This past weekend I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference. It was incredible.
Let’s get the one tiny bit of bad news out of the way first. When I got home and checked my email, the first one I had was a rejection email from an agent. Months ago I went to a public reading and read the first chapter of my book, and someone I met there passed my name along to an agent, and so I sent in that same first chapter to that agent, who decided to pass on asking to see more. She wrote me a nice, personal note on my submission though. From what I’ve heard, it’s definitely a good sign to get personalized rejections.
So, on to the conference. I have been to workshops and retreats before, but never to a conference like this, where the focus was more on selling your work. The way they had it set up, everyone got to meet with an editor from a publishing house in small groups. So for a half hour, a group would sit with one editor, Brooke Warner, around a table. For the agents, it was one-on-one for ten minutes. We had to have pitches, 3-5 sentences describing our books, to try to hook their interest.
I have always thought I could write much better than I could talk, so I was nervous, and had been too busy leading up to the conference to have much time to prepare. They had a workshop on practicing your pitch, so I went to that session, met some great people and practiced my pitch. In my hotel room before my editor meeting, I practiced some more and realized I already pretty much had it down, just from writing query letters and working on my proposal.
At the editor meeting there were three of us, and we all went around and gave our pitches. I was last. After I gave mine, the editor looked at me and said, “That was a great pitch.” I will never forget it; it totally made my day. She then went around and gave us feedback and concerns with each of ours, mainly about marketability. Because I’d already written a proposal, which had a pretty extensive marketing and promotion section, I knew how to address all her concerns, so I felt really confident and prepared, much more than I expected. In the end she asked for my proposal and said she could then give more feedback. So, I will be sending that out to her. I was psyched!
That night we had an awards dinner for the people who won the PNWA writing contest. I had submitted a synopsis and excerpt of my book but didn’t win. Somehow though, I ended up sitting next to someone who read my submission. She knew it was me because in the material I sent in, I wrote about being albino so I guess that made me pretty identifiable. So she started telling me how much she liked what she read. She said she loved the way I wrote about music. It floored me that she even remembered my work enough to have that sort of detail in mind. She asked me if I’d be meeting with agents and I said yes and she told me something like she couldn’t imagine me not getting taken on by one of them. I was thrilled. I felt like my whole weekend was just charmed, and hoped it would last.
The next day, Saturday, was the big agent day. I had three appointments. For each one, they had all of us stand in a hallway and came to get us as each agent became available. I was so nervous I thought I might throw up. I kept thinking that this must be how people feel before an audition. Time went soooo slowly until it was finally time for me to go meet my first agent. They were all seated at individual booths with tables and chairs in each one. So, we shook hands, said hi and she asked about my book and I delivered my pitch. She asked me questions about my writing background, asked if I’d gone to writing workshops, and asked more about my project. At the end of the meeting, she gave me her personal email address and told me that she was okay if I submmitted to other agents, but my book was something she was really interested in. I’m supposed to email her when I’m totally done revising, and she said at that point she’ll either ask for the full manuscript in hard copy, or to see the first hundred pages.
I couldn’t imagine it going better than that. I mean, it went so well I was almost numb to how elated I felt. A part of me couldn’t believe it, but another part of me totally did. I’ve worked so long on this project and I have been writing my whole life, and so hopefully this is some sort of natural progression. I had a few moments during the conference of almost tearing up, because in about two months it’ll be four years since I first started this project, four years since I sat down one day and said, I’m really going to do it, I’m going to write my story, and after years of not writing much, wrote about first leaving for college. The next day I walked into the library and saw they were offering a class on memoir writing, and went from there. It felt almost surreal that I’d gone from that first step to being at this kind of conference.
I met with two more agents in the afternoon, and both asked to see the first fifty pages of my work. They said that with memoir, so much is about the writing, not just the story. I agree, and I usually think (hope?) that the writing improves my chances of hooking someone. In general, the most positive responses I’ve gotten are from people who’ve read my work, more than those who’ve heard the idea.
Oh I also pitched to one agent in the hallway, and she asked to see my proposal. I don’t think she traditionally handles memoir, in fact she said she’s never been pitched for a book quite like mine before, but hey, she asked to see the proposal so I’ll send it on.
So, who knows what’ll eventually come of any of this, but I’m going to bust my ass finishing my revisions, getting my proposal as perfect as I can make it, and send off what the agents requested. In the meantime, I’m going to write thank-you notes to each who took the time to meet with me.
I also ran into someone who used to work with Janet Thomas, the woman who taught that memoir class I started taking four years ago. He owned a magazine that she wrote for, and apparently she told him about me because he approached me (again knowing who I was not by name, but because I’m albino) and told me how much she had talked up my work and how she’d told him I was such a great writer, and so on. I couldn’t believe how these amazing things kept happening!
One of the best things about the conference was that there was an atmosphere of camaraderie among the writers. I was amazed at the lack of competition. It was like, no matter what our level, we were all in the same boat together and everyone was so friendly. I met some great people, that’s for sure. Even one of the agents I talked to remarked how great and uncompetitive the atmosphere was. One of the people I hung out with most at the conference, Janna Cawrse Esaray is also writing memoir, and we loved each other’s pitches and shared all of our agent tips, and she’s the one who introduced me to the agent I talked to in the hallway. The workshops were also excellent.
So, all in all, the weekend felt like a huge success!
Currently listening to:
Fiona Apple – “Slow Like Honey”
- Journey to Getting Published Part Deux: Finding an Agent
- Pitching 101
- Patience, grasshopper, patience
- What an Agent Looks for at a Conference
- New York Times Best-Selling Author Shares Story of Resilience at Rasmussen College