The highlight of my year came last week at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association annual conference. What set this conference apart from all the others I’ve attended was “The Power Pitch Block,” ninety-minute periods in which a few hundred supplicants took turns presenting their cases to a lineup of some of the top literary agents and editors in the country.
Picture the temperature in a long, low-ceilinged hotel meeting room rising as everyone sweats in anticipation of the challenge they are about to face. They sit in rows of five in striking distance of the people they believe can make or break their dreams of being published. These same petitioners are scratching notes on lined paper, crossing them out and starting over; trading stories with their neighbors — some horror, some fantasy depending on their genres — or staring upward, rehearsing silently or praying. The bell rings and the race is on. Each has three minutes to convince an expert that his or her book has something new, special or timely to offer the reading public. The noise level rises to a playoff-game high, but no one is deterred. The bell rings again and some shift one seat closer to the prize agent, while those who complete their pitches take their hopes to the back of a new line to face a new agent.
Early on day two of the conference, before the Power Pitch sessions began, panels of agents and editors stretching across an entire hotel ballroom, instructed us on how to pitch. In my notebook I wrote, “Give us two to three sentences describing your book and telling us why you’re passionate about it. And leave time in those three minutes for questions.” The panelists also gave us warnings. “Don’t tell us your book is the next Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or that it’s a cross between Harry Potter and Gone with the Wind. Also, if we ask you to send pages from your manuscript, please don’t enclose Hershey Kisses, money or baggies filled with a white powder.”
During the first Power Pitch session, I volunteered for the job of offering assistance to the “pitchers,” while keeping them from taking more than their allotted time. This gave me a chance to watch the agents, see who smiled and nodded and who cut off the presenter in fifteen seconds. This was important, because my first attempt to pitch at the writers’ conference last summer ended badly. Then, I knew that despite several days effort I didn’t have a good pitch; the agent made it clear that she agreed, asking, “Why would anyone in Ohio care?” before sending me on my way.
In contrast to last year, the three agents I saw were warm and positive. “Send me chapter one,” said the first one. The second asked for the first three chapters, and the third for the first fifty pages.
According to the website of the conference’s final speaker, Christina Katz, “…the distance between totally unknown writers and book deal is longer and steeper than ever.” But Katz also said, “It’s an honor when an agent asks to see your manuscript.” I know that both these statements are true. Although I understand the odds of getting published are small, that doesn’t take away from the memory of having someone who matters ask to see my work. Even better, none of them brought up any doubts concerning readers in Ohio.