I file into the ballroom with six other conference attendees for an appointment with an editor from St. Martin’s Press. It’s only my second Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s summer conference. Over the next two days I have private appointments to pitch my novel to two New York literary agents. I hope this editor’s meeting will be a simple formality, something to build my confidence for my two appointments with the agents.
I’d attended one of these editor’s meetings last year and this is how it works: You sit around a ballroom table with an editor and five or six of your fellow writers. The editor introduces herself, explains what she’s looking for, and passes out her business card. “Send me your first chapter,” she says, “and mention that we spoke at this conference.” The meetings last a half-hour to give everyone time to pitch their work, but no one actually talks about their manuscripts.
That’s how this year will go too, right?
We settle around the circular table. The editor, Erin Brown (who will later become a columnist for Author Magazine), steeples her hands in front of her. She has long, delicate fingers. A piano player’s fingers. “So, how does this work? I’ve never done this format before.”
Uh oh, I think. She’s not going to make us actually pitch, is she?
Erin spends a good deal of time talking about herself and the kind of projects for which she’s searching. I settle down, waiting for the customary moment when she asks us each to send her a chapter.
“Okay,” she says, “let’s go around the table and hear your pitches.”
Only fifteen minutes remain. There are six attendees sitting at the table with me. I do the math. That doesn’t leave each of us much time. Only one person separates me from Erin, but Erin choses to start from the opposite side of the circle. I’d written and rewritten my pitch for weeks. I have it down to a cool ninety seconds. If everyone keeps theirs to a few minutes, I might still be okay.
The attendees begin. They ramble on and on. Not only are none of them rehearsed, the writers seem to be figuring out what their stories are really about right here at the table. I groan inwardly, calculating and recalculating the remaining time.
“It’s like about this girl who, you know, is like trying to find herself after 9/11.” Erin: Send it! “I was a truck driver for forty-eight years and it’s about all my experiences.” Erin: Send it! “It’s an English translation of my novel that was published in Nicaragua.” Send it!
I relax a little. No matter what they have, she wants it.
Finally, it’s my turn. Three minute are left for me and the woman to my right, so I start. Unlike the others, I sound polished. Mine has a beginning, a middle, and end. I have props. A soundtrack. Toward the end, I light off a few sparklers.
When it’s over, the whole table is staring at me like I’m crazy. Erin’s expression suggests that she’s contemplating calling hotel security. “Well, you know, that’s really not what I’m looking for…”
On the way out the door, the old trucker who prattled on and on about the women he’d seen during his years on the road offers to give me pointers on how to pitch. I emerge from the ballroom destroyed, embarrassed, my confidence in flames.
There, on business of his own, is Bill Kenower, editor of Author Magazine (we’d just started publishing the magazine a few months before). I relate what happened. How can I possibly meet with the agents after that disaster?
His expression is intent and confident. “Cancel all this. Success, it’s coming! Know it. Feel it. This is just a step in the journey. It’s not the journey.”
I go on to meet with both agents. Both want to see my manuscript. I begin to understand the power of perception. Viewpoint is everything when it comes to perceiving a no.
It serves as a beginning.
Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.