The level of experience among attendees of Jackson Hole Writers Conference varies wildly.
Some are journalists with decades of experience trying to switch genres. Some are teenagers working their way through the plot of a fantasy novel. Others have completed one or more manuscripts and are trying to figure out how to catch the attention of an agent.
Regardless of the skill or experience level of each participant, the conference seems to offer something for almost everyone, attendee Jocelyn Wasson said. Resident and visiting faculty lead craft classes, lectures and panel discussions.
“The tone of the whole thing is compassionate, encouraging and inspiring,” Wasson said.
Adam Simone, a Minneapolis resident who is new to writing, was thrilled to make contacts with other young writers he might be able to exchange work with. Just identifying himself as a writer was a big leap for him, he said.
Jeannie Musick, who lives in Lovell, said she liked the workshops where authors led writing exercises.
“It helps to be able to change something and see it happen right away,” she said.
Getting published is a dream for most people who attend the event, so Friday’s panel with four literary agents was well attended. The agents spoke about the kind of work they represent and what grabs their attention.
“I represent things that have a good voice,” said Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, an agent with McIntosh and Otis in New York City, “a good writer who can create an amazing character, it doesn’t matter the genre. That sounds really simple, but it’s actually hard to find.”
Ken Sherman, an agent in Los Angeles, often tries to find clients whose books would translate well to film or television, and to negotiate rights for more than one medium.
Sarah Levitt, of the Zoe Pagnamenta Agency in New York City, said she likes to find nonfiction writers who have a strong background of academia or journalism. “Having that expertise is important to me,” she said.
When answering a question about whether 150,000 words is too long for an initial manuscript, Sherman asked aspiring authors to be considerate of agents’ time.
“You’re asking us to scan our eyes over 150,000 of your words,” Sherman said. “We’ll know within the first one to two or three, or maybe 10 pages, if we want to keep reading.”
Katherine Fausset, an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., suggested that a writer with a ballooning manuscript ask for professional help, and not from an agent.
“Think about hiring an editor,” she said, before assuring the audience that she’s not in cahoots with any book doctors. “This is not some pyramid scheme.”
Whether it’s with a writers group, with a hired editor or from the writer revising her manuscript over and over, polished work is the only thing that will get attention, all the agents said.
“Things need to be massaged and worked through,” Rubinstein said. “It’s wonderful when you finish the first draft, but that’s only 50 percent there.”
Regardless of whether query letters make it through an agent’s inbox, the panelists encouraged writers to keep working on their craft.
“Exercise as a writer,” Sherman said. “That’s your first job.”