Over the years I’ve been to a lot of journalism conferences, and I know the drill: Friday morning, check in to the convention hotel and get the badge and the schedule; Friday and Saturday, go to a bunch of panel discussions and hope they’re worth the time; Saturday night, go out for drinks with all your new friends, then blow off all the Sunday morning sessions while you close the blackout drapes and think about coffee.
Which is pretty much the arc of every professional convention, I imagine. So when I headed to the downtown Austin Hyatt at the end of June for the Writers League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference, I was interested to see how a bunch of fiction writers do a conference.
But mainly, I was there to troll for agents, which is one of the conference’s big draws: dozens of literary agents, publishing house editors and others in the business, all packed into one spot for the weekend (They sold out this year).
Of course, every other unpublished wannabe-novelist was doing the same thing. And the first agent-hunting opportunity was the Friday night happy hour.
It was like a high school dance where only six girls showed up. Writers huddled in little packs, trying to recognize the agents from the photos on the conference program (“Don’t look, but over there is the agent from Zarftoggle Literary….”). Every head around the little elevated cocktail table would turn to see the smiling Zarftoggle agent surrounded by a hovering pack of writers waiting for their little bit of face time so they could give their pitch.
I knew nothing of this pitch thing until I signed up for the conference. Don’t you just start talking about your book? No, you don’t. You need to compress your hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs that you can spit out to an agent in a minute or two. Then, at the conference, you can either approach an agent randomly or pay extra for a 10-minute session with an agent – sort of like literary speed dating.
I had paid for my Saturday morning agent-date, so I had one shot at least. And in the days before the conference, I’d noodled out my pitch — a page and a half of notes scribbled on a legal pad. Too long, I know, but I’ve never been accused of being short-winded and I figured I could just talk really fast:
My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set in Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border where a group of desperate people from Mexico meet each other and their smuggler at an abandoned hotel and soon have to rely on each other to survive the journey on foot across the Rio Grande and through miles of barren brushland so they can reach their destinations in the United States… (big heaving inhale)
That was just the first paragraph. I had a half dozen more, talking about some of the main characters, the plot points, the fascinating moral dilemma faced by my Border Patrol agent, and so forth.
I strolled around the ballroom Friday night, drink in hand, hoping to randomly bump into an agent who would give me a big smile and say, “You look like an interesting and talented writer, tell me all about yourself and your fascinating project!”
That didn’t happen. What did happen is that Becka Oliver, the executive director of the Writers League of Texas (who I’ve gotten to know since I joined the League and who’s been a huge help to me), grabbed my elbow and steered me to a New York-based agent and said “This is Dave Harmon, he’s got a project I think would interest you.”
Bless you a thousand times, Becka Oliver.
Now I had the agent’s full attention. Show time. Don’t screw it up.
I’d done a couple of practice rounds with other writers, but I hadn’t delivered my actual pitch to an actual agent with my actual mouth. Thankfully, this agent was gregarious and warm and put me at ease so I could spit out my too-long pitch: My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set…
I got halfway through paragraph two when he stopped me. “That sounds interesting, I like it. Send it to me so I can take a look.”
Wait, what? Already? I hadn’t told him all the nuances of Border Patrol agent’s crucial moral dilemma. But he said he’d look at it, what more could I ask? And I could feel other writers behind me, hovering. So I thanked him, grabbed another drink and quietly pissed my pants with excitement.
The rest of the conference turned out to be worth the price of admission. Since I’m a fiction newbie, just about every panel was a little string of revelations to me. The agents and publishing house editors on the panels were generally smart and funny and encouraging — and ready to answer questions from all of the unpublished hopefuls like me who crowded around them after each session finished.
Saturday morning was the arranged date, this time with a Houston-based agent who mostly represents minority writers who write about minority themes (this was clearly stated in her bio). She immediately looked me up and down and wanted to know why I requested an appointment with her. Because, I told her, all but one of my main characters are Mexican or Mexican-American. She gave me a slightly skeptical smile. “Okay, let’s hear your pitch.”
Again, I got about five lines into the pitch when she cut me off. “I’d like to see it,” she said. She wasn’t looking skeptical anymore. We chatted about Houston and the book business and other things for the rest of the 10 minutes, then I got up to leave, doing a little fist-pump once I was out of her line of sight. Two pitches, two requests to see the novel.
Now I just have to deliver the goods. I told them both I’d need a couple of months to whip it into publishable shape. And now the clock’s ticking…..