Agents are lizard people

Nick and Aurora, outside the Guggenheim
Nick and Aurora, outside the Guggenheim

The last post was all about the Pitch Slam at the Writer’s Digest Conference 2014.  Today, I want to write around the Pitch Slam and talk a little about the gravity of the thing.

To refresh your memory, the Pitch Slam was an event where authors could pitch their books at agents for three minutes in a speed-dating sort of setting.  The week before, Writer’s Digest emailed last-minute tips to all the attendees, mostly knucklehead stuff, but there was something odd:

“During the pitch, simply try to relax and breathe.  Agents are human.”

Okay.  Seemed a little obvious, but I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment.  Then, there was this:

“Do not hand the agent anything to keep unless they ask for it.  (Naturally, do not touch agents, either.)”

Now, I was getting a little paranoid, which I’m sure was the opposite result than the WD folk intended.  Does “no touching” mean I can’t shake their hands?  It can’t possibly mean that.  It must mean hugs or whatever.  Why would somebody hug an agent?  Is that a thing (like cow-tipping)?  Maybe it does mean handshakes.  Maybe their hands get sore.  If they meet an author every three minutes for three hours, that’s sixty handshakes.  If it’s coming and going, it’s 120 handshakes.  Is that a lot?  On my best day, I’ve only shaken maybe twenty hands, and that was opening night at one of my plays.  Maybe after a hundred, your hand locks up.

Finally, I just knocked it off and decided I’d play it by ear.  My wife knew what she was getting into when she married me, but  we all have our limits.

The day before the Pitch Slam, agent-guru Chuck Sambuchino led a seminar on pitching basics.  It was largely common sense, but he kept it pithy and funny and upbeat, and there were some tips that I found useful.  After a forty-minute lecture, he opened up the room for questions.

Chuck had mentioned that you should exchange pleasantries before diving into the nitty-gritty.  So, one of the questions was, “Are the pleasantries going to be part of the time limit?”

Chuck blinked and, God bless him, answered, “What kind of pleasantries are we talking about?” and asked if they would involve flipping a cape.

Someone else asked, “What are your thoughts on eye contact?”

At that moment, I realized that these people do not think agents are human.  I mean, what did that guy think Chuck would say?  “For the love of God, do not make eye contact with the agents!  They will absorb your talent and sell it to J.K. Rowling!”

But, no, Chuck is a pro, and more than that, has obviously been fielding this sort of question for some time, and he patiently explained that eye contact is generally accepted as the proper protocol for human interactions.  Where else on earth does someone actually need to say that out loud?  And then I remembered the “no touching” rule, and it somehow made more sense.

On Saturday night, hours after the Pitch Slam, I ran into one of the agents at the cocktail reception.  He looked exhausted, and why wouldn’t he?  He had to sit through three hours of that crap.  We were shooting the bull, and, keeping it light, I playfully asked him if anyone threw up.  He said no, but…

“One of the writers told me she could see elves.  I said, ‘Oh, you mean your character can see elves?’ and she said, ‘No, I can see elves.’”

I paused, desperate to rescue the conversation from spiraling into a dark place, and said, “Well, who are we to tell her she can’t see elves?”

The agent appreciatively responded by raising his wine glass.  So, again, trying to be funny, I mentioned the “no touching” rule that had me so perplexed.

“We get stalkers,” he told me, and expounded a tale of a fellow agent who was stalked around a conference by a misguided writer who threatened various unsavory acts if she didn’t sign him.  Police were involved.  A lockdown was involved.  Sometimes a cocktail party is determined to go dark, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

So, maybe writers aren’t entirely human, either.  The world might be a better place if we were, but then, the novels might be suckier.  Tough tradeoff.  Kind of like one of those questions you ask at a bar at one o’clock in the morning: “Which would you rather fight: one million normal-sized killer bees or one, five-hundred pound bee?”

600 writers.  60 agents.  Almost no chance for success.  It’s amazing more insanity doesn’t occur.  So, for the record, I would like to formally endorse the “no touching” rule, only don’t make it a line item in an overlooked email attachment.  Let’s slap that puppy on a piece of poster board with sharpie markers and a ton of glitter.  Agents are an endangered species; let’s all do our part.

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