"Wow, is that WINE? I totally don't blame you," one pitchee said.
"Nope. That would not help," I said. "It's caffeine. Which does. Sort of."
I was also sick and joked around about potential worst case scenarios: "So, say there's this author pitching me, right?" I said. "And they ask, 'GK, what do you think?' and then I just puke everywhere. That would be AWESOME."
Of course I didn't do that. And of course I wouldn't have attended if I thought that were a distinct possibility. But healthy, I was not. I left right after, no energy for the standard post-pitch agent drinks.
Also, I know from experience that there are many writers who speak badly, many great talkers who write badly, some who do both, some who do neither. I have a system for knowing immediately, when I open work from a conference, how interested I was at the time--and, sorry, no--I won't tell you. I think most agents have a system of sorts, some more complicated than others.
But I know that only works some of the time. How you are in person often bears no relation to how you are on the page.
A few things that work: humor, warmth, looking right at me as you talk--that is, having an actual conversation, rather than talking at me. Doing your research and having a sweet, "Hi, I'm pitching you because..." line (kind of like the first line of a query). Admitting you're nervous is fine, in my mind, as long as it's done with a genuine smile.
A few things that don't: reading from a script. Memorize some of your lines, at least. Coming without a query--I may ask to see it because, frankly, I've no idea if your writing is better than your talking. Showing up without a pen--I should have had a prescription pad; I gave almost everyone slightly different instructions for sending their work. (Part of the aforementioned system.) Also, I'll look at you a little askance if you come, as one woman did, with so many piles of crumpled papers that she took about a minute of the next person's time just picking them all up and dropping them again as they slid out of her arms. I wished I had a tote bag for her. But, alas.
Oh, and crushing my hand with your handshake? No thanks. I may wear kid-sized gloves, but really, people. Bones. Flesh. Breakable.
And yes, that does mean we're shaking hands with hundreds of people. Some agents went around squeezing Purell on everyone.
Also: be careful with self-deprecation, especially when it comes with an "I'm saying this now so you feel obligated to say something to make me feel better" clause.
This happens more often than you'd think.
I sat down with a writer--a very prim-looking writer, mind you, one who looked like a nice, Midwestern, well-groomed, well-polished, innocent late twenty-something. She was all sweetness, light, charm.
After she described her work, I asked to see fifty pages, a query, a synopsis.
Then (forgive me, but I bring you a direct quote just so you can know the real story): "You don't have to blow smoke up my ass if you're not interested," she said.
I froze. My jaw may have dropped a little--years of expecting the unexpected from writers probably gives me a bit more reaction time, so I can sometimes go from jaw-drop to polite smile in a matter of microseconds.
I should really practice this maneuver in the mirror, for just these occasions. There are a lot of them, in the life of an agent.
"I am interested," I said. "But it depends on your writing, so I will need to see your work before I know if it's a good fit for me."
Now. You are more than welcome to joke about your caffeine habits, your clumsiness (I got a very clever story this week involving a sneeze and an accidental concussion), your hair (mine frizzes; I'll understand), your love of primary-colored converse or your Super Mario addiction. I get it.
But making fun of yourself, or bringing up your own discomfort, only comes off well if you seem genuinely unworried.
In general, I would suggest that you avoid talking about the following topics--even if you think you're okay with them, odds are there will still be some discomfort there--and I think most agents are masters at reading tone, so we'll catch it:
- Those big, scary statistics that people post about how you're more likely to get struck by lightning while singing in a Broadway play on Mars than get published.
- How annoyed you think we must be to hear from you again. We're probably not annoyed, but it's better to thank one for patience than to apologize for requiring it.
- Your fears about your writing skills.
- Your spelling/punctuation/grammar habits. If you make a lot of mistakes, we'll notice. If you make a lot of mistakes and point out this fact to us, we'll really notice.
- Disclaimers. Anything that certain writing workshops charge for. (Mine's about to institute just such a policy--$1 per seems fair--and it'll all go to a wine and snacks fund.)
- Rejections from other agents.
- Anything that you're not truly, honestly, 100 percent secure about.
"I should really keep a database of therapists near my authors," one agent friend said to me this weekend.
Hmm. I'm lucky enough to have never felt that way, though I know a lot of agents do. I think most of us worry about signing up to spend hours on the phone giving pep talks. Some pep? Sure. Of course. I'm happy to. Daily? Er...
Now that I'm back in the office and have plenty of good news to keep me busy, I'm drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. Why is it so much better when made in a French press?
The world may never know.