Monday, January 24, 2011

Pitches and Strikes

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...

18 comments:

  1. I didn't get an English degree, but I got a Communications degree, and by God I will kick ass at a conference I'm attending in April. And by kicking ass I mean being chill, listening as much as I talk, and letting myself not do it perfectly the first time. I'm gonna make loads of mistakes, but I'll be better next conference.

    Thanks for the referral link! I'll check it out.

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  2. Fascinating! I've never even heard of a pitch slam. But wow, I think I fit under every category at one point or another. But recognition is half the battle, right? :)

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  3. I have been all of these at one point. Not entirely sure how I am any more or how I'd be if I had to pitch to a room full of agents... Scary. Great post! :D

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  4. Heee. :) I think I'd probably be a fast-talking puppy. This reminds me of judging dance auditions. Usually you can tell who you want just by how they walk in the door. It's a little different from the book world, but still some similarities.

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  5. The Overachiever description reminds me of Rachel from Glee! I'm a fast talker by nature and have to remember to slow it down when I'm giving presentations or speaking to groups. Great post!

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  6. I love that last line, Sarah. Got me laughing.

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  7. Wow, Sarah! Besides leaving me rolling on the floor, you hit so many of these personalities right on the head. I won't admit publicly which one is me, but rest assured it's not the Overachiever.

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  8. To judge from many industry blogs, it seems that conference pitches are slowly overtaking traditional query letters as the way agents find authors. I wonder if it's because even at a pitch slam the number of queries an agent has to sort through is so much less than the deluge of email queries they must deal with. And maybe seeing a writer in person gives an agent an idea of what they might be like to work with. But I would personally find sitting through a pitch session excruciating!

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  9. Pitch Slam was an intense experience, but the agents (especially you) were super gracious and friendly.

    I was all of these when I practiced at home. The worst was when my mom started laughing at me and called me "the over-enunciator" because my mouth and face kept twisting up with every other word.

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  10. OMG I am so glad I never experienced a Pitch Slam. I probably would've been a mixture of The Fast Talker & The Lost Puppy and I'm pretty sure I would've walked away a nervous wreck. I was an email-query-girl all the way.

    And by the way, I just love how you describe things in your posts. Quite the writing voice yourself, Ms. Agent.

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  11. Sarah . . . I dig your blog.

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  12. I'm pretty sure I was a twist of your BFF, Walking Nerve Ending and Fast Talker. I probably violated every rule of etiquette that day.

    Pitch Slams sort of strip all the sanity from writers, I think. I'm surprised they didn't medicate me on the way out. I was manic!!!

    You were sweet and welcoming at the Pitch Slam, Sarah, and I'm so thankful for that! Made being loco a little easier and a little less embarassing.

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  13. At my pitch, I mispronounced MY OWN NAME. Doy!

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  14. @Tamrapaulin LOL! :D

    "We only want your books anyways..." Haha! Yeah, totally puts me at ease... lol :D

    Love this! Thanks so much!

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  15. This is so funny--because it's so true and in many different contexts. I taught eighth grade for a while and presentations played out a lot like the above mentioned scenarios.

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  16. Funny but true. Will have to bear this in mind when I attend my first agent pitching session in March! Really excited, but I know I start talking super fast when I'm nervous or excited!

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  17. Thank you, Sarah, for posting this post-slam postmortem. Interesting. Insightful. And generous for future slammers! I was at WDC11, and though I didn't pitch you, I remember in line for an agent next to you. Cool as a cuke, you were, and yet to think that underneath you were dreading the public speaking as much as the writer sitting opposite you. You played your part admirably from my vantage point, and by sharing this post you've likely helped a great many pitch slam first-timers up their game as well. Cheers!

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  18. And how about different types of agents? On agent mentions on her blog spending her time on the phone talking either to writers or publishers. But how about those who do it by socializing. I had that agent once, and would love one like him again.

    Searching for Another Literary Agent Gatsby

    I asked an old, famous writer if I needed an agent for a novella of mine. He said, “Hand me your manuscript and I will give it to the best young agent in the business.” That agent, whom I will call Literary Agent Gatsby, gave my novella to Ballantine Books, which published it. I found myself with a nice advance for a very young, first-time author, and it all happened within a few short weeks.

    Agent Gatsby had one rule for all of his authors: never phone him before one o’clock in the afternoon. He claimed that he sold his writers’ works by socializing in the evenings. For at least eight nights a week, he went to parties, threw parties, went to dinner, or just went drinking with individuals who would either provide him with the best writing of the day or who would publish that writing in the best markets for the most money. I went with my agent to two parties, and attended one party that he threw. His gala was in an incredible two-floor, ocean-facing suite of the Miami Beach Fontainebleau hotel. I will always remember him with a beautiful writer under one arm and a beautiful editor under the other arm, as he chatted amiably with one of the most important men in the publishing industry. Like The Great Gatsby, my agent was wealthy, powerful, and mysterious.

    One day, Agent Gatsby called me. It was, of course, well into the afternoon. What he said was that a few weeks earlier he had arranged a multi-million dollar deal for one of his clients. Now he was “pruning his stable of authors,” and I was one who would be pruned away. He referred me to another agent, and she was happy to take me as a writer. But she was young, with very few contacts among publishers. She worked from nine to five. One could not call her after business hours, because she was home with her family. She never sold anything I wrote.

    It is now quite a few years later. I spoke to Agent Gatsby’s wife recently. She told me that his mind is gone. He is burnt out. I am looking for another agent. I cannot go back to Mrs. Nine-To-Five. I am hoping to find someone similar to the young man my famous writer recommended. Unfortunately, it is an impossible task. I’ve asked every old, famous writer I know, but there’s nothing they can do. There will never be another literary agent like Agent Gatsby.

    //

    Just kidding Sarah. It's mostly all true, but any reputable agent who wants me, I'm yours.

    This was written for my blog: http://www.f1reth0rns.blogspot.com/

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