winners. Fire in the Mind took top honors in Adult Non-Fiction. The Grand Prize includes free entry to the next conference, which will take place in February.

On procrastination

In starting this blog, I might also congratulate myself (he said with a sigh) for launching what may well prove to be the most alluring method of procrastination yet.

Though I constantly tell myself that the book is my first priority, I just as constantly find “little things that need doing so why don’t I get them out of the way first.” So I water the plants, check how the stocks in my IRAs are doing, work on replacing the broken passenger side mirror, and soon enough most of the day is somehow gone.

The best I have been able to do is construct a hierarchy of procrastinations, so that I procrastinate from doing the thing that should be first priority by doing something else I do need to do but a little further down the list. While writing a chapter on the story of the four elements, I came across a great source about the tarot which could be mined for a quick addition to an already drafted chapter, about divination with fire. It’s just so tempting to take a little detour… it shouldn’t take long to research and repair a minor gap in a web already woven, rather than pick through and select threads of sources and concept about something new… Soon a day or so has gone by, I have read most of two books on the history of the tarot and yes, made the “finished” chapter a little tighter, but all the threads about how Greek atomists alchemists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Cartesians and scientists conceived the elements that had been gathered in my head ready to be stitched together lie jumbled in a heap of broken neurons.

Oh well. Whatever the flaws in my process, it reflects something in my character that I need to just accept and get on with it.

Origins of my book about fire

So now I have decided to write a blog about the process of writing my book about fire, and here is the first entry. I hope it will be a useful exercise to step back and scrutinize my process at some level of abstraction, and even result in something of interest to anyone who stumbles across these musings.

This project grew out of my work as Worship Associate at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California. Offered the opportunity to lead a worship service, I asked myself what subject I might address in a sermon. Having attended the Burning Man festival over a dozen times, an event where many attendees use fire as a celebratory spiritual practice, I decided to center my service on fire. In preparation I looked for books about fire and spirituality, or the meanings humans have imagined for fire over the centuries.

To my great surprise, no such book exists. Though plenty of books have been written about fire, they primarily focus on the history of practical uses of fire, fire prevention, famous fire disasters, and fire in particular cultural traditions. No author has comprehensively addressed the subject of fire and the human imagination. Toni Morrison once said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it yourself.” So here I am six years later, fourteen chapters drafted of a planned nineteen, beginning to look for a publisher.

It may be that no-one has ever taken on the subject in such breadth because no-one with any credentials to write about some aspect of the subject would imagine tackling such an ambitious project, inevitably requiring venturing well outside any particular field. in researching this book I have had to educate myself in many disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, theology, history of religion, mythology, cosmogony, eschatology, and the history of science. I have no real credentials in any of these fields; the audacity of the outsider may be my main advantage. Though I have many published (and unpublished) writing projects to my credit, as detailed on the Selected projects page, this will be my first full-length book. The process has been exhilarating and fulfilling. As the prospect nears of completing the project, I look forward to seeing it make its way in the world.

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