What I Learned About Pitching at Willamette Writers Conference

I attended my first writers conference this past weekend: the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The conference included workshops on the craft of writing, as well as all aspects of a writers career, from using social media and building an online audience to the art of pitching to agents to the pros and cons of self-publishing.

In addition, a major component of the conference is the ability to pitch directly to agents, either one-on-one (10 minute sessions), group sessions (approximately 2 minutes per person), or ad-hoc in hallways or over lunch.

Prior to the conference, I attended a six hour workshop by Leona Grieve on preparing to pitch to agents. This was invaluable, not only because I learned about numerous mistakes I was making on my query letter, but also because it introduced the concept of the log line, a one sentence summary of your concept.

Here's an example of my log line:
What if a man, desperate to keep his work project from being cancelled, modified the world's largest email service to automatically and secretly alter people's emails to ensure the success of the project, only to find that the software's manipulations continually escalate?
This isn't a perfect example, as the ideal log line would be less than 25 words, but it's a start. Many log lines will start with a "what if" but they should also include a "so what". My first attempts at a log line didn't include the "only to find that the software's manipulations continually escalate". Some intermediate versions cast the "so what" in terms of the impact to the main character.

I also learned that agents like to have a two to three sentence summary of your book in addition to the log line. In addition, you must make sure to mention the title of the book, genre, length (in words), your name, and your credentials.

All this can seem overwhelming, and I spent weeks whittling down what I had to fit the expectations of agents and editors.

I didn't really understand start to understand the point of it all until the workshop. Agents and editors expect to see something in a particular format with particular content. With anywhere from 25 to 150 queries a day to process, anything outside of the boundaries of their expectations is simply rejected or disregarded. In many ways, this is similar to what happens to resumes: when looking at 50 to 100 resumes for a position, the easy ones to eliminate are the ones with funny formatting or a lack of the expected content in the resume, or the ones without a cover letter.

At the conference I attended a workshop on pitching that included literary agent Laurie McLean, who completed my understanding. Laurie explained that authors pitch to agents, but agents must then turn around and pitch to editors. Editors turn around and pitch to booksellers. Booksellers pitch to readers, who must buy the book. Unless a book has a succinct and compelling description that will ultimately become backcover copy, none of those steps can happen. An agent needs to be able to phone a editor and figure out in a minute if the idea is good. The publisher has to, with only a few words, convey the story and conflict and would it would be interesting to the reader, who will make a purchase decision based on those few words.

Once I really understood how valuable the pitch is all through the lifecycle of a book, some of my internal resistance to creating a pitch evaporated, and I was able to focus on creating an effective one. Once I had it, I practiced over and over, so that I would feel comfortable delivering it.

My completed pitch is 192 words, and it takes me about 1 minute and 15 seconds to deliver at a comfortable pace. Here's the whole thing:

My book, Avogadro Corp is a 67,000 word techno-thriller. 
What if a man, desperate to keep his work project from being cancelled, modified the world’s largest email service to automatically and secretly alter emails to ensure the success of his project only to find that the software’s manipulations continually increase? 
David Ryan is the designer of ELOPe, an email language optimization tool, that if successful, will make his career. But when the project may be cancelled, David embeds a directive in the software to filter the company emails for any mention of the project, creating a sense of self-preservation. 
David and his coworkers are thrilled at first when the project is allocated extra servers and programmers. But his initial excitement turns to fear as David realizes that he too is being manipulated. 
David and his team, and soon the whole company, take ever escalating action to contain ELOPe, including bombing their own data centers, only to find that ELOPE is always one step ahead of them. 
Avogadro Corp was inspired by my work on expert systems and social media at Hewlett-Packard, as well as personal experiences with computer hackers.
It's still not perfect. In particular, I don't at all capture how ELOPe plays into world politics, or the subplot of how David and Mike's friendship is strained by differing opinions about how to deal with the project in the beginning, and in how to deal with the AI near the end.

But it's shorter and smoother than the 240 word that took me two minutes to deliver, and much shorter than the 350 word body of my query letters that failed to include a log line.

I scheduled two agent group sessions. Unfortunately, there were only three agents interested in science fiction or techno thrillers, and one of them was already booked by the time I registered. I showed up for my first group session both excited and nervous. The agent introduced herself, and then said something along the lines of, "To alleviate some of the pressure and nervousness, I'll be inviting all of you to send me a query."

It's true that it does help if you are nervous, which I was, and it does feel good to get to send your material to the agent. But I can't help feeling that I would want the agent to be slightly more discriminatory, because I'd like to know that if I am invited to submit that I'd have a better chance than if I had just emailed her agent out of the blue.

Later in the day I went to my second group session, and this agent also again invited everyone at the table to send material to her.

From the agents' perspective, I think they might say that they can really only make a decision based on the writing itself, rather than a pitch.

In the end, I feel that all the preparation that went into getting ready to pitch at the conference was extremely valuable. I'm not sure yet whether the actual pitching at the conference improves a writer's chances of success, at least in the format of a group session where there is little time for discussion of the work.
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