Do What I Say, Not What I Did

By Brian Kaufman

In a previous blog post, I admitted to blocking an editor at the entrance to the men’s room to sell him my first novel. He suffered the pitch, and I left with his business card in my wallet. No surprise that this was not my only embarrassing writer’s conference story. Lest you feel compelled to repeat my missteps, learn my Padawan.

My first formal pitch was to an editor from St. Martin’s Press. I practiced my nine minutes about a hundred times. I had a ten-minute slot but thought that nine would be appreciated. I was nervous—my voice warbled. To mitigate the sound of fear, I sped up, talking faster. I finished my pitch in five minutes.

With nothing left but a call to action, I asked, “Can I send you a sample of my novel?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered. Knowing what I know now about pitch sessions, I think I might have been the only author he turned down.

On another occasion, I pitched just before lunch. The editor had an interesting watch. I know this because he glanced at it every five seconds. I finally asked if he was looking forward to lunch. He took the question as sarcasm, which showed his excellent judgment.

Speaking of lunches, I didn’t figure out the difference between an elevator pitch and a formal pitch for at least two conferences. Part of the problem involved my love affair with talking. Sitting at a round table, I was able to bore writers on either side of me with discussions of theme and subtext. 

Shortening my pitch didn’t always help. “It’s a cross between Fear and Loathing (Hunter S. Thompson), Writing and Difference (Jacques Derrida), and The Great Locomotive Chase (Disney Studios). 

I’m referencing an actual novel, by the way.

Having successfully pitched to an agent, I was asked for my business card. I explained that I’d left them in the motel room but would get one to her, thus identifying myself as an amateur.

I attended seminars, of course. One in particular interested me. The author wanted to explain how to “turn up the volume” in prose. The idea appealed to this horror author. Remember the shrieking violins in Psycho? Could I do that with prose?

The presenter’s idea of volume came from vivid descriptions of the setting and action. For example, she read from her most recent novel, where the protagonist, running in a cast, “clumped hurriedly.” Apparently, adverbs are loud. The seminar exit door was at the other end of the conference room, so I had fifty additional minutes of wisdom left to endure.

There were other adventures.

The slacks I bought but did not try on until the conference. The discovery of a batting cage just a mile away from the venue that did battle with my seminar list. The vegetable medley at the Saturday night banquet.

But you can avoid the broccolini and the embarrassment. Conference attendance and lodging can be a substantial cost. Make the most of the investment. Here’s what to do before, during, and after the conference.

Be Prepared in Advance.
  • An elevator pitch. You’ll be meeting authors, editors, and agents who will ask, “What do you write?” You need an enthusiastic answer that hooks the listener.

  • A ten-minute pitch. When you meet agents and editors formally, you will have ten minutes to persuade them to take a closer look at your work. A good pitch has several elements, including a brief description with a hook, the setting, an introduction to the main character (and perhaps the villain), and an explanation of what your character wants and why it’s unattainable. Close with a call to action—ask if the agent/publisher wants to see the manuscript.

  • Business cards. You will be networking, and you need to trade cards with everyone you meet.

  • Study in advance. If you have scheduled meetings with any agents or publishers, use Mr. Google to study them. Who have they published or represented? How does your book fit into their past successes? Don’t limit yourself to one or two. Go to the conference website, get a list of guests, and research all of them.

  • Make a list of promising classes. Sure, there are sessions you want to attend, but don’t write them all off if they aren’t pushing your buttons. Maybe the presenter is someone you enjoy or want to meet.
I’m At The Conference, Now What?
  • Attend classes. These seminars are taught by experts who will help you round out your craft knowledge. Analyze your shortcomings as a writer. (If you don’t know what they are, ask your critique group members. They’ll tell you.) Target those areas as opportunities to improve.

  • Meet every agent and editor you can. This can be done in three ways. First, schedule a formal meeting at the conference. Authors cancel their pitch sessions constantly (nerves), so if someone you want to meet with is already booked, get back to them. Put your name on a waiting list. Second, sit with people you wish to meet at mealtimes and be sure to give them your elevator pitch. Third, catch folks in the hall, the bookstore, or the bar. (But if they have to pee, let them.)

  • Everyone is a contact. Exchange cards with as many people as possible. When you sell a book, you will need a list of contacts. Conferences are a great way to build your list. Wondering how to keep everyone straight? Write notes on their cards to remind you of their interests and projects. 

  • Listen. You can hear excellent stuff at a conference. Listen at lunch and dinner, in the halls, and at the bar.

After the Conference, Once You’ve Recovered And Your Brain Stops Leaking Out of Your Ears:

  • Thank-you notes are in order, whether in writing or via email. A simple message saying, “It was a great pleasure to meet you,” will establish contact and allow for future emails (one of which might be, “Hey, remember me? I published a book.”)
  • Mail requested manuscripts. You don’t have to send your work immediately, but you should set a schedule and stick to it.
  • Evaluate your conference experience. Did you meet your goals? What got in the way? Did the conference measure up? And most important—list the things you’ll do differently at the next conference.

Conference Jitters

Overcome The Jitters

Writing Conferences Are Worth It

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