Monday, March 25, 2013

Conventioneers! O Conventioneers!

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson...

I'll be attending a couple writer's conventions in April and May.  So while this is fresh in my mind, I thought I might delight you dear readers with a few tips about writer's conventions.

Conventions can be fun and provide you with some useful insights and exposure to the publishing world.  Whether the convention you're attending is large or small, there are a few things you should probably know about what to expect (and to not expect) at a convention.

What you should expect

Writer's conventions are often held by writer's groups, but sometimes by magazines and other professional groups. For writer's groups they work simultaneously as a benefit for the members, a fundraiser for the group, and a membership drive.  Writer's groups can be helpful for all sorts of reasons, the primary one being Community.  Being with other like-minded individuals and sharing your struggles and information can be a blessing.  Writing is a rather solipsistic activity, and encouragement can be difficult to find.  If you do not belong to a writer's group, then consider joining one, and consider going to their convention first to find out if it's your scene.

Usually these conventions have a few familiar components.  The first are classes or presentations.  Guest lecturers from inside the community and from without will hold forth on a range of topics, usually having to do with books (how they ought to be written, how best to sell rights to them once they are).  The second is some sort of keynote speaker (or draw) usually a notable author, agent, editor.  Then, there are the agents and editors.

There are typically a few panels dedicated to agents and editors where writers are given an opportunity to pick our brains, ask about submissions practices, and what our likes/dislikes are.  That is usually followed (though not necessarily) by a pitch session, where authors can pitch their projects to agents and editors in person.

It seems to me that there is an undue amount of attention put on the pitch sessions, which, in my not so humble opinion, are only about as important as the other stuff on the agenda.  Certainly a lot of authors will skip a lot of the other conference stuff, and go right into their tete-a-tete with the hungry agent, eyes gleaming with false hope.

What you should expect from these sessions is for an agent to listen patiently to your attempt at pitching the concept behind your work and, if you're lucky, to request a sample of your work for further study back at their respective lairs.  That is the best-case-scenario.

You can't reasonably expect a professional, whose job it is to evaluate book properties for their potential marketability to learn everything they need to know about your property from a brief spiel, and a few minutes of chatting.  There is the small matter of having to read the work, and decide whether or not you're actually as good on the page as you may have been in person.  Since what end-users (see: readers) will be reading is the book (see: your book), the pitch (see: your pitch) doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.  So don't build it up to be something bigger than it is.  If you blow it, you haven't really lost anything.  You may have embarrassed yourself a little, but so what?  What matters is what's on the page, and as long as you nail that, you should be fine.

While you should certainly prepare for your pitch session (more on that below) what you should focus on during your convention experience is building a community and opening yourself up to new information. If you obsess about the pitch session at the exclusion of everything else, then you're not really getting your money's worth.

The pitch session isn't a make-or-break moment for anyone's career, it's just an exercise.  At best, it can be the beginning of a business relationship, but in order for that to transpire it first has to be an interaction between two human beings.


What you should not expect

You should not expect to win publishing.  It's not a prize, it can't be won, and if it were it certainly couldn't be won in the convention hall of a hotel. This is a scenario that will never play out:

Author pitches book to agent. Agent immediately stops author mid-     sentence and declares: "that's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard! I needn't even read this book, it will be a best-seller, I am certain! I wish to sign you up as a client right now!"

"In fact," the agent continues "let me call every editor I know right now and let them know you've won publishing. You're absolutely correct unicorn slash fiction is the new Harry Potter." Agent immediately takes out cellphone, conferences every editor agent knows while drawing up your contract. End scene.

The best-case scenario, as mentioned above, is that the agent/editor thinks your idea is neat, and pending a review of your material may make a determination at a later date.  That's nice, but not really cause for a ticker-tape parade.  The same could have happened if you had sent a blind-query.

The added benefit to you is that you actually got to discuss the book in a real conversation with a real live human being.  In a conversation you get to provide the agent/editor with some information in response to their direct questions.  That information is, hopefully, more pertinent to them than information you may have volunteered in a query.

So now that you have your expectations set, what can you do to make the most of your pitch session?

Dos

1. Do take the opportunity to hang out with other authors.  Before you even consider signing up for a pitch session you should make friends, talk shop, compare notes, give and receive advice.  The purpose of the conference should be more than preparing for your big debut with the agents and editors. In the long run it's your fellow authors who are going to be the biggest help to you.

2. Do prepare for your pitch session.  Your pitch session will last anywhere from three to ten minutes, but you needn't spend the entire time on the "pitch" part of pitching.  The pitch should be only a few sentences long, and it should give the agent/editor a good idea of what the book is about and who the book is for. As with a query, you should do research about where your book likely fits in genre-wise, and you should already have a brief summary of your book on hand.  For the pitch you're going to want to condense that summary down to a few sentences, and write those sentences down.  You needn't practice them verbatim, but you should be able answer, in a few brief sentences, the direct question that seems to beleaguer even professional authors: "So, uh, what's your book about?"  The tendency when faced with this question is to think to oneself "what isn't this book about?" and that is the highway to the danger zone (see: Don'ts #2).  What you should do instead is take your written pitch and read it aloud several times (again, not memorizing it, just reading it aloud) and get a feel for summarizing your book in the most natural way possible.  Once you feel like you've nailed it, then practice it on some test subjects (a willing spouse perhaps, or an honest friend) to see if you make any sense.  If you pass that test then you should be ready to go.

3. Do try to be professional. You don't have to dress like it's a job interview, or a black-tie event, but do try to appear professional.  Do conduct yourself with a bit of decorum. Do be polite, and gracious, and kind. In short, do try to behave like the sort of person an agent/editor might like to be in protracted business relationship with.  Personality is a factor in evaluating potential clients and authors.

4.That being said, do relax. Agents and editors are just people.  They aren't smarter than you, or better than you, they probably aren't even as good looking as you.  All they have is a bit more experience working the levers of publishing, and a bit more time spent reading unpublished manuscripts. Their evaluation of your concept as a marketable concept is not an evaluation of you as a person or an artist. Also, they aren't there to judge you, they're there to help you.  If you're on the verge of success they have both a personal and a financial interest in helping you get there.  If you're struggling, they have an interest in seeing that you have the tools to succeed.  They want more and better authors, and they know that authors aren't born, they're built.  To the extent that they can help you, they will.  If they can't help you, no biggie, the convention should be full of people who can.


Don'ts

1.Don't be a pitch robot.  I don't need your help reading your query letter.  I would be in a lot of hot water if I was an illiterate literary agent.  So you needn't waste your time reading your letter to me.  Even less helpful is having you memorize and recite it.

2. Don't ramble.  While you don't want to be a robot, you also don't want to give me the long version of your pitch.  Keep it brief, so that we have some time to talk. Also, so I can keep the story straight.  There is such a thing as information overload.  Stories are full of information (character building, world building, back story) all of which may be necessary in the novel, but not in the pitch. You start describing every minor character and sub-plot and you're going to lose me, and lose me quick.

3. Don't omit necessary info. While you are trying to not be a robot, and also trying to keep it brief, try to give me a good idea of what we're talking about.  If your pitch omits important information it's just going to complicate matters as we start to talk, and I try to parse out exactly what your story is supposed to be about. Your summary should include all the relevant info: genre, length, main characters (name them, tell me who they are and why they are important), central conflict, how that conflict is resolved (spoilers welcome).  I once had an author pitch to me, and I wasn't clear on what the central conflict of the author's book was or how it was supposed to be resolved.  I kept asking questions, and the author kept responding "you'll just have to read it".  After a while I got fed up and finally said, "actually, I don't have to read it, that's the point of this conversation."  When you have limited time, and the other party has limited patience, it's best not to be coy. If I didn't want to know who the secret murderer was in your mystery novel, I wouldn't have asked.

4. Don't forget to have fun. This should be fun. Learning is fun.  Meeting new people is fun. Remember to have fun.  If you don't plan on having fun, don't bother coming.  You'll just harsh everyone else's cool.  If you know you're prone to nervousness and panic, and your strengths lie primarily in written communication, then maybe querying is the best path for you.  If you still feel like you'd like some face-time with an agent, but you don't think you can pitch your book without breaking into a cold sweat, you can sign up for a pitch-session and use it to ask the agent questions. They won't be disappointed (in fact they may welcome the break), and you don't have to feel like you have to perform for them.
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4 comments:

  1. This is most helpful. You were my first choice for Dallas's pitch session and I'm thrilled to be assigned to you. Appreciate the directions and look forward to your professional attention. Thanks, Dina Rae

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  2. Thank you so much for the fantastic information. With the convention season rolling, I've wondered what to expect. I haven't attended one yet, but hope to when they land in the Southern California area.

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  3. Thank you for such an informative post! I have attended quite a few conferences, but it is nice to see the do's and don't written so clearly. Do you know if you will be attending any writing conferences near Utah in the future?

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  4. Hi! I didn't want to ask about this publicly on twitter.

    I'm wondering whether you ask writers who query you before tweeting exact quotes from their queries? I'm sure you're trying to help writers generally and even that particular writer whose query you quoted. But at least to me, it felt like you were making fun of him/her. And with the quotes he/she would be able to identify themselves.

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