Hanging with the cool kids

Yes, yes, I took a couple of days off, and I am interrupting my series on the rigors of lifting scenes from real life, but I assure you, it’s all in the name of a good cause: I ventured north with a couple of fabulous writer friends to the Surrey Writers’ Conference this last weekend. A big hello to the dozen or so of you I met there! I always love meeting my readers, especially when they are being brave and virtuous enough to get out there and pitch their work. (Even when you corner me to ask if I REALLY meant it about changing all of the emdashes in your manuscripts to doubled dashes. The agent with whom I was enjoying a drink at the time thought that was pretty funny. I gathered; I will now forever have the reputation of being the Pacific Northwest’s Resident Grammar Harpy.)

So I have been schmoozing internationally, partially for professional development, partially for fun, and partially in the hope of spreading last summer’s amazingly successful Pitch Practicing Palace to maple leaf flagged pastures in future. To be precise, my friends and I did what writers who have passed the Rubicon of representation are supposed to do at conferences: we hung out in the bar, chatting with agents, editors, and the other presenters.

Had I mentioned before that if you are serious about making connections, the best place to make connections at almost ANY writers’ conference is the bar? Ditto with the space outside where the smokers lurk. Why? Well, let’s be charitable and say the reason is that writers tend to work in scattered isolation, and leap at the chance to socialize with their own species.

The more important reason is that these are also the places where the agents and editors are relatively safe from hallway pitchers — and as someone who routinely yammers at you to take your courage in your hands and buttonhole agents to pitch to them, I should probably speak to that. As those of you who are long-time readers of this blog already know, if you are at a conference to find an agent, I think it’s a trifle silly to limit yourself to only your assigned pitch appointment. If your dream agent is walking by, I see no reason that you should not approach her for a polite pitch; I know many, many good writers who have found their agents this way.

An even more polite way to do it is to walk up after the agent has taught a seminar at a conference, heap the preceding class with praise, and ask if you may have a minute of his time to pitch. I know a wonderful writer who landed his agent by routinely presenting himself at one end of the dias at agents fora and pitching his way from right to left all the way down the stage. Most agents are sweet, writer-loving people, contrary to their reputations as book-rejecting machines: they will usually agree to give a minute of their lives to a writer courteous to ask them nicely for it.

The catch: you should use ONLY a minute of their time. Also, don’t follow the agent of your dreams into the bathroom to pitch; it’s considered gauche. (And believe me, it does happen. All the time.) Stalking is also considered beyond the pale, but I’m sure that all of MY readers are far too charming to, say, insist upon pitching a jet-lagged agent the moment he pops out of his hotel room in the morning or as he is staggering back into it, his head reeling with pitches, late at night. (Again, a story I’ve heard more than once in a conference bar.)

Remember, too, that agents are individuals, not walking representatives of an entire industry – if they say they aren’t interested, or they don’t represent your type of work (do a spot of research first, okay?), THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE IS REJECTING YOU. If your hallway pitchee (or any pitchee, for that matter) says, “Gee, I don’t think that’s for me,” don’t argue. Just thank the agent for her time, melt away, and move on to your next pitch.

Which brings me back to the conference bar. Because there are — hooray, hooray — so many aspiring writers who are brave enough to make hallway pitches, and there are, alas, stalkers and other rude people, already-agented writers like me are rather restful company for agents and editors. (As the agent who bought us breakfast yesterday morning — not for nefarious reasons, mind you; one of my friends is her client — said when we tried to reach for the bill, “Hey, none of you want to pitch me. I love you.”) We’re neither giving them the hard sell nor hanging on their every word as a hint to future success.

We treat them like — gasp! — people.

And that, for those of you who have wondered about the bar phenomenon at conferences, is why the agents and editors are so often to be found there, talking with people like me. Which makes it an excellent place to schmooze, even — and this surprises a lot of conference neophytes — in the middle of the day. It’s sort of like the safe spot in a game of tag; they can stop running when they’re there.

Not that you should just pull up a chair — need I even say that this happens, too? — and plop yourself in the middle of a group of influential strangers. Make friends the way you would at any other party. Observe the social graces, for heaven’s sake; get someone like me to introduce you.

Yes, it’s true: writers like me are in fact the social lubricant of the conference bar. Cultivate us; buy us breakfast: most of us are nice people, too, who enjoy helping talented people make good connections. Remember, a smart agent-seeking writer does not go to conferences merely to pitch: she also goes to meet other writers — especially ones who routinely hang out in bars at conferences, schmoozing.

After all, an agented writer often has spent a significant portion of her life at literary conferences — we tend to know a LOT of other writers, editors, and yes, agents. And I’ve literally never heard an established writer say at a conference, “How the hell should I know what agent to recommend you query?” Being human beings, many of us just love being approached as beacons of wisdom. Seriously, it’s kind of fun, after years of struggling for recognition — and the newly-agented often have very extensive lists of who represents what still lingering in their brainpans. Go ahead, make a few friends by asking for advice.

This is not to say that everyone you meet in a conference bar will be bowled over at the opportunity to help you, or that you should treat every casual conversation as an opportunity to pitch your work. They won’t, and you shouldn’t — and not only because it’s not very polite to yammer endlessly about yourself to a brand-new acquaintance. While I would dearly love to be able to report that every single person you’re going to meet at a writers’ conference is a sterling human being eager to help your career, since we are talking about hanging around in a liquor-serving establishment here, I’m going to add a few prudent caveats to my recommendation that you try to make new friends in this environment.

If you’re new to the game, hit the bar with a friend or two, to be on the safe side, and if you’re underage, do your schmoozing at lunch, when most hotel bars also serve food. Also, if you missed my height-of-conference-season post on why it should NEVER be necessary to visit the hotel room of someone to whom you’re pitching, please see my series on conference lore (category at right) before you go traipsing off with anyone. No matter how long an author’s work has graced the NYT bestseller list, or how many millions of copies an agent’s clients have sold, your chances of making a good professional connection are far better if everyone’s clothes stay on.

I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy; I have nothing against a little light nymphomania from time to time, but we’re talking about your future career here. Writers’ conferences are hardly notorious for being hotbeds of sin (well, okay, Maui), but I don’t want to see any of you getting hurt. Your grandmother was right: petting won’t make you popular, and it definitely won’t help you get your book sold.

Remember, too, that just because you’re in a bar doesn’t mean you have to be drinking. If you’re drinking a tonic-and-lime (my personal favorite) or a soft drink, no one is going to sneer at you, as long as you tip your server appropriately. I’m very serious about this last part. You may well be there for hours, so think of it as table rent; your server has to eat, too, and for all you know, the agent or editor with whom you’re hobnobbing put herself through an MFA program by cocktail waitressing. Besides, buying a round or two at a conference is a legitimate business expense for a writer — if you’re going to be asking for a receipt, tip accordingly.

Most importantly, though, keep your head about you. It’s never a good idea to drink too much around people you are trying to impress — yes, even if they are drinking a great deal themselves. At the risk of sounding like one of those 1950s social guidance films for school kids: drinking a great deal will NOT make you more likable.

It will, however, make you hung-over at your pitch the following morning. Trust me, I used to teach frat boys at major football school; I know a LOT about the after-effects of alcohol on the human intellect. Know your limits, and stick to them.

And, if you want to be welcome at the conference bar the next time around, please observe the great rule of mixing business with pleasure: never, never, NEVER pitch in a social situation unless the agent or editor sitting next to you ASKS, “So, what do you write?” In the bar, these people are off-duty; please respect that, no matter how much you want to use it as a business occasion. Even if the circle of drinkers is talking about NOTHING but the industry, it will break the mood if you act as though you’ve walked into a pitch meeting.

Often, agents will ask, if they like you, and then it is perfectly appropriate to pitch, of course. It is also perfectly appropriate to walk up to the person with whom you were enjoying tonic-and-lime the night before and say, “Hi, X, I didn’t want to bug you last night when you were relaxing, but may I pitch to you now?” Polite people generally get brownie points. And, of course, you can always send a post-conference query beginning, “I so enjoyed chatting with you at the recent Surrey conference. I hope you will be interested in my book…”

But please, let these poor souls have a little down time. As someone who routinely listens to pitches for hours at a time, let me tell you, pitch fatigue can hit a well-meaning listener hard, especially one who has flown or driven a few hours to get to your fair city. (Or one who did not stick to tonic-and-lime the night before, for that matter.)

Being a good listener takes quite a bit of energy, after all. By the end of a conference day, agents are often tired, brain-befuzzed and, depending upon the stalker-to-polite-person ratio at that particular conference, feeling hunted. Believe me, you’ll make a better impression in the long run if you do not interrupt them in mid-hamburger to pitch.

Okay, I’ve spent enough time being the Good Manners Fairy for today; I need to get back to my revision now. Tomorrow, back to the real-life scenes — and, as always, keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “Hanging with the cool kids”

  1. Some aspects of this remind me of this summer’s PNWA conference. While having coffee at the beginning of the day, just prior to the Agents Forum, I believe, I happened to have a chance to chat briefly with one of the agents who was also having coffee. I kidded her about hiding her agent ribbon on her name badge so she could have coffee in peace, promised that I would not pitch to her, and handed her a business card as we each went our separate ways. The name of my story as printed on the card must have impressed her, as she handed me her card and asked that I send her the first fifty pages. A pitch with out pitching! I did send her the requested materials, and have lately received her reply. Sad to say, she felt the story was just not right for her.
    Query on!

  2. It was a cool conference. I thought the historical writers panel one of the best I’ve been at and though the SiWC Idol was brutal I learned a lot. Had a great time.

    Now for next week. PNWA Writing Connections at the senior center in Mount Vernon will give writers a chance to meet published authors (and screenwriter) for free. Noon to 4 on October 28th. Another chance to smooze and learn about the publishing world.

  3. Good for you for having been so brave, Dave! It really is amazing how far simple good manners (and being an entertaining conversationalist, as I know you to be) can get you in this field.

  4. Thanks for reminding me about the Writing Connections event, Janet — I should announce that. Any chance you would know the street address, so I can post the details?

    I’m going to be posting a blog about the Idol class next week — I want time to do it justice. It WAS brutal, but very, very informative.

    For those of you who would like to find out what we’re talking about before I have the time to do the write-up, there’s a good conversation going on about it at The Writer’s forum.

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