This post is a bit long. Last weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, from 7am to 11pm, I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference.
It was extraordinary.
At the crossroads of opportunity and enthusiasm I had to take a second and stop — think about where I was on my writing path — and decide where I wanted to go. I had a completed manuscript and was ready to put it out there; so I mostly focused on pitching and marketing panels. I think I might have had more fun at the craft panels. No agents were harmed over the course of the weekend; but everyone wound up happily exhausted anyway. I’ll post my notes in the next few days.
Katharine Sand’s pitchcraft and pitch-a-thon started us off right on the first day. Most of us thought a pitch was a query letter, after reading them aloud we found out how wrong we were. We had to get a place, a person, and a pivot (or hook) as quickly as possible. I pulled out: “In an isolated kingdom, a monster raised by humans must rescue the queen and prove her innocense even if it means losing her family forever.”
That bubbled in my head all the way through to the next morning.
Good thing, too, as almost everyone there was learning how to pitch. Asking to practice pitching was the easiest and quickest way to build a rapport with a stranger. We were all in this together, with the agent speed-dating right around the corner.
By speed-dating, I mean we have three minutes to sit in front of an agent and impress them. Boiling the pitch down to its barest bones, hopefully, would invite the agent to ask questions about the story, your background, your blog, and comp titles.Three minutes is not a lot of time to impress someone.
I met with an editor, Heather Lazare, to talk a bit more about my book. We reviewed my query letter, and I listened to what she said was interesting in the hopes I could frame my pitch around it. She said that as much as I captured the plot, all the interesting stuff — the worldbuilding, basically — was missing from the query.
I left her musing about the pitch, and re-writing it for the 12th or 13th time.
As the conference went on I met non-fiction authors, memoir authors, men who were trying to write YA women with no clue as to what women want or how they communicate. They were all kind and fascinating people, and I pitched to all of them. I heard a lot of really neat story concepts, from the pogroms that forced Jews out of Iraq, to life in various communes, to high-school activists escaping to Mexico. I did my best to help people winnow their pitches down as much as possible. During one of our wonderful lunches, one of my new friends and I must have passed a notebook back and forth nine times before we figured out how to frame her story.
After doing that for a day and a half, I had almost given up hope. I was so frustrated with my pitch I wasn’t sure if it would work. I even pitched to featured guest Julie Kagawa who, with infinite patience, gave me feedback and chatted with me about the industry and the time she almost met Neil Gaiman.
About an hour before my friend and travel-buddy Margit Sage went into her pitch session, it hit me.
“My fantasy novel is called ***. Pax, a Banmar raised by humans to hide her corrosive magic, is forced to choose between the humans she loves and the feral race that abandoned her.”
Ooh, said Margit. I think you’ve got it.
I went to the speed-dating session.
Who are the Banmar, the agents asked. Why is magic corrosive, they asked. Is it finished, they asked.
Would you send me pages, they asked.
That pitch, born of complete exhaustion, earned me a request for pages from every agent I spoke to. I sat with a non-fiction agent by mistake, and wound up talking to him about my monastery journal. I also pitched to an agent I knew wasn’t interested in my genre; but she agreed to forward pages to her colleague. With the time left over, I told her about my friend Lauren Sapala’s work. It felt really good to get out of that session and shoot off a text saying, I hope your manuscript is ready because I just pitched your book and got a request for pages.
As for the cherry on this serendipitous sundae… one of the last panels I went to was about turning books into movies. The producer running the panel asked us to pitch to her and offered critique. One of the other writers said my story reminded her of Frozen. The producer asked me to lunch afterward.
Now I’m sending out submissions and thank-you notes, with a moment to think back on it all. It was as if everything I was afraid of, how unready I felt, how sad I had been, had been smoothed over by this experience. I feel brave and validated for having gone. I’m so grateful to the agents I met and for their answers to my questions — even if this story isn’t a good fit for them right now. I appreciate the other authors, editors and publicists I met, from the terrified newbies to the industry veterans. I’m thankful that I finally have a sense of how to write about my writing. Our public face all boils down to what we stand for… and isn’t that the core of a good story?
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
— Sun Tzu