Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Gong show makes history at DFW Writers Conference

It’s been a week of historic events. Oh, yeah, there was the meeting in Singapore, but for writers at the 2018 DFW Writers Conference, the real news was winning the conference’s gong show. Twice.

For readers newly tuning in, the DFW conference’s gong show gives writers a chance to test their query letters against a panel of literary agents. Loosely based on the 1970’s reality show, it aims, however, to provide guidance as well as entertainment.
As agents, small gongs at their sides, face an eager audience, DFW Writers Workshop member George Goldthwaite draws random query letters from those submitted by hopeful, and anonymous, writers. As he reads, imagine the letters arriving in their inboxes and hit their gongs to indicate the point at which they would stop reading. If – as usually happens – three agents gong before the end of the letter, it figuratively ends in the “reject” pile. If Goldthwaite reaches the end of the letter before at least three gongs have sounded, well, that letter is a “winner.” 
Dramatic as the exercise is, its purpose is to allow agents who reject a query to explain their reasons, with an eye to improving real query letters. Occasionally, in the years I’ve attended the conference, a single letter may slip through without being gonged out. This year, there were two. Not to mention several which made it nearly to the end without suffering the dreaded third gong.
image: pixabay
This year’s agent panelists were Amy Bishop (Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC), Marisa Corvisiero (Marisa Corvisiero Literary Agency), Lucienne Diver (The Knight Agency), Patricia Nelson (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), Kevin O’Connor (Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency), and Maximilian Ximenez (L. Perkins Agency). Agents were not allowed to gong a query simply because it was for a genre they don’t work with.
Were they simply more patient than past agent panelists? Or is it – perhaps – that the continual training offered by venues such as the conference is improving the quality of writers’ queries? I’ll hope it’s the latter. 
Goldthwaite read the first query as the audience – and even more, the author – waited. Did an agent move toward a gong? Did any of them shift in their chairs? Could it be possible? Yes, the reading ended. No gongs at all had been struck!
Urged on by gong show MC Russell Connor, the agents had things to say. (Don’t they always?) “I don’t think this is a thriller,” Corvisiero said. “More suspense/mystery.” Nelson disagreed. “It does everything a thriller should do (but) I think you could some up with a better title.” The thrilled writer of the thriller query stood up to take a bow.

Gongs rang out for the second letter. Then the third, a query for a young adult story about two teens with body image issues. Again, the gongs were silent. It was a moment for the conference history books.
“Have we ever had two winners?” MC Connor asked before turning the agents loose.
“It’s really topical,” Diver said, “but 55,000 words is a little on the short side for YA. I’d suggest seeing if you can bump on the word count. 
Corvisiero and Ximenez also had problems with the word count. And then there were concerns that the characters were a little flat and the plot a little thin – exactly the issues that another 10,000 words or so could address. But again, a writer rose to take a bow.
So what about the eight other letters that didn’t make it past the gong show’s gantlet? 
Often agents felt that writers were trying to do too much without providing the heart of the story. Typical responses included: “trying a bit too hard, too conscious of its own cleverness”; “felt like there were several different premises”; “too much going on”; “with a query letter you want me to be intrigued, not confused”; “a lack of focus.” 
A query that came close to its end before being gonged out, drove agents to say, “been done before” and “tell us why this is original.” 
Another complaint, heard year after year at gong shows, was “too long.” Too much world building, not enough character were heard more than once.
One complaint – and query tactic – I’d never heard before was for writing the query (not story) in first person.  Agents were uniformly repelled by use of first person in the body of the query. 
“If you’re writing first person, I don’t know who’s talking – the author or the character,” Corvisiero said. 
 Authors please note, however, that agents did want the biographical section of the query letter to be in first person. Otherwise, stick with third person for the body of the letter and leave first POV for your story.
Another year, another chance to strengthen those queries! I’ll be back later this week with more information from the conference, from how to write diverse characters, to (for indie authors) how to get a great book cover, to – yes, tips on query letters, and more.


  1. An excellent re-cap of the Query Gong Show! It was fun, and educational. So glad I was there to witness the two winning entries as well as hear the critiques of the other entries.

  2. I too love the Gong Show, Janie! The education is great and this year was particularly wonderful with two winners and several more nearly so.