May I interest you in a can of beans?

Posted in Blogs, Literary

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
October 29, 2014

As Day One of the fall Whidbey Island Writers Conference unfolded, both my brain and binder filled with tips on the art and craft of writing: constructing dialogue, creating conflict, developing character.

The format—small group meetings at private homes—was designed to put me and my fellow writers at ease as we conversed with Prominent Authors. Prominent Authors are a lot like the rest of us; nothing brings this fact home more than seeing them snuggled into an overstuffed leather armchair, feet propped on an ottoman. Or sipping coffee and grimacing because their cup of joe went cold hours ago. Published or unpublished, we all like our feet up and our coffee hot.

This cozy informality (the only thing more homey would be for us all to show up in our pajamas) lulled me into a sense of well-being and camaraderie…which may explain my insanely ambitious agenda for the next afternoon.

The morning of Day Two, I attended a workshop titled “The Realities of Publishing with the Big Five,” which gave me a chance to spend a couple of hours with Daniel James Brown, the Prominent Author of the recent mega hit (and soon-to-be movie), “The Boys in the Boat.”

Daniel James Brown, author of "The Boys in the Boat"  (photo courtesy of NILA)

Daniel James Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat” (photo courtesy of NILA)

I’m always interested in how private stories become public sensations, and it seemed to me that Brown’s own account of his trajectory as an author would be especially interesting. After all, he labored for years with moderate success (including self-funded book tours and publicists who wouldn’t return his calls) before his ascension from semi-obscurity to full frontal fame (publishers vying for book rights).

I was sure Brown would be a treasure trove of advice. He was. On top of that, he was as humble and approachable as the Prominent Authors I met on Day One. But the phrase that stuck with me as his workshop ended was hardly the one I expected to remember.

To paraphrase Brown, authors and their books are viewed by the publishing industry as commodities to be sold like “a can of beans.”

On some level, I knew this already. We all know this. Although devotion to story certainly exists among individual agents and editors, the publishing industry is primarily a money-making enterprise, and all involved in it are looking for the next hit.

It was this metaphor—my mostly-finished novel as a can of beans—I carried with me into my self-inflicted afternoon activity: pitching my book to eight different agents and editors in six-minute consecutive segments.

The chance to make a case for our books is a wonderful feature of the conference. We pitch the story and hope the editor/agent across the table will catch it. How many words? What genre? Who’s the readership? What are comparable titles? What shelf would it occupy in a bookstore? Is it finished?

I had six minutes to make it clear why my manuscript should come off my screen and onto their radar.

Prior to pitching, I tried pumping myself up. Get to yes. Eyes on the prize. Go for the gold. But my pep talk was constantly interrupted by the image of baked beans packed into a can bearing a red-and-white label and the sound of an infectious jingle consisting of the words “ummm ummm” and “good.”

Eight agents/editors in 48 minutes was like speed dating book junkies. I learned a lot about what they want and don’t want. I learned my novel isn’t a mystery (mystery readers expect dead bodies). My novel is too long for a first-time author (the sales of an unknown author’s book don’t justify the paper and ink of a tale over 100,000 words). The youngest agents had never heard of the authors I count in my literary fiction genre camp. (Yes, they’re mostly British and mostly female and mostly dead, but c’mon, they’re fantastic!)

I emerged feeling grateful to the agents and editors who, despite my missteps and blunders, expressed interest in my not-mystery, too-long, of-dubious-parentage, unfinished manuscript.

I emerged ravenous, seeking comfort and comfort food, ready to celebrate. So what did I make myself for dinner?

I’m betting you can ummm ummm guess.

The Northwest Institute of Language Arts (NILA) encompasses the Whidbey Writers Workshop low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, the Whidbey Island Writers Conference, and the Whidbey Island Writers Association. NILA also produces the Soundings Review literary magazine.

Read more about the conference from blogger Siri Bardarson and view David Welton’s photo essay here.

Dianna MacLeod holds a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. An alumna of Hedgebrook, she moved to the island in October of 2011 to complete a novel—and never left.


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  1. Dianna, you’re full of beans!

    What a pleasure to finally meet you in person, and instantly feel like you were already a friend. You know, right now I’m thinking a can of beans could be easier to face than a blank page or computer screen. Maybe there are good sides to that analogy. I might just get out a can and set it on my desk as a reminder. Thank you!

    No beans about it… It was a great conference!

    Your fan,

  2. A pleasure to read, as usual. Dianna’s wordsmith wit always delights me. Pitching her book and years of her life to agents and editors must be hair raising. To tell the tale with humor and wit is terrific.

  3. Dianna, if your book is anywhere near as entertaining as your blogging, it will be a hit. And any agent who doesn’t realize that is full of beans!


  4. Sounds like a very interesting weekend you had there, young lady. You book writers and us songwriters are up against the same can. If you ain’t got the do re me, boys…

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