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2016 SDSU Writers’ Conference Attendee Wins Conference Choice Award — Twice

By Suzana Norberg

As a property manager, Oceanside resident Patricia Hopper has a flexible schedule. And she makes the best possible use of that flexibility by writing several hours a day in pursuit of her goal to be a published author. She’s already had success as a screenwriter. The screenplay she co-wrote was recently produced into a film — Rodeo Girl— available on Netflix and Amazon.

Hopper came to the 2016 SDSU Writers’ Conference in search of feedback on her first novel, Sudden Changes, and scheduled two advance readings, one with Angela Rinaldi, president of Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, and Sarah Younger, an agent with Nancy Yost Literary Agency. In a rare double whammy, both agents ended up choosing Hopper for a Conference Choice Award.

Every year, each agent and editor chooses their favorite project from all the advance readings and consultations that take place over the three-day conference. Advance readings require submitting the first 10 pages of one’s manuscript, prior to the conference, and consultations are a Q&A opportunity to pitch a project and discuss its viability in the marketplace.

With a long history of launching careers by opening doors, the SDSU conference was among the first to pioneer these 1:1 appointments that give writers unprecedented access to top-tier publishing professionals — many of whom interact with unpublished authors only through conferences.

Hopper shares her SDSU Writers’ Conference experience and where she is today on her journey to publication:

Tell us about the project that brought you to the 2016 SDSU Writers’ Conference.
Sudden Changes is women’s fiction. The story is about a woman whose only daughter is killed in a car accident, leaving behind the woman’s 8-year-old grandson who is autistic. Everyone expects the woman to raise him, but she has not bonded with her grandson and feels ill equipped to handle him. She goes in search of his father even though she always thought he had no interest in him. He turns out to be a Marine serving in Afghanistan. Ultimately the book is about the relationship between the grandmother, the child, and the father. Each are learning to cope with loss in their own way, and trying to figure out how to come together as a family.

How long have you been working on it?
The idea came to me quite a few years ago, but I have been working on it off and on for five years. Seriously for the last two years.

Care to share the opening line or paragraph?
I’d love to!

I like the way my rubber snakes smell. My Grammy says they smell “pungent.” I don’t know what that means. I askded her and she didn’t give me an answer, so I think it means something bad, but I like them anyways. I have seven with me. That’s because I like odd numbers. I start on the left side of the room and I pick up one snake. I know it’s the left because when I look at the lady at the desk I know that is the front of the room, and I know the hand that I bite my fingernails is my left hand. So if I point my left hand straight out from my side, I know I’m pointing left. Grammy taught me that. I put the snake under my nose and sniff the “pungent” smell. Then I go ta the other side of the room—the right side—and set it down. I do this ‘zactly seven times and then I do it the other way. I know I will do this until the judge lady is ready ta talk to us. I shake and swing their skinny bodies. Sometimes I put them ‘round my neck, but not when I play this game.

Did either agent give you any suggestions on reworking the first 10 pages?
Sarah Younger loved the child’s voice (the unreliable character) and thought the whole novel should be in his voice. The way it is now, the first 10 pages also includes Clarice’s voice as it does throughout the novel.

Could you tell that Angela and Sarah were pretty excited about your 10 pages or was it a complete surprise when you heard your name announced as a Conference Choice winner?
Angela was very complimentary about the work and asked me for an exclusive first look, so I was hopeful she would give me the award. However, I might have been the first writer she saw that weekend and I know there are so many wonderful writers that attend the conference, so nothing is for sure. I would never have guessed by my conversation with Sarah that she would give me the award. I mean, I thought she was interested in the story, but I didn’t see that coming.

How did it feel to hear your name announced a second time?
I was elated! It is nice to have your work validated. The awards are a great reminder that what I’m doing might be worthwhile and not just some fantasy of my own making.

Was either agent interested in seeing the complete manuscript?
Both Angela and Sarah wanted to read the manuscript. When I told Sarah that I shook hands on an exclusive with Angela, she said she was open to looking at it if Angela passed. Angela was very complimentary but there were changes she wanted to see. She suggested a couple of outside editors. I just finished my rewrite and I’m running a few pages by my workshop on Tuesday. Then I plan to send a note to Angela.

Was 2016 your first time attending the SDSU Writers’ Conference?
I attended two years ago also. At that time I met two other writers and we formed the writer’s workshop that I mentioned, which has been great.

Did you attend a workshop that was particularly helpful or outstanding in some way?
I particularly liked the workshop on what to ask an agent before making a deal with them. I also find the workshops on writing a query very helpful.

What do you think is one of the greatest strengths of the conference?
The accessibility to the agents and publishers. Also a better understanding of the whole process involved in getting your work published.

Had you been querying agents and trying to get representation prior to the conference? If so, what has the response been?
I really have spent the time focusing on the work. When I attended two years ago I only had 50 pages. At the time, there were a few agents interested in my story and wanted to read those pages. I did send them out. It was a huge mistake! The work was not polished and my main character was not flushed out. I say focus on the work and try to make it the best you can before you put it out there.

Did you make a connection with a fellow writer or an editor or agent at one of the mixers or the networking lunch?
I met so many great people. A weird thing happened too. There were about five or six of us ladies hanging out together over the weekend. We’d all just met. Of the six, four received awards. How extraordinary is that? There are so many people attending and so few awards given out, yet we found each other.

What’s the first book that spoke to you as a young reader?
Mrs. Mike, by Benedict Freeman. It is a little known book (a true story) about a frail 16-year-old girl from Boston who marries a Canadian Mountie and lives in the wilderness of the Northern territories of Canada. She ends up outliving her husband. She survives Indians, fires, childbirth. A little book, but an amazing woman.

Who’s your favorite author (or top three if it’s hard to choose one)?
I know a lot of people will read an author’s work and then read everything that author writes, but I’m not like that. I go for the story. However, I really admire Diana Gabaldon. The research she has put into her books is amazing and she is a wonderful storyteller. As my daughter said, “She made us fall in love with a man who doesn’t even exist.” I also think Stephen King is an amazing writer. I screamed out loud when I read The Stand. I also tend to love work written by authors from India. They have the most amazing way of telling a story and the description is generally so beautiful.

What keeps you going in the pursuit of your writing goal?
I know you hear this all the time, but as a writer I have to write. I love it. Everything is a story to me.

Will we see you again at a future conference?
Most definitely. One day I hope to be teaching one of the workshops. LOL! I’ve started another novel too.

Anything you’d like to add?
The Writer’s Conference was a wonderful experience for me. I encourage other writers to attend. There is so much valuable information to obtain and such great opportunities to reach out to agents and publishers. You’ll even meet them in the elevator, so have your elevator pitch ready.

The 33rd Annual SDSU Writers’ Conference is Jan. 20-22, 2017 at the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley. Register now for three amazing days that could change your writing life. Register by Jan. 3, 2017 to get the early-bird discount.