You know those curiosity bits you see once in a while that give the odd names for different groupings of animals? Troop of apes, pod of whales, murder of crows. We could make up words like that for groups of humans: a pretension of professors, a slink of lawyers, a swearing of construction workers. And what about writers? How about a “fretting” of writers? I joined a fretting of writers last Saturday, to attend the Atlanta Writers Conference.
My reason for attending, and for laying out a nice pile of money that could have been spent on good wine for a change, was because I had a chance to sit down with a literary agent and make a pitch to sell a novel. Since I have several novels lying around unloved, in addition to the one I’m working to self publish, I’ve still been thinking of trying to sell another one through an agent.
You could tell this was a writers conference. For one thing, we were all really intelligent and articulate. Ha ha, just seeing if you were still awake there. Actually, you could tell because instead of paying for the entire conference, we were able to pay for only the bits and pieces we actually wanted to attend. Ah, people anxiously counting their money—that sounds like a fretting of writers.
Maybe because of the name of the conference, I had the idea that this was just a local Atlanta thing, although the five agents and five publishers all seemed to have come from New York. Or from somewhere, anyway. So I was surprised at lunch to meet another writer who had flown down from Cincinnati. Another came from Washington, DC, two more drove in from Nashville. Geez, and I felt like I was really making an effort in setting my alarm for 6:45 to get down to the hotel for early check-in.
The first conference event I went to was a question and answer session with the five literary agents. I took notes so that I could tell you things, so I’ll excerpt a few interesting bits:
- If a book is self published, will a publisher still consider it? Yes, if it has proved itself by selling enough copies (the number 10,000 was commonly agreed on).
- If an agent rejects you only from a query letter, it may be the letter itself that is the problem, or it may be the book. If an agent requests part of the book, then rejects it, the book itself is the problem.
- All the agents agreed that a writer needs a “platform”—which may be defined in various ways (blog, Facebook page, conference presentations, radio show, expert knowledge), but it all comes down to being willing to put your ass out there in public and try to sell the book.
- If you are not willing to get your ass out there and sell the book, don’t bother writing it.
I’m sure we could make an excellent argument that it is not reasonable to expect the sort of person who can write a very good book to also be cheerfully entertaining in front of crowds. Though you may have noticed two or three other things about life that are also not reasonable.
There was plenty more agent advice, of course, but I’ll just mention a website recommended by one of them, Absolute Write Water Cooler. It covers a lot of topics, including information about agents. I’ve used the site quite a bit in the past to find information on agents, and I always tried to pay attention to the date on the postings, as some of them can be years old, which may not be as helpful.
I said that my main reason for going to the conference was to sit down with an agent, and as instructed, I took a copy of my query letter for the agent to critique. Beforehand, a friend from my writing group, also at the conference, looked at my query letter, and from that conversation, I expected my letter to escape all praise, to put it mildly. In fact, I realize—now, damn it—that I was mixing up the idea of a query letter (short and about the concept of the book) with a synopsis (longer and more detailed about what happens in the book). Alright, I was an idiot. Even worse, I’m probably still an idiot.
When I saw the agent, my letter did indeed escape all praise. He received a copy of the letter ahead of time, to look it over before I entered the room. When I walked in to find him with a horrified expression, making the sign of the cross with two fingers over the page, I knew this was not going to go well.
In addition to my “look here, dumbass” session, the agent helpfully tried to tell me what is wrong with my my writing, but he only had 10 minutes, so I’m pretty sure he missed some things. In addition to the letter, he critiqued the book as unsellable, but his reason for saying so raised a question I have often considered, and I plan to address that point here on the blog next week.
The conference was actually a sobering experience. I can’t speak for every writer—or any writers, in fact—but it seems to me that in trying to become a published writer, you really need nerves of steel. After hearing no, no, no, no, no, no, you have to be willing to reply “yes” and mean it.
So yes. But in the meantime, I went Saturday evening and bought myself a consolation cannoli with pistachios.