Monthly Archives: February 2018

Pitching Agents: Throat Punches and Better Endings, Part 1

Madeline and I attended a Writer’s Workshop in Minneapolis this weekend and it was probably the most momentous, exhausting, oddly wonderful two days we will spend in quite some time. We’re back home now, settled back into the routine of our lives. Maddie is meeting with a guidance counselor to decide on whether to take honors Algebra II (naturally I’m in the strong “yay” column, but Maddie’s heard that the teacher will kill her, I think we can call that hyperbole). I’m sitting in my office, more or less alone except for the cat, who’s ignoring me because I’m nowhere near the can opener.

Embraer 175. Photo Credit: Bene Riobó via Wikipedia.

The first thing we noticed when we got off our Embraer 175 Jet and walked the gangplank into the airport was the insanity of our outerwear. We had packed our thick wool coats in checked baggage and left our rarely used hats and gloves back in Virginia. We shivered, giggled, and said aloud, “Wow, it never gets this cold back home.” It was about 13 degrees when we landed, and the wind bit through the thin aluminum frame that bridges the gap from plane to gate.

Neither one of us had much interest in exploring Minneapolis; although it was ten a.m. and the Friday before our conference, we opted to take an Uber to the Intercontinental Riverfront in St. Paul and lounge around the hotel most the day. I did make it out once, on a brave foray to the Walgreens four blocks away to buy cough drops and beanie hats, but that was the extent of any explorations either one of us did—at least outside the hotel.

Before I went on my tiny Walgreen’s adventure, we lunched at the Prime Restaurant inside the Intercontinental. Now, Maddie has this way of making friends with women that’s just built into her DNA. Even when she was a toddler, I’d have friends over and somehow she would hang out on the stairs until someone spotted her and waved her into our company. She’s got a cuteness and a way about her, or something that makes grown women pull her into their ambit and want to include her. So naturally, we made friends with the waitress (who wanted to discuss literature) and with the greeter (who wanted to talk about Maddie and then about her own grandchildren).

View from Room 1308 at the Intercontinental of Saint Paul’s

After lunch, we bought cupcakes from the bakery next to the Prime. “For dinner,” we agreed. And then we napped for a bit, I went off on my find a hat adventure, and then we decided to try and figure out where all the conference rooms were. “You know you’ll get lost tomorrow if we don’t figure it out tonight,” Maddie said with one of her smiles.

It took us several tries, but we found Governor 4, where the agent pitches would occur, on the lower lobby. I frowned when I saw the room. It was not cavernous, but it was large, and it was filled with rows of tables. At each table sat one chair on opposing sides. That’s when my training as a courtroom attorney kicked in. I over-prepare for every speech I give, in part because I’ve been caught unprepared in a deposition, but more because we were trained in law school to know everything about our surroundings, our clients, and the other side’s case. Naturally, we had been practicing our pitches all week. Madeline memorized hers, because that’s the only way she felt she could deliver it. I had made outline upon outline, and while I never looked at my outline during a pitch, I knew I’d have it there if I needed it, or if an agent interrupted and asked me a question that was outside my mental box. We had even videotaped our pitches, which had led me to completely revamp mine to cut out the excess.

“Maddie, let’s practice in here, it’s a big room, there will be lots of people pitching, it will be intimidating and distracting with all that, let’s practice here now.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

We each went through our pitch once, and we chose one of the back tables because it felt safer in the back, out of the fray. We chose what turned out to be a fortuitous table, because our best pitch would occur at that very same table 24 hours later. After we practiced, I looked around for an extra chair, and placed one I found in a strategic place, just by the entryway, so that I would be able to grab it quickly when it was time to join Maddie on one of her five pitches the next day. I swear, I lost sleep over that chair. I worried that someone would move it, but no one touched it.

We went to bed early, like around nine or ten, but I kept waking up. I have anxiety, and I was anxious about being anxious. It’s not odd for me to wake up at three a.m. with a full-blown panic attack. So when I woke at three a.m. worrying about worrying about it (my husband says this is one of the ironies that comes with having anxiety), I took an extra Clonzepam and told myself for the umpteenth time that I was not going to let Maddie down. That, in fact, was my biggest fear the entire conference: how would Maddie do, and would I be able to protect her from what I often think of as the dogs of war?

Agents aren’t of course anything other than human beings. They’re gatekeepers, yes, and so far, we had done pretty well with Madeline’s The Third Eye of Cain. Out of about thirty queries, the first dozen or so of which were junk, we’d received a request for one full manuscript—and from a big New York agency. Be they gatekeepers or holders of the magic key or whatever (unless you self-publish), agents shouldn’t be viewed with fear. Some are wonderful. Some, not so much. And some just don’t care for the cup of tea you’re serving, or the material you’re offering. This is a truism I would repeat throughout the day in various forms to Maddie and also to myself.

The way the pitching schedule worked out put me front and center in the morning. My first pitch was at 9:10, followed by three more before noon, and one final pitch in the late afternoon. Maddie’s schedule was reversed, and I had worked hard with the excellent Workshop Coordinator to ensure we didn’t have any conflicts. After all, I’m not only the co-writer of The Third Eye of Cain. I’m the mother of a 14-year old, and you just don’t send teenagers in alone. As it turned out, Maddie had one pitch in the morning, and four in the afternoon. Which meant I could mostly focus on my pitches without worrying about mixing up our two fictional worlds too much—and then I could focus on Maddie.

The Intercontinental overlooking the great Mississippi River, near where it meets with the Minnesota River

My first two pitches didn’t go too well. The first agent (the only male we pitched to) was wearing a hat and had a friendly way about him. First he said he was kinda on the fence, and then said my book probably wasn’t quite his cup of tea. He gave me some advice, and handed me a business card. “Feel free to shoot me a line if you’d like,” he said, and shook my fingers rather than my hand. I still liked him afterwards.

I had almost no time to breathe before my next pitch. Each pitch lasts ten minutes, and the next group of folks files into the room and finds their agent. I found my daughter, and we felt what the timekeeper (a nice woman who is also a writer) later would describe as the Anxiety Hallway’s vibe and tried to shake it off. My second pitch was in ten minutes. The agent apologized for not shaking my hand. “I have a cold,” she explained, and I expressed sympathy and then launched into my pitch. She stopped me two minutes in. “This isn’t my cup of tea,” she said, after I explained that God appeared in person to help save the world in Off Grid (the novel I was pitching). I tried to pitch Shards to her, which is a political epic, and she cut me off after fifteen seconds. “Also not my cup of tea,” she said. “Okay,” I said.

“So you have more time, do you want to ask me questions?”

No, I thought, but I nodded and asked something bland. She launched into a lecture on why my book won’t get picked up by any agents. “Look,” she said, “If you’re going to choose to write about something quirky, like God, you’re better off self-publishing, agents can’t sell that, you should self-publish, didn’t you do that before, and maybe you should hire a publicist.”

I thanked her for “her time” and went out to find Maddie. “God’s quirky,” I quipped. “No one’s buying Him anymore.” We smiled. At that very moment, a man we had spoken to earlier came out with a big smile on his face. He was Hispanic I believe, maybe second generation American, and he had just pitched a work of speculative Christian fiction to the fourth agent we would be pitching to—and I guessed from his reaction that he’d received a full manuscript offer. I grinned at him and tried to say something intelligent, but what I think I managed was, “Thanks for writing about that, good luck, keep doing what you do,” but I also packed his success away in my mind and figured it augured well for later.

The only pic I could find of the special dress, taken in December, 2017

Before Maddie’s first pitch, she whispered, “Mom, one of the agents complimented me on my dress, I think we’re pitching to her later,” and sure enough, we were: me, just before lunch, and Maddie, just before the day ended. Maddie’s dress is special, by the way. It’s red and black checked, and it’s also what I wore to my sweet sixteen birthday parties. In other words, it’s thirty years old, and kinda almost a family heirloom. It also looks great on Maddie, because it brings out the copper highlights in her glorious auburn curls.

And with those nice words held tightly to her heart, Maddie walked into Governor 4 behind me, and together we looked for her first agent.

End of part one. Please stay tuned in for the second half of the story later this week.

 

 




Van Crashes Into Our Yard

So it’s Friday night and we’re driving home from Northern Virginia. It’s an ordinary night in most ways. Like any other Friday night after we’ve dropped the kids off for a visit with their father. We didn’t go straight home; instead, we stuck around in Northern Virginia for a few hours afterwards. Picked up a few riders for Uber. Paid for our gas I suppose. And stopped at a casual but brilliant restaurant in Vienna that served up light shrimp tacos with a panache and brilliance that delighted me. The tacos only cost $4 apiece, and that made me happy too.

A little later, we’re driving on Route 66, heading westward. We’re at about exit 43, right between Manassas and Centreville for those of you who are familiar with what exit corresponds with what neighborhood in the I-66 corridor. I’m a little sleepy. It’s about 10:30 and it’s been a long day. With an almost absent-minded glance, I checked Facebook messages. I spotted a text from my neighbor Jen, who lives three houses down from me. It’s somewhat unusual to hear from Jen this late at night. I thought to myself, Hope she’s okay.

Then I click over and read her message.

“El, you need to come outside right now!”

“Um, I can’t, I’m 45 minutes away from home.”

“Okay, there’s a van crashed in your yard.

“Come again?” Now I was reading aloud from my spot in the passenger seat. “There’s a van crashed in my yard?”

“Yes, it flipped a few times and it’s stuck in the side yard.”

“Have you called the cops, the ambulance?”

I almost didn’t need to ask this question. Jen is an Air Force mechanic. Our other neighbor Scott is some sort of officer, I believe in the Air Force. And in general, these are mountain people, and they’re accustomed to emergency situations. Still I asked. And she replied:

“Yes, been called.”

“Okay, is the driver okay? Is the house okay? What about our cars?”

“He’s okay, he’s bloodied, concussed but walked from scene. Obviously had been drinking, didn’t want us to call cops.”

I smiled to myself. Thinking, Jen called the cops anyway, as she damn well should have. Whether the fellow was drunk or not, he needed medical assistance. Then I go back to reading her messages, which are brief and calm.

“The van is in the side yard. The only thing damaged possibly is your septic tank. Car’s okay. House is okay.”

“Okay, I’ll be home in 37 minutes, eta is 11:15.”

We made it home at 11:10 by taking the back road, which is called Massanutten. It’s a poorly-maintained private road that leads into our development. It isn’t paved and it experiences frequent rock slides, but when it’s passable it saves five minutes off our commute. And our Jeep can handle pretty much anything it throws at us. Fortunately that night the Massanutten’s tricks did not include any broken walls or rocks piles.

At 11:09, We pulled up to a light show. There was a fire truck, an ambulance and a red tow truck parked on the side of the gravel road that overlooks our side yard. After I ran inside to grab warmer gear, I made a quick assessment: there was in fact a van situated in the middle of our side yard. This was a fact in evidence, undeniable, incontrovertible. An avoidable fact—and a problem, I thought to myself. There was no more avoiding it than there’s avoiding a death that involves someone you care about—and again, I gave thanks that I already had some sort of warning. The note from Jen reduced the shock of seeing it.

It’s hard to explain the emotion you feel when a van’s sitting in your yard: fear, confusion, astonishment, or simply that feeling you get when you’re given a puzzle in elementary school and asked to identify an object that’s out of place. A van in the yard is not quite as inopposite as, say, a dolphin swimming in your living room—but it nonetheless makes a jarring appearance. An interesting one as well. You’re driven to figure out how and why it got there.

After I pulled on a hat and warm gloves, I climbed up the driveway and looked for Jen. She was dressed in extreme weather gear and was standing beside her husband Rob as well as three of our other neighbors: Missy and Scott, who live next door to us, and A.J., who owns the house three or four yards down from where the van driver lives as a renter. Everyone started talking at once, just about the same time the tow truck driver asked if I was the homeowner, and the fire truck gunned its engine and drove to the end of the street looking for a place to turn around, and the ambulance wheeled into a driveway and executed a sharp U-Turn.

Jen explained the accident scene to me. “Here’s where he started to slide, then he over-corrected, and he rolled down to the right, hit the septic tank, then rolled in the other direction.” She pointed to a spot on the road, which is gravel with dirt shoulders, and then used her hands to demonstrate the route the van took.

“And he’s been picked up by the ambulance, you say he’s okay?”

“He’ll be okay,” A.J. volunteered.

Someone there added, “Said he’d only had a few drinks.”

“Don’t know how he walked exactly, he didn’t want me to call an ambulance, but he was bleeding, obviously concussed,” Jen said.

“Yeah, Scott had to pull him out, he was bleeding, couldn’t get out without help,” Rob said. He was holding a cigar, and as we watched the scene, which was never the same from moment to moment, we talked about his recent motorcycle accident, and how he was recovering from it. A few months back, he crashed his bike up right good and he’s gotten back on the horse, so to speak, and has ridden again, but he’s still struggling with possibly permanent damage to his neck.

Meanwhile, my husband stood beside me, and we watched and chatted and waited for the tow truck to make its first go at pulling the van out. Since it was dark out, it was hard to get a good visual of the van. As far as I could tell, it was a busted up ancient nondescript gray or light blue van, but A.J. later explained that the driver had just bought it a little while back to help with his moving business. Later I would identify it as a four or five year old Honda Odyssey, which is a top-of-the-line minivan, but from the top of our ravine, it just looked battered and old.

A.J. kept talking about the renter. I picked up bits and pieces that I needed. Like: “He was saying the other day that he took out an extended warranty on it, I know he loved that thing.”

Good, I thought, then he’s insured.

At this point, a scraggly-haired young man approached me. He was with Henderson Towing. Had a bright yellow jacket atop a burly frame. In fact, I’ve never met a tow truck driver who didn’t look somewhat like this guy: tough, brawny, fast-talking, competent. “You’re the homeowner?”

“I am.”

“I’m thinking of pulling it out from the bottom, otherwise we’ll have to pull it up over all those rocks.” The tow guy gestured to our yard, which is covered with scores of massive boulders and too many trees to count. One day, my husband and I tried to count the trees, but we got bored and quit at 100. So there’s a lot of trees, and there’s even more rocks, peppered throughout our acre of land. There’s so many rocks, in fact, that the prior owners built three rows of almost English or Irish-style rock walls in the main yard, and the bottom of these serves as a sort of retaining wall. To protect the house from, you know, vans that crash into the yard.

“So you’d have to come down the driveway?” My husband had his hands in his pockets, as did I. Unlike me, he was not shivering from the cold mountain air. At this point, it was about 20 degrees.

“Yeah,” I added, “If you do, that’s fine, do we need to move any of our trucks?” I was referring to our two SUVs, a Ford Expedition and a Jeep Commander.

“Yeah, I want to go down your driveway, nope, don’t have to move anything,” said the tow truck driver.

“Okay,” I said.

Our neighbors were still talking, except for Jen, who went inside because the driver was safely departed and she had to get some rest.

My husband and I walked down the hill and stood at the bottom of our driveway between the Jeep and the Ford.

What we ended up watching was something like a circus, or roller derby absent the bang-ups. Despite his confidence and ability, when the tow guy pulled his 550 into the yard and tried to go uphill, he hit icy patches on the grass. He begin to scissor sideways and down, and all of this was noisy, because he kept gunning his diesel and the tires were screaming and the engine was growling and he was hollering I think through it all . . . and that’s when he came to a resting position about five feet from the ravine that waits at the bottom of our back yard. I don’t know what it waits for, other than sleds that run too fast or SUVs that slide out of control down the icy driveway; all I know is that the ravine’s almost the sum of all my physical crashing fears.

The tow truck driver then got even busier. He winched his 550 to a tree, and called down one of his assistants to help back the truck out of the yard, using the winch to guide it, until they could turn it around and drive it back to the top of our hill. That took about fifteen minutes. We watched and tried not to smile. Not mean smiles. We were rooting for the tow guy. But the whole thing was damn near as exciting as watching a roller derby. Meanwhile, the young man, the tow guy, he talked with me a little. Said he was 30, lived pretty close, up one on of the other mountains, and he had a wife and three kids, all of them under six. Then he said he was calling his boss. “We need Big Bird,” he said, and explained, “Big Bird has a 650.”

“I like its name,” I said. “Big Bird.”

“Uh huh.”

“But you might need a helicopter,” I said, and I giggled.

He shook his head grimly and climbed up the driveway.

It wasn’t over yet. I had to talk to the police officer. He was slim, had a pencil-thin mustache, and he had a kind way about him. He got my name and number and gave me the case report. Told me everything would work out okay, and I told him I was grateful he was out here in the cold, taking care of our mess.

“It’s my job,” he said.

“Nonetheless I’m grateful you’re here to do it,” I said.

Some time passed. We were still waiting for Big Bird, which pulled up after another half-hour. I was running out of words, so was my husband. The other neighbors were still talking, especially A.J. and Rob. Missy was her usual sweet self. She was the one who helped me when I got locked out my first night here, but that’s another story. And Scott was quietly sweet. Amid all this, the temperature was dropping.

My husband and I went inside to warm up for a few minutes, and that’s when we heard a lot more noise.

“Hmmm, wanna go see?” I stood up sleepily from the sofa. It was almost one a.m.

My husband shook his head and chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So we pulled on coats and hats and gloves and climbed back up the hill. At this point, there were two cables attached to the front of the minivan, anchored to two of the tow trucks. And slowly, almost glacially, the minivan was getting dragged up the hill backwards. It was noisy, and the lead tow truck driver got into the minivan to try to steer it so that it didn’t come up over the largest rock in its path. He even took his jacket off, and was sweating. A lot of things fell off the minivan on its final journey up our side yard. The front bumper tore completely off, and at one point the side door looked like it might fall off, but two of the Henderson guys managed to manually slide it shut.

The minivan pivoted towards our house once it reached the apex of the hill. That’s when I got a good look at it. Saw that all eight of its airbags had deployed, and all four sides of it had taken a beating.

“Rolled at least once,” the officer said.

“Won’t be driving ever again, that’s for sure,” Rob or A.J. said.

“Yep, totaled,” I said.

The Henderson guys got the van up on one of their lifts. And that’s when we said goodnight to everyone. We didn’t stand at the top of our hill and watch the trucks drive away. Instead, we waved goodnight, hiked down our driveway one last time, and stumbled into bed. It was 1:30, and all I could think was how long a night it was for the responders, the police officer, the EMTs, the tow truck guys, my neighbors who helped the driver, and how grateful I was that there were good, reliable people who took care of oddities like vans that end up crashed in your side yard.




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