Lessons Learned at PNWA 2011

Cherry Weiner literary agentCherry Weiner will suck your bad book idea through a straw into a blender and come up with something entirely different, but it will be sellable, damn it. Don’t interrupt Cherry’s smoking time with your shitty book concept.

No, my pitch session with Cherry did not go well, but at least I think I realize something: just as I am awful with multiple-choice tests, so will I bomb out on my pitch appointments, whenever I set them up. I’m much more natural and interesting when I’m pitching in a hallway outside the exhibit room, or next to the book signing tables. If it’s part of an organic conversation, I can paint a picture. If it’s speed dating, I crumble into a sticky mass of my own neuroses.

I knew Cherry wasn’t the right agent for me, this year anyway. But the line to change appointments was more than daunting, it was littered with the bodies of unpublished souls, moaning for a drop of water after waiting hours—HOURS—to reach the front and the white board of death. It wasn’t a line, it was a crucible, a hazing ritual best left for the basements of fraternity houses at lackluster colleges. I stood in that so-called line. I attempted conversation. I listened to some middle-aged guy who cut two people in front of me, attempt to pick up a woman writer 3,000 times more attractive and at least 15 years younger than he was. And damn it, he was immune to the daggers I shot from my eyes.

In line I learned about eco-thrillers, a genre I never knew existed until last weekend. Fifty minutes in and three feet closer to the white board, which I still couldn’t see from my vantage point, my knees began growling at me. Maybe I could convince Cherry that my YA novel was more of a crossover. (Cherry doesn’t rep YA.) Maybe I should just hit her with my mummy novel concept and pretend I’d written it already. I’m a writer, but I’m not a liar. And I really like Cherry. She’s something like a third of my size but has way more attitude than I can even dream of obtaining for myself.

In the writing business, they talk about “good fits,” about “falling in love” with someone’s voice as commanded on the page. I’ve criticized that model before on this blog, but there’s a kernel of truth in there, yes. I believe that if I sat down across from Cherry and blew her mind with an idea, she would let me know she loved it. But a bunch of queer people with stupid powers like being able to shoot dog crap out of their fingertips, she was unamused. What can you do with seeing 30 seconds into the future, she wanted to know. That’s the point, I said. Here you have this special power, and it’s bogus.

It has to be believable, she said. I nodded. Great. Now she thinks I have bad ideas AND I don’t know the first thing about narrative. I decided not to explain to her that it was a farce, this particular novel. I don’t think she represents farces. If she does, they better be the right word count.

I walked away from PNWA this year with two requests for partial manuscripts and one enthusiastic, ohboyohboy request for a full. There’s a literary journal I aim to submit a piece I wrote last year, and a few new faces to put to names I’ve seen online. There is still a lot of contestation around indie versus traditional publishing, and an ever-present flow of newbies. I’d like to add another conference or two to my schedule, but PNWA is great for the number of professionals it brings in every year. So, even though I’ve rambled on too long with this intro, here is my initial list of lessons learned from this year’s event:

  • Be nice to the newcomers and be respectful of the veterans.
  • Practice a short, shorter, and shortest version of your project pitch before you land at the conference.
  • Nobody really knows what to make of digital or indie publishing, so take everything everyone says with a grain of salt.
  • Make sure to mingle and meet new people, who work in your genre or not.
  • See your work as an ongoing culmination of earlier projects, all of it in the process of becoming  your best writer self.
  • Remember where you are at this moment, and work to surpass it before next year’s conference rolls around.
  • Receive more business cards than you give out.
  • Be professional and courteous with all of the agents you meet. They have to deal with all kinds of garbage, and they’ll appreciate the niceness, if not remember your manners. Plus they talk to each other.
  • Recognize that great agents may really like you, just not your book. “I just don’t do time travel stories,” one agent said to me. But she’d love me to send a partial when I’ve completed my next project.
  • On that note, find a way to get professional distance from your work. It scares people off when they think you’re too wrapped up in your own novel.
  • Remember that everyone—everyone—has been rejected many times. Jane Porter stood in front of all of us with 17 years’ worth of rejection letters. That goes way beyond tenacity.
  • Don’t hog the stage; these conferences aren’t just about you. Don’t monopolize workshops by standing up and asking several questions.

And last but not least: Make the right agent and editor appointments when you register so you don’t have to stand in that godforsaken line.

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4 Comments on “Lessons Learned at PNWA 2011”

  1. August 10, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Oh yes. The line. Kerry and I made a little camp in that line last year. We sent each other out for food. It was like being in line for tickets to a concert.

    Maybe we’ll all have to meet at another conference next year. We can check out all the conferences in the Northwest and put together a travel guide for writers.

    • evmaroon
      August 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

      A travel guide! I love it! Could it be interactive? Can we mash it up with Google maps? Do a “where in the world” the participating writers are? The ideas, the ideas!

  2. August 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    I had the same lesson with an agent this year. After the Agent’s Forum, it was clear that Ken Sherman was not the agent for this year’s WIP, but I only had 30 min before meeting him, and that line looked pretty damn long. Ken was nice, though. He gave me some good advice, and some advice that made it clear he didn’t read much paranormal.

    I also had a similar speed pitching session with Cherry last year. Basically she said “Sounds like a great story, but I don’t do first person, present tense. I just can’t get into it.” Done.

    Also, coming from a person who worked inside the agent room, in those five minutes they have between each meeting, yes the agents do talk. A lot. 🙂

    I’d love to hear if there are other conferences around that are worth attending. Some new friends suggested the writer’s track at Norwescon.

    • evmaroon
      August 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

      I think it’s good to see the hit-or-miss nature of the publishing pitch up close, even if it stings. That said, humiliation is a hard way to learn a lesson. It’s almost refreshing to send queries out by email so I don’t have to see every rejection in person. Whew!

      Also, I’ll do a run-down of regional conferences soon, in advance of the conference season.

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