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:
- Word count
- Who is the protagonist and what is his/her goal?
- 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.
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.”