Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Volunteering at the Writer's Conference

I show up early the morning I am to volunteer for Agents and Editors day at the writer's conference. This is the way it works: people pay $35 a pop in order to pitch their story to an agent for 10 minutes.
Tables for two are set up in the back half of a cavernous room at the hotel--five rows with four agents per row. (the other half of the room still has rows of chairs set up for the evening lecture--sorta funky, right--a less than professional setting when you consider the cost of a hard-back book). Is it noisy in there? You bet. Are people nervous? Is the Pope… Do bears…

I must digress and say that I do understand the nervousness of the writers--I really do. At my first writer's conference I studied the agents carefully, picked two that I thought were just right for me, forked over my hard-earned money, and stood in line. However, one of the agents I had signed up for was unable to attend at the last minute due to a family emergency. A well-meaning volunteer (with strict orders not to refund money) placed me with another agent. I sat down across the table from the agent du jour, smiled, made eye contact and held it--precisely as I had been taught--and began my well-rehearsed pitch.
The agent listen briefly, then narrowed her eyes and squinted at me in a manner that suggested she thought I'd just landed my space ship on the lawn, bolted up the stairs, and plopped down at her table.
Her attitude was disconcerting, to say the least, but I continued on.
Finally she had the wherewithal to stop me and ask, "Are you pitching a novel?"
I nodded. I must be doing something right, I thought, for she had perceived the nature of my efforts.
"I don't handle novels. My company sells craft books. Do you knit?"
So I must confess that experience toughed my tender writer's skin. In hindsight, I can laugh--the Writing Gods gave me a quick lesson in not taking this writer/ agent thing too seriously. I learned not to stake my life behind the pen on success at the agent's table.

This year at the writer's conference there seemed to be agreement among the heads of the committees that everything be done at the last possible second, thereby adding even more stress to an already stressful situation.. The first order of business that day was to get the agents placards on the tables in alphabetical order. The head of the committee grabbed said placards and ran up and down the aisles, placing the signs thus:
Our job, then, was to inform the "boss" that she was thinking too far outside the box--that this was not a matter that required creative thinking, but one of logical order. Hoping that she was remotely familiar with the alphabet, I suggested the tables be arranged thusly:
Someone shoved a pile of papers in my hand and said, "Put these on the agent's tables."
"OK," I said and began my assigned task.
In the meantime, the agents (having flown in from New York on the red eye) arrived, One agent, her luggage trailing behind her like a comet, asked for the most direct route to the bathroom so she could freshen up. Others buzzed to the coffee pot. Only after their physical needs were met were they willing to look at their sign-up lists, scanning down the list to see what time they could cut out early for a round of golf or shopping on State Street.
Because I have done this sort of work before, I made sure that the piece of paper I was putting down matched the name on the placard. I was going along fine--until I got to "S." Thank God it was in the last row that the alphabet disintegrated. Every file clerk knows S-A comes before S-I. The S-A agent (the one with the luggage) had parked it beside her table and was in the john. Thinking I was helping out, I wheeled her luggage to her new table at the head of her row, instead of the middle. The poor agent, usually quite on top of things, came back to "her" table and threw a fit because she thought her luggage had been swiped. I got her settled down at her new table and pointed out that she was no longer at the mercy of the airlines, assuring her we were there to assist her in any way possible.
Oh yes, one other glitch in the system: two glitches actually. Six popular agents had cancelled before the conference, thereby disappointing those who had signed up on-line. Who knows why they elected not to show: previous commitments, not worth the increased airfare? There was never any explanation that passed my ears, but at least we knew they would not be present and the sign up sheet had been adjusted accordingly a couple of days earlier. What we didn't know until the last minute was that one agent was not coming. She represented literary fiction, and therefore her docket was full. Her husband, an attorney, had arrived, however.
"I told you I wasn't going to Santa Barbara," I heard as he held the cell phone away from his ear when he grabbed a cup of coffee. I mulled over the apparent lack of communication in that marriage… What was the poor guy to do? By default, he was forced to agree to see the people that had signed up to pitch to his wife. He leaned his golf clubs against a chair, thereby throwing away a perfectly beautiful afternoon on the links and setting him up for a day in which, I'm sure, his first thought to an aspiring writer was going to be "No."

The drill is this: I am stationed in the hallway outside--at the beginning of the slaughter ramp, so to speak. My job is to call out "9:00! 9:00! 9:00" announcing the time for the people who have their appointments. Then, "9:10, 9:10, 9:10." I keep this ten-minute interval announcement up all day, joking that I'm practicing for my interview as the Amtrak station master. My clear speech and diction are an important part of the job since I am afforded neither a microphone nor cattle prod.
After the writers have checked in with me, they are allowed to pass an invisible line to the next holding area. There they mill around until Volunteer Cheryl gives them the next set of instructions: "This is your big chance to talk to an agent. When we open the door, you will stand behind the table for two more minutes. When we release you, you will go to your table. You have eight minutes to pitch to your agent. When you hear the first whistle, that is the eight-minute mark. It's time to wrap up your pitch. Another whistle will sound at the ten-minute mark and a trap door will automatically open up below your chair if you have not vacated the table." Unfortunately some writers actually believe the line about the trap door, and the look around nervously, wondering what the hell they have gotten themselves into. These writers are the smart ones--at least they are listening. Most people are so nervous that the instructions float over them like a leaf floating down the babbling brook.
Finally the double doors open and the writers are prodded into the next holding area behind a row of tables. Really, the agents are just people with a job to do, but due to their exalted status and the pedestals they are given to perch upon, one could do no better strolling in the gardens of Versailles. The air in room is stifling and you could cut the adrenaline with a knife, but this is a rarified environment and the time clock is ticking away at the steady beat of a little less than $5 a minute. The writers' nervousness increases with the proximity to the agent. In this last and final holding area, they are given further instructions which sails over their heads. They are assured that if they have made it this far and not fainted, they will be allowed to see "their" agent.
The eight minute whistle is blown by Jim, the timekeeper, who is sports an aloha shirt designed with cream-colored skulls instead of the standard hibiscus flowers, giving everyone a taste of his wicked sense of humor. He stands on the far side of the tables, holding a stopwatch and a silver Army whistle. He brings the whistle to his lips with a flourish and blows at the eight minute mark thus signaling the agents to stand, shake the writer's hand and say, "Nice to meet you," thereby clearing the table for the next sacrificial lambs…er, authors.

Presumably the writers have dressed in a business-like manner, have arrived sufficiently early, have availed themselves of the bathroom to my right (nervous bladder syndrome strikes men and women in equal proportion), have their appointment sheet in hand, know the name of the agent they've paid to speak with, and have practiced their presentation. There is potential for disaster in so many steps of the process…

The sheaf of papers I hold is arranged by agent's, not author's, name. Seems simple enough to me, but no--the writers don't think like that at all. They are so nervous that they invariably blurt out their name first and assume that we consider them as important as they have pumped themselves up in their minds to be (in order to subject themselves to this process in the first place). They are insulted when I don't automatically recognize them (for the important "wanna-be" they are). They shove their name badges under my nose and adopt the stance of "I'm so important I can't imagine why you haven't recognized me--however I will do you the service of stating my name."
I ignore the name badge and flip through my papers. I ask, "Who are you seeing?" Their minds go absolutely blank. Thus begins the mad scramble in their notebooks or briefcases for the sheet with their agents name on it. Many have signed up for more than one agent--can you see the masochistic tendency among writers--and they haven't a clue which agent their seeing or when. The paperclip goes flying in one direction, the precious manuscript in another. A man comes out of the bathroom and innocently steps on page 1...  The anguished shriek of the author echoes down the hallway. They stumble over to a chair, plop down and dissolve into tears.
I stare straight ahead and say, "Next?"

"Which agent are you going to see?"
"Fred?" I inquire, for we had no one named Fred, neither first name or last name, on our lists.
"Fred," the author insists.
"Are you certain?"
"Fred!" he shouts.
"Would you mind looking at your paper please?"
Then began the aforementioned search. Finally he found his paper crumpled at the bottom of his briefcase and thrusts it at me. "Fred!"
I look at the paper. "Paul," I correct, unable to say the last name (we had two Pauls) before he snatches the paper from my hand.
"Paul," he mutters and backs away.

It amazed me the outfits people managed to throw together for what was, basically, a job interview. One young man wore a t-shirt that exclaimed "F-CK YO-" (since he was panting as he came down the hallway, my guess was that he had slipped on his shirt in a hurry and had run all the way from the car, banking on the "U's" to catch up with him). I wasn't sure that fashion statement was going to get him an agent...
Nor was I so sure about the woman who threw together a delightful ensemble consisting of multi-colored yarn woven into her uncombed hair, a neon green flounced underskirt (think of the half slips under 1950's poodle skirts), blue striped tights and turquoise patent leather boots. She may have been wearing some sort of top--I failed to notice--but quite honestly, maybe not.

The authors I had the most sympathy for were the elders of the group. Their eyesight dimmed by years of reading and writing, their hearing impaired, their gait faltering, they clutched their memoirs to their breasts. Asking them to hurry or follow instructions was out of the question, and so we afforded them the dignity they deserved. However, not everyone was so considerate, as the young are prone to be, thinking the world revolves around them and there is not going to be enough. An agent gained a thousand points in my favor as he, no spring chicken himself, watched a young author dash down the aisle, bowling over an elder. Above the din of the room I heard the agent say, "A memoir at twenty? Honey, you haven't lived long enough."

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