Monday, February 3, 2014

Face To Face With Big Baddd NYC Agents

I just wrote a guest blog post for the NYC Chapter of the Women's National Book Association. 

Honest, their annual 'Query Roulette' is the best author-agent meet-up out there. If you're an aspiring writer in the NYC metro area - male or female - this event is worth every penny. (I've frittered away a ton of money on miserable experiences!)

Here it is:


Four years of my life. I poured them into taps and clicks, data losses and backups, writing classes and conferences, webinars and online critique groups. Awake in the middle of the night, with my computer screen reflecting against the blackness of my windows, everyone else in my time zone was asleep. Well, unless they worked the night shift. Meanwhile, my kids grew older and my dog died.

Still, like most writers, I dreamed the Big Dream: Literary representation. And all I ever heard was how minuscule my chances were. I don't know what kept me going: Obstinacy, maybe.

I attended quite a few writers' conferences. Some had two-minute 'pitch slams' that were harried, nerve-wracking affairs. Herded into enormous conference rooms with hundreds of other anxiety-ridden writers, I waited on lines that wrapped around corners, hoping the dozens of writers in front of me wouldn’t use up all the available time with the fifty or so agents in attendance. Sometimes, the agents I wanted to see never showed up, or left before I made it to the front.

At other conferences, many agents made themselves available to attendees after their presentations, surrounded by swarms of writers, initially polite but exhausted by the time it was my turn. And some agents weren’t so polite – one even refused to shake my outstretched hand. I won’t name names…

At conferences that had breakout critique groups, I endured ‘read alouds’ where agents read my opening paragraphs to others in the group. I would shrink into my seat while an agent ripped apart my verb choices. And it wasn’t just me. Those lucky few writers in the group who were complimented were looked upon by the rest of us with awe – would they be among the Chosen? 

Reflecting on those conferences, I shudder -- publicly humiliated, and privately demoralized afterward. Recovery time varied, but it was usually weeks before I felt like writing again.

My first Query Roulette was in 2010. It promised to be a more civilized affair: Ten minutes, one-on-one, with agents whose names and bios I could fully research in advance; no onlookers; no competition for the time slot I reserved; and I would actually get to see the agents selected, without fear they would leave. And no humiliating ‘read alouds!’ I also noticed that many of the agents were top names from top agencies. I was sold.

And the WNBA delivered, each time I went: In 2010, 2012 and 2013.

I prepared for each QR just as I had for the conferences: I researched agents by combing their websites, plowing through every interview I could find. I checked their client lists, looking at Amazon write-ups when I didn’t know who the clients were. I even read Twitter posts to see what those agents were looking for.

I prepared queries for each agent I chose, filling in individual names and addresses, specifying why I chosen them in my actual query letter. I made two copies of each letter to bring with me, along with printouts of agent bios and relevant information.

On the night of the event, my papers assembled in a tidy folder, I showed up fifteen minutes early. Yes, the atmosphere was charged at the venue, a smallish space where writers gathered in one waiting room, while agents hung out together before the event started. The writers were supportive – some had even formed groups in advance that reviewed queries. A few sat alone, looking frazzled; others were a bit too gregarious. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how friendly the crowd was, especially the event organizers.

When the QR started, though, I braced myself for more negativism and more rejection.

Instead of the writers’ conference insanity, QR was tightly monitored. The ten-minute time slots were strictly controlled, so there was no risk of not seeing the agents I had selected. Most agents were friendly, upbeat, and positive in their feedback – and most asked me to pitch my book after they read my letter. Requests for pages, and for full manuscripts, came right away. Sure, there were a few arrogant or unpleasant agents, but instead of feeling exposed and helpless, I felt secure, knowing the WNBA had everything covered.

Some of the most helpful feedback came from agents who weren’t even interested in my book. One told me to beef up my bio; another suggested ways to reveal more of the story plot while still keeping it enticing. Others suggested altering my comps, moving paragraphs around, and how to streamline language so that the query would ‘pop.’ 

Last August, after three QRs and a million rewrites of my query letter and manuscript, I felt like I was finally ready. Most of the agents I contacted were those I had met at QR, but I also ‘cold queried’ a few, incorporating the QR feedback I had received. Incredibly, I landed an agent – from one of the ‘cold’ queries. That’s how good the QR advice and feedback was!

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