Author-agent speed dates, Diet Coke, Purell, and self-deprecation that doesn't work

I saw many, many writers this weekend--one every three minutes for two hours. It's not so much overwhelming as a blur--and, when the end was announced, I was genuinely surprised. I knew from experience to bring my own caffeine (for whatever reason, conferences rarely serve it after breakfast); in this case, I was drinking Diet Coke--for portability purposes alone. Were I to plug in a little teapot and make tea as I took pitches, I think everyone would be somewhat unimpressed. Also, I barely had time to look down long enough to pour.

"Wow, is that WINE? I totally don't blame you," one pitchee said.

I hope there is not wine in a murky Diet Coke brown. I've consumed some bad wine in my day, but...

"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. 
Accentuate the positive. Don't bring up the negative, unless it's something we absolutely need to know. Not sure what the difference is? Ask your writer friends.

It's kind of like going out on dates. You wouldn't say, "Hi, nice to meet you, so sorry, my skin is bad today--I REALLY need a face lift--and I hate these shoes, and I kind of fell out of bed--and gee, I ate so much for breakfast, and I think I got food poisoning...I feel ill now...are you SURE you want to see me again?"

For me, it's always a counter-balance: reasons to say yes versus reasons to say no. Don't add a "This client will be high-maintenance" reason into the mix. We may be on the fence.

"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.


Marsha Sigman said...

This is made of awesome. Why would someone think you had wine in a diet coke bottle?

I like to give myself pep talks. I am my own

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Well, I poured it into the little plastic cups they had for us. So I can see how something in that light--in a glass--could look red instead of brown.

Michelle said...

Maybe the rule of eating food in the outdoors/on a hike/at the beach and how it tastes so much better applies to a french press? By that logic, a cup of coffee made in a french press in the woods would be the best. Coffee. Ever.

Get better soon! Strong mint tea does wonders for any congestion and sore throat. :)

Agency Gatekeeper said...

I like this idea, Michelle.

Perhaps French press coffee in the woods after a day of swimming? Oooh. With cheese. And capers.

I have a caper addiction, I'm finding. I just realized that I went through two jars in two weeks. And I ate some of them alone, with just a skinny fork for easier access. Those jars are very slim.

Mary Gray said...

Thanks for sharing this! And I'm glad you didn't puke; though, I'm seven months pregnant and considering the DFW conference next month... what do you think an agent would think if my water broke? Maybe I should lug a bucket around just in case. Crumpled papers lady and I could be best friends. :)

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Hmm. Well, the agent would certainly remember you!

What a great story that would be, at one of those agent-author evenings! "And then she went into labor, just after pitching me. After that, I KNEW I had to have her book!"

Michael G-G said...

Re: the genteel-looking Midwestern type & blowing smoke where smoke should not be blown: I guess it proves the old adage that you can't judge a book by its cover.

I enjoyed reading this. I am also amazed that your head didn't explode.

:) said...

Best line of the post, illustrated:

G K <-- G and K for eyes show
_______ who this is without
\_____/ long explanation

@@@@@@@@@ <-- begins with "v"
@@@@@@@@@@@ as in "viscous"
|____----___| <-- desk
(your) manuscript

If things are askew, they weren't when I hit "post". Sorry to bother you if you'd rather have not read something so graphic.


Agency Gatekeeper said...

Is that me puking on a manuscript, :)?

Well. Very creative. :)

:) said...

Yes but as I feared the formatting suffered in translation.

So it's now a bit of an abstract. Which some people might think is cooler (like puking out of one side of the mouth, Picasso-style.)


Claude de Morgan said...

"...and then I just puke everywhere..." -- is this an "and then I just chundered everywaaah!" Gap Yah reference?

( for the confused!)

kate said...

I have to say, I know a cup of french press in the woods is, in fact, the best. coffee. ever. Especially after swimming, with capers and cheese and homemade crackers.

When we disappeared into the little cabin in the big woods for two weeks last september, the only provision I had as a must on my list (okay, besides lifejackets for the kids. ahem.) was my travel french press. And let me just say, swinging in a hammock with a good book, some fabulous snacks, and french press coffee....yup. I checked my pulse more than once, to simply make sure I wasn't in the Great Beyond. It was that spectacular.

Mary Gray said...

Uh-oh, GK. Soon we'll see droves of pregnant ladies crashing pitch sessions, purposely breaking their waters, purely for that serendipitous moment.

No gifts/bribes from prospective clients? Perhaps there needs be a *no PLANNING to go into labor* clause.

Stef Kramer said...

You're a funny one GK...thanks for these anecdotal bits. Was feeling sad about missing this conference...still am, but this helps.

Ebyss said...

I'm not sure I would have even recovered from someone telling me not to blow smoke in their Netherlands.


I work at a college, and some of the funny things inbound students, or just people in general, say drop my jaw.

The funniest was a phone call I received from one lady who wanted to know if we had a paranormal investigation team to come and check out her house. So far that one has ruled the top ten list for several weeks.

Unfortunately we were not able to help her.

Hope you're feeling better.

Rowenna said...

Re: Diet Coke and wine: I have a friend who puts a spash of Diet Coke in her wine. But her quirky cocktails don't look like either cola or wine...

And French Press Coffee (it deserves all capital letters): Adore. I put a dash of cinnamon (the good stuff from Penzey's) in with the grounds when I make a batch! Michelle--I've tried making it in the woods (seriously...long story...) but didn't get the water hot enough over the fire so it wasn't very good. Will have to try again--I like your culinary logic!

I just left a comment entirely about beverages...I think I need to refill my water bottle now.

dsrdms said...

OOOOOH! GK, I think I ran into the prim Midwesterner. She was in front of me in one of the lines, and I too had a jaw dropper. Fortunately, I was so shocked by what she said that I forgot to get nervous - it was my best pitch at the conference :-)

Hope you feel better!

lakemichigan said...

Can't believe some people can be so unprofessional! Nervous I can understand, but rude and unprepared I cannot! Some of us save up our funds for months to attend conferences and pitch to agents... Why waste their time and your money?

I can truly say, I love my work and I will represent myself and work to the best of my ability!

Thanks for the tips, I will use them!

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I did have one agent notice my strong handshake and say something, so if it was you I apologize!
A strong handshake is supposed to be a sign of respect, a prelude to an honest meeting.
I'll try to be gentler in the future!

bigblackcat97 said...

Yes, the fine line between self deprecation and arrogance... I guess as writers we all swing from one to the other internally - we just have to be aware of what we're broadcasting.

I think our insecurities undermine our professionalism sometimes - getting a got hold on them can be difficult. That being said (nice segue, huh?) can you tell us where you're at with your inbox, after this overwhelming week?

Nichole Giles said...

Excellent advice. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

I've wondered how agents handle those speed date sessions. Seems to me like a potential brain overload. So glad you survived to see another day, and I hope you're feeling better from your illness.

Wendy Sparrow said...

I've never pitched before but this was a nice insight into the process... also a little terrifying. I imagine it gets easier on the writer's side after a bit. (Especially with how easy-going most agents seem... but maybe there are some real dragons guarding the gates that I don't know about.)

My caffeination method is Mountain Dew and I swear it only tastes right from a refrigerated 11 oz. plastic bottle while sitting in the corner of my couch and writing at 2 a.m. (I live a really healthy life-style. LOL.)

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

This is a great post. I'm new to your blog, and found by way of a friend who pointed it out. I do have a one on one with an agent spring so your tips are helpful! Thanks and good luck in all you do!

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Rachel said...

Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa ( may be another choice. i know alot of people use it, its also non alcoholic, though it's effectiveness is not as good as alcohol based cough medicine, but it's still good to use on not so serious sore throat.

Don said...

Hmmmm... As a man, I wonder if I carried around half a dozen water balloons under my shirt that would work for me? "Uh, GK, my water just broke!"
"That's okay. What's the name of your book?"
"My book? Oh, yeah. It's called "Water for Agents. Or Splash. I haven't decided yet." :)Great post, GK! Very entertaining! Hope you feel better soon!