More conference advice: keeping it upbeat

Hello, readers —

Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour?

I realized (due in part to intelligent questions from several readers, so thank you) that I left out something important from yesterday’s post on ways to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed at the conference. And it is indeed important: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit stressed during your meetings.

So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.

And do dress comfortably, but not sloppily, for your meetings. I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length on June 5 (check out the archives), so if you’re in doubt, go back and read that. If you still find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet tomorrow, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.

Yesterday, I wrote about one of the great fringe benefits of conference attendance, making friends with other writers. The person sitting next to you at the agents’ forum might well be famous two years from now, you know, and won’t you be glad that you made friends with her way back when?

Today, I am going to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the naysayers and depression mongers one occasionally meets at writers’ conferences. And, still more potentially damaging, the infectious rumors that inevitably sweep the halls from time to time. You need to inoculate yourself against them.

So think of what I’m about to tell you as a cootie shot.

Let me step outside the writing word to give you an example of the classic naysayer. The weekend before last, I went over to a friend’s house for a “let’s save the garden from being reclaimed by the jungle” party. Lopping off branches and deadheading roses in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but notice that another party guest — let’s call her Charity, because she was so VERY generous with her opinions about other people — kept looking askance at everything I did. I could not so much as pull a weed without her telling me I was doing it wrong; it was exactly like cooking with my mother-in-law.

At first, I thought it was just me, but I soon noticed that Charity was striding around the yard, correcting everyone, in the most authoritative of tones. We all took it meekly, because she seemed so sure that she was right. However, the third time she gave me advice on pruning that I — the girl who grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, pruning shears in hand — knew to be balderdash, I realized something: she was barely doing any gardening herself. She had no idea what should be done. And yet, she had appointed herself garden manager.

Why am I telling you this? Because I can guarantee you that no matter which writers’ conference you choose to attend in your long and, I hope, happy life, you will run into at least one of Charity’s spiritual cousins: it will be the writer who tells you, in solemn tones, that there’s a national database of every query that’s ever been submitted, so agents can automatically reject ones that have been seen by too many agents. Or that if you’ve been rejected by an agency once, you can never query there again, because THEY maintain an in-house database, dating back years. Or that you’ll get into terrible trouble if you EVER have more than one query out at once. Or that you should NEVER call or e-mail an agency, even if they’ve had your manuscript for over a year.

None of these things are true, incidentally; they’re just persistent rumors circulating on the conference circuit. To set your mind at rest, there are no such databases, and unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous submissions, it simply does not have that policy. Period. And if an agency has lost a requested manuscript, believe me, they want to know about it toute de suite.

But these rumors SOUND so true, don’t they? Especially after you’ve heard them 147 times over the course of a weekend. It’s like brainwashing. I don’t think that people perpetuate them on purpose to dishearten other writers, but I have noticed that anyone who speaks with apparent authority on the rules behind the mysterious world of publishing finds it pretty easy to locate an audience. So there are some definite rewards to being the person who walks into a group of writers and says this and this and this is true.

For instance: you believe me, don’t you?

It works, of course, because the publication process IS often confusing and arbitrary. As anyone who has ever spent ten minutes browsing in a bookstore already knows, there are plenty of published books that aren’t very good; as anyone who has a wide acquaintance amongst writers also knows, there are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers whose work does not get published. There IS a lot of luck involved, unquestionably. If your manuscript happens to be the first one that the agent reads immediately after realizing that her marriage is over, or even immediately after stubbing her toe on a filing cabinet, your chances of her signing you are definitely lower than if, say, she has just won the lottery. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect whether your work hits someone’s desk on a good or a bad day.

The more you know about how the industry operates, however, the better your chances of falling on the right side of the coin toss. But the right way to learn about it is not through rumors; ask people you are positive know how the industry works. Go to the agent and editor forums at the conference, and listen carefully. Learn who likes what. These are people with individual tastes, not mechanized cogs in a homogenous industry where a manuscript that interests one agent will inevitably interest them all.

Contrary to what that guy in the hallway just told you.

Which is why, incidentally, you should always take it with a massive grain of salt whenever even the most prestigious agent or editor tells you, “oh, that would never sell.” What that actually means, in the language the rest of us speak, is “oh, I would never want to try to sell that.” It is, in fact, a personal preference being expressed.

It may well be a personal preference shared by a substantial proportion of the industry, such as the nearly universal declaration prior to the success of COLD MOUNTAIN that historical fiction just doesn’t sell anymore, but it is still a personal opinion, and should be treated as such. If you doubt that, consider: when the author of COLD MOUNTAIN went out looking for an agent, the platitude above WAS standard industry wisdom. And yet some agent took a chance on it. Go figure.

I am harping on this point for two reasons. First, it is a very, very good idea to bear in mind that not everything everyone who speaks with authority says — no, not even a senior editor at a major publishing house, or me — is necessarily accurate 100% of the time. That knowledge can save your dignity if you get caught in a meeting with an agent who dislikes your book’s premise; trust me, I’ve been there. Just thank the speaker for his opinion, and move on.

If you find yourself caught in a formal meeting with an agent or editor who tells you within the first thirty seconds that she does not represent books in your category, or that the premise isn’t marketable, or any other statement intended to prevent you from completing your pitch, try to remember that you can always learn something from contact with an industry professional. (I say that, even after my famous meeting eight years ago with an agent who not only told me flatly that the book I was trying to pitch to her would never sell; she mixed ME up with my fictional protagonist and gave me a long lecture on MY moral turpitude!) Take the moral high ground, and turn the conversation into a learning experience.

For example, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t represent this kind of work,” (try to say it politely, even if the agent or editor’s blurb actually did state specifically that they DID; I’ve seen it happen) “but if you were me, who else at the conference would you try to pitch this book to, given your druthers?” Or, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that you think it won’t sell. Would you mind telling me why? Do you think this is a trend that will go away after awhile, or do you think books like this always have a hard time selling?” Or even, “If you were a writer just starting out, how would you try to market a book like this to agents and editors?”

Beats losing your temper, and it certainly beats bursting into tears. Often, agents and editors are happy to give you tips in exchange for your sparing them a scene.

Oh, and speaking of sparing scenes, since I will be at the Pitch Practicing Palace during most of the agent and editors forums, I won’t be able to ask my usual disconcerting questions — you know, the ones that need to be asked, such as sweetly demanding of the editors on the panel, “Since most of the major publishers don’t accept unagented work, how many of you would be able to pick up an author you met here? For those of you whose houses prohibit it, what would you do if you fell in love with a pitch today?” That sort of thing.

If any of you felt brave enough to ask this sort of question, PLEASE come and tell me about the response. Another that has been much in my mind of late is, “Not all of your agencies have websites or list much (if any) information in the standard guides. Yet we’re all told that we should do our homework before we query. First, could those of you whose agencies aren’t on the web tell us why? And could all of you tell us what the best way to get up-to-date information on your agencies’ preferences is, beyond listening to you today?”

Okay, back to the other reason I am harping on why you should take blanket pronouncements with a small mountain of salt. While rumors about secret ways in which the industry is out to get writers may roll off your back at the time you first hear them, they can come back to haunt you later in moments of insecurity. And the last thing you will need if an agent has held on to your manuscript for two months without a word, and you are trying to figure out whether to call or not to check up on it (do), is a nagging doubt at the back of your mind about whether writers bold enough to assume that the US Mail might occasionally misplace packages are condemned forever as troublemakers, their names indelibly blacklisted in a secret roster to which only agents have access.

Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it?

When confronted with a hallway rumor, don’t be afraid to ask some critical follow-up questions. “Where did you hear that?” might be a good place to start, closely followed by “Why on earth would they want to do THAT?” With an industry professional, you can use polite interest to convey incredulity, “Really? Do you know someone to whom that has happened? Did it happen recently?” Whatever you do, if you hear an upsetting truism, do not swallow it whole. You look that gift horse in the mouth, and everywhere else, before you wheel it into Troy.

And when someone of Greek descent tells you to give a Trojan horse the once-over, believe it.

Let me just go ahead and nip the ubiquitous database rumor in the bud, since it is one of the most virulent of the breed. Since the average agency receives around 800 queries per week, can you imagine the amount of TIME it would take to maintain such a query database, even for a single agency? It would be prohibitively time-consuming. They barely have time to open all of the envelopes as it is, much less check or maintain a sophisticated tracking system to see if any given author queried them (or anybody else) two years ago.

A good rule of thumb to measure the probability of these rumors is to ask yourself two questions each time you hear one. First, would the behavior suggested serve ANY purpose to the agency, other than being gratuitously mean to writers who query it? Second, would performing the suggested behavior require spending more than a minute on each query — say, to input statistics into a database? Could the agency accomplish it WITHOUT hiring an extra person — or five — to do maintain the roster of doom? If the answer to any of these questions is no — and it almost always is — chances are, the rumor’s not true.

Even unpaid interns’ time costs something; they could be opening all of those envelopes, for instance.

I’m going to one final post tomorrow morning, then it’s all hands on deck for the conference. (I had hoped to be able to send far-flung readers updates from the conference floor, but literally every second of the day is booked for me.) Get some extra sleep tonight, potential pitchers, and I look forward to seeing all of you at the Pitch Practicing Palace.

And for the rest of you, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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