There may be a bit of misperception out there that writers’ conferences are all about pitching a finished manuscript to an agent, and that if you don’t have a finished manuscript, there is no reason to attend a conference.
Conferences are about more than just pitch sessions. They are full of great classes and workshops on the craft and business side of writing, as well opportunities to meet other writers and form last friendships.
As for meeting with and talking to agents- that doesn’t have to be limited to pitching a finished manuscript. There are often opportunities for writers to have consultations with agents on unfinished projects, which can mean valuable feedback from a professional in the business, and even a request to see your work.
When I registered for the 2013 DFW Writers’ Conference, I had no intention of meeting with an agent. I knew I wouldn’t have a completed, pitch-ready manuscript, which is generally required for pitch sessions. This would be my year to simply listen, learn and meet people.
However, when pitch session registration opened, I learned that several agents would also be open for consultations on unfinished manuscripts. This intrigued me. In spite of the potential I see in it, my current WIP has caused me some headaches recently, thanks to the sometimes polarized reaction of my critique partners and a main character that is not always easy to like.
I did a little research on the agents offering consultations and learned they expressed interest in my genre, women’s fiction, but I was still unsure whether to sign up. My schedule would already be full with classes, and there was also the fear factor. What if they thought my project sucked?
I decided to sign up. I was paying a lot of money to attend the conference, not to mention traveling almost 1000 miles. I wanted to get the most out of my conference experience, and ten minutes one on one with a literary agent to discuss my book seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
I put in my agent selections and then thought little else about it. Weeks passed. The conference announced small group genre workshops, and I jumped to sign up for the romance section. I’d started a new project that seemed perfect for it. I devoted my attention to that. Meanwhile, the other WIP sat in my Dropbox, neglected.
Two weeks before the conference, I got the email. I’d been assigned a pitch/consultation with agent Katelyn Detweiler. I started to second-guess myself. After all, I hadn’t looked at the book in weeks. Should I cancel and give someone else the opportunity? I decided to keep the appointment.
Since it was a consultation on an unfinished project, I wasn’t sure I needed the traditional pitch. I decided to err on the side of caution, so I wrote a pitch. I asked for feedback, ripped it apart, and wrote it again. And again.
I left the pre-conference mixer after a couple hours to go back to my hotel and practice my pitch. I wrote it on an index card, paced my room as I said it, and ended up rewriting it again. Saturday morning came, and I practiced my pitch in the shower. I was ready!
Except my session started early and I barely got there, which threw me off a little. Katelyn introduced herself and said I was her first pitch of the day.
At that point, I probably should have introduced myself and launched into my pitch. The one I’d practiced about fifteen times the night before. Instead, I froze for a second, tried to explain I was there for a consultation on an unfinished project, and stammered around for a bit before finally getting to the point of what my book was about.
I thought I’d blown it, but I still had nine minutes and I was determined to use them. I mentioned some of the issues I’d encountered with my book, asked some questions, and received helpful answers. Katelyn also asked me a few specific questions of her own about where I saw the project heading, which helped me make sense out of some of my thoughts.
Although the conversation began poorly, it recovered quickly, and as time was winding down, Katelyn surprised me by asking me to send her the manuscript when it was completed. I couldn’t believe it. From disaster to success, in ten minutes.
Over lunch, I had the opportunity to chat with some fellow attendees about my consultation experience. One of them had not signed up for an agent appointment because she did not have a finished manuscript. When I saw her again that night at the cocktail reception, she told me that after our lunch conversation, she went and signed up for a consultation with an agent. She, too, got a request to submit her book when it was ready.
Since the conference, I’ve come down from the high a little bit. I know the book still needs a lot of work before I submit it, and by the time it’s ready, the agent might not be interested or forgot she even requested it. After all, I was her first appointment of the day.
Regardless, I enjoyed our conversation and her feedback and interest has given me renewed focus on this book. When it’s ready, I will send her the manuscript and see what happens. I will also query other agents and prepare to go all in at next year’s conference and sign up for multiple pitch sessions.
This year’s experience proved that anything can happen. You can have an unfinished project and still get a request and you can bumble your introduction and recover. But it can’t happen unless you put yourself out there, sign up for that appointment, walk in that room and go for it.
What’s the worst thing that happens? The agent might say “No, thanks. That project isn’t for me.” It might sting at the moment, but who among us has never heard the word ‘No’ before?
More importantly, they might ask you for your manuscript, a request you might never have gotten if you didn’t meet with them.
So if you’re considering going to a conference but aren’t sure because you don’t have a finished book, or you’re going to a conference but aren’t sure you’re ready to talk to agent: Just go for it. You never know what might happen.
Michele Shriver lives in Iowa and writes women’s fiction. You can find her on twitter (@micheleshriver) or at http://www.micheleshriver.com