It was the first session of the first day: Pitch Perfect, presented by Chuck Sambuchino, Writer's Digest editor. The purpose of the session was "to provide guidelines for honing your pitch, help you get comfortable with presenting and give you the confidence you need to make a great impression every time you pitch." Primarily, it was meant to prepare us for something called Pitch Slam, scheduled for the following day.
I've had my view obscured by big hats before. I've had it obscured by big hair, tall people, and couples leaning head to head. But the opening session at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference was the first time I had my view obscured by a neck. A thick one, like a sea lion. Struggling to see around it forced me to lean at an unsustainable angle. Since it didn't really matter what the speaker onstage looked like, I gave up trying to see around the neck and simply listened.
The neck in front of me served as a conduit for a rich, booming voice with a classic New York accent. Queens, I guessed. When the guy raised his hand and asked a question, my friend and I looked at each other, mouths agape and wide eyed, as if to say, "Did you hear that?"
The guy was tall and barrel chested, looking more like a bouncer or a body guard than a writer. Then again, writers are rarely just writers, and since the Writer's Digest Annual Conference caters to all sorts—from the little girl attending with her mother to the old woman next to me taking notes in short hand—it's possible the big man was there to pitch a story about his life working for a notorious New York mob boss, or maybe as Taylor Swift's bodyguard.
"What about pen names?" the big man asked. "Can I pitch to agents using a pen name?"
"Aha!" I thought. "I was right! He wants to use a pseudonym to avoid deadly repercussions! Perhaps he is in the witness protection program and can't afford to blow his cover when he reveals where all the bodies are buried."
I scolded myself before getting carried away any further: Stop stereotyping!
I thought about the medical technician at my retina specialist's office — a big guy with the same build as the guy seated front of me, and with a similarly resonant baritone voice. (His accent is from New Jersey, but it's a subtle distinction.) He has a crushing handshake and rides a Fat Boy Harley. If you ran into him on the street you probably wouldn't guess he spent his days injecting sodium fluorescein into people's veins.
So who knows, maybe the guy with the big neck was a poet. Maybe he just wanted to use a pseudonym simply to prevent his buddies from learning of his secret life as a sensitive artist.
Pitch Slam was, perhaps, the biggest draw of the conference. What is it?
On the day of the event, you’ll meet one-on-one with as many of your preferred agents and editors as possible in the 1-hour time slot. Each pitch meeting lasts 3 minutes, including 90 seconds to pitch and 90 seconds for agent/editor feedback and discussion.
Like speed dating but, instead of looking for someone to fall in love with, you are looking for someone to fall in love with your book project.
Although I was excited about the opportunity to meet some literary agents face to face, at first I found the whole concept of Pitch Slam a little hokey and contrived. But, actually, being forced to distill your 80,000 word story into a 90 second pitch was a great way to focus and really figure out what the hell your book is about.
I attended the conference with my friend Laura, who has also recently completed a novel and was there for the same reasons I was: to figure out our next steps. We had time to kill before our Pitch Slam session began and we ran out for a coffee.
"You don't have a hair brush do you?" Laura asked as we stood in line at Starbuck's.
"I can't believe I forgot to bring a brush. How's my hair look?"
"It looks fine," I said. "Relax."
"Can you see all my gray?"
"I don't see any gray."
"I have tons of gray. Are you sure I don't look like a Women's Studies professor?"
She played with her hair, nervously combing her fingers through it.
"Why not ask the barista for a fork?" I said.
"You know, that's actually not a bad idea."
With our iced coffees and a fork, we returned to the hotel and hunted around for a place to sit and psych ourself up for the Pitch Slam. There was one relatively quiet room with an old guy and a young mentor of some sort helping the the guy hone his 90 second pitch. His hair was beyond gray—totally white, wispy, and wild. We eavesdropped:
"I'm half Catholic and half Jewish," he said to his tutor.
"You needn't bother getting into all of that," she told him. "Stick with the book."
"It's called Vampires in the Vatican . . ."
Honestly, it might not have been the actual title, but it's apparently what his book was about.
"I envy that guy," I said to Laura. "He can boil his book down to four words: Vampires in the Vatican. It's all you need to hear and you get it."
"For better or worse," said Laura. "Although it's actually a great name for a Goth band."
With five minutes left before the beginning of our Pitch Slam session, we walked to the end of the long, growing, line.
"How's my hair look?" said Laura.
The room was filled with 66 agents—give or take a last minute cancellation or two. I had marked up my program in advance and looked around the room for the ones I had circled. I found one and dove in:
"Hello, my name is Jamie, nice to meet you. My book is called THERE IS A SEASON, It's a character driven work of literary fiction set between New York City and rural western Pennsylvania. 80,000 words, complete.
At 36, Rachel Reese, the adopted daughter of an abusive and controlling mother and a mentally unstable father, finally discovers the tragic story of her birth mother — a schizophrenic who had been institutionalized her entire adult life — lending new insight into Rachel’s own troubled existence and further fueling a fear of commitment to the only healthy relationship she’s ever known."
"Tell me," the agent said when I was finished, "What, to you, makes your novel literary?"
"Hmm . . the lack of plot?"
She laughed. "I appreciate your honesty."
"Well, seriously, I do think my book has a plot. It might even has a sub plot. But it's really about the character. How she evolves."
She appeared skeptical and I braced myself for a no. Instead she told me she'd be willing to read more and gave me her card.
"Send me the first three chapters and a synopsis. Be sure to put WD is the subject line so I know we met here."
The second agent told me to send her the entire manuscript. "It sounds dark," she said. "I like dark."
It hadn't really occurred to me that it was dark, though I guess it is. It's no Vampires in the Vatican, but . . .
Anyway, on it went, until the hour was up. In the end I got to sit with six agents, each one asking for sample pages, if not the entire manuscript. With a pocketful of business cards, I figured they must ask for pages from everyone but, when it was over, I found Laura commiserating with another writer. After three rejections, Laura said she lost her mojo and quit.
The other writer got discouraged after an agent told her that her historical fiction set during World War II wasn't historical enough: "The 1940's isn't historical fiction, it's just fiction." She, too, gave up.
Afterwards, Laura and I went to lunch.
"Did you get any suggestions or criticisms at all?" Laura wanted to know.
"Well, no. Not out loud. I could see it in their eyes when they weren't fully convinced, but no one said anything."
"Someone told me I shouldn't set my book in the '90s," said Laura. "They said I should set it in the '80s instead."
"Who knows, but I'm thinking about it."