If you don't read agent Jennifer Laughran's blog, 1) why not?! and 2) you are currently missing out on some great advice if you are planning to attend a conference. While I have no overall conference-attending advice, I thought I'd talk about pitching in person because this past Saturday I participated in the Writer's Digest Conference Pitch Slam, and it was my first experience with writers pitching to me. Basically, every writer got three minutes to pitch their project to an agent, and once those three minutes were up, a bell rang and then they were sent to be killed. OK, not really. They just had to move on to another agent. In the two-hour, non-stop pitch sessions, the writers I met ranged from all-business to nervous wreck to deer-in-headlights. It made me wonder, what must they be like on job interviews?
There were, of course, a few gems who, even if I didn't always request their manuscripts, maintained the ideal level of professionalism while still being natural and personable. In case you're attending another conference that requires pitching to an agent, here are some of the extreme cases I encountered to help you remain the one thing agents want you to be: yourself.
The Overachiever: This writer is ALL business. They are Tracy Flick-meets-Hermione Granger. What's that? You want to exchange a handshake and a hello? No such luck. Not even a smile. This writer wants to sell, sell, sell. To them, a handshake wastes precious "getting out my binder and carefully typed notes" time and a hello is just another word for "I will now read you my entire query letter, including bio, in under three minutes." An agent will respond positively to this only if the book sounds like something he or she wants to read. But, overall, it's daunting and a little scary.
The Walking Nerve Ending: Writers, agents are people too. More importantly, we're usually the socially awkward bookish people. No need to fear us! Besides, when your voice shakes, we can't hear what your project is about. All we want to do is hug you instead. Ssh... we're all just people, and agents need you as much as you need them. If one of us doesn't particularly want what you've written, well then on to the next one! It'll be OK.
The BFF: This is the opposite of The Overachiever. They might have come prepared with a binder, but you'd never know it because they are just so excited to meet you and are such a fan of [something agent's done]. This writer might use the phrase "I feel like I know you!" and you wonder for a moment if they will give you a hug or invite you out for a drink after, neither of which are appropriate. It is always a good idea to be approachable and pleasant, especially if you follow an agent on Twitter, read their blog, or have met them before. But you do not want to appear so familiar that you lose your sense of professional boundaries.
The Lost Puppy: Another label for deer-in-headlights. This writer is adorably nervous, but not in a debilitating way like the The Walking Nerve Ending. Instead, this writer stammers and stares until, finally, they're able to get out their one-sentence pitch just under three minutes. They just need a little love and encouragement, and maybe a gentle shove to keep moving, lest they get hit by a car (or, in this case, a bell signifying their time is up).
The Fast Talker: As someone who fears public speaking more than death, I can relate to The Fast Talker. I know what it's like to think oh god if I just get through this as quickly as possible it'll all be over and I'll never have to speak again! It's a form of anxiety that I have trouble calling others out on, in case I am labeled a hypocrite. However, I'll offer some tips on what got me through the few times I wasn't able to feign illness to get out of speaking (which, yes, I've done). 1) Know what you're talking about. In this case, it's easy because what you're talking about is your book. If you can speak confidently and with authority on something, there's no reason to be nervous. 2) Before it's your turn to speak, take a break and count to three. It's pretty textbook, I know, but it tends to work.
The Mumbles McMumbleson: This is the writer who lacks confidence and just wants to disappear. They know finding an agent is important, so they have to do this, but by god, do they really need to do this in person? The answer of course is no. No one is forcing writers to attend conferences and meet agents in person. But conferences are important for writers and they chose to be there, so speak up and speak clearly!
Like I said, there were definitely some gems and I'm very excited to read the manuscripts I requested. The Pitch Slam was intense, but fun, which is how many of the writers involved saw it too. See, agents are just like you! No need to fear. When all is said and done, just be yourself. We only want you for your books anyway...