Oct. 22nd, 2009

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The Muse Online Conference 2009
I've mentioned this conference on and off over the last couple of years, but this may be my first official conference report. Though I'm not one to hang about in my robe and bunny slippers, Muse Online is unique in that it is 100% online with the interactions occurring round the clock in a combination of forums and chats. This year, a new aspect was added: pitching to both agents and editors. The feedback so far is overwhelmingly positive and it looks like more agents and publishers will participate next year.

So enough with the generals. Here is my Muse Online experience:

I have been offering a writing techniques class since 2007, my second year, so the whole Muse Online experience began for me back in June when I put my class materials together. I was not alone in the focus though, because the year-round, related listserv was buzzing with people trying to confirm their memberships and eager to see what this year's conference would offer.

I reviewed the folks offering pitch slots and identified one agent who accepted works like my novel. From that moment on, there was all the normal panic associated with an in-person pitch, only slightly lessened by the realization that this would be typing not speech, so I'd be unlikely to dissolve into stutters or lose my voice. And if my hands shook, I could always edit before I pushed send.

I did put together a pitch, edited it again and again, got crits, edited again, and finally polished the pitch before I submitted it to Lea, who evaluated all pitches to make sure the work was a good match, a pre-screening to ensure this aspect a greater chance at success. I also attended two pre-conference workshops on in-person/online pitches to prepare.

A week before the conference, the presenters were allowed into the forum and I put up my welcome thread in the board reserved for my Non-Verbal Communications workshop. I already had a list of names and emails for both my forum class and the related chat that would have been intimidating if I didn't know how many people, myself included, tended to over schedule. Since my workshops involve a feedback component, the number of active members can affect my participation in the rest of the conference, but at the same time, the more the merrier, because overall, Muse Online attendees tend to be supportive and encouraging of their fellows' efforts.

Late Sunday, I posted the introduction to my class and went to bed.

When the alarm rang on Monday morning, I wandered in, armed with my conference agenda which I had already beefed up with direct links to the specific forums, and notes about whether I'd downloaded the related documentation and read it. I first went to my workshop and responded to the enterprising folks for whom the sun had risen long ago, and then to each of the workshops I had signed up for.

My first mistake. I had carefully converted the Eastern times into Pacific and recorded when the chats would be (the only time-dependent aspects), but had confused 12pm with 12am in my rush to get ready. So I missed my first chat, luckily one that was a recap of the pre-conference pitch preparations.

Despite that rocky start, though, I managed to keep up with my own class and read the material in the ones I'd signed up for. The very first day I had to mock up a website in a class on marketing yourself online and put together a scene with specific dialogue requirements on top of the reading. I also had the opportunity to ask questions based on the various readings, one I took where necessary.

I managed to keep up with the readings and some of the assignments for the first two days, but on my pitch day, I could focus on nothing else as much as I tried. I answered questions and gave feedback in my class by sheer force of will, but the rest, I thought, could wait a day.

The pitch itself went not at all as planned. My first shake occurred when the agent said, "Hello." A simple thing, but I had step by step directions that said hop in the room and paste your pitch because time is short. I stalled for a moment, but since there had been some confusion about rooms and the moderators were clearing out stray people, the delay before I said, "Hello" back went largely unnoticed. Still, remember that panic?

Then I pasted the first line of my pitch and paused to give the agent a moment to read, as counseled in the staging area where the moderators gave a blow by blow account of the pitches to help prepare those waiting. I was second, so I hadn't seen many of the tips, but I incorporated what I could.

I was preparing to paste the second line when she asked about genre. That's in the last line of my pitch, but easy enough to bring up. Then she follows with another question: length, and another question. Suddenly, I have lost the security blanket of my carefully polished pitch and am winging it.

Here's the thing though. She couldn't see my shaking hands, and I learned that rather than drone on about the ten thousand details and complexities that made up my novel, I was surprisingly coherent and clear. Ultimately, she told me to send in a partial, so despite losing my footing, I'd managed to do just what I'd intended, intrigue her about the story.

So, my first experience with an "in-person" pitch? It was positive, fun in a scary kind of way, and a confidence builder simply because I didn't lose focus or run on.

Not too surprising, I rode that high for the rest of the day while I tried to catch up with my classes.

Then came the limits of an online conference. The next day was swallowed whole by a programming issue on a site I support. Eight hours later, exhausted, I struggled to catch up with my classes and failed. However, I did manage a trial run for my chat with my two marvelous moderators who helped me transform a wild and crazy concept into a functional chat game.

Friday morning, I ran my non-verbal charades game in chat (with the help of three moderators, actually). Everyone had fun and learned things all at once. It was so popular that when our time expired, the game continued back in the forum and has been borrowed by a couple attendees for their own writing groups.

The rest of Friday and Saturday, I rallied and managed to catch up on the reading if not the assignments in all but two classes, as well as keeping up in mine, and on Sunday I finished off everything but one class that was largely lecture so I can still read and benefit from it.

This conference has all the rush, adrenaline, learning, and overwhelm of the in-person conferences I've been to with a firm writing focus and none of the hotel and commute costs. I recommend it to everyone, only do try your best to set the week aside, because you won't have time for much else.

My conference take-aways were many, but here are some of the top ones:

1) The biggie was that I learned I can pitch Shadows of the Sun effectively.
2) I learned some online promotion techniques that should serve me well, and already I've improved my website with this page: http://margaretfisk.mmfcf.com/forreaders-chc.php
3) I learned how to improve my bio. I haven't implemented the change yet on my website, but it's in the works.
4) I now know just where Demon Rules falls in the MG/YA market and how to put that in my query letter.
5) And I picked up a handful of writing techniques that will be fun to try.

That's not to mention the chance to chat with writers I wouldn't normally have encountered, the joy that comes in seeing people grasp concepts not because it's easy but because they've worked their tails off, and the creative energy that comes over me despite the post-convention drain, an energy that has sparked progress on two separate editing projects as well as a handful of deadlines.

Some people say you get what you pay for. If you truly believe that, then let me recommend you plunk down a donation at the end of next year's conference, because whatever you pay, this one is worth it.

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Margaret McGaffey Fisk

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