Friday, February 29, 2008

10 Things I Learned Talking to Literary Agents

[Originally published 28 October 2007]

So I went to an Agents' Forum and this is what I learned.

(An Agents' Forum, in this case, was a panel discussion by a bunch of literary agents, followed by an agonizing pitch session where a bunch of writers queued up and stood there, muttering loglines to themselves and trying not to talk to each other, for a LONG time. This one was held at the University of Southern California last weekend. All due kudos to the Master of Professional Writing program there for setting it up. It's rare that you get to pitch to an agent in person, but I found the experience so terrifying as to be educational.)

1. Before you go, Google. Before going to the forum, I Googled all but one of the agents who would be present. This allowed me to identify, for example, the agent whose website declared that she refused to consider fantasy or SF. Since she had the longest line in the room, I saved myself quite a bit of time and heartache by not trying to pitch to her. I focused my attention instead on the one agent on the list whose site indicated she was interested primarily in commercial material—that's the stuff mere mortals buy, and the stuff I usually write. That pitch session went quite well . . . or, at least, she didn't cut me off at the sixth word like another agent did. Success with my first-choice agent emboldened me to pitch to three others. It also put me ahead of everybody who didn't Google and waited in the wrong lines.

2. If you're going to Google, spell the names right! Like I said, I Googled all but one agent, thanks to a typo on the flyers. The horror . . .

3. You really do have to have a logline—that dreaded one-sentence summary of everything your story is, was, and will be, carefully crafted to grab an agent's attention like the G-force on Montezooma's Revenge. Condensing your entire story into one sentence so you can squeeze it into an agent's attention span is a harrowing experience. It's also a good way to figure out what your story's really about, even if you've already written it. Get your friends to help you and act as sounding board. Sleep on it. And then be sure to rewrite whatever you come up with—things written by committee sound like it!

4. Buck yourself up before pitching. It sounds corny and your third grade teacher said it too much, but a positive attitude really does make all the difference. For one thing, you cry less in public. Always a plus.

5. When someone does cut you off on the sixth word ("superhero"), say, "Thank you for your courtesy and candor. I'll not waste any more of your time." Then shake hands and leave. I'm not sure this is the optimal solution, but it worked for me this time, and it will probably go over better than screaming, crying, or trying to convince the person rejecting you that he or she is dead wrong. And I got two more positive interviews after that, so I think I won.

6. Mention alternative media. I got better responses when I mentioned I had a MySpace page. It makes you sound hip and savvy. And if you want to start your own writing MySpace page, I'll be your buddy. Bonus! I wonder if I can work YouTube into a pitch for a novel . . .

7. This sounds counterintuitive, but be nice to everyone in the pitch session, especially other writers. It's good karma, it makes you friends, and it keeps you calm. In my case, it also freaked a couple of other writers out, apparently because they thought I was trying to sabotage them by telling jokes and offering to share my notes on the various agents. Being the only friendly person in the room is a surprisingly useful thing. Mwa-ha-ha.

8. Find lonely people. I had a very good interview with an agent who was leaving because no one wanted to pitch to her. She ended up asking for my first 50 pages. Agents want to be wanted. And if there's one thing writers understand, it's insecurity . . .

9. Speaking of which--ladies, whatever you're going to wear, wear it at least once before the big event. I'm not kidding. This is not the time to find out that jacket doesn't go with that skirt. Or the time to break in new shoes. Yikes!

10. Do not gripe. Do not snipe. Do not whine, moan, groan, complain, bitch, or lament. All of this is for later. Bemoaning your fate in a room full of nervous people will make you a lot of enemies, in a hurry. Good thing I'm a fast learner. Heh heh.

There's lots of other stuff I learned in the panel discussion, and I'll get to that in the next entry. For now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Some pages went out to some interested agents this week, and it looks like I'm about to find out if I handle rejection as well as I think I do.

But hey. It only takes one yes, right? I like them odds . . .

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