“So what do you write?” and other pieces of the conference puzzle

The biggest writers’ conference in my part of the country will be happening this coming weekend, yet for the first time in many years, I haven’t been inundated with the annual chorus of “Help! I have a pitching appointment with an agent, and I have no idea what to do!” I would like to think that because I spent so much of last summer delving into the ins and outs of pitching, the rather surprising scarcity of panicked questions means that you’re all so comfortable pitching your work that the prospect of sitting across a table from a real, live agent or editor and discoursing charmingly about your book holds no terrors for you.

It seems unlikely that a warm, fuzzy blanket of authorial confidence has settled over the writing world over the past year, yet how else am I to explain the uncharacteristic lack of clamoring? Oh, I have seen quite a few quiet questions popping up in the archives over the last few months — these days, only a tiny fraction of reader post their questions on the most recent posts — but overall, there’s seemed to be substantially less interest this year than in previous ones.

Is that a response, I wonder, to a sense that the publishing industry has contracted to the point of being less interested in the new talent it might discover at conferences? Certainly, one hears fewer I-landed-my-agent-at-my-local-conference stories than in days of yore, as well as less wait-’til-you-hear-about-this-great-writer-I-met-at-a-conference stories from agents and editors. But as long as pitching permits aspiring writers to bypass the often-attenuated process of querying, it seems unlikely that its popularity would wane much.

Maybe the drop-off can be attributed to the multiplicity of writers’ forums. Over the years, an established writers’ conference will be as commented-upon as the Rosetta stone: a savvy writer usually doesn’t have to search very intensely to turn up attendees’ reviews. In my experience, though, first-time writers’ conference-goers frequently don’t do much research beyond checking out what agents are scheduled to attend.

Sometimes — and I tremble to tell you this, but you would not believe how often it occurs — they don’t even double-check to make sure that the conference has invited agents that represent the kinds of books they like. Why is that a problem, potentially? Chant it with me, long-time members of the Author! Author! community: agents and editors specialize.

Yes, really. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, none of them represent every single type of book. And that can come as a gigantic surprise to a writer walking into a pitch meeting for the first time, only to hear, “Your book sounds interesting, but I’m afraid it’s not the kind of work I handle.”

That’s about the most depressing thing a writer with only one pitch meeting scheduled for the conference can hear. Next to, “Oh, that agent that would be perfect for your manuscript, the one with whom you had an appointment? He couldn’t make it; he’ll be coming next year.”

So I suppose it’s possible that enough writers disillusioned by these sort of encounters have shared their experiences online and amongst their kith and kin to drive down overall conference attendance. Or perhaps it’s due to the economy: compared to the cost of sending a query to an agent (paper + envelope + stamp, or just your time to compose the query and hit the SEND key), writers’ conferences do indeed constitute a major investment in one’s writing career.

Let’s face it, they tend to run on the expensive side, especially if one does not happen to live in the city that hosts them. In addition to the often rather hefty registration fee (somewhere between $250 and $600, on average), writers from out of town should also figure in hotel costs, food, and transportation. And that’s assuming that the conference does not charge extra for pitch meetings, as many do.

Nor does it include drinks in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Which is why, in case you had been wondering, I have elected to introduce this post with a glamour shot of a gin-and-tonic. I would hate for any of you not to recognize it in its natural habitat.

Admittedly, there are writers’ conferences at which neither gin nor tonic make an appearance. It isn’t actually a necessity of conference life. However, if an alien descended from the planet Targ to make the rounds of a few dozen writers’ conferences, you could hardly blame him/her/it from reaching the conclusion that it is impossible to discuss the life literary without bubbles tickling one’s nostrils.

I’m not saying that people drink a lot at writers’ conferences. I’m just saying that if Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Graham Greene stumbled into the aforementioned bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, they probably would not be drinking alone.

Why might that be useful information for a first-time writers’ conference attendee? Simple: because the hired hands — agents, editors, conference presenters, visiting authors, etc. — have been known to congregate in that bar, it’s typically a pretty good place for an aspiring writer to make some literary connections. Or at least to strike up the ilk of conversation that leads to being asked, “So what do you write?”

Word to the wise: you’re going to want to be able to answer this question in a lucid manner, even very late in the evening or very early in the morning. It’s not at all unheard-of for a writer to meet her agent at a conference party, after all, or for a chance meeting next to the coffee and tea urns to turn into an actual conversation.

So, if you don’t mind my asking, conference-goers: what are you planning to say?

That might seem like an odd thing to bring up at a time when I have good reason to believe that more than a few of you are even now seated at your desks, rending your garments at the prospect of having to boil down your 400-page novel into a two-minute description for a formal pitch meeting. If I have not yet made it clear, I would be more than happy to devote the rest of this week to fielding questions about pitch construction. All you have to do is ask.

For the moment, though, I would like to spend the rest of today’s post talking about the practicalities of navigating a writers’ conference. And the issue of how to carry oneself like a pro in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any — well, you know by now — is one we writers discuss astonishingly seldom amongst ourselves. Yet like so much else, it’s a learned skill, a bit of finesse that will help a writer not merely at the agent-seeking stage, but throughout his writing career.

Don’t believe me? Want to hear about the time my agent turned to me at 4 a.m., shouted over a party in full swing, “This editor from {publishing house omitted} needs to hear about your novel. Go tell him about it,” and shoved me toward a total stranger who, if his subsequent discourse was to believed, thought I was a dead ringer for the long-term girlfriend that had just broken up with him?

So I say from long experience: if you want to keep in fine pitching fettle 100% of the time at a writer’s conference — and you do — watch what you’re drinking, and remember to eat something occasionally. If you feel the heavy weight of peer pressure (or just don’t want a drink), club soda and lime is cosmetically identical to the aforementioned gin concoction.

I just mention. It’s also pretty good for rehydration — and believe me, after spending a day in most conference centers, your body will probably need it.

Do those aghast faces and low moans mean that I have introduced the rigors of the conference world too quickly? If so, my apologies; I realize that the prospect of hobnobbing with the pros can be pretty darned terrifying the first few times around. So let’s take the tension down a few notches and begin with something less intimidating: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors?

Other than strong nerves, an iron stomach, and a firm conviction that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want to bring a trusty, comfortable pen and a notebook, so you can take good notes during conference classes, agents’ speeches, and the like. If you want to make friends quickly, throw a few extra pens and paper into your bag, for handing around to total strangers less prepared than you, you clever person.

I’m not kidding about this. Even if you have no interest in making friends and influencing anyone other than an agent or editor, consider being the friendly neighborhood pen supplier. They are inexpensive, easily portable, and a small price to pay for making the acquaintance of some kind souls who will buy your books someday.

Oh, you weren’t planning on jotting down all of your new writer friends’ contact information, so you could let them know when your first book is about to come out? Why ever not? Who is going to understand better what a triumph that is — or be more likely to understand that the best way to support a writer is to buy her books?

It’s also a good idea to tote along all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you after you registered, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your scheduled agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one so frequently does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not particularly long in the tooth.)

“But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble or weigh down anyone’s carry-on bag, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working, dedicated, and sometimes overwhelmed teams of volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue gracing their fingertips. Details have been known to fall through the cracks occasionally.

It’s not very prudent, in short, to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend or which agent you asked to see. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

If you registered electronically, make sure to bring along a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing. And as I said only moments ago, who do you think is going to buy your book? You may well want to be a speaker at this conference someday, and that nice person helping you find your name badge may well still be helping organize the conference. Be charming.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Starting to sound like you’ll be carrying a lot of stuff? You will — so it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion to rely upon a flimsy purse or nice, deep jeans pockets. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire, either. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room — or at least a table — devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the fine folks that organized the conference. Don’t expect to receive discounts on books sold at a conference, though: because the conference typically gets a cut of book sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. Go figure.

On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it. So if you are looking for an excuse to walk up to a world-famous author and burble how much you love his writing, this is your chance.

Yes, even if the author in question is a household name. It’s rare to find an author so jaded that she will not be willing to take a few minutes to sign the book a fan was kind enough to purchase.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps — who knows? You might just end up having a marvelous conversation about writing with someone you have admired for years.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a writers’ conference in the first place, right?

Use discretion, though. No one likes to be accosted with a pen and a hardback in the bathroom, or while deep in conversation with a friend one has not seen for seven years. The words, “Excuse me,” are your friends here.

Be aware, too, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain, not an indie), they sometimes take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should, if the book sounds interesting. However, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. An author with a strong preference will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Don’t be surprised if the question results in a book’s being shoved under your nose the next moment, though. The author may well elect to carry around half a dozen copies in his shoulder bag, just in case an eager reader turns up when the bookstore is closed. You may also be treated to a long litany of complaints about how much lower the royalties are when books are sold someplace like Costco (much of that steep discount typically comes out of the author’s end), or how much more work book promotion is for the author now than ten years ago.

But that’s precisely the kind of behind-the-scenes insight you came to the conference to glean, right?

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, you can hardly ask an agent or editor a more flattering question than, “Are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend a decade editing books about flamingos.” Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even consider missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and take note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, don’t always represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ forum to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “I swear, if I see one more vampire romance in my natural lifetime, I shan’t be responsible for my actions.”

Because attendees are expected to memorize such preferences — and, if necessary, to switch pitching appointments accordingly — it’s a good idea to jot ‘em all down. Yes, all, even if an agent is declaring her undying love for semi-explicit love scenes in science fiction, and you happen to write futuristic Westerns. I guarantee you that at least one of those writers who showed up without pens or paper will be asking within the next few hours, “Wait — what did that SF agent say she was looking for in a manuscript?”

Help him out, if only for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy…oh, you know the tune by now.

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of who was sitting where during the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’. I also note a few physical characteristics for each, along with their expressed preferences in manuscripts.

Why should a writer care what they look like and where they were sitting? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day. By the time people are wandering into their appointments later in the festivities, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, 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.

Or to figure out whether the agent that just plopped a plate of rubber chicken onto the other end of one’s table at lunch was the fellow whose remarks about dialogue made you think, “Wow, I would be lucky to land an agent like that,” or if that was the guy next to him. Wouldn’t you want to be sure before you slid over to introduce yourself?

Or to ascertain that the redhead to whom they were just introduced in the bar was the agent with the dystopian tastes in science fiction — or the one who said she was interested primarily in historical fiction about nuns. You wouldn’t want to mix them up after your third gin-and-tonic, would you?

Being able to whip out those diagrams for a surreptitious last-minute check can be very helpful. It’s likely to be even more helpful a month or two after the conference, to assist you in remembering which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast, consume illustrators for lunch with an amusing côte de Rhone, and chew copyeditors thirty-seven times before swallowing.

Even armed with accurate information and nerves of steel, however, it can be awfully hard to introduce yourself gracefully to the agent of your dreams with a frog in your throat. I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring a big bottle of water to a conference — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience to your neighbors.

How so? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, well, I am. But it’s not without good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses unmercifully. Personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way. I also prefer for my voice to be audible when I speak, rather than rasping.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

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, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

And don’t underestimate the time-buying value of taking a drink of water. Like, for instance, immediately after an agent has said, “Well, I’m not taking on books in this category right now, but are you working on any other book concepts?” Many a plot has been manufactured out of thin air between a gulp and a swallow.

Conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is most emphatically 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. I’ve also been known to hand out chewable Vitamin C tablets like candy and bars of chocolate like medicine to those waiting in hallways for their pitch appointments.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. To stave off feeling woozy during a pitch meeting, here are some tips:

* Take nice, deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis. You might even consider taking it up habitually.

* Don’t lock your knees if you happen to be standing while talking to an agent or editor. People who do tend to fall over.

* If you need to sit down, say so right away. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor, no matter how much she liked your pitch.

* Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol prior to your pitch meeting. (Even though everyone else you see will probably be doing so with enthusiasm.) You will want your perceptions sharp, not wired or dulled.

* Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

* At a large conference, it can be very easy to turn into a pure observer, rather than a participant. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; the speakers are there to help you understand the publishing world.

* Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

* If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

* Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Do it for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy your books in years to come?

* Even if you are the shyest person in the world, make a point of speaking to someone else in the hour or two before you pitch. Believe me, you will be much happier talking to that agent if you haven’t been listening non-stop to your own internal critic all day — and if it isn’t the first time in hours you have heard your own voice.

This is a time to be very good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach. Even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something.

I’m very serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to choke something down an hour or so before your pitch appointment. You’d be amazed how many first-time pitchers don’t, and in my experience, it makes many feel quite a bit more easily overwhelmed. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers before trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, simply because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up. I like to toss a couple of oranges into my conference kit: in a room with stagnant air, the aroma produced in the peeling process can lift everyone’s spirits. Even people who hate oranges may ask for a section.

The generous person with the tin of Altoids also tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments. Even if you don’t aspire to being the waiting room’s Easter Bunny, it’s not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy for your own use, just in case you start to feel queasy.

Since you will most likely be sitting on comfortless chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow, either to sit upon or for back support. Those metal chairs can be brutal. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo to attendees.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. When you’re stressed, it can be delicious to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew. (It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 30-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, I hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it. A business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old fast.

Besides, 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 in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. (I’m not a tax attorney, though, so talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with writers, not artists in general.) Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Consider having some inexpensive business cards made, print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. 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.

Even if the agent of your dreams just ends up using your card as a bookmark, she will see your name again. And that’s bad because?

Second, 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. Or to add to that Notify When the Book Comes Out list I sincerely hope you have been maintaining for years. (How do you think all of those people who have said, “Gee, I’d like to read some of your work sometime,” will find out about your book if you do not tell them?)

It works the other way around, too, of course. The easier you make it for those nice writers to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s that simple. Especially if you happen to have a name so common that a nice writer looking you up on Facebook will be greeted with 152 options, most without photos.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, isn’t it? I would urge you to 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. In the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason — and it’s not that these are the loyal friends who will not only buy your books, but sneak into bookstores across this fine land of ours and turn them cover-out, so browsers are more likely to notice them. The more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why learn from only your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that sweet writer with whom you chatted about werewolves at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it. (An opening line that I’ve seldom seen fail: “Excuse me, but I wanted to thank you for that speech. You said exactly what I needed to hear right now.” Few public speakers, no matter how talented, are so secure that they won’t want to know what in particular struck you so.) But try not to let star-gazing distract you from interacting with the less well-known authors teaching the classes — who are there to help you, after all — 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?”

It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say shortsighted. Realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block isn’t the next Stephen King?

That’s just simply probability, right? Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves. Won’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 world’s most charmed writer, blessed with immense talent and vast quantities of pure, dumb luck, has days of wondering whether all the effort is worth it. 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. While you’re at it, toss in a folder containing several copies of your synopsis and the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents will want to see them, 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. It’s the same basic principle governing agency submission guidelines that request a few pages to be tucked into the query packet.

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. Especially if you had the foresight to carry them in a folder, so they would not wrinkle, and to print them on 20-lb or better bright white paper.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, unless you are a finalist in one of the major categories of the conference’s literary contest. You will never miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead. In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent asks for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it. The writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while agents have been known to read a chapter or two of a contest winner’s work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard. It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for an eager writer to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general rudeness involved in insisting that just because someone reads manuscripts for a living, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method of accosting agents and editors also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book on his computer. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. Ideally, it should be the opening of the book, but if you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that. Using the first five pages is widely considered more professional, though — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s perspective, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format for book manuscripts. Short story format will not do here, and to people who deal with professionally-formatted writing every day, presentation factors like font or margins are not a matter of style.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the norms of the industry!” You want the formatting to be unprovocative, showcasing rather than distracting from your writing.

If the fact that there is a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does not resemble the formatting of published books or short stories– is news to you, I can only advise you to run, not walk into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Or you could take a gander at either one of the last two posts; both contain both lists of the rules of standard format and page examples. Yes, this probably is overkill, but as long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because no one told him or her what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Okay, that’s enough practicality for one day. Avoid dehydration, make some friends, and if you are harboring even the slightest qualm about pitching, give a shout in the comments. I, too, am here to help. Keep up the good work!