Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sitting in the Hot Seat

by MarcyKate Connolly

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Writing conference time—when agents and editors crawl out of their caves to hunt and forage for new, tasty manuscripts.

You know you want in on that action.

There are many reasons to attend a writing conference—the workshops, the camaraderie, the chance to schmooze—but the one I hear most is the opportunity to get your precious manuscript in front of agents and editors. That’s right, the infamous pitch and critique sessions.

I’ve had the good fortune to attend a couple of conferences and each time have opted to pay the extra fee for a manuscript critique. For the pitch sessions, they usually listen to your verbal pitch then ask you questions about the story or explain why it did or did not resonate with them. With the manuscript critiques, they read about 10 pages and your query in advance and provide a mix of written and verbal feedback. Personally, I’ve found the critique sessions to be both valuable and occasionally surprising. These professionals have insights that may never occur to our writing peers and even if their critique stings, it will likely serve you well in the long run.

But rest assured, it is not easy. In fact, it can be downright scary.

So, if you do decide to put yourself in the hot seat at a conference this year, here are some tips to help you avoid the potential pitfalls and to get the most out of your session:

1) Drop your expectations. Yes, it’s easy to get swept up in the lovely day dream that you will meet the perfect agent or editor over the pitch table and s/he will sign you on the spot and you’ll all go and live happily ever after.

Honestly? This is highly unlikely to happen. If you sign up for the crit or pitch sessions at a conference, be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons—namely, to learn something. You can of course hope that you’ll get a request (which does happen frequently), just temper that hope with a healthy dose of reality. Otherwise, you’ll walk away disappointed and you may even end up tuning out valuable advice since your focus is on the wrong thing.

2) Be prepared. Print out the sample the agent or editor is critiquing (or your pitch if you go that route). Have a notebook and a pen that works—test it and be sure (there’s nothing worse than scrambling to write down that brilliant gem of feedback only to find out your pen’s a dud!). Bring business cards with your contact info and, for bonus points, your book title and logline printed on the back. They see so many faces that they may not connect your name after the conference is over, but if they took the time to critique part of your manuscript, they might just remember the title and what it was about.

Also, don’t forget to prepare yourself. Get a good night’s sleep (says the girl who never sleeps)—it will put you in a better, more receptive mood to hear feedback. Wear something nice that makes you feel confident, yet comfortable. And it pains me to say this, but don’t overload on the caffeine. A person twitching badly enough to shake the table could freak out even the nicest editor.

3) Be delightful. Even if you don’t feel delightful, fake it until you make it. Chances are, you’re going to be crazy nervous. You will sweat like you just ran a marathon even though you’ll be sitting the whole time. Your palms will be disgusting. You may even feel dizzy or nauseous. No, this is not a fatal disease—it’s perfectly normal. You will not be the first, nor last, person to give that agent or editor a clammy handshake or a stuttered greeting.

Take it from a fellow introvert—get over it. They don’t bite. Say hi, ask them how they’re enjoying the conference. Thank them for taking the time to meet with you. A little small talk can go a long way.

The best piece of advice I can give here is to stop focusing on yourself and focus on your book. That’s why you’re there in the first place, right? Yes, you are still going to worry, but keeping the focus where it belongs will help.

4) LISTEN. And take notes. These people have taken the time to give you thoughtful feedback, so even if you don’t agree, bite your tongue and listen to what they have to say. They may surprise you.

One of the most common things I’ve noticed when talking to others who had a critique or pitch session was that the second they heard something that made them feel defensive, they shut down. They missed everything else that was said. Writers are always complaining that they don’t know why they get rejected, because agents and editors don’t usually provide feedback in rejections. Now here’s an industry professional handing them reasons on a platter, and it’s wasted. Such a shame. Don’t be that guy, OK?

5) Ask questions. This is your golden opportunity to find out what an industry professional thinks about your pitch or pages. Be sure you have a list of questions prepared and printed out. Sometimes you’ll find they answer most or even all of them as they give you feedback, which is why listening is so important. If you’re paying attention, something they’ve said may spark a new question or two and you won’t be left with nothing to say when it’s your turn to speak.

6) Be enthusiastic. I don’t mean you should gush about what an AMAZINGLY talented writer you are, but more that you should not be afraid to love your story and to let that show. You believe in it, right? Well then act like it. Your attitude about your work speaks volumes to the person across the table. It’s OK to show the love, in fact, it could be infectious. Because if you don’t love it, why should anyone else? But if you do, well, maybe they’ll take a closer look.

7) Be grateful. This is more important than you may think. It can also be more difficult than you expect, especially if the agent or editor in question had particularly critical feedback for you. Connections can take you places, so being unpleasant or clearly unhappy with them at the end is a bad idea. They might remember you—and not in a good way. Don’t burn those bridges. On the flipside, taking a critique or rejection on the chin may actually impress them.

So, have you been to a conference and opted for the critique or pitch sessions? How did it go? Leave your tips in the comments!

MarcyKate Connolly writes young adult fiction and becomes a superhero when sufficiently caffeinated. When earthbound, she blogs at her website and ferrets out contests on Twitter.


Suzi said...

Business cards-that's a good idea. I got my first critique from a real-life publishing editor at a conference not long ago. It was so cool to talk to him.

I think the pitch thing would make me nervous though--having to memorize it.

Sophie Perinot said...

I am a conference veteran and, prior to being represented, I ALWAYS took the opportunity to have agent/editor appointments where available. Is this how I found my agent? No. BUT they were still very useful as a way to perfect my pitch, learn about the industry and what it was looking for, and generally reduce my apprehension about such networking. That last purpose is often overlooked, but repeatedly meeting industry professionals (like practice in any other field) does make you less likely to be nervous on future occasions. A good thing when you finally connect with “the” agent for you and want to seem calm, cool and fabulous—not to mention the meetings/phone conversations with your editor that come later.

Jean Oram said...

I haven't been to a conference yet. "Real" conferences are far from where I live, unfortunately. I went to a workshop once and guess what? They handed out stuff from the agentquery website. So... yeah. (That was nuts.)

I love your tips though. I think I would definitely hit the enthusiastic mark if I met an agent or editor at a conference. I think my problem would be toning it down!!

Christopher Hudson said...

As a starving indie author, I have to cash in soda cans to get gas money ... writing conferences ain't on my radar screen.

Stephen L. Duncan said...

My dream is to hit BEA one year. As of yet, I'm a conference virgin, though. Sorta like you, Jean - Birmingham isn't exaclty drawing in the big shows. ;)

Great advice MK!

Lynn Proctor said...

sounds kinda scary--but great tips!

Sophie Perinot said...

Stephen, BEA wouldn't be my first choice. It's less about the writers and more about all the other aspects of publishing. Give me a conference with a couple of hundred writers closing out a hotel lobby and I am happy :)

Jolie du Pre said...

I've attended plenty of writers conferences. I'm very happy with my small publisher. Therefore, I feel no need to sit in the hot seat in front of an agent. (I know eBook authors who are making more than authors with agents these days, and few authors with agents will ever hit the E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey status.)

Precious Monsters

Jemi Fraser said...

Great tips. I live far away from conference areas too - but I hope to attend one one of these days. I'm pretty sure I'd be feeling those woozy, nauseous symptoms you described earlier! :) But it would be well worth it!

Arlee Bird said...

I've never been to a writer's conference, but you offer great advice for those or anything like it. It's best to go in ready for everything and with open eyes, ears, and mind.

An A to Z Co-Host
Tossing It Out

Scott Treimel said...

i am always surprised authors are nervous to meet me. it does not compute. my premise: we are all friends here; i have *nothing* but goodwill toward whomever i critique. i go to conferences b/c it is my only chance to meet and suss out new talent. your advise is great, excepting, perhaps the item re enthusiasm for one's work. that, in my experience, takes us away from the work at hand and keeps an author in his/her own head and can feed defensiveness.