Lately I’ve read a few tweets and blogs that address the issue of professionalism in our field. Here are my thoughts, based on my recent attendance at the PNWA Conference in Seattle.
I’ll say right off the bat–I’m not a published author. Yet. Hey, you gotta stay optimistic. I wrote my first novel this year. I’ve revised twice, and polished once. I’m working on the synopsis, then off it goes. I mention this because I want to be clear I’ve no one-on-one experience working with literary agents or editors at publishing houses. The experiences that I’ve had to date include meeting agents at this summer’s PNWA conference. And those experiences resulted in three agents open to reading my manuscript. One read the first page of my manuscript, then asked to read the first one hundred pages when it was complete (all were aware my manuscript was then a work-in-progress, though almost done).
If I follow the larger discussion on the difficulty in getting your foot through that first door (an agent), then it seems my experiences were incredibly positive. And that maybe the things I did in preparation for and at the conference might be worth sharing. So here goes…
I view being an aspiring writer akin to being a scout. I’m female, so I was a girl scout-but the guys had it right, too. The boy scout motto is easy – Be Prepared. Girls-well, we like to talk a bit more, so the Girl Scout Law didn’t stop there. In this blog, I’m going to reference some of the advice, specifically:
Be Prepared (Boy Scouts) and Be Courageous and Strong, Be Considerate and Use Resources Wisely (Girl Scouts)
How can we apply those things to the writing life? To put it bluntly, how can we apply it to making the transition from writer to published author. Or even just from writer to agented writer?
About three weeks prior to the conference, I made the committment (to myself) to attend the query and ‘first-page’ workshops. Basically the first involves handing in the query you want to send out to agents. The second, you fork over the first page of your manuscript. At both sessions, agents pick from those submitted and read out loud–and offer feedback. Great opportunity, scary as hell. Here’s what happened.
Query – I worked on my query for two solid weeks, paring and honing until my original two pages became slightly less than one. One page. I read books and posts on how to write queries, posted it online for feedback from a writing group, and read it out loud to get an idea of what it would sound like if picked by an agent at the workshop. The advice given in those books – and especially, in literary agent blogs – is there for a reason. Follow it. This falls under Use Resources Wisely, and includes resources at any conference you attend.
Results – about forty to fifty queries were turned in, mine was one of four read out loud. The moment I heard my first line read, I panicked. Part of me wanted to run out, the other part was frozen to my chair. This was it, time to know if I could follow directions (the books, the blogs) and if I had anything like what they refer to as ‘voice’. I’d included a compliment to the agent in the second line of my query–something about enjoying the agent’s discussion at the query workshop. I included it because I knew I wanted to query one of the agents at that workshop, and figured that was a way to let her know I’d been there and paid attention.
Okay, she didn’t like the line. Said the writer had to get the brown off her nose. A few people laughed, but then another agent said she liked a compliment and would want me to leave it in. So, it depends. Given I wanted to query the first agent, I made a note to get rid of that line.
She read the rest – and guess what, all four liked it! I heard phrases like ‘this is the first one we read where the writer’s voice came through’ and all four said the query resonated with them. I wanted to float out of the room on the cloud that quickly gathered around me, but I decided to approach the agent I wanted to query. I introduced myself, mentioned I’d handed in that last query and said while my work was not quite ready to send out, would she be open to reading it when it was. She said yes. And she was polite, friendly and even seemed happy to meet me.
Which leads me to an aside – agents aren’t evil. Agents aren’t mean. Agents aren’t inhuman. See, we read or hear such things and that myth keeps people from trying. It scares writers, or at least it scared me. Agents actually want us to achieve success. They’re rooting for us! So, remember that next time you approach one or send out a query or email. Yes, that suggestion goes back to Be Courageous and Be Considerate.
First Page Workshop – oh, this is the really good one. Not because my first page was read and everyone in the room clapped. Yeah, that never happens – does it? In fact, my first page wasn’t read. But that was okay, because of what did happen.
Note: I worked on the first chapter for two weeks prior, concentrating on the first five pages. I received feedback, made changes, read The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman–everything I knew how to do to get those first few pages tight and ready. And what I learned in the process I applied to all the other pages as I finished the novel and did the revisions. Time spent on improving your craft is never wasted.
Back to the workshop – one of the two agents present happened to be the one I had a scheduled pitch session with later that afternoon. Nice how things work out sometimes. After the workshop I approached her, introduced myself and mentioned we had an appointment later that day. Then I asked the following: “Would it be inappropriate of me to ask you to read the first page of my manuscript during our session, given it was not read at the workshop?” She said that was fine and to bring it along. Be Prepared. And here’s another one – Be Courteous.
Results – Why am I making such a deal out of this? Well, first, an amazing agent was going to read my first page in a couple of hours. But mainly, because I observed many other writers try to get an agent to read their first page. They walked up after workshops, page in hand. And each time, the agent didn’t take the page. Agents would listen to a thirty second pitch, but none accepted one of the pages.
Lesson – never assume, wait for the appropriate moment, and don’t push.
Yes, agents are there to meet writers. And yes, agents are hoping to find their next client. But agents also have to go on potty breaks or grab a bite to eat or take a sip of water or refuel with coffee. And they also need time to be OFF during back to back sessions. Let’s repeat: Be Considerate.
I met with that agent and right off the bat, she asked for the page. She read it, laughed at the right part (I hope, the timing seemed right) and we talked. At first she said she didn’t represent the genre, but someone else at her office did. The she reread it, and said she wanted me to send it to her. She asked if it was complete. I said not quite. Her response was great – in one breath she said she wasn’t going anywhere, but that I shouldn’t let the grass grow under my feet because you never know when the bottom will drop out under this genre (vampire, paranormal noir).
We chatted another minute or so. At one point she leaned back in her chair and just looked at me. She said I didn’t seem nervous. I said I’m always nervous when I’m about to give a lecture (I’ve taught at the college level), but somehow that nervousness leaves when I’m in the moment. She asked if I had any questions, I responded with a no. Then I thanked her for being so friendly and open. I admitted I’d been nervous about approaching anyone or meeting with her, but that after hearing her talk at some of the workshops I felt she was approachable and funny and nice. That seemed to touch her, she thanked me and I left the room.
Another aside – when you are presenting yourself at a conference, even if you have no intention of pitching to or talking with an agent–Dress the Part. Just like interviewing for a job, you shouldn’t wear shorts or tops that leave nothing to the imagination. You’re in the role of writer-looking-for-representation, not starlet-looking-for-porn work. No flip-flops, even if it is summer. There’s no beach inside the hotel, folks. Use the conference as an excuse to get a manicure and/or pedicure and/or haircut if you can swing it. I invested in a new outfit from Coldwater Creek. Nothing too expensive, but still – it had that quasi-professional feel. And if you don’t know how to dress (like me), most clothiers will give you advice (shout out to Coldwater Creek).
To read some helpful blogs on things to consider when attending a conference or meeting others in your field, check out
Last part of being a scout – Be Strong. And that means, don’t give up. Keep writing!