Monday, December 27, 2010

Agents Don’t Bite: How to Maximize Your Experience at a Writers Conference

To novice writers, agents are mythical creatures that live in a distant paradise of tall skyscrapers, café lattes and furry boots; a wonderland where dreams come true and books get published: New York City.

Fortunately, we don’t all have to travel to the Big Apple to meet them. Nowadays, they come to our distant locations with regularity, displaying their charm and wisdom on panels filled with top industry professionals. Nothing could be more intimidating, yet exhilarating for the novice writer. (I know a writer who was unable to perform a bodily function just knowing that the agent of her dreams was in the adjacent bathroom stall.*)

Opportunities like this simply don’t come by every day (they’re not cheap, either.) So we’d better make the best of them. But how do we do this? How do we overcome the fear of sounding like stuttering fools with the eloquence of an orangutan? How do we grab their interest and get those five little words that are the object of our obsession and prayers: “Please send me your manuscript”?

After attending six conferences in the last few years, I can tell you that speaking to agents and editors does get easier with time. At first the idea of sitting down and talking to a real-life agent or editor in a one-on-one scenario is as appealing as chewing on a shoe sole. You would rather sit in the back row, as far away from their prying eyes as possible, and listen—memorize—every single word. You take so many notes you could write a book, you analyze every gesture, every scoff and giggle, all along fearing and dreading the moment when you will sit across the desk with this person for your pitch session.

Then, during a lecture you've been halfway listening to, you look at your watch (you did it ten seconds ago) and you realize you must face the two-headed beast (no offense to agents/editors, I know some of them are very cute.) Along the way, you forget everything you were going to say, and the novel that you’ve been slaving over for months (or even years) becomes a blur in your mind.

You introduce yourself to the agent/editor, offer your cold, sweaty hand and remove your notes. Here comes the worst mistake of the novice conference-goer:

You read your notes.

I have to admit that in my first encounter with an editor I did this, but she was so kind and understanding that she listened (and even requested a partial.) However, in my second conference, the agent was not so patient. The minute I removed my index cards, now typed and organized with numbers, the agent started darting questions in my direction. Every time my eyes lowered to read my notes, the agent would assault me with another question. In the end, I set them aside and listened—she had a lot to say. Another partial request followed (out of pity, I think.)

What is the problem with reading? You may ask. Well, I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading, especially when I’m nervous. The problem is that unless we are trained in reading for say, an audio book or a performance, we read in a very monotone, rapid fashion, with our cheeks burning and sweat building in copious amounts under our armpits.

After these two experiences, I concluded that I shouldn’t be reading. And I came up with a better idea: I was going to memorize my pitch.

As it turns out, when you memorize you don’t think much, either. Even worse, if you lose your train of thought, by say, the agent/editor asking a question (how dare they?!), it becomes extremely difficult to resume your flawless pitch with the fluency you had when you practiced in front of your spouse (or cat, or canary, whichever applies.)

You may have also heard about the X meets Y pitch. Well, I heard about it too. Twenty minutes before my pitch session, when an editor grabbed the microphone during the panel and announced that all she wanted to hear was a clever comparison of your novel with two blockbusters (from the last ten years) in a combination that sounded so appealing and complete that the editor in question could already picture your novel in the book shelf. “And then you shut up and listen,” she concluded.

Needless to say, the next few minutes turned into a nervous explosion of writers trying to come up with appropriates X and Ys to describe their books, and attempting to help each other out without any knowledge whatsoever of each other’s plots.

I didn’t get a request during that conference.

Conclusion? I was going to have to actually talk about my novel.

And this, my friends, was the best idea I ever had. I know it’s nerve-wracking to imagine sitting in front of a stranger who holds the key to your dreams. What if you forget? What if your mind goes blank? Well, I’m living proof that these things won’t happen. After all, you’ve only obsessed with your novel for one, two, five or even ten years, right?

So that is the key, it’s that simple. Talk about your novel as though you were telling your best friend about it. Just keep in mind there are some very important facts you must tell the agent/editor:

  1. Title
  2. Genre
  3. Setting
  4. Word count
  5. Who is the protagonist and what is his/her goal?
  6. What is the main conflict in the story?

Another thing that helps is to mention any recurring themes throughout the novel, if you have any. (For example: the world of wine, music, dance, photography, etc.) Also, if you’re pitching a Women’s Fiction novel, do mention if there is a love interest. I know this was a big hit with the agents I pitched to.

After I implemented this new “pitch philosophy,” I got one partial (from an agent) and two full requests (one from an agent and another from an editor) in ONE single conference.

Mission accomplished!

A few random things to keep in mind (you’ve probably read this just about EVERYWHERE, but I saw it done WITH MY OWN EYES) and this wouldn’t feel like a complete guide if I didn’t mention this very important rule:

  • DO NOT harass/approach an agent with a story idea IN THE BATHROOM.


  • DO approach them during lunch.
  • DO talk to other agents/editors that interest you even if you don’t have a pitch scheduled with them. In my experience, they are very open to listening.
  • Try to sit at the table of an agent that interests you but you don’t have an appointment with (even if it means pushing all the other writers out of the way—forgive me, colleagues.)

One last thing: enjoy yourself. Don’t simply obsess with agents and editors. You may meet wonderful people in the business that may enrich your lives in many other ways. I met a good friend of mine at a conference, the lovely Aurora. So keep your eyes open for other writers.

And now, let’s hear about you—have you had good or bad experience at conferences? Which approach has worked best for you? Does the idea of meeting an agent in person give you nightmares?

*names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

** Correction: the writer with “bathroom stage fright” has recently clarified that said agent was not really “the agent of her dreams.”


  1. As a novice writer, the idea of writing a query is daunting, but pitching it to an agent in person? That is truly frightening. Thank you for the helpful tips. I'll need to bookmark this post for future reference. *crosses fingers*

  2. Before reading Sister Lorena´s post, I was wondering if perhaps we were not being a bit unfair towards the agent profession. But we all have had distressing and frustrating experiences with agents. So, it´s refreshing to have a guideline on how to approach them at least in conferences, and Sister you display uncanny humor on recounting “ouch!” experiences. Let´s hope all our readers remain as optimistic and relaxed as you have, even after harrowing encounters with agents at conferences, the email or the bathroom.

  3. Hi Lorena! Thank you for swinging by my blog! Looks like you and your "sisters" are off to a great blogging start! I wish you all the best! :-)

  4. For me, the local conferences I have attended have been unqualified positive experiences. Every agent I have had the fortune to meet at said conferences has been professional and, by all appearances, as eager to make the connection as a writer. Again, though the current system of securing representation has its definite flaws, it consistently astounds me that writers forget that without us, there is no publishing industry. Agents, editors and publishers need us as much as we need them. And while it is true that it is notoriously difficult to stand out among an avalanche of submissions- be it in person, by post or electronically- the fact is each of us has our spot on the chain of placing the written word before the eyes of readers.

    Finally, it is very true, as Lorena has stated, that each interaction with an industry professional becomes easier- for many reasons; not the least of which is that every time you pitch, you learn, both about the industry as well as yourself. And because writing is a fairly solitary vocation, conferences- perhaps especially local ones where the price of admission is a little over a hundred dollars including a meal- are wonderful places to connect with other writers, stimulating, unique and special bunch that we are. ;)

  5. Kari Marie, even with the bad experiences (due to my own nervousness) I can tell you that pitching in person is not as horrific as it may seem. All the agents I have talked to have shown an interest in what I had to say, have been polite, smiled a lot and attempted to make me feel at ease. Best of luck to you when you go to a conference!

    Violante, pitching for me has not been very different from job interviews and I can tell you that with the latter I have had much worst experiences than with agents (I don't know if I can bring humor to those, ha!)

    Jody, thank YOU for stopping by. Thanks for all your tips and best wishes to you and your book in this coming year.

    Aurora, you are absolutely right when you say you learn something every time you pitch. Not only do you learn about the industry and what that specific agent/agency is looking for, but also you learn what works best to sell your novel. I don't think this is something you can always learn through query letters. So, in my opinion, conferences can be very helpful for writers.

  6. As with many things, I am on the same page as you, Lorena. I'm pretty much just reiterating but attending conferences, as well as blogging in order to integrate with the wider writing community, has personally helped solidify me in my chosen profession prior to linking up with the right agent, editor and publisher. So much of succeeding in this business- I think- is maintaining fairly airtight psychological armor and one thing that invariably assists with that is building community.

    I am happily forever indebted to the conference at which I met you. :)

  7. I just found your site. Thanks for sharing these tips. If you get a chance, please visit my new blog:

  8. Great post, Lorena, and no I haven't been silent because I disagree, but because of just an incredibly busy week. I agree with not obsessing over that agent/editor meeting (but then, that's what everyone ends up doing, right?), but to just go at it head-on. I like your list of the "important facts" concerning one's novel. Everyone needs to know the basics of what they're writing if they're going to pitch a manuscript. I still feel that if an aspiring writer wants to attend a conference then they need to do their research concerning the agents and editors. Sure, there are nice, informative sessions for any aspiring writer, but any good writing group has similar speakers and topics (i.e. writing query letters, pitching nonfiction, writing great characters, developing a storyline, etc.) With a conference, for me anyway, in the the end, it ends up being that one or two agents I'm paying to see. A job interview can turn out just as poorly as a one-on-one, but, well, you never have to pay for a job interview.

  9. I have my first conference in March and I'm very nervous.... But there's some great advice here and I"m just hoping to be prepared and yes, enjoy it. Thanks for the advice.

  10. I'm far away from being ready for a conference but am totally excited about them. I'm glad you lovely ladies posted about this. It helps a newbie like myself to learn the ups and downs and what to watch out for.


  11. The feeling is mutual, Sister Aurora. :)

    Sylvia, I'm glad you found us, thanks for stopping by.

    Dear Mary, if I had a bad experience at a conference such as the one you recently shared with us, I would also be hesitant to spend my money in one. Fortunately, the ones I've attended have been worth it to me. I really enjoy the opportunity to network and meet people with an equal passion for books. True, I could do that at our local writing group, but not with people from all over the country. So, yes, essentially you are paying to meet agents and editors (and a very expensive lunch :)) but you would pay more if you had to travel to NY to meet them, right? ;)

    Jenny, I wish you the best of luck at your upcoming conference. Just keep in mind that most agents who attend want to find new clients, so they will be interested in what you have to say.

    Lisa, I'm glad I could be of help. I hope you have a chance to attend a conference soon (to me they're still exciting!)


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.