As I’m sure you can imagine, coordinating a writers’ conference is no easy task. But, now that I’m into my second round of pulling everything together for a Pennwriters’ annual conference, I have found one advantage that far outshines all the rest: agents are no longer scary.
I remember attending my first conference back in the 90s as a newbie to the world of fiction publishing. Forgetting for a minute that my head was spinning after three jam-packed days of classes and networking, one of the biggest impressions I walked away with was that agents didn’t seem to be everyday, ordinary folk. Why else would all those writers who were pitching novels look so nervous?
Now I know better. After tossing ideas back and forth about workshop topics, scheduling and rescheduling train tickets, and arranging special accommodations around dietary needs, nothing could be clearer: agents are people, too.
Of course, you don’t have to go the route of being a conference coordinator to have a nerve-calming epiphany. If you’re worried that your nerves are going to trip you up when you pitch your book to the agent of your dreams, try a few of these suggestions.
1. Do your research. As my grandmother would say, there’s more information out there “than you can shake a stick at.” Don’t just limit yourself to pulling up an agent’s website. Google them. Search them out on YouTube. Talk to the members of your writers’ group.
When I’m choosing editors and agents to invite to a conference, I start with a list of who wants what. At Agent Query (www.agentquery.com) you can search listings by genre, city, and keyword. I check Preditors and Editors to make sure everyone’s in good standing. Then I Google individual names, looking specifically for Q&A interviews and forums. The discussions at Absolute Write’s Water Cooler are very enlightening. I surf other conferences’ sites and contact their coordinators for input. My last step is to check YouTube. Video clips give me a great idea of what kind of public speaker an agent or editor is.
2. Participate in a pitch practice. Pennwriters schedules a workshop on pitching practice before the conference pitch appointments begin, and some of our area critique groups hold pitch camps. There’s no better — and safer — way to work out the kinks in your pitch. Practicing in the mirror is fine. So is testing out your pitch on your best friend. But if you want serious, pin-pointed feedback, do a pitch practice.
In 2010, CJ Lyons (she writes medical thrillers for Berkley) will be leading our conference workshop. She’ll be opening the hour with some basic information, but the majority of the session will be spent asking for volunteers who want to give their pitch to her in front of the class. It’s a hard thing for a writer to do, given that we’re usually at our best when we’re alone writing our stories. But the theory is that if you can do it for CJ, you’ll be able to do it for an agent.
3. Chat with agents after hours. And I don’t mean lay in wait in the hallway near their room or stalk them as they head into the bar. Some of the best pitches are given outside official pitch appointment hours as part of a casual conversation between a writer and an agent.
One of my writer friends told me of his impromptu pitch over dinner at the 2009 Pennwriters Conference. He sat down with his wife, who was chatting with another gentleman at the table. Around the time dessert was served, this gentleman, who turned out to be a well-known agent, asked her if she had a book to pitch. “Oh, I’m not the writer,” she said. “My husband is…” Would you be ready for a perfect opening like that? My friend was, and he left the dinner table that night with the agent’s business card and a request to send his first three chapters.
If you’re at the point where your manuscript is finished and you’re ready to meet an agent face to face, be prepared. But above all, don’t be nervous. Agents are people, too.
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Ayleen Stellhorn is the coordinator for Pennwriters’ 2010 Annual Writers Conference, which takes place May 14-16 at the Best Western Eden Resort in Lancaster, PA. Among the 8 agents and editors hearing pitches that weekend are Barbara Lalicki, senior vice president of HarperCollins Children; Janet Reid, FinePrint Literary Management; and Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Literary Agency. In addition to her one-hour pitch practice session as part of the conference, author CJ Lyons will also present a pre-conference seminar for writers who are ready to send their materials to agents and editors. Crafting Your Fiction Query Package addresses query letters, synopses, and the infamous “elevator pitch.” Find out more at www.pennwriters.com.