Pig in a poke

Hello, readers —

Remember last week, when I was going on about pigs in pokes, and the undesirability of buying them? I mentioned that I had no idea what a poke was. Well, I opened my work e-mail over the weekend, and fabulous and intrepid reader Janet had TOLD ALL:

“A poke is early type of paper bag–something to hold candy, peas and other types of loose foodstuffs. It is essentially a square piece of paper folded into a cone. The bottom point is folded up so that the candy or dried beans won’t fall out. The sheets of paper came in different sizes 4″, 8″ and 10″. Apparently, the shopkeep could figure out costs per weight this way.”

Have you ever seen a clearer description of anything? But wait, Janet did even more research on the subject:

“The pig in a poke is a great image as you would really have to stuff the pig into poke pretty hard. Be pretty tight. General stores used these for years until a girl in New England invented the type of squared paper bag with a floor some time after the Civil War. As for the poke, I’m told that in Germany you can still get food this way.”

Janet, please find me at the conference, if you will be attending: I want to buy you a drink, or at least a cup of coffee, because now, I have the pleasing image in my head of all of those American agents and editors who travel every year to the Frankfurt Book Fair, buying pigs in pokes from street vendors. After hearing them spout the truism for so many years, that image makes me absurdly happy.

While I am praising wonderful readers, Arleen, who has apparently TAKEN classes with Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (who will be offering Pathways to the Novel on the Sunday following the conference), was kind enough to send in the class’ website. Not only that, but she provided a link to more info about co-teacher Jack Remick Add to this her rave review of the class she took, and I think I can safely say that this constitutes a recommendation.

Do remember, the Sunday classes fill up fast, so if you are interested in taking one, please sign up soon. Also, don’t forget that registering for the summer conference BEFORE June 6th (better known as a week from today) will give you a $50 discount on the cost of attending! If you have not yet picked your top choices for agent and editor meetings, check out my blogs about the scheduled attendees, April 26 — May 12 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

And, while I’m at it: if you have not already put the first 50 pp. of your work into standard format, so it is ready to send out to any agents or editors at the conference who might conceivably ask to see it, check out my post of February 19. If you do not already know why this is an EXCELLENT idea, consider my recommendation of the previous sentence multiplied a thousandfold. (Not adhering to standard manuscript format — which is DIFFERENT from book format — has cost a lot of good writers a fair reading from agency screeners.)

My, that was a lot of housekeeping, wasn’t it? I actually do have a topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to the conference — and, more importantly, to your agent and editor meetings?

At minimum, of course, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes, and a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. I always like to include a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first day of the conference, a very, very long day. By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment. Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine.

I always, always, ALWAYS bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones like PNWA, where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. When you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the water on it, nor to step over people with a full glass in your hand. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime. I’m wacky that way. If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, in preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at the conference, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. If I had my way, the hallways would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress.

You will also want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it — why, come to think of it, a business card would be perfect for that! Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, or to print some up at home, for two excellent reasons. First, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together. The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact.

It’s just that simple.

Second, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

I shall no doubt return to this topic between now and the conference, but let me start the chant now: avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. Obviously, if you can swig a one-on-one with Ann Rule, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with her, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. But don’t let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes, who are there to help YOU, or the writer sitting next to you in class.

I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?” Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves, and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing and the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag (if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible — and no, you don’t have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists.), along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

They don’t like, you see, to buy a pig in a poke.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript. Don’t bother to bring your entire book with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail it instead, and in fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is true, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, agents tend to be pretty competitive people. Literally the only reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and I can tell you from experience that the category winners and placers at the PNWA do get mobbed by agents. (In case you didn’t know, one of the main prizes that the first-place winners receive, in addition to the nifty gold pin, is a breakfast meeting with ALL of the agents and editors. Awfully easy to chat about your work over fruit cup, I always find.) So I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format. (Again: if this is news to you, rush into the archives immediately, and take a gander at my post for February 19th.) If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes confidence in your work.

More conference preparation tips follow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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