Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Story You Are About to Read is True-ish

The story you are about to read is true-ish, as true as memory allows. Most of the names and location and what we were eating, etc. have been obscured to protect me from any potential wrath or prevent the embarassment of anyone involved.

We were at a restaurant in a big city some time ago. Cap'n Slappy and I had managed to wrangle a dinner with some people in the book biz. There were at the table another writer, two agents, and an editor from a major publishing house.

The event was a writing conference that all of the above were attending. Not Slappy and me. We were just there for dinner and talk.

You know about writing conferences. Every years tens of thousands of hopeful writers, maybe more, show up at these things and pay a fee to spend two or three days at workshops, readings and – this is the big draw – getting a pitch session with a real live agent or editor.

We're all like that, we writers, desperate to get in the door, convinced that our work is good enough that the cost of the conference is a splendid investment. All it takes is one, we tell ourselves, one person on the inside who recognizes how good our writing is, or at least how marketable. We'll get that first contract and be on our way.

That's what we tell ouselves.

Seated with Slappy and I that night were:

Agent A – a real alpha male. Smart and quick and self-assured, always leading every conversation.

Agent B - A quiet young woman, but smart. She didn't say much, but oh lord, you could just tell how smart she was, easily the smartest person at the table, maybe the smartest person in the city.

Editor - Bright, funny, very positive. Almost scary in how positive she can be.

The Writer – Didn't say anything memorable, does not appear further in this story.

Mark and I mostly listened. The agents and editor had been two days at this conference with one more day to go. They had seen scores of hopefuls each pitching their stuff. That's why they were there. I was struck by the fact that several hundred people at the hotel down the street had paid hundreds of dollars for the chance to spend 20 minutes with some of these people. Mark and I were having dinner with them. Sometimes life is good.

The three were telling stories, very funny stories, about the people they'd met during the pitch sessions over the years. It was a "can you top this" of weird meetings. Things such as:

– The poet who saved scraps from road killed wildlife he found along the highways as a tribute to their fallen spirits. He offered Agent B a bag of feathers, fur and a few bones, telling her to pick one in thanks for her time. She gingerly took a feather. After he left she washed her hands over and over and over.

– The guy who had been the most successful car thief in the history of some backwoods area until he'd finally been caught. He was out of prison now, and writing. But not about his career as a criminal. According to Agent A, the big, burly former car thief had leaned over the table dividing them and confided, "I know who killed my mother."

– Another poet who was also a hypnotist and had filled his writing with keywords that would break down the inhibitions of women it was read to. "Great," Agent B thought, "Date-rape poetry." He was looking for a legal opinion on whether there was any liability that might come back to haunt him if someone used his poetry for nefarious ends. Like getting laid. She replied that she had no idea, but if he had to ask that ought to tell him something. He read a passage, and Agent B admitted she got slightly flushed.

And lots more stuff, almost all very funny. People who got abusive when told their material wasn't good enough. Or who laughed. Or who cried. Or who behaved in, shall we say, unusual ways.

But I wasn't hearing any stories of success. Not a single, "I think I just signed my next best-selling author" or even, "I heard a couple of people I might want to represent." And these were three people who had been going to three or four conferences a year for years. Granted, their expenses were paid so they weren't on their own dime. But still, that's a huge time commitment if all it turns into is an exercise in weirdness

So I asked. "Have you ever found anyone who made it worth coming all this way and spending all this time, any writer you ended up signing, anyone who was ever successful?"

There was silence. Then the Editor, who had been to about a dozen, said, "Yes. Two. No, three, but one of them ended up signing with someone else."

For her, those two successes outweighed the enormous number of writers whose material just didn't measure up or who were weird or clueless or potentially psychotic, people who want to be published but just aren't good enough yet. The chance that somewhere out there, unheard and unrepresented, was someone who had a distinctive voice and a story that needed telling, made it all worthwhile.

My point, I guess, is that you should be very, very sure of the quality of your work before shelling out the several hundred dollars to attend one of these conferences, and when you get your chance to meet with a real live editor or agent, be ready to hear an honest, maybe even a brutal, critique. And don't be weird.

And before writing the check, ask yourself – Do I really want to take the chance of becoming someone's funny story the next time agents and editors get together? Do I want to risk being a punchline?

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