At the first conference I ever attended, I had a version of what would become my first novel in tow, and a decent query letter composed and ready for pitch sessions that were being offered.
This hopeless social leper sat in the lobby, waiting my turn for my first in-person pitch to an agent that just had to love the book. Mouth dry, hands quivering, I managed to get to my feet when my name was called and the volunteer directed me to the agent’s room. My pitch (the story is about a reluctant single father) opened with a snarky log line about the effectiveness of condoms. Unfortunately, I was so rattled by the experience, my tongue tied itself into a knot. My witty delivery was met with a blank stare. The perplexed agent leaned forward and asked:
“Why does cotton have an efficiency rating?”
Panic squeezed my heart, and I managed to back-pedal to explain what I meant. She laughed as I made my way through the rest of the pitch, which would have made it clear that I meant condom…not cotton.
I didn’t get a request for a full. Or a partial. Or anything. It was my first pitch, after all. I knew, logically, there would be no rush of agents begging to have a crack at my manuscript. I thought I was close to being finished, though, but it turns out I had some work to do yet.
The agent took a pass on that manuscript, but she offered a few points to work on: More conflict. Less exposition.
So how can I view that as a positive experience?
I didn’t burn a bridge.
Pitch sessions, query sessions, critique sessions—they all strike fear in the hearts of authors, aspiring and published. It’s terrifying to lay it all out on the line in front of an industry professional, especially if he or she is a well-known name. When you follow Twitter accounts and blogs, they can become literary celebrities in your mind.
It’s not an easy experience, pitching to an agent or listening to an editor critique your manuscript while you bop elbows on a cramped table in the corner of a crowded banquet room. It’s an exercise in rising above your own fears and inhibitions.
It’s also something you simply must do, if you are attending a conference and have a completed work to shop. You simply must stick your neck out and sit down for the critique. You must pitch to someone. You must try out your query letter on the agent offering his or her time to listen and share thoughts on what you’ve put together.
Bridge-burning isn’t possible in this environment. Well, it’s possible. Don’t roll up your first three chapters and crack the agent over the head with the papery weapon if they say they aren’t interested. That’ll still result in bridge burning, I can assure you. These sessions, however, are learning experiences you can’t miss.
What matters is you have a prime opportunity to test drive your sales technique. Maybe the agent you sign up to meet won’t ask to see more, but you can find out if your pitch is viable and ready to send out to other agents. Perhaps your manuscript isn’t as polished as you thought it was, but that’s all right. You have a shot at a do-over. I’ve heard agents and editors suggest a few changes or another thorough edit, then invite future submission when the work is in better shape.
How often do you get that when you email a query without having outside feedback? You learn very little from an inbox full of form rejections from agents who may only give your submission two or three minutes of consideration as they work their way through the massive slush pile that awaits them each morning.
I brought my second novel to my second SCWW conference. I thought it was in fine shape, and purchased a critique that required me to send the first three chapters of my novel to the participating agent of my choice.
As I approached the table for my critique, the usual terror set in. Palms were wet, the tongue was tied, and I awaited the massacre about to happen. Sure enough, the agent analyzed my first chapter and all of its tired, clichéd weaknesses. The information dump had to go. The traveling trope really had to go. The introspection had to go, go, go.
My stomach had essentially dropped to the floor and was balancing on my toes at that point. Dread filled the spot my stomach used to inhabit as the agent flipped to the second chapter. How could it get any worse?
But then, wonder of wonders, the agent smiled and said, “Now this is where your novel begins.” And she thought it was good! From that point on she pointed out everything I was doing right. Aside from a few minor nitpicks that I agreed with, I found out I had a strong manuscript. All I had to do was discard that weak first chapter that served only as a set-up and fine-tune a few points.
What a relief. If I had submitted that manuscript to agents without this invaluable session, I might have never realized what I’d done. My story would be judged by a first chapter that simply didn’t have a reason to exist, and that second chapter where it all began would never have been read.
I walked away with an agent’s business card in my hand. I chose to remain small-press with that novel, but I still have that agent’s card. It’s framed and it’s always in plain sight to remind me of what a difference a weak opening can make on a good story…and it’s there to remind me to contact her first when I’m ready to take the next big step.
If you’re attending the SCWW conference this October, prepare yourself for that next big step, too. Sign up for a manuscript critique (details at http://myscww.org/conference/critique-guidelines/) or a pitch session (details at http://myscww.org/conference/new-pitch-sessions-guidelines/). You won’t regret it.
J.M. Kelley is the author of Drew in Blue, Daddy’s Girl, and Almost Magic, a 2014 RomCon Readers Crown Finalist and was voted the 2013 Must Read Paranormal Romance by Celtic Hearts RWA. Visit www.jmkelleywrites.com for news and updates.