The festival commandeered Copley Square, with events running all day in the Boston Public Library and Old South and Trinity churches. Vendor tents around the square sheltered publishing companies, free coffee, radio stations, etc. One tent had a lineup of authors each spending an hour signing books that were being given away. Yes, given away. Not crap books either; books by people you’ve heard of: Ken Burns, Jay O’Callahan, Barbara Lynch.
My favorite event was Writer Idol. Here’s the description from the website:
In this freewheeling session, a professional actor will perform the first page of your unpublished manuscript for the audience and a panel of three “judges.” Judges are agents and editors with years of experience reading unsolicited submissions. When one judge hears a line that would make her stop reading, she will raise her hand. The actor will keep reading until a second judge raises his hand. The judges will then discuss WHY they would stop reading, and offer concrete if subjective suggestions to the anonymous author. If no agent raises a hand, the judges will discuss what made the excerpt work. Though all excerpts will be evaluated anonymously, this session is not for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned! While judges will be respectful of the work, laughter and even scorn from the audience is to be expected. To participate in this session, bring THE FIRST 250 WORDS of your manuscript (fiction or non-fiction only, please) to the session. It must be double-spaced, titled, and clearly marked at the top with its genre. Participants will leave the manuscripts in a box at the front of the room, and manuscripts will be chosen randomly by the actor.
I don’t watch American Idol but due to popular culture salvo I understood that the panel included the Simon judge; lots of eye-rolling and stinging commentary, the Paula Abdul “nice” judge, and… you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t and if that’s the case don’t change anything. The difference of course was the anonymity of the writers. No need to parade that cliché-suffused spasm of a first page in person; the actor did that for you.
A few things I learned:
Don’t open with the weather.
Opening with your character just waking up is risky. By extrapolation, if you must open with your character just waking up, do not under any circumstances have her talk about or even notice the weather.
Your first few pages should not describe urine running down any leg. In fact, avoid vivid chronicling of all bodily functions. It might be okay to describe bleeding, provided it is from someplace that does not typically bleed — gashes, eyes, etc. Menstrual blood falls into the former category.
It was hard to listen without comparing my first 250 words with their first 250 words. Harder still was not staring at any person who stood up and hurried out after the judges' sometimes ruthless criticism. What I wanted to do was stand at the door and conduct exit interviews: “Why are you leaving?” “Was that your piece that just got skewered before the crowd?” “Why are you crying?” “Do you think you’ll ever write again?” I suppose it’s good practice for the rejection letters we all have to open.
I left the festival with a few literary magazines, a stack of books, some free and some purchased, all signed by the authors, and went straight to my friend Debbie’s for a lovely evening of sparkling toilets, delicious food and good company. I got home at 1:00 a.m. without the milk.