Tips for talking with agents in the wild

Chipmunk coming out of a hole.

Photo by Flickr user Tamia rayé

Since I’m headed to Midwest Writers Workshop in a couple days, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s post to conference etiquette. I’ve written about the value of conferences in the past (I met nearly all of my critique partners either at MWW or through people I met at MWW), but today I’m going to focus on interacting with agents and editors in the wild.

For some of us, agents can feel like the celebrities of the literary world. If you want to publish traditionally, these are the people you need to champion your book. You’ve done all your homework: you’ve written and polished an awesome book, written and polished a perfect pitch, researched the agents attending the conference so you know whom to pitch. You’ve practiced that pitch in front of mirrors and friends and your cat/dog/ferret until Sparky could recite it back to you. You’ve got sample pages and a query and synopsis ready for anyone — fellow writers, agents, editors, your waiter at dinner — who asks. You are Ready.

Being Ready is good. Being Ready shows you’re a professional. But sometimes Ready can cross over into pushy or overbearing. When interacting with agents and editors I like to keep the following in mind.

1. If an agent or editor asks what your book is about, feel free to tell them. But don’t make every conversation about yourself or your book. Agents are working during the conference, and some of them may see the downtime of meals or breaks between sessions as just that — breaks. If you’re forcing them to listen to a pitch, you’re making them work during their break. And please, please, please, don’t try to pitch to someone in the bathroom, or slide a manuscript under their hotel door. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen. No, the agent was not impressed.)

2. Agents love books as much as writers do. If you find yourself in a mingling situation with no idea what to say (as I often do), ask them what they’re reading. What are their favorite books they’ve read this year? You may find yourself in a heated Ravenclaw vs. Slytherin debate with a new friend. Conversations like these will also give you an idea of what the agent’s tastes are, should you decide to query them after the conference.

3. If you’re getting your work critiqued, come ready to listen. Critiques sting, and I know it can be tempting to defend your work when an element of it doesn’t resonate with a reader. Resist the urge. Listen, and take notes. When the critique is over, thank the agent/editor/other writers for their feedback. You don’t have to agree with all — or even any — of their comments. (Though if you hear the same thing from several people, you should probably re-examine that part of the piece.) You also don’t have to go home and edit right away. Take the time you need to absorb, decompose, and detach. Remember, a critique of your work is not a critique of you as a person or your skill as a writer. It’s a critique of this piece, and only this piece.

4. If an agent listens to your pitch and says your book isn’t for them, ask them if they would mind giving you feedback on your pitch/query. (If there’s time. Depending on the conference, you may or may not have time for some feedback or conversation built into your pitch session.) Again, resist the urge to defend your work during the critique. Be polite, and thank the agent for their time.

5. Remember, agents are people, too! It may seem scary at first to approach an agent or editor, but that agent or editor may be just as intimidated by all the authors in the room. If anyone — writer, agent, editor, volunteer — looks lost/overwhelmed, introduce yourself and ask how their conference is going. It would be great to meet your agent at a conference, but it’s equally great to meet a new friend at one.

Have I missed anything you’d add to this? Will any of you be at Midwest Writers Workshop? If so, I’ll see you there!

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