Two Simple Lessons Learned from Pitching at a Writers Conference

Prepare

A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the November edition of the Atlanta Writers Conference . I had a great time, learned a lot and (I hope) made some long-lasting connections with other writers and also the agents in attendance.

Here are two simple lessons I’d like to impart to others who may be getting ready to attend their first conference:

Be Prepared, but not Over-prepared
As several of the sites I link to below will suggest, at the end of the day, whether in a critique or pitch session, you’re having a conversation. A conversation with another human being. (Yes, agents are human, too!)

So while I would never suggest not preparing at all, you need to remember that you’re sitting down for 10 – 15 minutes to talk to another person who cares about books, writing and reading. When you talk to your fellow writers in your critique group or, better yet, your individual critique partner, you don’t spend hours and hours memorizing what you’re going to say, do you?

Okay, let’s back up a moment. You do belong to a critique group, right? You do have a critique partner, don’t you? Because your appearance at your Writers Conference shouldn’t be the first time you have this type of short conversation about your work. It should be something you’ve done many times before.

I highly recommend you join a critique group and look for opportunities to work with an individual critique partner as well. Most likely the same local organization that is running the Writers Conference (here in Atlanta, the Atlanta Writers Club, for example) offers access to critique groups as well. Join!

Back to preparing for the conference, it certainly makes sense to have a short pitch thought out. If it’s very short (a sentence or two), you can even memorize it. Personally, all I did was memorize the bullet points related to my work-in-progress that I didn’t want to forget to cover. I knew that the way I pitched to the agent was going to be slightly different than how I’d ever described my story to anyone else before, because when you don’t memorize the complete paragraph, only the bullets, it comes out differently each time you say it to each different person you say it to.

And I was completely fine with that. Because it was a natural conversation with another person. This is what you need to keep reminding yourself.

Also keep in mind the meetings are short. We had fifteen minutes for our critique sessions and only ten minutes for our pitch sessions. Hopefully, it’s easy for you to have a natural conversation about your work in such a short time. A natural conversation that doesn’t include a long, transparently-memorized, pre-conceived speech.

If not, then once again I’d suggest you discuss your work more often with other writers, or just other people in general (though, for me, writers are more apt to ask the questions that agents would and therefore offer better preparation.) Hopefully, your work is interesting enough to support a ten minute conversation, especially considering the agent you’re pitching to will doubtless have some things to say as well, taking up some of the time.

Not over-preparing helps on another front: Questions. Both being able to answer unexpected questions posed to you by the agent, and asking questions of your own to the agent. If you stay light on your feet, then the agent interrupting you with a question you didn’t expect doesn’t “throw you off” by breaking the rhythm of your over-memorized speech. I can almost see some writer holding up one finger and telling the agent across from them that they’ll answer that question later, then getting right back to their memorized ramblings, not even noticing the agent as she rolls her eyes. No, no, no. Please, no.

It’s a conversation, people. If you’re telling a story to a friend, and she interrupts you with a question, you should answer it, not just continue telling your story because – “Wait! – it’s really funny, you need to hear this first.” Nobody wants to have a conversation with that guy. It’s not a pleasant experience, because it’s not a conversation at all, is it? It’s one person talking at the other, not talking with her.

As far as asking questions of your own, let me share an example from my own critique session I believe exemplifies what I am trying to say. Sure, I will admit I walked into my sessions with a few questions in my back pocket, in case the conversation slowed to a crawl. However, I will also tell you I never had the chance to ask any of those pre-prepared questions, because we were (at least I was) enjoying the conversation we were having too much.

Instead, during my critique session, the agent I was speaking with pointed out that a particular flashback section seemed “out of place” where it was in my first chapter. That was interesting to me, because it had been a late addition to the piece I submitted, something I added after deciding to incorporate a particular device into my work. I had decided, after attending another writing class, that anytime my main character gazed into the woods, he would have a flashback to the events of his childhood. This, I thought, established a rule that the reader could get used to.

Now, the agent couldn’t be aware of this device I had decided to employ in my work, but at that moment, I wanted to know: Was it just this particular moment for a flashback that was wrong, or was my use of the device throughout the work a bad idea? Heck, that’s the purpose of getting critiqued, right? To obtain tons of valuable feedback on what you’ve done so far, even if it prompts you to re-work some of your ideas and concepts.

So, on the spur of the moment, I asked her. It wasn’t a question I had “memorized” beforehand, but because I was having a conversation with her (actually, during the critique I was doing the right thing and listening mostly, but on occasion when the opportunity presented itself, I would make a comment or ask a question), I felt at ease asking it, and it made for a nice moment to interact with her amidst her itemized feedback.

The specific answer I received isn’t important – the advice I am trying to dispense here is that, if you are having a comfortable conversation with the agent rather than making a memorized presentation to her, it makes it much easier and more comfortable to be natural, to ask questions you never thought you’d ask, and to get the most value out of your critique and pitch sessions.

All this said, I certainly did prepare for the conference, and below are several links I’d recommend reviewing before your next conference. I used all of these myself.

Realize what’s at stake…and what’s NOT at stake
Your meetings at the conference are important, and a great opportunity. But they don’t make or break your writing career. (Unless of course you do something so crazy that agents start warning each other about you. Don’t do anything like that. Please.)

Back in April, the Atlanta Writers Club had another conference. I didn’t sign up at first for the critique and pitch sessions because I had a scheduling conflict. By the time I realized I no longer had that conflict, the sessions were all full and I’d missed my chance. I still went to the conference, but only attended the general sessions – there was a talk Friday evening and an agent panel in the morning on Saturday.

At the time, I had said (at least to myself), “That’s okay, I convey my ideas better through writing. I am, after all, a writer.” I’d said this partially because I was querying my first work at the time, and having quite a bit of success with my query letter (I’m no longer querying that work – that’s a story for another time.) I thought that I wouldn’t do as well in a one-on-one verbal session with the agents as I was doing with my query letter.

What I didn’t realize at that time was how great the opportunity to sit across from an agent and discuss my work really is. It’s a rare chance to make a connection with an industry professional, get feedback, validation of your concepts, all that.

So, I’d never, ever downplay it, because the opportunity is really great.

At the same time, it is – at the end of the day – only one or two of many hundreds (thousands?) of agents out there. If your critique or pitch doesn’t go well, don’t sweat it. It’s simply a learning experience for next time.

Relax. Have a good time.

But – last piece of advice – don’t have too good a time. Treat it like a job interview. That’s what it is, after all.

Right?

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