I am sure you realize that part of the mission of a writer is to sneak into the Black Steel Fortress on Go-away Mountain and find a literary agent. I was on that mountain last weekend, walking around the fortress, trying all the doors, as I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference.
On a rainy Friday night, after dinner at home, I drove that long stretch down Ponce de Leon Avenue past the Olmstead parks, past Mary Mac’s Tea Room downtown (a restaurant of southern cooking, in spite of the name), to the hotel where the conference was held this year. Driving along that rainy road, I was thinking “What am I doing? Why am I going to this hotel?” But I’ve learned to do necessary things without letting too much thought get in the way. You just kind of move where you need to move.
On Friday night, this conference holds a mixer at which writers can meet the literary agents and editors. This is a chance for us writers to pretend to be normal, to chat with the people who will be judging us the next day, but for us to act like, hey that’s OK, we’re just glad to be here and say hello. Look how friendly and normal I am. This year I signed up to meet with two agents, and I did find each of them for a very brief conversation. The idea, at least as I saw it, is to create a little human contact, to be more than a stranger walking in the next day. For what that’s worth.
Of more benefit to my emotional well-being, I also discovered that several friends from my old writing group were there, and it was a delight to see them. That alone seemed worth the rainy drive, the stupidly expensive hotel parking, and the general effort. Mostly I talked with friends and felt like I wasn’t there alone.
The Atlanta Writers Conference consists of various activities, but the only thing I did was to meet with the literary agents, to make my “pitch” and try to fool them into representing me. The way it works, at least at this conference, is this: You choose who you want from a list several months in advance (someone who might represent the kind of thing you write), and since they only have so many slots, it’s best to get in early. The day of the conference, you go there, pay too much for parking, and when it is nearly your time to meet, you sit in chairs in the hall outside a hotel meeting room, pretending to be cool about the whole thing when other people look at you. You also have a copy of your polished, meticulously crafted query letter. When your time comes, the volunteer who is running that room takes your letter and carries it to the agent, who has two minutes to read it. You are then called to come sit across a small table from the agent, and she (it’s usually a woman) tells you whatever she wants, and you have a conversation for eight more minutes.
There are several possible things the agent might say after this 10-minute episode: (1) I want to represent you and your book (this is theoretically possible, I guess, but I’m sure it never happens at this point). (2) Your book sounds so interesting. Send me a copy so I can read it. (3) Your book sounds like a possibility. Send me 50 pages so I can see how it reads. (4) Yeah, maybe. It’s kind of interesting. Send me a few pages so I can see your style. (5) No, this book isn’t for me. (6) You should be killed so that you never write again (again, theoretically possible).
My own pitches were scheduled for 2:39 and 4:03, with the exactitude of NASA. I can’t think of even one thing in my normal world that operates exactly to the minute, not even my clocks. Before I talked to the first agent, I was thinking that whatever being good at this means, I’m pretty sure I’m not good at it. That can be a problem, obviously, if you want to go sit on the couch in the Black Steel Fortress. Being bad at making pitches doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, but that’s how it goes.
The first agent who I talked to, who seemed like a nice person, actually, spent almost the whole time telling me why my query letter would never make her want to read my book. Umm, OK. I suck. I knew that. Thanks for meeting with me. The second agent, however, liked the idea of the book, seemed somewhat caught up with it, and said that it now depends on whether she likes the style of writing. She gave me response #4, send her a few pages. So I’ve done that.
I had a good bit of time at the conference just waiting, which I partly filled with talking to friends, partly with making notes for the novel I’m currently writing, and partly with going to look for a snack. The writers at the conference seemed generally friendly, and there was a lot of talk about the craft of writing, both looking for agents/publishers (i.e., comparing notes on where the doors to the Black Steel Fortress might not be locked). People also talked about how they write, about techniques and how to make yourself spend time sitting there writing, or gave opinions on how a novel should work.
The most remarkable thing I learned at this conference left me gaping and stunned, which I’m about to pass on to you (unless you live in a stranger world than I do). Most people know there is a genre of writing called “romance”, but here in our frenetic, jaded culture, where no doubt junior high students discuss which porn site is their favorite, it takes more than “romance” for some people.
So there is a category of short stories—and I swear I’m not making this up, you can check it in the next few seconds—about people having sex with, wait for it, dinosaurs. Go to the Amazon website and type in “dinosaur sex”. I don’t really want to talk about it. If your mouth doesn’t fall open in surprise, you must have been hanging out with junior high students.
I’m not going to start writing romance novels.