Overcoming Your Fears

By Sarah LaPolla – Associate Agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd.
2011 Conference Faculty Member

I attended my first conference about a year ago. At the time, I was a shiny new agent with only one client to my name. I was very, very nervous, but in that excited way, like the first day of school. Will the other agents accept me? Will I make friends? Will the writers respect me? What if they don’t want to pitch to me? As a life-long introvert, I was terrified at what might be expected of me.

Turns out, everything was fine. Both colleagues and writers were professional, welcoming, and pleasant. I’ve since attended many other conferences, and even served on panels with only minimal anxiety. At these other conferences, I’ve encountered many different types of writers, many of whom were suffering from their own forms of anxiety that manifested in ways that sometimes effected their pitch sessions. There were five common afflictions.

The Overachiever: This writer is ALL business. To them, a handshake wastes precious “getting out my binder and carefully typed notes” time and “hello” is just another word for “I will read you my query letter, credentials, and bio in under three minutes.” An agent will respond positively to this approach only if they are interested in the project. Otherwise, it is a bit daunting and scary.

The BFF: This writer so excited and is such a fan of [something agent’s done]. He or she might use the phrase “I feel like I know you!” and the agent will be forced to think of a game plan lest the writer attempts to hug them. It’s always good to be personable, especially if you follow an agent on Twitter, read their blog, or have met them before. But you do not want to appear so familiar that you lose your sense of professional boundaries.

The Lost Puppy: This writer is adorably nervous, but also slightly exhausting. They will stammer and stare until, finally, they’re able to get out their one-sentence pitch just as their time is up. All they need is a little love, encouragement, and a gentle shove to keep moving, but sometimes it’s very hard not to lose patience with them.

The Fast Talker: As someone who fears public speaking more than death, I can relate to The Fast Talker. I know what it’s like to think oh god if I just get through this as quickly as possible it’ll all be over and I’ll never have to speak again! In the rare instances I was unable to feign illness to get out of speaking, remembering these two things helped me: 1) Be an expert. No one knows your book better than you do, so don’t be afraid to talk about with confidence and authority. 2) Breathe. Before you sit down with an agent, count to three and exhale. It’s pretty textbook, but it tends to work.

The Mumbler: What if the agent doesn’t think it’s good? What if I’m pitching it all wrong? What if I die in here?? When these thoughts run through a writer’s head, their words come out too jumbled and quiet to understand. All they want to do is disappear.

Hopefully none of you suffer from these nervous side effects, but if you do, know that you are not alone. You can overcome them! Just remember that conferences aren’t mandatory. We’re all here by choice and both agents and writers attend conferences for the same reason – to get your amazing book published. A good project will always shine through, so don’t worry about presentation or appropriate amount of eye contact. Just trust that you wrote the story you wanted to tell, and share it with confidence.

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