A bulletin from the front

tabasco sign

It’s early morning here at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans, and I’m taking a quick break between a last-minute materials check for the crash course on querying I’m teaching this afternoon (3:30 p.m. at the Hotel Monteleone, should you be in the area). The handouts are always the hardest part: not producing them, but getting them photocopied. For some reason that years of writers’ conferences have left me powerless to explain, all of the copy machines within easy walking distance are either hideously expensive or bizarrely incapable of producing legible copies.

Like all writers’ conferences in North America, this one has a bar located less than 100 yards from the center of conference action. This one’s a lulu: it revolves slowly, like a carousel. People keep falling sideways at the peak of literary discussions.

That’s not the blow to the ego that worries me, however. Like pretty much every writers’ conference that flies in agents and editors, this one had an agents’ and editors’ forum yesterday. Should you ever have the opportunity to attend one, go: it’s a rare chance to hear individual agents and editors talk about their personal literary preferences, pet peeves, and market trends.

And why might that be important information, campers? Chant it with me now: because literary preferences are subjective, there is no such thing as a book, book proposal, synopsis, and/or query that will please every agent or editor out there. These fine people specialize.

So where does the ego deflation come in, you ask? I’ve never seen a A&E forum where it didn’t happen: instead of aspiring writers raising their hands boldly and asking practical questions like, “What’s the best query you have ever received and why?” or “What kinds of books do you not want to see right now?” writers were piping up with very abstract, intellectualizing questions like, “Where do you see POD publishing in five years?” or “What’s the average advance these days, and how does that translate into movie rights figures?”

I can understand not wanting to seem pushy. Certainly, an agents’ forum is not the right place to stand up and give a verbal pitch for one’s book. (Oh, I’ve seen it happen.) However, to a pro who has been going to conferences for a while, these seemingly generic questions actually are personal, and sometimes even pushy: the first is usually an expression of the fear I don’t think I can land an agent — should I self-publish?, the second, what can you people do for me financially?

Other aspiring writers — the vast majority, in fact — simply sit silent, hunger and trepidation blazing from their eyes. Clearly, they want to ask questions, but they are afraid of looking foolish or alienating a potential helper by appearing pushy. Or even just of having to answer questions about their own books before they are ready to speak about it in public.

Should you ever find yourself in this situation — and I hope you will; writers’ conferences can be exceedingly useful — relax. These are just human beings, not demigods, and it’s the single best opportunity most pre-agented writers will ever get to ask burning questions like, “Is there anything I could possibly do in a query letter that would automatically turn you off? I’m terrified of doing that, you see.”

Oh, wait: assuaging that fear is my department. Off to photocopy some handouts now. Keep up the good work!

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