Geek Confessional: When It All Goes Off the Rails

So this is the entry that I’ve been dreading to write. Simply put, this was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my writing career. And it actually turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before I get into the actual story, I feel I have to share a few preliminary thoughts. For starters, while some people think it’s difficult to write as an unreliable narrator, that’s what I’ll be for this story. I’m going to tell it as I experienced it. My thoughts on the people and events involved has changed over the intervening years. But because I’m going to be honest about what I was thinking and feeling, I’m going to protect the innocent by using pseudonyms. If you can figure out who I’m talking about, please keep that information to yourself.

When we last left off, I received some difficult advice from Colleen Coble. She suggested (very gently) that maybe it would be a good idea to set aside a story that I had been working on for years and do something different. After receiving another round of rejections, I decided to follow her advice. I had started some preliminary work on a new idea or two. I figured I’d work on one of those books and see if I couldn’t have it ready to pitch at the next ACFW Conference. I worked hard and sure enough, when the next conference came around, my project was ready. It was a a mash-up of two different genres and I thought it was great.

Better yet, I had a pretty good idea that at least one person would be looking for a story just like mine. We’ll call this individual “the Target.” From the research I had done, the Target was looking for a story like mine. It was the right genre and, I thought, the right opportunity. When I arrived at the Conference, I even attended a panel that the Target spoke at. The Target even went so far as to say that he was looking for mash-up stories, and he specifically mentioned the two genres that my story combined. When I learned that I had a pitch meeting with the Target, I was ecstatic. This was it. I just knew it. I knew that the Target wouldn’t offer me a contract at the conference itself, but I knew it would be the first step in that direction.

But that pitch meeting wouldn’t take place until Saturday. In the meantime, I went from session to session, meeting up with friends I had made at previous conferences. And I also kept my eyes out for newbies, people who had never been at an ACFW Conference before, especially if those newbies were speculative fiction writers like myself.

That’s how I met the Belle. The Belle was a first time conference attendee and, in my (not so humble) opinion, the Belle was a bit naive about how things worked. The Belle was very confident. Overly so, I thought. The Belle seemed supremely confident that the conference would end with a publishing contract in their hands. By that point in my publishing journey, I knew that wasn’t how it worked. The Belle’s confidence seemed foolish, to say the least.

And yet, the Belle made some surprising waves at the Conference. It seemed like, within the first twenty-four hours, everyone knew who the Belle was. I had been attending the conference for years and barely knew a handful of people. Just as quickly, a buzz was building around the Belle. Rumor had it that the Belle was dazzling all of the editors and agents with their pitch.

I even got to see the Belle in action. At one point in the conference, the Belle and I were chatting when we were approached by someone I’ll call the Insider. The Insider was just that: a venerable figure within the world of Christian publishing. I knew who the Insider was. More than that, I knew what the Insider was looking for, and speculative fiction definitely wasn’t it. So when the Insider introduced themselves and asked what we wrote, I was honest. I told the Insider that they probably wouldn’t be interested in what I wrote, because it was speculative fiction. So the Insider turned to the Belle and asked, “What about you?”

The Belle then launched into a pitch of their story, something that I judged to be foolish. See, the Belle had told me what their story was about, and so far as I could tell, it was definitely speculative. Pitching it to the Insider wasn’t a good use of time. But the Belle kept going and, I noticed, was downplaying the speculative elements of the story, casting it as a simple adventure story. The Insider would see through that, right?

Nope. The Insider asked the Belle to keep going. And so the Belle did, finishing the pitch of the first book idea, then moving on to pitch something that was definitely speculative fiction. And the Insider listened to it all, finally handing the Belle a card so that the Belle could contact the Insider after the conference.

Now none of this would have bothered me all that much if the Insider hadn’t given me a look halfway through the impromptu pitch session, one that I interpreted as “What are you still doing here?”

But the Belle’s successes aside, I still had my meeting with the Target to look forward to. It would take place on Saturday at 2:00 PM, so half an hour before that, I left the class I was taking and went to the prayer room to ask God to let His will be done. Then it was off to wait for my chance to pitch my book. I found myself waiting with a crowd of other authors pitching to the agents and editors.

Right before the time came, I spotted the pitch appointment coordinator leaving one room, holding a placard with the Target’s name on it and a confused look on her face. I didn’t know what to make of that, but I waited for my chance.

Finally, when 2:00 came, the coordinator returned and started calling out the names of the various agents and editors, ushering the hopeful authors into their appointments. One by one, my fellow authors left the waiting area until I was the only one left.

Because the appointment coordinator never called the Target’s name.

I was confused, to say the least. It was 2:00, time for me to go in and pitch my story. What was going on? I waited a few minutes, then approached the appointment table. Thankfully, one of my friends was helping out that year and I asked why the Target’s name wasn’t mentioned.

She told me something strange: no one knew where the Target was.

That was odd, but I tried to put the best spin on things. Maybe the Target had to run up to their room to get something. Maybe they were on the phone with someone back home. Maybe the Target had run into the Belle and was listening to an impromptu pitch session. I tried to be patient, but my pitch session was only fifteen minutes long. As the time slipped by, I became more and more worried. Even if the Target showed up, I wouldn’t have much of a chance to pitch. What was going on?

After waiting five or six minutes, I went back to my friend and asked if she knew anything else. She knew someone who knew the Target, and she offered to call that mutual friend and see what was going on. After a quick conversation, she relayed what she had learned:

The Target had left. As in packed up bags, left the hotel, left town completely. I wouldn’t get the chance to pitch my story at all.

I’d like to say that I handled this news with stoic maturity, but I didn’t. I barely made it back to my hotel room before I started weeping. I raged against the unfairness of it. My jealousy over the Belle’s success made it all the more bitter.

Eventually I calmed down, but I was in a foul mood for the rest of the conference. I’m surprised anyone wanted to talk to me. I wanted nothing more than to just go home and lick my wounds. When the day finally came for me to leave, I was ready to go and leave the whole messy affair behind me. I was ready to get a taxi and go to the airport when I ran into the Belle one last time. It turned out, the Belle had convinced a local ACFW member to give them a ride to the airport, and the Belle insisted that I come with. Rather than spend the money on a cab, I took the offer.

As we went to the airport, the Belle asked me how my conference went. I shared a few of my experiences, making sure to let them know what happened with the Target. And after I was done, the Belle said, “Sounds like you had a pretty good conference, all things considered.”

I was stunned. But…the Target! My missed opportunity. What about that?

But, as I thought about it, I realized the Belle had a point. Sure, I wasn’t able to pitch to the Target, but I had been able to pitch my story to another person who requested to see the opening chapters. And I had eaten lunch with an editor. I was able to chat with her about some other ideas I had and thought it was a promising lead. Sure, I may not have been able to pitch to the Target, but overall, it was a successful conference. I went home, wounded to be sure, but I was ready to work.

And this entire experience proved to be an interesting source of inspiration.

See, when I got home and I had settled down, I realized that my jealousy toward the Belle had been toxic. It wasn’t the way a Christian should live. I did a lot of meditating on 1 Corinthians 12, especially on the section about how the Body of Christ works together and doesn’t give in to petty jealousy. The more I thought about it, the more I thought there might be a story lurking within my experience. What if there were two people, one who was very talented and got all the attention, and one who…well, was the opposite.

As I thought about this potential story, I talked about it with my wife. She suggested that maybe I could make this new story idea about superheroes, writing the kind of story that our young son may someday want to read. I thought that sounded like a good idea. One very powerful superhero, one who wasn’t nearly so flashy. And to really kick up the conflict between them, maybe they could be brothers. Brother superheroes…

At the time, I had just finished reading The Hunger Games, so I thought I would “borrow” part of it. Not the “fight to the death for food” part, but the whole “competing on television” part. Maybe my superhero brothers would be competing on a reality TV show…

For those of you familiar with my books, the worst conference I’d ever experienced led to the creation of Failstate.

As for the book that I wanted to pitch to the Target? Well, things turned out all right for that one too eventually. But that’s a story for another day.

Author @JohnWOtte shares the story of how a dark experience led to some unusual inspiration. Click To Tweet


One Comment:

  1. This was absolutely touching in how you told your experience. I’ve never been able to go to any writer’s conference, not even ACFW, but your evaluation seems right on point. It is so hard not to get frustrated when you see someone else get even a small chance and you to miss yours for some reason, but the fact of what it led to makes me do a HAPPY TCK HOP OF JOY! FAILSTATE is still one of my all-time favorite Speculative Fiction series, so I’m very thankful for what happened and what it caused to happen. PRAISE TO THE LORD FOR HIS APPOINTMENTS OF OUR DESTINY IN HIS TIMING! I’m so very thankful for you, Pastor Writer Bro! LUV YA BUNCHES IN JESUS WITH HUGS & PRAYERS! I have a NEW BLOG, so check out the link at my site: ~ TCK ~

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