I’ve been meaning to write about the San Francisco Writers Conference for a couple of months now, but with packing up an apartment in a month, driving across the country, and getting settled into a new city, I just hadn’t gotten around to it.
But I’m all settled now and ready to tell the world about how great of an experience it was.
For anybody who doesn’t know, the conference is held every February, normally around Valentine’s Day, at the Mark Hopkins hotel. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship this year (thanks to the uber cool Vicki Hudson), and let me tell you; the experience was just phenomenal.
There were dozens of sessions going on about craft and the business of writing and on the last day, there was a pitch session with agents that I wasn’t sure I was going to participate in initially. The sessions ran from early morning until midnight in some cases, and I went to as many as I could.
One of the first things I participated in was the First Page-a-Thon. This is when five agents get together on a panel and one of them reads the first page of your novel out loud, and yes; this means that everyone in the room can hear how incredibly good or bad the start of your novel is. So you walk into the room, hand the page of your novel to one of the agents, sit, and try to keep the beads of sweat from popping off your forehead.
The game is this: any agent can raise their hand at the point on the page they would stop reading if they had received your manuscript. If two agents raise their hand, the agent stops reading your page and all the agents give feedback about why they would have rejected the submission.
It was eye opening! You would not believe how many times agents don’t get past the first paragraph (and in once instance, the first line)! They cited turn offs as things like; a novel starting with someone answering the phone or with a knock on the door (one agent said the phrase “my heart pounded” drives her nuts).
Thankfully, all submissions were anonymous (we were instructed to keep our names off the page), but luckily for me, my friend Lindsay was sitting next to me, and when the agent read the first line of my novel, Lindsay jabbed me and whispered loudly, “That’s yours!” A streak of lightening ran across my chest and I covered my face and ducked as far in my seat as I could.
But at least they got a third of the way through my first page before two agents raised their hand! There reasoning? Too much description and not enough action at the beginning of the story. So that night, I went to my hotel room, cut the first two chapters of my novel, and thought about the pitch session on Sunday. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to participate because the thought of being face to face with an agent for three whole minutes made me forget what my novel was about, but then I remembered; agents are people too. And even if my pitch was so bad that they laughed in my face, I knew, as Lindsay had declared, that I couldn’t miss my shot.
So I swallowed my nerves and began hacking away at my pitch. The really cool thing about the conference is that pretty much everyone I met asked me what my novel was about (and vice versa), so that really helped me gauge people’s reaction to my pitch; if they seemed to fade out of consciousness during what I thought was the hookiest part, I made changes accordingly. Or, if their eyes lit up during a part that I didn’t think was particularly spectacular, I made a note to keep that part in my final pitch. Everyone, including the professionals, were willing to help. During the Ask a Pro session, Mark Coker asked me what my novel was about and really helped me to iron out some of the kinks.
The night before the big day I participated in the pitch prep session, even though I wasn’t brave enough to actually read mine out loud. But other brave souls did, and the feedback from the agents really gave me insight into the kinds of things they look for in pitches; they want the hook up front. First line. Most of the pitches (like mine) saved the hook for the last line, and I guess that makes sense since we’re taught to write leading up to the climax. But for a pitch, you need to give them the juicy stuff up front so that their ears perk up.
With that in mind, me and two other really cool writers that I met, Audrey and Allison, sat at a table reworking our pitches until we felt that we were ready for the next day. I couldn’t sleep that night, woke up at 6 am the next morning, and peddled around until it was time to head over to the Mark Hopkins.
Before the pitch session the agents let all of us know what type of material they were looking for. After I decided who I was going to pitch to I practiced my pitch until the greens were up (they group you by color). While waiting in line to pitch, I met super friendly author Lisa Renee Johnson. She was volunteering at the conference, and out of nowhere, hopped in front of me and Lindsay and said, “Tell me your pitch.”
And guess what? I remembered what my novel was about! She liked my pitch and gave me the encouragement I needed to go in there and face those agents. During my first pitch my heart was galloping in my ears (since the first page-a-thon I no longer say that my heart “pounded”) but I got through it, and by the time the pitch session was over I could roll that pitch off without blinking, and guess what? I got three requests for partials during the session! Two agents have since written back to say the novel is not for them, but one of them requested a full.
For anyone who’s interested, here is the pitch. I memorized it just like it is on the page. On a side note, one agent I pitched to, who will remain nameless, asked me,”Is this a contemporary story?”
I had not anticipated that question (or any question for that matter), and my brain took a quick trip to Bermuda. I could not, for the life of me, remember what contemporary meant. “I don’t know,” I finally said, after sitting there for 10 seconds just blinking.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You wrote it!”
“Well, you see, (gulp), what had happened was….” Long story short, he passed on the novel.
Rejection and all, I am so glad that I didn’t allow fear to keep me from participating in the pitch session because it was such a great experience. I think I really would have regretted it if I hadn’t done it.
Overall, all the sessions at the conference gave me insight into the business side of publishing and I got so much valuable information about craft that after the conference I felt motivated to go out there and really make my writing career a reality. I met some really great writers that I plan to keep in touch with (some of them even read my novel and gave me some really great feedback).
Since I’m no longer on the west coast I probably won’t go back next year, but I definitely do plan to go back eventually (hopefully by then, I’ll actually be able to remember what the word contemporary means).