Last week I joined about 50 of my writing peers for a Writer’s Digest Kentucky writing workshop: a one-day event on writing, publishing, and stuff like that.
I’ll level set here: I am not a published author and I don’t have an agent (yet!). I have officially written three novels. I have been through the query/rejection process. I have a master’s degree in literature with a focus on creative writing (my thesis was a collection of short stories). I do a lot of research, reading, listening, and asking about writing, publishing, agents, and marketing. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being someone with zero experience or knowledge as a writer and 10 being Steven King, I’d say I’m a solid 5. Maybe a 6. So that’s where I started.
Going into this, I had no idea what to expect, so I wanted to share more about my experience here. I hope you find this hepful if you (like me) frantically Googled every variation of “what do do in a pitch session with an agent” or “oh god how can I write a two-sentence elevator pitch for a really complicated 70,000-word YA alternate history fantasy steampunk novel?????”
I was able to do this day-long event because I took a vacation day from my Day Job and there was someone home to watch Thing 1 and Thing 2 and thanks to Pater Familias’ support. Which was awesome.
Here’s how the day went, in terms of logistics. Then I’ll talk about the stuff I found helpful.
Actually, let’s start before that. I signed up for a query critique by the instructor before the event. It was returned with his comments before the workshop so that I could change it to show people AT the event.
Check in: Pretty typical. It was at a hotel so parking and such wasn’t a big deal. What WAS kind of a big deal (and they warned us about this in the pre-event emails) was that the kitchen was being remodeled and they had no refreshments besides water. There is a Starbucks close by, and lots of restaurants, but jeez… Mama needs her Diet Coke! So I brought my own.
We were also given the option to bring the first page of our manuscripts without any identifying information (more on that later). I handed over my copies of my first page, got a folder, and found a seat.
The sessions (the instructor called them speeches) covered the differences between traditional and self publishing, how to find an agent, a reading of the first pages people turned in, and marketing. The only break was lunch, but of course you could get up and use the loo or whatever when you felt like it. Because adults.
There seemed to be a varied mix of people there, in terms of genre, age, published status, and where folks were in “the journey” of writing books. There were noobs who didn’t know a query from a crack in the wall. There were people who’d sold directly to publishers. Self-published authors. And everything in between. The woman in front of me had written a “mem-wahhhh.” During the first page critiques, a woman behind me got frustrated with the number of entries that were some version of paranormal. Every time the moderator said, “This on is paranormal romance/thriller/fantasy,” she would huff. “Another paranormal?” Good lord, they’re ALL paranormal.” I really wondered what she was writing and why she was so down on this genre.
And the last element: agents pitches. You could pay for 10 minutes with the agent(s) of your choice from those attending. There were five agents and I bought slots to pitch two of them.
I won’t say I was terrified, because I can think on my feet pretty well. I was a little nervous. Little butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling. But one of them is a friend of my famous writer friend and he knew I was coming to talk to him, which kind of took off some of the pressure.
This is how it worked: They sent out the pitch schedule ahead of time so I knew I had 10 minutes with one agent in the morning, and 10 minutes in the afternoon with the other.
All we did was get up from the lecture and go sit down in a room with all the agents at different tables. My plan was (and I stuck to it pretty well):
- Give them a copy of my one-pager (I’m going to cover this later in a different post, so check back) It had all the following: Logline, pitch, all my contact information, where my book fits in to the culture/landscape.
- Tell them genre and point to it on my one-pager YA alternative history fantasy
- The pitch (also on the one-pager) One girl stands between Hitler and World War II. If she can master her own magic, she can stop his doomsday machine.
- The logline It’s a gender-swapped steampunk Star-Wars. (and) Leia Skywalker versus demon Nazis.
Then we just talked about whatever the agents wanted to. One asked for a writing sample – thank goodness I’d brought extra copies of my first page and my query letter. One asked what else I was working on. They asked me what my background was (which is when I give the BA in English, MA in Lit, creative thesis spiel). Both of those agents asked for a query and the full manuscript.
Now, after the anonymous reading of the first pages, one of the five listening agents gave the moderator a list of five authors she’d like to see more of the work from. I was one of those. However, one of the agents I’d paid to see is her partner so when I met with the paid-for agent, I mentioned this. And when I sent the materials requested to the paid-for agent, I made sure to say, “X wanted to see this, too.”
And a fourth agent who recently met my author friend Gail so when I introduced myself, she actually said, “You know Gail.” And ended up asking for a query and some chapters.
Most Helpful Things/Things I Wanted More Of
Given where I am in my Journey to Being a Published Author, I got the most out of pitching to the agents and the critiques of the first pages. I also got a lot from the discussion of marketing.
I imagine it’s hard to prepare a workshop like this that will appeal to all the different kinds of writers you’re likely to have in such an event. You can’t just talk to the lowest common denominator but you can’t only talk to people who have a lot more experience. I think the workshop did a pretty good job of balancing that, though.
I was hoping for a little more hobnobbing among participants. A couple of people seemed to be making a point to network and talk to other people, but it seemed like most of the group was pretty….standoffish? Aloof? I don’t know. I love talking shop with other writers and I tried to get to know people. Only six people came to the “after party.” And I’m the one who made that happen – I ran around like a goofball telling people “some of us are going to XYZ to have a drink and chat!” I don’t mean I’m taking it personally. I just feel that it’s really important to get to know other writers because it’s a lonely job/hobby (jobby?) to be a writer and it’s really nice to know that I can shoot off a tweet or an email to a writer buddy and get a great response.
I’m lukewarm on the query critique. It was expensive but…this was my first experience with it and it wasn’t unhelpful. I don’t have much to compare it to. I definitely saw the benefits of having a query critique. I’m not saying I’m a fantastic query writer. I will say that my query for this book has gotten me more requests for full manuscripts than it hasn’t. I think if you’re really new at queries, or you aren’t getting ANY bites on the one you have, or you don’t have a good critique partner, and if you can pay for the crit…go for it.
TLDR: Pay for agent pitch sessions. Hobnob with agents and writers. Be professional. Don’t be a genre-snob.