Last Saturday, I went to Books Alive!, the Washington Independent Book Review’s annual conference.
The conference featured an impressive lineup of panels with publishers and renowned authors, but what really got my attention was the opportunity to spend five minutes pitching to as many as four agents: the writing equivalent of speed dating. I decided to adopt an analogous mindset by having high hopes, low expectations, and a very thick skin.
Unfortunately, I woke up that Friday with vertigo, a new and incapacitating experience. I spent the day in bed, unable to work on my pitch and questioning whether I’d even be able to attend the conference.
While prone, I busted out the Google long enough to read about a home remedy called the Epley Maneuver. I called my sister Lynne, who has experienced every nausea trigger known to man at least once and has had vertigo so many times she’s a verti-pro. Of course she knew about the maneuver. It involves lying on a flat surface with your head hanging over the edge and having someone take it, twist it to certain angles, and hold it there in an effort to shake something loose, literally. During our childhood, my sister and I were on the constant lookout for opportunities to do something like this to each other (and we needed no medical provocation whatsoever). But when I asked Lynne to Epley me, she didn’t sound excited in the least. Some would view this as a sign that our relationship has matured, but not me. I knew it meant the Epley must be God-awful.
She came over on Friday afternoon and maneuvered me right in my kitchen. After the five-minute protocol, I felt like a hostage at the Magic Kingdom Mad Tea Party. On regaining my bearings, I felt better, but it was short-lived.
When I woke up on Saturday morning, the room had stopped spinning but I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to pitch so much as hurl. Yet I’d spent $250 on registration fees and didn’t want to squander that or my first chance to talk to an agent in person about my writing, so I decided to give it a shot. In an act of kindness, the Universe scheduled three of my pitches in the morning and a fourth after lunch. Before the first group session began, I met up with my friend and writing pal, Kathy, and she convinced me to power through for as long as I could. I made it through an informative panel about publishing, as well as a great session about conspiracy theory by Stephen Hunter. (In case you’re wondering, he speaks the way he writes– with simple, rich language and lots of great words like “imbue”–and he offered an important pointer to all the fiction writers out there: you get one coincidence per book. That’s it. No wonder I write nonfiction: I average at least two coincidences per story.)
For a few minutes out of each session, I left to pitch. I soon learned the speed-dating analogy fit, down to the tiny tables bearing number signs and a “time’s up!” bell.
Some view introducing your writing to an agent and yourself to a speed-dater as very personal encounters, but I’ve come to believe neither is. In both scenarios, the participants get a mere glimpse into the other person before making a go/no-go decision. That’s rarely long enough for anyone to take what happens too personally. And because most people have experienced rejection at some point in their lives, they usually try to be nice, no matter which seat they’re sitting in. Usually.
I pitched to three agents, whom I’ll call A1, A2, and A3, before handing Kathy my fourth slot and going home. I had prepared two separate pitches, one for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing, and another for my book-in-progress. The B-I-P is not in manuscript form yet, so I sought only feedback about whether I was on the right track, whereas I hoped to land Good Luck with an agent who’d want to re-launch it. I planned to choose my pitch based on the agent’s specialty.
I pitched the B-I-P to A1 and A3. They listened attentively, asked questions, and delivered honest, constructive feedback with kindness. It felt like a halfway decent speed-date, the writing equivalent of “I’ll call you.” If they thought I had wasted their time, they didn’t let it show.
The same could not be said of A2, to whom I intended to pitch Good Luck.
A2 dismissed that pitch with contempt and speed, asking after six seconds why I would waste our time together with that. I nearly asked A2 to pause so I could order a can of varnish, but I decided just to forge ahead with the B-I-P pitch. After all, I’d paid for this detonated bomb of a speed-date, so I wasn’t about to let anybody crawl out from under the wreckage until we’d both suffered for the full five minutes.
For four more minutes, A2 torched the B-I-P pitch, to which I responded with effusive, possibly aggressive, expressions of gratitude, like, “That’s fantastic feedback!” and “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this!”
I actually did appreciate it, even if the brand of rejection A2 served up was as appetizing as a dish my mother once made called “shipwreck.” I treated this heap of uninviting contents the way I did shipwreck: I mined it search of the good bits I knew lurked inside it. I’ve gathered those, added them to the other feedback I’ve accumulated, and am using it to improve my writing.
So, I’m glad I went to the conference and tossed out a few pitches. The experience reinforced my conviction that you can’t go into it, or speed-dating, with a fragile sense of self or in pursuit of validation. If you approach it instead with confidence in who you are and the humility that comes from knowing not everyone will love you, then a bit of rejection won’t send you staggering. That’s what your vertigo is for.