The very nature of writing often isolates us from the outside world, and from making contact with kindred souls who understand the writing life all the more important. A great place to find this camaraderie is at the numerous writers' conferences held throughout the year in every location from Cape Cod to the Caribbean. In addition to the fellowship, networking, and continuing education, conferences frequently offer a bonus: the professional consultation.
This is your opportunity for a personal, albeit brief, meeting with an agent, editor, or other industry professional. The common thread here is pressure. You have about ten minutes to dazzle the consultant with your talent. A tall order, but with a little preparation and the following hints, it can be the most productive part of your conference experience.
1. Do Your Homework
Nothing turns off a literary consultant faster than an ill-prepared writer. Take the time in advance to research the professional(s) available. Don't schedule time with random people based solely on reputation or popularity. A representative may not handle your genre, or work with writers at your level. You will save time and money by learning sooner rather than later which consultant best suits your needs -- and vice versa. Review the consultant's bio just prior to your scheduled meeting and present yourself as an informed professional who's aimed in the right direction.
Similarly, find out who the "popular" ones are and why. Time slots with well-known agents and editors are likely to sell out in short order, so plan accordingly.
2. Prepare a Pitch
This all-important two- or three-sentence summary of your writing project has a dual purpose: to describe the book's genre and basic premise, and to intrigue the consultant. A well-crafted pitch tantalizes with a hook that sets the manuscript apart from the rest. That's a lot to pack into a couple of sentences, so choose words wisely.
This isn't as difficult as it sounds. Read the movie descriptions in your local TV guide, or pick up your favorite novel and read the jacket or flyleaf copy. For example, see if you can identify this bestseller: "This is a family saga that begins with a birth in 1750 in an African village and ends seven generations later at the Arkansas funeral of a black professor whose children include a teacher, a Navy architect, and an author."
Or this one: "Set in Depression-era Louisiana, this serialized novel is a prison guard's account of events that challenge his most cherished beliefs in the place of ultimate retribution: death row."
These pitches came from the back covers of Alex Haley's Roots and Stephen King's The Green Mile.
3. Be Professional
Even if a consultation is held on the beach, it is still a business meeting. Save the Speedo for later. Neatness counts when making first impressions. Even if the editor seated across from you sports two days' worth of stubble and a wrinkled shirt, set the example by presenting a professional appearance. And leave the chewing gum, snacks, and cigarettes behind.
Twinges of self-doubt are normal, but a consultation is not the place to seek validation. Remember, you must first believe in yourself and your work before you can persuade others to believe in it. Be proud of your writing.
Exude self-assurance, but not arrogance. Openers like "I'm the next John Grisham," or "Today is your lucky day" will only alienate the consultant. It's okay to convey enthusiasm, but temper your zeal with a patina of humility.
4. Break the Ice
Consultations can be nerve-wracking even to veteran writers. If you're really nervous about it, pretend this is someone you've met at a party. Ofter a personable handshake and some small talk to start things off in a relaxed manner. You'll then find it easy to segue into the business at hand.
Often the consultant will take the onus off you by asking, "How long have you been writing?" or "Tell me about your book." If your agent or someone else has recommended a consultation with that specific person, you have an automatic ice-breaker. A few exchanges about your mutual contact, and you're off and running.
Most consultants are approachable and easy to talk to... sometimes too easy. Get them started and you may have trouble getting them to stop long enough for you to describe your project. Make sure -- politely -- that they remember this is your time. Steer the conversation back where it belongs: your writing.
5. Conduct Your Own Interview
It's only natural to want to impress the agent/editor, but they should also make an impression on you. You'll derive more from the encounter with active participation. Think ahead of some pertinent questions that aren't covered in their bios. Don't sit waiting for the consultant to drop career-changing comments in your lap. Ask what the editor looks for in a first-time author. Ask how many books the agent has sold in the past year.
On the flip side, try to anticipate questions they may ask you: What is your target market? How do you plan to promote your book? What makes this book different from others like it? Write down possible questions ahead of time and review them before the consultation.
6. Get a Business Card
Most consultants will have a supply of business cards with them; be certain to ask for one. If none are available, jot down the name (properly spelled!), complete mailing address, phone number, and email address. Even if the consultation doesn't culminate in a contract, you'll want to send a brief thank-you note later. It's a courteous business practice that at best will keep your name favorably alive in the consultant's memory, and at least will make your mother proud. Hang onto the contact information for future reference.
7. Make Lemonade from Lemons
It doesn't happen often, but it does happen: Once in a while you'll emerge from a consultation wondering why you wasted your money. Take heart; you can salvage a seemingly useless encounter by remembering a few points:
8. End the Right Way
When the bell (or buzzer or tap on the shoulder) ends the consultation, finish your thought and wrap things up. Don't keep the next writer waiting by overstaying your welcome, and give the consultant a moment to catch his breath before the next writer comes in. Conclude your session with thanks and a clear idea of what the consultant wants you to follow up with, if anything.
After you've left the meeting room, immediately jot down a summary of the consultation. Include important points like advice, requests, referrals, and preferences. If you've scheduled multiple consultations over the course of the conference, the rapid pace will soon blur everyone and everything. Get it down on paper while it's still fresh in your mind.
9. Pretend You're From Missouri!
When a consultant waxes rhapsodic about your work, it's easy to get carried away with euphoria. If you're anything like me, you respond to a manuscript request by being first in line at the post office the next morning. Then comes the endless wait for the reply, which may take weeks, months, or indeed may never come at all. So take a consultant's ebullience with a grain of salt and tell yourself that seeing is believing. What an enthusiastic consultant offers as encouragement may be false hope, and the disappointment can be devastating.
I once met with a film producer who raved about my historical novel to the point where he envisioned Sally Field playing the lead. I'd already composed my Oscar acceptance speech when he called to say he'd misunderstood a major characteristic of the novel's protagonist and was no longer interested. It was a long fall from that Oscar podium. . .
The whims of industry professionals are as fleeting as mercury. When your excitement starts to run away with you, curb the anticipation with a bridle of reason, and hope for the best.
The people with whom you consult are just that: people. They do not hold the fate of your career in their hands, and most of the time they don't bite. Approach a consultation the way you would any other business interview, and you'll be fine. Take a couple of calming breaths before you go in, smile, and be yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you'll end up with a great success story to tell.
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