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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.