Thursday, October 09, 2014

Can I rant about how evil pitch sessions are again?

Recently I gave away query letter critiques as part of a fundraiser.  I said "send your query, get a critique, then send it back with revisions, get another."

It was very gratifying to see how fast those query crits got snapped up.

And once we started working, it was clear, yet again, that most writers need only two or three revisions to get a good solid query.  And I don't mean little tinkering changes here and there, I mean, tear down to the floor boards and start again revisions.  TWO or THREE!

So, why the hell aren't writers conferences offering this instead of pitch sessions? It boggles my mind.

First: getting your query, your WRITTEN query, in front of an agent is 100% more effective than pitching.

Second: pitch sessions are one and done. You get ONE shot to entice an agent. With query revisions, you've got a chance to revise, and try again. Moreover, I can explain why something doesn't work, suggest an alternative, or ask a question that helps you clarify your plot.  With pitch sessions all I can say is "yes" or "no" and you have no idea what went in to either answer.

Even if there's a chance to say more like "this doesn't work" you're not in any kind of headspace to hear and consider it. You're focused on keeping your self pulled together for the next pitch.

Third: if you revise your query with one agent, you've got a MUCH better shot at enticing another agent. With pitch sessions, you simply repeat your pitch on and on with no sense of whether it's effective.

I've been ranting about this for YEARS. I don't seem to be making much headway which really just breaks my heart and fills the oceans with salty shark tears. It's damn hard to get ahead in publishing, and writers conferences are the one place that should give you the tools and the practice to get better.

I've seen this over and over: helping authors revise queries WORKS.  It's EFFECTIVE.***  Why the hell aren't writers DEMANDING this??

**here's a writer talking about her experience with crit donation mentioned above.


Joyce Tremel said...

Also, many writers are introverts. Ask us what our book is about and we stumble all over our words (at least I do!) I'd much rather put something in writing.

Thomas Pluck said...

Yes, introverts. But also because a pitch feeds the lottery winner aspect of "one and done" that we hear about all the time, which usually is a simplification of events. Like the "overnight success" that's actually ten years of hard work.

LynnRodz said...

Dammit, this will be the first law when Janet becomes QOTKU! Hurry up, J, we need you!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"Why the hell aren't writers DEMANDING this??"

Because as writers, especially as unpublished writers we feel that if our name appears on any petition (so-called) which bucks the system, we are black balled. Don't want to be considered a troublemaker.
Demanding anything from traditional publishing is kind of scary.I will if you will but you go first.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Amen, Janet! I've heard you preach this gospel before, and I'm a believer.

If I ever find myself in the position of helping to plan a conference, I'll argue long and hard to at least pilot this idea.
Critiquing queries would be more time-consuming for agents, so the number of crits each would do would have to be more limited than the number of pitches they now take. But it would almost certainly be a more rewarding experience all around.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I've been swimming in the shark's salty seas too long and have become delirious. How many out there know enough about how to write a query so they can advise writers? (You, Ms. Janet, seem to have a knack.) I wonder if conferences would struggle to find enough "query clinic" advisers with your exacting eye for detail and enough knowledge to help writers hone in on what they're really trying to say? Maybe this is the issue...IDK.

I read Sherri's versions, and seriously, the difference was..., well, like night and day. The first? I wouldn't want to read that story. The second? I was hooked. And I don't read Fantasy.

As the writers of our stories, we know them best, yet it's just about impossible to explain what they are about when asked. I can't even do this at a party, half loaded, when it's only a friend or acquaintance asking. I know I'd never get it in a 30 second pitch to an agent. I guarantee a nervous eye twitch would be the only thing that agent would remember about me.

Stephen Parrish said...

First, thanks for doing the crits. The industry needs more agents like you.

The reason pitch sessions are popular is because they're relatively easy; agents only need sit and listen. Critting is work, and recritting is more work.

One day you and I, and others who think like us, will conduct a writing conference of our own. Attendees will leave dazed and inspired, and other conference organizers will scramble to imitate us.

Also, the bar will stay open until breakfast.

Melissa said...

The word is getting out. The last conference I went to allowed us to sign up for an hour or so with an agent and four other writers. We sent our queries and first ten pages ahead of time. This allowed her to give us feedback at the conference.

One woman pitched a YA comedy. The agent loved her writing and said she would request pages but probably would turn her down in the end because angst is what's selling not comedy.

The writer went home and pulled out a teen angst trunk novel that had been rejected may times a few years ago. She edited again, sent out to some readers, and edited again. She began querying and three weeks later had an agent.

Without the advice of the first agent that wouldn't have happened.

Colin Smith said...

Maybe Stephen has a point: perhaps conference organizers believe they'll attract more agents if all they have to do is sit on panels and listen to query pitches...? I'd hate to think agents actually enjoy playing Simon Cowell with frightened writers. Some agents I've read say they're often as nervous as the ones pitching to them.

Your suggestion sounds like a win-win, Janet. With the "query workshop" approach, the agent feels more like s/he's helping the writer, and the writer gets invaluable assistance that might win them requests right there at the conference.

You have my vote! Are we starting a petition? :D

Susan Bonifant said...

I was one of the contributors who was lucky enough to wind up with a Janet Reid-assisted query. She's not kidding when she says down to the floor boards. I even got the signature "And here is where I'm just confused" line, which made me feel like I was finally with the right doctor.

I was almost as stunned by how "fixable" my query was as I was by Janet Reid's super-fast analysis and suggestions.

If they're like I was, writers receiving this kind of help at a conference would walk away re-energized, many who might not have signed up at all otherwise.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

First, couldn't agree more. Before they get a chance to pitch to an agent – either at a conference or through a query – most writers need help in learning HOW to pitch. They are woefully unprepared.
Second – If I may repeat myself, my experience is that far more pitch sessions become the basis of hilarious stories at a bar – "Then he said, but I've got the bird right here!" followed by gales of laughter – than actually result in offers or book deals. Painfully earnest beginning writers are most likely paying for the privilege of becoming the punch line of someone's after-hours story. Maybe that's not generally true, but in my experience it certainly is.

Craig said...

I don't think the agents hearing the pitches are much better at writing queries than the writers who are pitching. Other than upsetting the status quo of the writers conference there might be other repercussions. If a writer gets a query critique that other agents don't spew their coffee about then the writers are going to get nasty. In this day and age that could be disastrous.

Suzy Scribbler said...

At the last conference I attended, they only asked for the first 10 pages and a brief query. Maybe it is catching on in some places?

It was a great session because after I got feedback, I could ask whatever questions I wanted. So that time could be used to talk about that book, the query, the industry, etc.

Gayle Carline said...

I go to a conference twice a year that has a couple of query-polishing workshops run by a couple of editors and former publishers. The conference is the Southern California Writers Conference. Also, one of the editors, Marla Miller, does "Quick Query Critiques" on YouTube.

Dean K Miller said...

I pitched once (okay twice if you count the one inning in third grade baseball) just for the experience. Glad I did. Learned and saw interesting things. Have to agree, the query seems to put more odds in the writer's court.

Christina Seine said...

At a recent conference I attended, one of the agents I was scheduled to pitch with was unable to make it. The agent they "swapped me out" with, it turned out, didn't rep my genre (it was all rather crazy; adult beverages were consumed later, believe me). Well, rather than saying "ugh, okay bye," I asked this agent if he would spend the rest of the 9.5 minutes of our session critiquing my query letter (after all, I'd paid for those minutes, right?). Now, I thought I had my query polished like a mirror, but I still walked away from that session with several concrete, very helpful suggestions, which I later incorporated. It was the only 'pitch session' I did where my knees weren't shaking under the table the whole time. Don't get me wrong, I did have some wonderful sessions and met some incredibly nice agents, but it really stood out to me how different and relaxed that session was.

Also, I was able to watch some of the pitch sessions other people did. You could tell in about 25 seconds whether or not an agent was interested. I think the writers could, too. As the agents' leaned further back in their chairs, tapped their pencils on their table and looked around, the writers' voices would go up a notch. They'd start talking faster, getting more and more desperate by the minute. It was kind of icky.

And don’t even get me started on group pitch sessions. I attended one where the poor agent practically got bullied into saying, “Um, yeah – I guess you can send me a couple chapters, but, um …” and the poor writer who did get a request was made to feel like a jerk. Wow.

I agree that not all agents are necessarily good query doctors, but at least Janet’s idea takes a lot of the pressure off.

Amy Schaefer said...

I don't know - helping writers with their writing at a writing conference? I don't see how that is going to catch on.

Shaunna said...

Hi Janet,

Check out the Pikes Peak Writer's Conference for 2015. They've changed their pitch sessions to exactly what you're asking for. It's called a Query 1 on 1. I have never been to this conference, but I stumbled across the website today and found it apropos today's blog post. Somebody is listening. Woot!

Stephsco said...

The two times I attended RWA's Spring Fling in Chicago area they had a pitch clinic as the first workshop of the conference--no other sessions competing with it. A published writer assisted, hands-on, with how to write a pitch. Every year, there are people who cancel their pitches after that session because they realize they are unprepared. I think a similar query session would be great.

DLM said...

Christina Seine, TEN MINUTE pitch sessions? That's just too long, no wonder it's painful. I've only ever done 4- and 5-minute ones, and though it's frenetic, it's got to be better than long, awkward pauses.

Reasons the James River Writers Conference is the extra bomb diggety (though we've never had Janet with us, HEAVY SIGH!!!): all agents, speakers, editors, and so on are requested to join the conference for its entire duration, so pitch sessions are NOT the only chance - we are annually encouraged to TALK TO PEOPLE. No matter who they are.

Also, pitch sessions are not the only marquee event, we also have First Pages critiques (your page read anonymously for review in front of EVERYONE - highly exhilerating, I can hell you!), bonus training sessions including craft, marketing, and critique, and Pitchapalooza, which is also on the dizzying side (yes, I've done that one too - and FIRST, one year, which was breathtaking). So the pitch sessions are not the big stress event, and of course all of this is take it or don't, there's still lots to do.

I've had a 100% bite rate on pitches at this event, and this includes several agents I didn't get a pitch appointment with. Granted, I also have a 0% signing rate at this point, but JRW seldom have agents who do quite my kind of histfic (so few agents do, it feels like). Anyway, the pitch sessions are AOK by me. Of course, I am neither an introvert nor one who necessarily waits for appointments, so YMMV, particularly at events where the agents are less accessible.

This year, there is one certain guest looks like she might actually be a good prospect, and she has intriguing interviews. So we shall see.

This con is next weekend, by the way ...

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Having never been to a writers' conference, and so especially not a pitch session, I constantly get this mental image of supplicants before the throne. I'm sure for most agents it is NOT the intent.

Connie Keller said...

What a great idea!

Author JM Kelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi Janet,

I found your blog through Writer Unboxed. They had a roundup of Hot Tweetbies at #WU. Love your blog.

Anyway, I completely agree with what you say about queries. I just finished a memoir and had a devil of a time finding an example of a memoir proposal. But I finally found one.

As for queries, I did attend a conference at Antioch where an editor from Random House reviewed query letters and gave feedback. But it's the only conference I've seen that does that. He had some great tips. I am about to send queries and rather nervous about it.

Thanks for your candid rant!

-Karin Gall