Writer Wednesday | A Comprehensive Guide to Pitchfest

With the Writer’s Digest West Conference coming up next weekend, I imagine there are a few folks out there who haven’t been to a pitch event and would like insight into the process. It can be nerve-wracking, but it is also so much fun! I’ve written a few past posts, but I thought that it might be nice to put it all into one, all-encompassing guide.

Pitch Slam -- Writer's Digest Conference East 2013

Pitch Slam — Writer’s Digest Conference East 2013.

Make sure you take a look at which agents will be attending the event. Take note of anyone, and I mean anyone, that might possibly fit your manuscript. You want as many options as possible when you start Googling. Yes, Googling. Take your list and Google every single agent and/or agency on your list. Pay attention to things like genre, current representation, bio, and any manuscript preferences. Cross off agents as you eliminate them from your pitch list, and rank the others. Keep in mind that you probably should only pitch to one agent per agency, so pick the best one. Some agencies will have more than one agent at the event, and there may be some overlap in their interests.

Make sure to have this list with you when you’re pitching, and include first and last names of the agent and the name of the agency. This list will come in handy during the event, when things are crazy and you’re not completely sure where you should go next.

If there is a “pitchcraft” session offered, I would not go the route of writing and memorizing your pitch prior to the event. Instead, outline your key talking points. Do a couple of practice sessions so you can talk comfortably about your manuscript.

Oh, and tip: refer to your work-in-progress as a “manuscript,” not a novel.

After the pitchcraft session, tweak your pitch as needed and practice, practice, practice (with a timer – remember, you want your pitch to be sixty to ninety seconds long)! You’ll be sitting when you pitch, so try to practice in that position – personally, it helped me find a relaxing position that I would naturally fall into while pitching, despite the nerves. Also, try to find a buddy you can pitch to – hell, initiate conversation with someone and practice your pitches on each other.

The event itself is, as I described before, “speed-dating for writers and agents: one ninety minute session, three minutes per agent (ninety seconds to pitch and ninety seconds to converse).” Get there early so you have a better chance of being first in line to pitch to one of your favorite agents. Staff members will likely be walking around to make sure you’re in the correct session and to answer any questions. If they don’t give an overview of the set-up in the room, ask! You’ll want to know how the agents are arranged (first name, last name, split by last name in connected rooms). The more info you have, the faster you can navigate and see more agents.

When you’re pitching, keep this in mind – not everyone will love your manuscript as much as you do. That’s okay. You’re trying to form connections here. Sometimes a “rejection” will be more valuable than a request. That agent may give you feedback to incorporate into your pitch for the next agent, or you may gain insight into something you should revise. It’s not the end of the world unless you make it out to be, and “rejection” doesn’t mean you should stop writing.

When you’re pitching, stay in the moment and focus on the agent in front of you. If you’re distracted, it will come across.

In between pitches, talk to the people in line. Network! Each of you is in that room to talk about something you love that you wrote, so do that….or whatever, just make conversation to stave off nerves. Bottom line: don’t ignore your fellow attendees!

At the same time, try to keep an eye on the other agents you want to pitch – you should already know from your list who your top agents are, and you should know how the room is laid out. This will help you prioritize and re-strategize on the spot. For example, if your #3 agent pick has seven people in line, that means you’ll wait twenty-one minutes to see that agent. Likewise, if agents #4 and #5 only have a couple of people, you’ll probably see both in less time. I was able to pitch to eight agents in one ninety-minute session.

Most people tell you to get right into it because three minutes go by fast. I like to give myself the five seconds at the front end to shake the agent’s hand and introduce myself with a Southern sweet tea smile. It’s a big boost of confidence for me, and it gives me a teensy bit of time to collect my thoughts and refocus. So no, I don’t launch into my pitch – I try to add a little personal connection because while I might lose five seconds of talk time, I know I’m less likely to get nervous and flustered, and the remaining two minutes and fifty-five seconds will be smoother and more productive.

A few things not to do:

  • Don’t bring your manuscript with you. I mean, yes, it’s great – but you’re pitching, not doing a reading. The agent will tell you how to submit, should (s)he want to see pages. It’s unnecessary bulk…
  • …and you don’t want to drag too much around with you. I went to one of the events where, no joke, someone had a wheeled carry-on – not laptop briefcase, carry-on. Chances are you are coming from a session or going to a session and need your notebook or laptop, but keep in mind you have to cart everything around from agent to agent. If it’s a burden for you, it will be another level of stress.
  • Don’t push it. If the agent isn’t interested, do not try to argue the point. Don’t cite stats, quote material, or get defensive. Most of the agents I encountered were really personable and offered some critique even if they didn’t request pages. Be courteous and polite, and thank them for their time.
  • In fact, be courteous to everyone at the event. Be courteous to everyone at the conference. The staff members are really friendly and kind. Don’t be that person. You’ll be memorable…for entirely the wrong reasons.

When in doubt, smile and breathe. Regardless of what happens, at the end of the day this is a learning experience and a growth opportunity.

And hey…good luck!

Writer Wednesday | The Best Advice for Writer’s Block, Ever

Have you guys heard of Chuck Wendig? I referred to him as the “Wise Old Man” of WDCE. He was basically Gandalf with the comedic timing of Joss Whedon. Seriously, read his blog – he is hilarious and on-point, and he has great advice for writers and great quips for…humanity. He also offers free dating tips.

In short, he is awesome and he knows his stuff.

One of the things he knows really well is how to kill writer’s block. I took what I would estimate to be a metric fuckton of notes at WDCE. Wendig’s session about killing writer’s block involved a furious frenzy of typing; here are my top three tips from his panel and why:

  1. “Confound your word demons.” This ranks up there with “kill your darlings.” With KYD, we say goodbye to things we as writers love but  readers will probably hate because they offer no redeeming literary value. Wendig’s advice instead asks us to serenade the sirens: we’ve been blown off-course, tempted by lotus-eaters, threatened by cannibals, and we just want to get home to Ithaca, slay some triflin’ suitors, and see our wife and kid. Our word demons stop the creative process, but we can repay the favor. Shake up your typical writing scenery for a change of pace, and the word demons will find it harder to keep the creative juices from flowing.
  2. “Give yourself permission to suck.” Wendig admitted he has a lot he would never let anyone read, and that sometimes it takes many drafts and a lot of refinement before something is ready to be read by someone other than the writer. He also puts it into perspective: at the end of the day, you’re not curing cancer. You’re writing. Character’s lives may hang in the balance, but that’s okay: you may choose not to kill ’em off the following day. You make the call, and you can be your own worst enemy. Don’t avoid putting pen to the page or fingers to the keyboard because you don’t want to write a shitty draft. Hell, even some of the best authors couldn’t write great titles.
  3. Sometimes writer’s block isn’t just writer’s block. This was pretty powerful advice from the session. Wendig took a moment to talk about mental health, something that doesn’t always come up during a writing conference. Many of us were grateful that Wendig discussed depression and the need to seek professional treatment. Sometimes it’s not word demons. Sometimes it’s not giving yourself permission for imperfection. Sometimes it is more than just not getting words on a page. Sometimes it is a deeper issue; one that involves additional support outside your typical writing network.

How do you confound your word demons? What are your personal methods for avoiding or stopping writer’s block? 

Conference Chat | Brave New World

This post has been percolating for the last few days. As the writing high from WDCE wears off, I’m left with lasting impressions of the following:

Pitch Slam is easily the most nerve-wracking writing experience. I went to WDCW and had a moderately successful experience, but ultimately it taught me that my manuscript just wasn’t ready for submission. Much like a crush, I’ve been oscillating between intense scrutiny and complete disregard for my manuscript since. For those unfamiliar with the event, Pitch Slam is speed-dating for writers and agents: one ninety minute session, three minutes per agent (ninety seconds to pitch and ninety seconds to converse), approximately fifty agents. Pick and choose and dive right in. After a very helpful session on Friday night, I had a couple of areas to tweak. I’ve written out my pitch, and thanks to my residual debate skills I can memorize talking points and key phrases but not sound like a robot (and I still want to connect with the woman who said she would pitch in a robot voice – seriously, someone find her!). Saturday’s session was really successful for me. I pitched to eight agents and got requests from six, a referral from one, and a soft reject from another.

Can someone say “pics or it didn’t happen?” The agent who “rejected” me (she gave my pitch props but felt she wouldn’t be the best to adequately rep my manuscript) did so while there was a photographer “capturing the magic.” It was all awkward but funny, and she and I had this great moment where we both saw the guy out of the corner of our eyes and kind of exchanged a “This is happening; just go with it and keep your shit together” look. And really, if I’m going to get rejected I do want it partially captured on film, especially if that rejection involves an agent telling me that I should have plenty of success with my pitch with others. So can someone tell me where those photos are? I seriously have to see that, and so far my persistent stalking of the website has yet to produce results.

Support young writers! Seriously, I was impressed with the number of young folks I encountered. Now, I think technically I could be categorized as a young writer, so I should clarify that I’m talking about folks who can’t buy their own drinks legally. Kudos to you artistic, creative, bold young whippersnappers. I feel old but proud. And word to the wise, you can totally pick up some life experience (if you feel you need it) and get back into writing.

Chuck Wendig is the Joss Whedon of WDCE. Discuss.

I’m struggling with how to best phrase this, but here goes: mental health got a necessary mention in WDCE. It was appropriate and relevant to note that writer’s block can sometimes be depression, and that tips for fighting writer’s block won’t work in those scenarios. I think too easily we categorize the oddness of creative types as quirks; vocalizing mental health brings it back to the forefront.

I am socially awkward, and that at times borders on anxiety and I don’t want to get too detailed…so all I will say is this: I learned that I can, in fact, network and be genuine doing it because the people with whom I’m networking are people I’m genuinely interested in getting to know. I initiated conversation with others in a completely foreign environment in which I knew no one, and I did not have a panic attack or nervous breakdown.

Not conference-related per se, but did you guys know NYC is totally freaking awesome? You can buy a cheese danish on the street! The library is gorgeous and sneaks up on you if you’re directionally challenged! You don’t have to pay for psychics! Screw the manuscript, I should write travelogues.

In RDJ-style humility: I am Iron Man well, I guess I’m doing something right. This was my first conference where I didn’t have an earth-shattering, life-altering, manuscript-overhauling aha! moment. A lot of the writing process sessions reaffirmed things I’m already doing or gave me new strategies to try. I feel like my manuscript is in that “final coat” stage of the car wash.

Because it bears repeating: we’re weird.

Because it’s hilarious and everyone should know this: we dress against type:

There’s no way that guy is writing hard sci-fi. His neckbeard is like six degrees of grime shy.

And that woman is pitching a memoir? About what? The trying and toilsome journey of waiting for her pink-painted rhinestone-studded fingernails to dry this afternoon?PHAW!

How ‘bout that gal with the tattoos, ripped jeans, and undeniable air of brooding self importance. Can’t wait to find out in what city her urban fantasy is set! What’s that you say? She writes literary fiction? No shit…

I call myself Fox Shirt & Blazer because I am wholly unoriginal at naming and get all of my character names from like, babynames.com. Those who know me are surprised by my genre, which I’ve mentioned once here on the blog (if you were paying attention).

Conference Chat | Great Expectations

First of all, let me say WDCE is my third writing conference and I’m still slightly terrified. I’m going to chalk my nerves up to exhaustion; I took a redeye from Phoenix to New York and I’ve been awake since 5 AM. On the plus side, I wandered around the city for a while and got to see some pretty cool things: Argo Tea (my favorite chain from my undergrad days), Bryant Park, the New York Public Library, and 30 Rock. It’s been a comedy of errors – I sought out Argo and ended up getting directions to one almost two miles from my hotel, as opposed to the closer one less than half a mile away. I also got turned around and ended up literally turning a corner and seeing Bryant Park. My NYC knowledge isn’t spectacular; I had no idea the library was near Bryant Park. Seeing the “PL” and making the connection was a happy discovery (and diversion). I also just happened to look over while walking and see the familiar 30 Rock building. TL;DR I’m oblivious in NYC.

Anyway, conference expectations. Many folks have them. As someone who has only been to three of them, I can tell you that I am by no means an expert. However, that doesn’t mean that I won’t offer some eleventh hour advice and hopefully quell some anxiety.

Prep: First of all, read my past posts about my writing conferences. Done that? Awesome. Let’s move on.

Pitching: I cannot say it enough. You need to do your research. What is listed in the program is the bare bones to get you moving to some of the right people; your best bet is to Google the literary agent to obtain a better feel for who (s)he is (take a look at the agency, too!). Often you’ll see more information about genre preferences, such as favorite authors or authors the agent currently represents. Also, use your time wisely during the pitch session: if an agent mentions general preferences like “strong characters in strange places” in the program but doesn’t specifically mention your genre, it’s probably best to move on and not waste any time in that line. While you might have a strong character in a strange place, focus your efforts, energy, and time on agents that you know want to hear more beyond that. If you’re pitching to someone solely because you can fit your book into his/her buzzwords, that might be constraining. The agent wants to hear authentic passion for your own work, not parroting their passion about someone else’s work.

People: As James Scott Bell said in the opening keynote, we writers are weird folks. Just go with it. Make friends. Pass out business cards if you have them; acknowledge those who don’t have them. Seriously, having someone about-face and shun me when I didn’t have a business card to give her was a super awful feeling, and so unnecessary. She lost out on a potential social media connection there, not to mention a rousing conversationalist (I swear, once the awkward shield goes down I am hilarious). Look, we all know we have at least two things in common: we love to write, and in some way we are weird.

Pacing: Yes, it can be overwhelming. I saw co-attendees come out of sessions (pitches, panels, and everything in between) realizing they need to rework huge manuscript components. I’ve been at conferences and had light bulbs go off about what I need to fix or redo or cut out entirely. Sometimes I will try to do this during the conference; often, I’ve found I need a little time to let things simmer. Sessions are back-to-back, so you may also be rushing from a session that ran over to another session. At the end of the day, you might be exhausted from a mental overload, or you might be energetic and pumped with adrenaline. Keep plans loose and don’t push yourself.

Perspective: It’s a writing conference. You’re at the conference because you love writing. Loving something means sharing in the joy and sorrow and the satisfaction and disappointment. If you can walk into a conference and own the place, kudos to you. There’s a teeny tiny itty bitty chance someone will offer you a book deal immediately following a ninety-second pitch. There’s a much larger chance you’ll learn something and/or meet someone. Have fun; we all are.

Oh, also, a woman told me that angels were going to kill me. So I guarantee your writing conference experience started off better than mine, because it probably didn’t include death threats from on high.

I guess if this whole writing thing doesn’t work out, I can always take up holy haunting and celestial vengeance in the afterlife. Just call me Justice, Vigilante.

Best of cheapblackpens | The Dreaded Pitch Slam, or “Where My Pitches At?”

[Original post here]

[Note: Apparently an agent yelled “Where my pitches at?” in the first session. I saw it on Twitter, but did not witness a repeat during my session.]

I’m attending the Writer’s Digest Conference West (WDCW) this weekend in LA, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ll post a nice wrap-up later this week, but I wanted to get this post out while my thoughts (and let’s face it, emotions!) were still fresh.

What made WDCW memorable for me was Pitch Slam, an event where you pitch your manuscript to an agent. Live. In-person. You have ninety seconds to pitch, and they have ninety seconds to ask questions and/or give feedback. As I learned yesterday, there is actually someone keeping time and announcing three minutes have elapsed. As an author,  you want those three minutes to end with a card (or instructions for submitting a query, if the agent doesn’t have a card). At the very least, you may get an opportunity to receive feedback on your pitch or further questions which can help you with other agents.

Prior to Pitch Slam, I attended an online boot camp to help develop my pitch. I’ve never submitted a query letter or pitched my manuscript before, so I wanted some guidance on that aspect. I also read a few blog posts about what to expect:

They gave me a better idea of what kind of scene I was about to enter, and what I needed to do beforehand to prepare myself. I also reviewed the list of agents appearing, taking note of who was interesting and worthwhile. I went a step further and Googled the agent/agency to get a better idea of who might be a good fit for me. There were three agents that I knew I wanted to see, plus several “I hope I have time” agents on my list.

I wrote my pitch and practiced a few times at home, but I didn’t want to get too comfortable with what I prepared – on the opening night of WDCW, there was a “Pitchcraft” session with additional tips. I made some tweaks to my pitch, then crammed. One trick I used was to outline the main points so I could keep on track and speak comfortably to the key ideas. I didn’t want to sound like I prepared a memorized speech. I videochatted with the fella back home, and he gave me two thumbs up – much better than I what I was doing Thursday night. After that, it was just a waiting game until my session.

A lot of people talk about the “strategy” of pitching. I had one going in, and some elements worked. I can give some general tips on this process:

  1. Do your research. I knew who I wanted to see, and the first three agents I approached were the ones from my list. My pitfall? I’m pitching a genre manuscript, and while an agent’s bio might say they’re drawn to great characters and interesting scenarios, it might mean just from a general fiction perspective. Two of my three picks let me know they didn’t represent fantasy, period. One of them was really kind about it, offering to still give me feedback on my pitch itself. The other was, shall we say, cruel to be kind: she interrupted my pitch, asked for the specific genre, and flat-out told me she did not represent that area. I was on my merry way, but my next pitch generated interest, and a business card. Had I stayed the entire three minutes, I would not have had time to pitch to a fifth agent, or possibly a fourth.
  2. Pay it forward. It was crowded, busy, and loud. It was hard to find the end of the line for some agents – everything kind of swirled together into a conference room Charybdis. I was searching for an agent’s line at the same time another woman was. She was there before me, but I was able to break through the crowd and get to the end first. I gestured her over and let her get ahead of me since she was “there” before I was. She was appreciative, and we struck up a conversation. She had managed to pitch three other agents already (I was only at two) and we shared some feedback on the ones from our lists. One of my “I hope I have time” agents was reportedly very nice and engaging, so I went to that booth next and landed a card.
  3. Have an open mind. Look, ultimately you’re hoping to generate interest in your work and connect with an agent. Even if your pitch doesn’t work out, you can still get a lot from the experience. One of the agents gave me feedback on my pitch and let me use my three minutes to answer questions – I was so grateful, because I was nervous and I’d like to think she sensed that and gave me an outlet for that energy. It made a world of difference; the next agent I pitched told me to submit something.
  4. Timing is everything. Give yourself options, because the time goes by fast. The first pitch session was apparently packed, and some people had a solid strategy that allowed them to see many agents. Others only saw one or two. I opted for the second session, which was smaller and way easier to navigate. There were a few agents on my “I hope I have time” list, but the lines were long. Just think: if each pitch is three minutes and ten people are in front of you, you just decided to spend a third of your time in line.
  5. Make the most of it. Talk (quietly) to the people in line with you. Network. I bonded with fellow writers and event staff. Trade business cards, if you have them (another lesson learned: have them).
  6. Take chances. There were only a few rounds left in the session, and I had already pitched to four agents; everyone else on my list was closed due to time constraints. I recognized one name from my list – someone from my genre but at the YA level. I wasn’t expecting a card or a request for submission. I just wanted to talk to one last person about my pitch. I gave my pitch and she asked questions. Since there was no one in line behind me (the event was ending soon), she let me stay and asked a couple more. This was probably one of the best parts of the session for me: I got to feel what it was like to not feel any pressure giving my pitch. I got to associate a feeling of tranquility speaking about my manuscript. I can draw on that moving forward. I can also polish my answers to questions that I stumbled answering. I wasn’t surprised when she said it was interesting but not for her. For me, I wasn’t in it for the outcome – I was in it for the experience.
  7. When in doubt, go to your happy place. Breathe deep. Dance to your favorite song in your hotel room beforehand. Have a cup of tea at lunch. Repeat your calming word. Do whatever you need to do prior to (and during, within reason!) the session to relax.
  8. Smile.

Best of cheapblackpens | Lessons Learned from WDCW

[Original post here]

I know I normally use these posts to discuss best practices, personal writing-related revelations, and tips. Today I’d like to combine all those areas into a few select insights (courtesy of WDCW).

“It’s all about opportunity.” This was the first note I took at WDCW (check me out with my old school composition notebook!); as I look back on the conference events, this sentiment rings true. Writing and publishing are about opportunity. For some writers, it may be about opportunities that arise from an encounter with an agent. For others, it may be an opportunity that inspires a different view of the true crime research you’re doing. For me, it’s about the imagination’s opportunity to test boundaries and explore new worlds.

“There is no book in your mind.” In other words, ideas are totally great – but until it’s on the page, it’s not real. It’s a nice little kick in the pants to really get you motivated.

Be a diverse writer. Different skill sets and genres can keep you fresh and unpredictable. That may not appeal to everyone (authors and readers alike), but being able to master multiple areas of author expertise is definitely one of my goals.

Marketing is your friend. Writers have business cards now? What? You aspiring novelists are making me look bad! Seriously, though, this was my first big conference – I’ve attended workshops, online events, and regional conferences, but never something so networking-heavy. In a couple of conversations I was actually shunned because I didn’t have a card to pass over. That seemed a little extreme – most people were really nice, especially when I said I’m in the process of rebranding (which is mostly true; cheapblackpens is my “brand,” it just sucks). Social media will be a big thing for me moving forward, and I hope to do a relaunch late 2012/early 2013.

This isn’t so much a lesson, but it is kind of funny: James Patterson is a character. A couple presenters/panelists had some interesting stories about him/his work. Apparently [note: hearsay forthcoming] he writes his own blurbs – including the preceding tags like “PATTERSON HAS DONE IT AGAIN!” or “PATTERSON PROVES HE IS A MASTER OF SUSPENSE.”

Note: Quotes from Aimee Bender’s opening keynote