Friday, July 14, 2017

An interesting thing happened on the way to the bar

Yesterday I participated in the UNpitchFest at ThrillerFest. As you know, I think pitching is an abomination and should be banned from conferences, but so far, not much luck in persuading conference organizers of this.

The good folks at ThrillerFest however have instituted the No Pitch Zone. The NPZ is a place for writers to come and get help on their queries and first pages. Sort of like QueryShark in person. In the NPZ this year were four agents and two editors. One of the agents was LaSlitherina Herself, the amazing and terrifying Barbara Poelle, and of course me.

Let's just say WE had a good time.
I'm not sure if any of the writers actually survived.
They are so very tasty.

This year something odd and interesting happened. I'm not sure why or how. I didn't plan it. It wasn't something I even thought about ahead of time. It just ... happened.

Here's what it was: the first writer sat down with all her papers and pens,  hopes and fears. If I could read auras I think she'd be a throbbing rainbow.

"Hi," I said. "I'm Janet."
She told me her name.

"How can I help you today?" I asked.

She needed help on her query. She fumbled a bit, found the paper, had it in her hands.

In years past, I might have taken it from her hand, feigning grabbing it at to demonstrate my eagerness to read. I thought that would make the writer feel encouraged.

This year without much thought I just said "May I read it?"
She handed it to me.

I asked "May I make some suggestions?" and she said "Yes, please do." Of course, we were in a room specifically designed for help on queries, ie suggestions, and I would have been startled if she had said no.

But it was interesting to see she instantly seemed more calm and more in control.

By asking her permission, by giving her control of the interaction, she felt better.

Well, the heavens didn't open, and angels did not descend to sing my praises (and honestly if they had I would have fallen over dead with shock) but it did feel like a bit of an epiphany.

So I kept doing it. I didn't make a big deal about it. I just ... asked.

Now that I've slunk home from the bar, and had some time to think I really like this approach. I can't quite put my finger on why yet (I haven't had time enough to ruminate, cause I'm still trying to fumigate!) but I just thought I'd share this with you.  [And that's cause I forgot to do a real blog post for today and I have to be back at T/fest today at 9am for Patrick Lee's panel.  He's more of a night owl than I am, so two coffee IV poles will be wheeled in!]




42 comments:

CynthiaMc said...

I like this approach too.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Ha! Writers are tasty? Luv the the Pitch Free Zone idea. I hope more conferences pick up that idea and run with it. When I finally get myself off to a conference, I'll be looking for one that includes that.

Being the readovacious Shark that you are, you probably got much more information from a calmer writer about a potential book to keep in mind for future nibbling?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Lucky writers. I wish that pitch sessions at conferences could be replaced with this kind of thing. I always get requests from pitches, and I used to get excited about this. Then it occurred to me that this doesn't mean much if your query letter isn't up to snuff.

As for the asking permission thing to a quivering writer, it probably does take the edge off the inherent insecurity so many of us have.

You are sitting across from a shark. Obviously, you are going to be eaten. Then the shark asks permission to look at the query that you are clinging to. Relief. Maybe there won't be any blood-letting.

I do wish the organizers of WDC would substitute this non-pitch format in place of their pitch sessions. I am good at pitching. Lots of people are, but that does not show your ability to craft an effective query letter, I wonder if I took my query letter and simply gave it to each of the agents I pitch, if they would simply take a bite out of me and send me away? Well, at WDC, the pitch session tells you specifically not to hand the agent anything. Oh well. It's at least a starting point.

Susan said...

I think writers, woodland creatures that we are, see someone who can possibly help us fulfill our dreams and by instinct try to elevate that person to be more than they are--more than simply a fellow human being. This creates the nerves and tension because "OMG, this person can help me change my future!"

But your calmness and respect in asking "may I see your pages" put you both on the same level. You did give her more control, which made it an even exchange of power, so to speak. It was a true collaboration of ideas. It was a partnership.

I've only ever known you to be respectful of writers (and generous and helpful and encouraging), but I think this exhibits that even more. I think it's wonderful.

Colin Smith said...

Personally, I'd have been flattered by the grabby hands. But then, I probably wouldn't have been quite so shy to hand over my work (as you well know, Ms. Shark).

What makes me really sad is that you, and Ms. Poelle, and Patrick Lee (nytba) and there and I'm not!!! Say hi to them both for me! One day, I'll get out more...

french sojourn said...


I love this approach, for the reasons you mentioned, but also it gives you (Scarlet Billows) the opportunity to have a clean slate reading it. You're not fed it to you in the voice s/he interprets into their own writing. You're not hearing the nervousness of them reading it, etc. Really cool, "setting standards for chum everywhere".

Cheers! Hank.

Colin Smith said...

Wow--what are the odds of that?? Four people submitting comments at exactly the same time (7:28 am)! Cool!! :D

Susan said...

Colin: LOL! We've officially become of hive mind here. Scary. =P

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin We are becoming one here at the Reef. I suppose that happens when we are all gobbled up by the same shark. I think this means, we all get cake prepared by your talented daughter. We are one. We must share :)

Jennifer Delozier said...

I'm also at ThrillerFest, and although I did NOT pitch, I mentored a few members of the debut class prior to theirs. It's so easy to underestimate people's fears when you've been working in a field a long time. I'm a physician in my day job, and we use this same approach with patients. Imagine what you would think if a doc entered a room and just tore your gown off to examine you without asking permission? Those simple gestures and words represent a transfer of power back to the vulnerable party.

Apologies for any typos. I'm on a panel at eight and am typing this really fast!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well boys and girls, we now know what actually happened in the room. CNN, MSNBC, even Fox news reports the earth shattering truth:
the shark, our shark, our Queen of Queens, is actually nice and polite and cognoscente of another person's feelings, kind of agent.
Who 'whould'a' thought.

Or maybe it's all a smoke screen.
Hmmm....

Jennifer R. Donohue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer R. Donohue said...

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the writers
that came to
the conference

and which
you were probably
hoping
would write more

Forgive me
they were delicious
so earnest
and so scared

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

And comment 2 (I hadn't read the entire post before I commented the first time, I was inspired by "they are so very tasty")

That was a very interesting interaction, and it's an interesting insight into human behavior We're so odd, aren't we? But I think by asking that first right (and the subsequent ones) you reminded them that they WANTED to be there, at that conference, in that room with you. Even if they were struck by sudden doubts, or stage fright, or whatever, it was something that reminded them it had been their choice and yes, that they were in control.

This thing happens in dog training/dog behavior when a dog is said to be "over threshold"; there's a stimulus that just has them beyond normal thoughts and behavior, because they're concentrated on it/agitated by it/dreadfully frightened/whatever. Distance helps to keep a dog under threshold. And the handler not also panicking themselves and adding fuel to the fire. And sometimes, behavior is behavior, just as learning is learning.

So I'm not trying to be insulting to humans and fellow writers here, I'm saying that being kind of neutral like that can help bring a person back under threshold and give them a handle on the anxiety they're feeling in a situation. Dogs and people both make bad decisions when they're too wound up to think, and sometimes it doesn't take very much to bring them back down again.

Aline Pusecker Taylor said...

I've interviewed several people a day for the past 20 years (HUD subsidized housing applicants --no stress there.) My initial goals are to help whoever I'm interviewing feel at ease and to show them respect. Turns the appointment toward a more positive experience for all of us.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

kindness is powerful

LynnRodz said...

I love the NPZ idea and I think you hit on something big, Janet. If I was the person in your scenario, I would have been all thumbs even if I had prepared my query to be handed to you ahead of time. If you would've grabbed the query out of my hands, I wouldn't have taken it as you being eager to read it, oh no. I would've assumed you were impatient with me for not having it ready and you were annoyed because your time was limited and I was wasting it. I probably would've been too flustered to have even heard what you were saying.

By you asking if you could read it and make suggestions (even though that was the whole point) you changed the energy. Everyone knows the universe is made up of energy/vibrations and by changing that flow, you saw the positive results first hand. Brava!

Theresa said...

Love the "throbbing rainbow" description. And I also liked Janet's approach to making the writer feel more at ease.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I love this story. Thank you for sharing. And I wish I was there. I'm just itching to attend some sort of writerly fest, conference thingy. Plus, it would be so fun to wave at you from across the room. "Hi Janet!"

And I love this: "By giving her control, she felt better." How do you get a thousand pound prey animal to calmly accept something completely unnatural? (Such as another creature climbing on his back - an act which mimics the behavior of a predator). You ask. You allow the horse to participate in his own life. You could force it, but something always gets lost in the translation and the relationship is never as lovely as it could be.

Hank "Setting standards for chum everywhere." Perfect. And funny.

Kregger said...

Wait a minute...

Have you been swimming in the human DNA pool?

Seriously?

Just like dear old (school teacher), Mum used to say, "Once you start laughing and smiling at students they begin to challenge authority."

But, I like the way the new sharkskin suit fits.

Just don't let it go to your head.

Capisce?

BunnyBear said...

Janet, when I met you in person, I instantly felt comfortable. I felt like I'd met a new friend. We discussed my query and you gave me feedback on how to make it better. Then we talked about my manuscript and you made additional suggestions for the query. And no, you didn't chomp on me. But at that point I was so grateful for your help that I would have gladly let you.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Jennifer, "...under threshold...over threshold", love it.
That explains a lot, especially with children and woodland creatures which we are.
Building a query, contract signing, (Colin's)baking tips and now dog training, amazing what we learn here.
Wuff :)

BJ Muntain said...

I've always been a fan of Janet's. Since the Other Blog. I became a devotee when she gave me an A+ on my rewritten query paragraph in her workshop. And then I heard something about her that made me see the real Janet.

I met a new friend in Janet's workshop, who was also working on the registration table at that conference. She said that after the workshop, Janet was talking to someone at registration, and said 'how brave' we all were in that workshop.

Janet is still my favourite agent.

Claire Bobrow said...

If the whole crux of the situation is “can this person captivate me with their writing,” then how effectively can you judge that by a verbal pitch? Pitching sounds like a great way to find a litigator.

Janet’s epiphany is very cool, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. She’s the nicest shark around!

BJ Muntain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BJ Muntain said...

Claire: Actually, the crux behind a pitch is to captivate an agent with your *story*. The 'writing' part comes when you send the pages they request. Although I've had a couple agents ask if I had my opening chapter with me, and I did, and they were able to read it then. Mr. Maass thought my writing was very clean. In a pitch session. (He was also impressed that I gave him a choice of two fonts to read - Times New Roman and Courier. He preferred Courier. Which I'd known, because I did my research.)

Claire Bobrow said...

BJ: I get that. But if the "story" is ultimately delivered in written form, I'm curious to know if most great verbal pitches (story ideas) translate into equally great pieces of writing. (And if I sound a bit crochety, it's because I'm switching my coffee habit back to a tea habit.)

BJ Muntain said...

Claire: Oh no! Tea instead of coffee??? The thought of anything but coffee in the morning sends chills through me.

The thing is, a well-written query doesn't always lend itself into equally great fiction, either. :) Which is why they ask for pages, either way.

I obviously don't despise pitching sessions. I see them as a way to legitimately speak to an agent, without all the anxiety that comes with approaching an agent outside of a pitch session. It's like, "We're scheduled to talk, so I'm not encroaching on the agent's time." Yes, I'm a very shy woodland creature. Can you tell? :)

RosannaM said...

I like the "may I" approach. That respectful opening allows the writer the opportunity to decline (although who would, really?) or accept and that sense of control is very calming. It engages the executive part of the brain, not the reptile part of the brain (oh, this shark has such sharp teeth...)

Lucky writers!

Brigid said...

It's so good to read something encouraging like this today. I've been feeling scattered and stressed--perils of moving into our Very Own house--and decided the solution to too many projects would be another project. So I applied to Upwork as a freelancer, because I need more practice and this appeals to me. Like our flash fiction contests, plus income. Spent hours jumping through hoops, writing a dating--er, freelancer profile, and quarreling with my husband about why I lost sleep over this without actually, y'know, talking to him. And after all of that...

I got rejected.

So I'll rewrite my profile, add links to past work, and do all the things we writers do when we try, try again. (Bourbon.) But in the mean while, this is cheering. And now I want an IV pole of coffee.

Mark Ellis said...

Pitching at conferences is a gauntlet. At Willamette Writers, you pay your money and they sit everyone down in a roped off area, sort of like a large proctologist's waiting room. You wait to be called. When called, you enter a large ballroom, only now the tables are filled with agents, and writers in various stages of encouraged exhilaration, drawing board despair, or somewhere in between. The pros tell you that based on the pitch, your book starts in the wrong place. They advise you to return to the Hero's Journey, again. They tell you that the screenplay you've written spanning an entire year, should be collapsed into one night. And, I believe, a higher percentage of the time than if you'd just e-queried, they ask for a full. I think the ratio of requests for fulls goes up considerably if you actually sweat out a conference pitch meet, simply because agents are human, and there's some sympathy because you've run the gauntlet (and you can't discount face-to-face interaction). Of course that doesn't change the ultimate equation. I'm overlong here, but a kinder, gentler approach is always welcome in any facet of life.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

OOh, that sounds like a lovely way to help get the nerves out of the way.

Especially if it was her first pitch and she didn't know what was expected. I know I wouldn't have looked very different from her, in her shoes.

You're giving the whole thing a sort of structure, without it sounding like she's foolish for not knowing precisely how these things go. :)

Amy Johnson said...

Well, when I met Ms. Shark in person, she slyly showed her sharp, shiny teeth. Then she plunged those teeth in deep, and twisted and turned, sending my blood and hunks and chunks of my flesh flying through the crowd. If she hadn't been distracted by a certain snake slithering in her direction (or was it an eel?), I surely would have been a goner.

(There, my Queen. I've set the record straight. We couldn't have people believing that other stuff.)

Lennon Faris said...

I love this. Maybe just asking her a question that she 'knew' the answer to made her feel better, too.

EM - I think Janet's said that agents probably wouldn't mind if you get to a pitch and ask if you may use that time to go over a query. It may be a different situation if the conference specifically says, 'don't hand us stuff!' Or maybe the key is just to ask kindly, like in this post.

Andrea St. Amand said...

I think that shivering, quaking shark bait in the NoPitchZone yesterday was me. To fill in context, I wanted JANET to critique my query, but another agent arrived first and said, Let's Go! First Agent helped tremendously with focusing on the guts of the story and brainstorming a portion, which then turned into a conversation about how best to structure the set up.

Then Janet swims in.

At that point, my brain was spinning from the session with First Agent, and I was petrified to show Janet the query I had originally written. I stuttered around, and she asked, with great kindness, to show it to her anyway. She came up with even more helpful, detailed feedback.

My brain was really on fire by then, but I walked away with one driving thought, and it stayed with me the rest of the day: Geez, these agents, especially the Shark, were so NICE, and they wanted to help in a meaningful way.

Point: If you're able, skip the pitch zone and get into the NPZ, quaking and shaking and all. That 45 minutes probably saved me 6 months of rewriting. Big, big thanks to Her Sharkiness and First Agent, and the others in the NPZ.

Amy Johnson said...

Oh, Queen, I tried.

Andrea: Glad things went so well for you. Best wishes for querying success. :)

Claire Bobrow said...

Andrea: jumping back in to wish you the best of luck!

RosannaM said...

Andrea, Thanks for sharing your story. I hope you don't mind me taking some vicarious joy out of what sounds like a very productive experience.

Joseph Snoe said...

I don’t believe asking the writer for her permission made her feel like she was in control of the situation. Maybe in control of her emotional state. Definitely calmer. I bet the writer was still nervous and anxious to hear the feedback.

Just saying the first words in a situation like that is calming. Hearing your own voice is somehow reassuring.

Mainly, what mattered, was Janet Reid conveyed a kindness approach that showed she was there to help and not just to rip apart the query. That the suggestions would be sincere ones and not pompous browbeating.

By the way, the good part is if Janet Reid did die from shock of Angels descending to sing her praises, she had an immediate escort to her next destination.

MA Hudson said...

I'll try again;
This is great. I think by asking to read someone's query, you're making the writer feel like you actually WANT to read it and aren't just doing it to be polite or because you're forced to.

Karen McCoy said...

2Ns, your comment made me think of "The Room Where it Happens..." from Hamilton...

Julie said...

I think this is an EXCELLENT idea, and would love to set up a novel writer's No Pitch Learn-Only conference.

But I, too, seem to be in the minority.

I don't know what the attraction is to three minutes of nausea-causing speed-dating, when you have a room full of incredible experience that can TEACH you. It's like having a Master's available RIGHT THERE!!!

But, again, everyone just wants to push their M/S. I get that. But learning from agents doesn't preclude the possibility that they love your idea...

Anyway. That's my two cents worth.

BTW, for anyone who was here two days ago, I told my friend (politely) "No." Now, I just need to find a good historical fantasy con to attend.

-Nemo