I attended my first writers’ conference this weekend and was surprised by how similar it felt to a trip to the bathhouse, just with more small talk. About a hundred aspiring novelists were at an airport hotel to share part of their souls with editors and literary agents cruising for the next marketable storyteller, and almost none of these interactions would lead to a meaningful relationship.
I’ve spent the last 20 years conceiving and writing the novel I believe is now ready for representation, and had a 15-minute pitch session with an agent scheduled for Saturday. For the last month, I’ve obsessively drafted and edited a one-page summary of my story, and honed my novel’s “hook” into an 11-word sentence intended to yank the sense and soul out of anyone who reads or hears it.
I went to the Friday mixer with a hit list that consisted of five agents and editors whose online profiles suggested we might be thematically compatible. I hoped to briefly talk with each and tactfully mention I happened to have written a novel, since I’d seen warnings that cocktail hours at conferences are intended as downtime for the industry professionals attending.
I entered the ballroom and was immediately spotted as fresh meat by an organizer who came over to help me relax, and gave priceless wisdom on etiquette and how to make my book more desirable to those around us.
“The agents know why they’re here, so don’t worry about getting straight to your book,” she advised. “But don’t call it a literary novel, call it ‘upmarket.’ Agents hear ‘literary novel’ and tune out.”
I made contact with my first target agent, whipped out my upmarket hook and watched her shake her head in disbelief.
“Wow,” she said with wide, searching eyes. “That sounds like it could be really interesting.”
Now gimmie my million dollars, I almost shouted. Instead, I stuttered and rambled until pausing long enough for her to ask me to send my query letter and sample chapters.
I was more coherent when I scored time with two of my other targets, both of whom were intrigued by my concept and gave me their card so I could e-mail them pages. By the time of my formal pitch to the agent Saturday, I was bracing for a bidding war to erupt in the second-floor hallways of the airport Westin.
Not one second of our 15 minutes together was filled with the agent’s thoughts on the content of my single-page synopsis. Instead, she offered an extended lesson on structuring my pitch letter, and I zoned out thinking about how dejecting the weekend would’ve been without the three thrills I experienced at the mixer.
One of the most polite ways to show disinterest in someone when passing him in a bathhouse is to pretend you don’t see him, and that’s essentially how the agent rejected my proposal, never acknowledging the story. I had no urge to pry out a more substantive response because she made her disinterest clear, and it’s rude to make a person at whom you’ve shot your shot say no more than once.