Conference Jitters

Last weekend, I participated in my first round of pitch appointments at the New Jersey Romance Writers’ Put Your Heart in a Book Conference, which was lovely. I’ve never been pitched a verbal query before, so I was surprised by how nervous everybody was, and by how nervous I was myself.

As I sat at my narrow little table, hoping my iPhone didn’t chirp in the middle of someone’s pitch, I was actually quite startled and a little uncomfortable at the extreme nervous energy in the room. Each author who came to tell me about his/her book looked like they were currently in the process of surmounting an obstacle. Right then and there, each author was climbing a mountain. And I totally get it. It’s terrifying to take something that came from your mind and your heart and show it to someone else whose function is first and foremost to judge you. I mean, it’s akin to sitting down naked in front of the agent…and not being comfortable with how you look.

But each author did it. Nobody choked. Nobody cried, to my hallelujah-like relief. Nobody got angry at me when I offered my criticism, if I did. I’ll admit it: I was nervous too. What if I zoned out while the author was pitching and had to ask her to repeat herself? What if I hurt someone’s feelings, in a fit of tact-lapse? I don’t think that happened either. If I did hurt your feelings, pitch appointment authors who might be reading, it was unintentional. I was pleasantly surprised that I really wanted to read almost every manuscript pitched to me. But, true to my nature, I want to offer some advice to conference pitchers:

1. Tell the agent or editor you’re nervous. Just put it out there. It might make you feel better to not try and hide it.

2. Don’t speak too quickly. We need to be able to understand you and your book. I know you probably want to just get through it, but its important to be clear and calm.

3. Don’t say “um”. Pause, if you need to, during which you say nothing and collect your thoughts. But filler-words can be very annoying and muddling, particularly when its excessive.When every other word is “uh” or “um” I’m narrowing my eyes and concentrating too hard on trying to understand you. Let me hear your pitch as you would write it to me.

4. Memorize your pitch. When I took public speaking, I would memorize 5-minute speeches deliberately so if I got nervous, it wouldn’t matter. The words I was supposed to say came like second-nature to me because I’d drilled them into my head. My professor accused me of cheating when she caught on to me. My reaction, “Well, not really. But, yeah, I’ve made this easier on myself, if that’s what you mean.” Make it easier on yourself if you’re not good at pitching. Memorize it, practice it in front of people. Then, when the agent or editor is staring at you expectantly and you’re suddenly faced with putting your heart out there on the table, you’ll find comfort and familiarity in your memorized speech.

5. Don’t ramble. Get to the point right away. Your pitch doesn’t need to be more than 250 words initially. Wait for a reaction or a question from the agent or editor and then give them the information they’ve requested. Rambling will cause the person whose interest you’re trying to spark to tune out. Don’t go on and on about how you really wanted to write this, but it was too something, so you thought to write that and then it just came out as…because I’m not marvelling at your process, I’m thinking about lunch.

6. This last is really not advice, but rather a kudos/success story from my first conference. One author had written a book about ghosts. She came to the appointment with a chocolate ghost to give to me. While I won’t say you must bring me gifts when you see me, I will say that I was just tickled by this. I loved the creativity and enthusiasm it showed, I loved the chocolate, I suddenly really loved the author. I showed the ghost to my colleagues, Jessica Faust and Jessica Alvarez who were in attendance at the conference and they really liked it too. The general reception was: Huh. Neat! I think they were jealous while I chowed down on my chocolate ghost, all smiles. When asked about my pitches, The Ghost Lady is the one I remember with the most clarity. Will she be successful because of the chocolate ghost? Uh, no. But she will stand out…

What advice or anecdotes do all of you have about your conference jitters?


Posted on October 28, 2011, in Conferences and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and have volunteered at the agent/editor pitches which meant I got to talk to them alot and the number one piece of advice I have to share is to resist the urge to pitch to any agent/editor who moves. Seriously.

    Attendees will know in advance who is attending. Go out and research them and find the agents/editors that fit you and your story BEST. Not everyone attending is going to be the right one to pitch to. I’ve seen desparate writers rack up 4-5 pitches only to come out from them with downturned expressions when the agent/editor had to tell them they didn’t represent the writer’s work. I know a lot of agent/editors will say they have to read the work before they know but that doesn’t negate the writer from making sure they pitch the right project to the right agent/editor. It’s more for your benefit than theirs.

    And last point, the agents/editors notice those that do this. At RWA Nationals, I talked to a couple of agents who specifically noted those who seemed to be bouncing from agent/editor to agent/editor with no logical sense. And when that attendee made it to them, well, let’s just say the attendee didn’t leave with a request.

    Do your research, be judicious about your time.

    Oh, and one more thing. Send in your requests! I’ve taken many an agent/editor to the aiport and every one of them tell me they expect to see less than 25% of the requests. How sad is that? I get that people pitch when they don’t have fulls but there are those that do but simply don’t send them in.

    Good luck to anyone pitching – both the pitcher and pitchee. It’s tough.

  2. I, too, have recently had my first experience at pitching my book while attending the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy.

    Before I arrived in the magical “stone” town in Southern Italy I did my best to prepare a brief but solid verbal synopsis and a hook line that would draw in the editors and agents, make them want more and remember my project once we said goodbye.

    My first appointment was just after lunch, and over scrumptious antipasti I practiced my pitch on my lunch partners…all writers. I was lucky because not only did the conference give me a chance to pitch and learn more about the industry it brought me face to face with wonderful writers from around the world. Now, I usually don’t have a problem finishing a fine plate of pasta but my nerves got the best of me and I left the steaming plate of fusilli so full that the chef asked if something was wrong with the food. “Just nerves,” I said, promising him I would return the next day and eat everything on my plate; which I did.

    When I sat down at my first pitch appointment for some reason a sense of security replaced my nervousness. I think it was because at that very moment I realized that all my hard work had put me there, and that no one on this planet knows my story better or believes in it more than I do. What better chance to get my point across to the other side of the table? Well I guess I did and thanks to the first editor’s smile and sincere interest I felt even more at ease. She was very kind, she liked my story but told me to find an agent and then contact her. After the first pitch “pitching” got easier. I ended my weekend very pleased: four editors told me they were very interested and three took a sample chapter; one gave me the name of an agent. Two of the two agents I pitched asked for a partial. They all stressed I need to find a good agent to work with, and that’s exactly what I hope to do.

    So when given the choice between pitching face to face or being one in a thousand email queries in an inbox…I choose the pitch!

  3. I’m going to the BackSpace Writer-Agent Seminar next week where they have eliminated pitches and have group work-sessions with aspiring writers and functioning agents. It seems like a better way to go to me.

    Of course, I still need to have a pitch in case I run in to an agent at the local seafood pavilion. πŸ™‚

  4. Lauren, I teach public speaking in my school, and you have given some really great advice on how the process is supposed to work. I’ve been to numerous songwriting conferences but never a writer’s conference. I always went in knowing that even though many of the poeple I sat face to face with were “big” in the music biz, they weren’t always that way. While I was most definitely nervous about presenting my baby, preparation was the key to not sounding like a lunatic on 5 Hour Energy! Not to use filler words is always the toughest thing to teach a young speaker because it represents their everyday language pattern. I’m sure it’s no different for an adult. You’ve provided accurate information here that I hope others will learn from in some way. BTW, since my next book has these half-man, half-drugged up monster soldiers, can I send you a chocolate chip cookie version as a bribe to read it when I’m finished? LOL πŸ™‚

  5. I’d be utterly terrified if I had to pitch this way! “um” and “uh” would be the least of my worries. Getting a word out would be my biggest concern and trying not to be sick on them. High fives to all those who pitched to you and survived.

    Thanks for sharing this! Great tips! πŸ™‚

  6. I’ve yet to experience a live in-the-flesh conference (I attended WriteOnCon), and the thought of pitching in person to an agent is a little daunting. On the one hand, it would be great to meet you, Lauren, and many of the other agents whose blogs I follow. You all seem like genuinely nice and interesting people. But when it comes to trying to persuade you to represent my novel, I feel so much more comfortable with the written word. I’m afraid my spoken presentation wouldn’t do the novel justice. The tips offered above help. It’s also useful to remember that the agent is probably equally nervous. After all, an agent’s nod of approval could be the start of someone’s career. And a harsh critique could sidetrack that writer for years. No pressure, mind you… πŸ™‚

  7. I have not attended a conference yet, so I have no advice about these specific jitters. But it’s actually nice to hear that you were nervous too. One thing that I try to remember is that agents are people too.

    Maybe this sounds silly, but I don’t think it is. I heard it once from an agent’s blog, but I can’t recall which. I make all of my comments, conversations or responses reflect my acknowledgement of this. I figure, if I treat agents like people, instead of inadvertently groveling for some type of notice, or ogling like a starstruck fan, I’ll be more confident and more myself.

    I think remembering that (and being very prepared–good advice) will help me should I ever brave a face-to-face meeting. Oh, I’ll still be nervous, but at least I’ll be able to draw on some of that confidence. After all, I am excited about my book! Why not let that show with confidence?

  8. I went to my first writers’ conference last month in Newport Beach, CA. I had set up appointments with two agents and two editors. In this case, it was not a pitch-fest but a advance submission critique. They had already read the first 15-20 pages and the synopsis. We each got 15 minutes (for the most part) to discuss and get feedback

    I’ve been on the other side for my day-job (career day, career mentoring, coaching, etc). I ate my own dog food when I prepared for the conference:
    – Be ready: I re-read my entire manuscript two nights before. I wanted the story to be fresh in my head. I had committed the hook to memory. What I did was forced myself to write it out on a piece of paper forcing my brain to recall the details. I am always better in person than on query letters et al — I tend to over-think those things. But when I talk about it, it’s very easy and natural. But it’s easy and natural because I’m prepared.
    – Research: I had done a lot of research on the people I was to meet. I found some little details that helped me break the ice and make a connection. In one case the agent had written a post on what to do at conferences — which included take breath mints with you ;D
    – At the End of the Day… we are all people. I had to remind myself that if all the stars were to align, we were potentially talking about a long term relationship. I am an eye-contact type of a person. You have to be respectful, but also be your own person. You need to be comfortable in your own skin about what you know and what you don’t. If you show doubt over your story and your ability, why should the agent/editor be comfortable?
    – Be awake — I drank a half bottle of 5 hour energy drink before the sessions began. I only recommend this if you’ve used it before. At conferences we sleep late. We talk with writers, insiders, etc. You want to do that and you should. But you can’t look like yesterday’s newspaper when you meet professionals.

    In the end, I had a great conference. Two requests for follow up and one endorsement from an editor so that I can use with other agents that she recommended.

    By the way, love your blog πŸ™‚

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