Four Takeaways from Marin Writers Conference

Thank you to the participants, presenters, and organizers of the Marin Writers Conference for an inspiring and stimulating day at Book Passage.

Here are a few takeaways from the presentations and discussions yesterday. (Note to participants: Please add your takeaways in the comments section below or send them to me at and I’ll add them.)

  1. Use Beta Readers as Your Street Team

David Kudler, author Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale, co-presented “The Promise (and Peril) of Self-Publishing” along with Ruth Schwartz, and told the story of how he used beta readers to become his street team to promote his book.

Through GoodReads, he recruited 60 beta readers, promising them each a $10 Amazon gift certificate. They not only gave him valuable feedback on his book, as well as data that helped him market the book, but once he launched his book and reached out to them again, many of them recommended it to their friends and circles. 

“These readers,” he said, “were lots better than Facebook friends. They were committed to reading the book and got the word out to people I wouldn’t have been able to reach on my own.”

Here’s a link to Ruth and David’s presentation. They are members of Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA), which meets the second Saturday of each month in Novato. For more see

  1. Humor Helps Sell Books

Michael Larsen’s entertaining keynote presentation covered a lot of ground, from how today is the best time ever to be a writer even though there’s a book published every 25 seconds (and the average sale of an ebook is 200 copies) to how forgiving writing is. Only the last draft counts.



He also talked about the importance of humor and entertaining your readers, and modeled that by peppering his talk with jokes from the New Yorker cartoon and elsewhere. Here are some I liked best.

Henny Youngman: “I read about the evils of drinking. So I gave up reading.”

Elmore Leonard: “What kind of writing makes the most money? Ransom notes.”

Al Capone: “Anyone who sleeps in the trunk of a car deserves to be shot.”

Carrie Fisher: “The trouble with instant gratification is it takes too long.”

One criminal in bar to another: “I tried victimless crime. But I’m a people person.”

  1. Start Your Scenes and Chapters (and Book) as Late as Possible

Editor Mary Rakow led a brilliant workshop on “Making Your First Pages Shine,” where, together, we edited nine one- to two-page submissions. (Well, she did most of it.)

One recurring element she focused on was how the narrator can show empathy and tenderness for the character, and how important it is to make the book tender. How much of the world we create comes from tone and compassion. Which brings in the reader.

She also urged readers to jump into scenes. To start the chapters, and the book, as late as possible. 

Another interesting element that came with several of the submissions was how during the most urgent parts of our story, you don’t want details like the color of the coat to intrude. “I pull my coat in closer” is stronger than “I pull my black coat in closer.”

She also mentioned how often we have a tendency to say something beautifully in dialogue, then say it again, as if we aren’t confident the reader will get it. Best to take that second phrase out.

Make Your First Pages Shine — An Interview with Editor Mary Rakow

  1. The “Oh Shit” Moment

The last part of the day was the pitching to agents, and we started with introductions from the four agents and tips on how to pitch and query. We heard from Kimberly Cameron, Dorian Maffei, Jennifer March Soloway, and Carlisle Webber. 

Carlisle Webber from Fuse Literary Agency said you want your pitch to lead up to the “oh shit” moment. She used the story of The Martian as an example. The Mars expedition is on Mars and there’s a fierce windstorm that forces crew to flee back to the ship and they have to leave behind one crew members who has clearly died in the storm. After they take off, he wakes up. Oh shit!

She also counseled patience because it often takes several months for agents to respond to queries. “I need to read 50 pages to know if it’s good, but I only need one to know it’s bad.”