If there is one experience I’ve missed during my writing career it has been attending a writers’ workshop. I’ve applied to Bread Loaf a couple times, though deservedly I never got in because I always chose the option on the application stating that I would only attend if they offered me a full scholarship. As if.
My understanding of such conferences, and I’m sure those who have attended can provide firsthand knowledge on this point, is that they allow you to speak with and get industry insight from participating agents. Yes, those same agents we send novel queries to and then get rejected by…if we’re lucky, since many agents never bother to reply to queries in the first place.
Consequently, as a result of mass rejection, I suspect many writers start deifying such agents as though they are untouchables from the strange, ethereal power they yield (with publishers) over the fate of our books. And for writers, the difference between being published and NOT being published is not just serious business. It is, in fact, the only business…so who can fault writers–who live inside their heads far too much, anyway–for burning incense, carving jade figurines and building up shrines around these lofty and omnipotent creatures.
But agents are not gods and they are not fire-breathing dragons. And publishing is a business like any other. Among the employed, we all have markets, we all have audiences and we all have wares to ply. True I have had more jobs than novels published–but it takes only a few hours to slam together a resume and cover letter and god knows how long to write a book and get it out there. And while you can improve upon cover letters and resumes in a relatively short time because they get written and done so quickly, that’s not quite true of books which are infinitely more complex and take, again, forever to write. Nevertheless, the same premise holds for both.
Maybe I have not gone to any writer’s conferences, but I have gone to seminars and workshops hosted by writers’ groups. When I lived in Washington, DC, I was a member of Washington Independent Writers, and one evening I attended a presentation by Howard Yoon, editorial director of the Gail Ross Literary Agency. He spoke at length about what agents look for, what writers need to do with their stories and as much as he could about how to do it.
After the presentation, I decided to do what I would do during any other networking event, which is to go up to him, introduce myself and ask if he had a business card. He did and he gave it to me. I followed up with a request to have coffee and he told me he’d be happy to, and that I should email him. That’s it! There was no, “oh, you’re another writer and I’m buried up to here in manuscripts to review, please go away.” He did not pull any melodrama; he was completely respectful and professional.
At the time, I had a mostly finished manuscript. I emailed Howard, he replied and we met up for coffee at a Starbuck’s in Dupont Circle. He asked me about myself, my history as a writer, what got me going as a writer and all the questions we expect legions of adoring fans to ask when we’re finally touring behind successful novels. It was, in other words, a very exciting meeting…I was having this conversation with a literary agent of all people.
When I asked why he agreed to meet me–an unpublished writer–for coffee, he said he appreciated my assertiveness. I did notice after the WIW event that most of the other writers in the room just pulled their belongings together after the presentation and left the event without coming up to talk to Howard. How could they not? Was it fear…the possibility that these agents walk on a different planet from you and me?
Howard did review 20 pages of my manuscript and he sent back a personal reply. No, he did not represent me or my story, but I’m certain I got a lot more out of that exchange (and a lot more attention) as a result of networking with him like I would with colleagues in any other industry and by treating him like just another associate or colleague in asking him to coffee. Not all agents may go the route he did, but I’m pretty sure even those who don’t are not gods and they are not fire-breathing dragons.