Carmen Alexander is seriously devoted to her dream of being a full-time, published writer. In January 2016, she drove from Phoenix, Arizona, to attend the SDSU Writers’ Conference — for the third time.
“I choose this conference as my top priority every year because of the advance reading opportunity,” said Alexander. “The direct feedback from agents and editors is extremely valuable. The 10-minute format, whether it’s a pitch or an advance reading, is a very productive environment for receiving meaningful feedback and truly getting a good feel for where my story and writing are in terms of maturity. Other conferences either don’t offer the advance reading or have the speed-dating type pitch sessions, which are not my best venue.”
Alexander scheduled an advance reading with Amy Boggs, an agent at Donald Maas Literary Agency in New York, to get feedback on her horror/fantasy novel Jaguars, and ended up being her pick for a Conference Choice Award.
Every year, each agent and editor chooses the project they feel the most promising from all the advance readings and consultations that take place over the three-day conference. Advance readings require submitting the first 10 pages of one’s manuscript, prior to the conference, and consultations are a Q&A opportunity to pitch a project and discuss its viability in the marketplace.
With a long history of launching careers by opening doors, the SDSU conference was among the first to pioneer these 1:1 appointments that give writers unprecedented access to top-tier publishing professionals — many of whom interact with unpublished authors only through conferences.
Alexander shares her SDSU Writers’ Conference experience and where she is today on her journey to publication:
Are you a writer by profession or is it an avocation?
Writing is an avocation, although I hope to change that in the next couple of years. I work in the health industry, helping to implement health care reform projects. It’s great, and I love it, but not as much as living in the daydream of writing.
Please tell us about the project that brought you to the 2016 SDSU Writers’ Conference.
I am working on my second novel, a horror/fantasy story titled Jaguars. Lisa, a Native American girl who was given up for adoption as a baby, lives mostly off the grid in a future world where our longstanding culture has been turned upside down by ancient, otherworldly guardians warring for control. Lisa holds power over them, a strength tied to her unknown bloodline. These guardians have found her and she is on the run, not knowing who is a friend or an enemy. She must find her core strength and figure out how to use it while evading them and others who would kill or enslave her and use her abilities to the destruction of humanity.
How long have you been working on it?
I started the first book of this series in October 2009. That seems so long ago! I sometimes joke that the first novel was four years of writing the backstory to this second book.
Care to share the opening line (or paragraph)?
“Hey Black Cat,” the low rumble of Dalko’s voice purrs comfortingly in my ear, but that hated nickname jolts my heart into a sickening, crazy-fast beat.
Could you tell Amy Boggs was pretty excited about your 10 pages or was it a complete surprise when you heard your name announced as a Conference Choice winner?
I walked away from both of my advance readings feeling that there was a shift in the feedback this year; that my writing and my ability to articulate my high-level story had improved. Still, I was completely surprised when I found out I had received a Conference Choice. I had to leave early to travel for work, so I heard about the award via email. There were definitely a few seconds where my heart was not beating.
Are you still heady with euphoria?
Yes, absolutely. I keep my certificate in view at all times, either on the fridge or on my memo board.
Was Amy interested in seeing the complete manuscript?
I’m still drafting, so she asked that I contact her when the manuscript is complete.
How did you hear about the SDSU Writers’ Conference?
Originally, I heard about it from a local writer’s group in Phoenix. This is the third year I have attended. I drove from Phoenix. I choose this conference as my top priority every year because of the advance reading opportunity. The direct feedback from agents and editors is extremely valuable. The 10-minute format, whether it’s a pitch or an advance reading, is a very productive environment for receiving meaningful feedback and truly getting a good feel for where my story and writing are in terms of maturity. Other conferences either do not offer the advance reading or have the speed-dating type pitch sessions, which are not my best venue.
Did you attend a workshop that was particularly helpful or outstanding in some way?
This year, the Alexandra Sokoloff sessions really kick-started the evolution of my draft into a focused storyline with consistent pacing throughout.
What do you think is one of the greatest strengths of the conference?
For me, it’s the advance readings. I try to get feedback from many sources, including critique partners/groups and friends, but there’s no substitute for a professional opinion.
Had you been querying agents and trying to get representation prior to the conference? If so, what has the response been?
I have been focused on finishing my draft this year. In the past, I have queried but have not received responses. It may be that my first effort wasn’t quite ready for prime time. I think the direct contact of conferences is a better way to connect, but like writing, requires a skill set that has to be honed.
What’s the first book that spoke to you as a young reader?
This is a tough one. I have to land on A Wrinkle in Time. The morphing of our world and people we know and love into completely alien forms was intense and personally meaningful to me as a young child caught in the midst of divorce drama. And as I answer this question, I realize there’s more than a little of this theme going on in my current book.
Who’s your favorite author (or top three if it’s hard to choose one)?
Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, Stephen King.
What’s your goal as a writer and what keeps you going in the pursuit of it?
I would like to be a full-time, published writer. Encouragement from my family and friends, and critique partners is critical day to day. It’s invaluable to have direct and personal feedback from professionals in the industry, whether it’s editors and agents or other writers. I feel grounded in that I have a good story and the ability to articulate it. That helps me get through the times when I really question my sanity in continuing to write when I’m pulled in so many other directions by work and life.
Receiving the Conference Choice award was an amazing confidence booster. It reinforced the “worthwhileness” of the time and effort spent both writing and at conferences learning how to improve my craft. Moonlighting as a writer while attending to a demanding job can have its discouraging moments. Like, what was my storyline again? The timeline to get to a first draft is daunting. As an author, I secretly hoped my first novel would get picked up. It was sometimes hard to sit at conferences and hear the message that it might be the second or third or tenth before all of the pieces came together.
For more information about the SDSU Writers’ Conference, visit neverstoplearning.net/writers