When you get the brochure, read it carefully. Look for workshops that will help you conquer writer’s block, find your own unique voice, and breathe life into your characters. Then read the agent bios. This is the critical decision; the right agent can put you on track for success. Sign up for the guy from New York.
Anywhere you see the word “pitch,” ignore it. You haven’t written a movie.
When you arrive at the conference and make your way through the crowd of other hopeful writers to the registration desk, remember that you have honed your work to a knife-edge, and any agent worth her fee would jump at it. Stand tall and tell the conference rep at the desk your name. Someday he’ll see it on Amazon.com.
Since your agent conference isn’t until afternoon, choose a workshop to attend in the meantime. Skip over The Commercial Fiction Pitch, it’s probably full anyway. Pitching is for people whose work can’t sell itself. That’s not you. Go to Choosing a Powerful Title.
Slip in the back and find a seat. Don’t be distracted by the writers on either side of you who are leafing nervously through typed pages and mumbling to themselves. Instead, listen to the speaker tell you about titles. They should derive from the theme of your work. Your theme is the overall guiding direction of your book, and it determines who the main character is and what she wants. The speaker, who is also an agent, says that if you don’t know this, your book may not be ready.
Don’t let this scare you. You’ve got until 2:15 to figure it out.
Leave the Powerful Title workshop and find the one on Tapping the Unconscious Writer Within. Maybe it will help you find your theme. Lean against the back wall and learn how to find your personal, guiding genius, one that will be your partner in a dynamic writing alliance. When the woman next to you whispers, “What are you pitching?” pretend to be tuned in to the speaker while you consider your answer. Maybe you should go somewhere quiet and think about the theme of your book before you meet with your agent. Say, “I just came for the workshops.”
Slip quietly out the back.
Ask the guy at the desk where you can sit for a while and write. Look where he’s pointing and see the rows of folding chairs outside the door to the Columbia Ballroom. Allow yourself only a glance at the lonely, desperate figures seated there, clutching dog eared pages and closing their eyes, faces turned to the ceiling like refugees waiting for their deportation interviews. They’re waiting to meet their agents.
Don’t sit with them. Check your watch; you have time for a beer.
Order a Moose Drool, it’s a small town beer that made good. Lay your notebook on the table but don’t open it yet. Instead, create a dynamic writing alliance with the golden glass in front of you. Relax. Maybe your book does have a theme; maybe it’s right there on the first page where it should be. Maybe there’s a dynamite title attached to it, one that will be visceral, loaded with meaning and grace, and will knock your agent’s socks off. Take a sip of beer without opening your eyes.
When the big guy in the silk shirt sits down at your table and says, “So, what are you pitching?” take a deep breath. Look around slowly and see by his nametag that he is Steven “Spook” McNamara and that he is registered for all three days of the conference. Think, “It’s a bloody, violent crime novel about a female serial killer who finds her victims at writers’ conferences.”
Say, “I’m not really pitching, just looking for some professional advice.” When he gives you a self-satisfied smirk and signals the waitress, take another sip of Moose Drool and open your notebook.
Then sigh and look back at him. You are an educated woman, socialized in middle class manners. You can’t be rude. Ask, “How about you?” and settle in for Spook’s report.
It seems he’s already a published author, has an agent, and just hits a conference here and there to keep in touch. He’s a little cagey about what he writes, hoping that you’ll tease it out of him. When you’re not as good at this as you could be, he gives it up. He writes about gender issues, ones that have been ignored up to now. His first title was, “Female abusers: The untold story.” His upcoming book will be, “What Men Won’t Tell You: Everything Women Always Wanted to Know.”
He says, “They jump off the shelves. All you girls are going to run out and buy this one.”
You reconsider telling him about your serial killer, but instead you gather your notebook and get up, leaving half you beer untouched. You say, “Gotta go. I have a pitch at 2:15.”
A pitch? Will you really pitch your book to the New York agent? How does that even work? You have ignored every diligent, generous attempt on the part of the conference organizers to educate you, and now here you are. Ten minutes before your meeting and you mind is a blank.
Find a chair among the refugees and slump into it. Fight the rising anxiety. Trust that your guiding genius will show up. That at the crucial moment, when you sit down across from the professional, the guy who know the ropes, that at that moment a pitch will come to you.
When the man announces the 2:15 agent meetings, you jump. You must have dozed off for a moment, because you are surprisingly calm. A little shuteye has done you good. You waltz into the Columbia Ballroom like Erin Brockavich into a room of lawyers and find your agent from among the dozens of others by his name card on the table. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was just a normal person, maybe someone from your writing group back home. He shakes your hand and smiles, and you sit down.
He says, “OK, what have you got?”
You think, “Oh-oh. He wants to hear a pitch.” You don’t even know the theme of your book. You say, “I’ve been interviewing doctors about heart transplantation. I know some people with amazing stories.” He says he doesn’t do science.
You say, “Well, I’m nearly finished with a novel. It’s set in a university town, with strong female lead and elements of mystery. Its theme is…” He frowns. He says, “Tell me what your interested in.”
You think about it. You’re interested in science, but he’s not. You’ve got a good start on the mystery, but there’s that issue of the theme. You say, “Well, I have this friend who tows cars for a living. He tells the most amazing stories.”
He says, “Send me three chapters.” After a moment you say, “OK.”
Outside the Columbia Ballroom, it’s the end of the day. There’s a noticeable reduction in anxiety; people are laughing and munching on the chocolate chip cookies that your hosts have provided as a wrap-up snack. You see the woman from the Writer Within workshop and smile at her. She won’t meet your eyes.
You think, “Hmm. Her pitch must not have gone well.” Then you remember that yours went OK. It went more than OK — a New York agent wants to see three chapters. Never mind that you haven’t written a page, or even talked to the proposed subject of the proposed book to see if he wants to be famous. You’re on track, and you can therefore afford to be magnanimous. You open the door for her and step out onto a deck in the late afternoon sunshine. “So,” you say. “How did it go?”
She says she’s got to go home and rethink her book. “It’s about a woman who moves to Oregon because she remembers this one beach she visited as a child. But I need to identify the theme,” she says. “I’m not sure it was ready to pitch.” After a moment, she adds, “Actually, I’m not sure I understand the whole pitch thing.”
You say, “Neither do I.” You think about the writers you know, most of whom spend their days alone with their computers. They write because that’s how they communicate best. Some even write letters to people they see everyday, because they can’t speak what they really mean. And now, after months of anticipation, these solitary people are expected to compress into three sentences the universe of their work.
“Tell me what you’re interested in,” you ask. And the two of you get Moose Drools, sit at an outside table and talk about tow trucks, female abusers and the Oregon coast until the sun goes down.