At a recent writers’ conference, I enjoyed my first “speed dating” experience.
Maybe I should clarify. “Yes, you should,” says my wife.
These were “speed dating for writers” sessions, in which writers sat down for rapid-fire five-minute appointments with editors, agents, and authors (many conferences provide writers with the opportunity to sign up for fifteen-minute appointments, which pass quickly enough, but five minutes?). I was assigned a table where I met with writers to hear a pitch or answer a question as completely as possible before a whistle (yes, an actual whistle) signaled the end of the encounter. In three fifty-minute sessions, I met about thirty fellow writers.
It was fun, once the copious amounts of coffee I consumed before and during the sessions kicked in. And it got me thinking (which is seldom a good thing) about some of the ways in which obtaining a literary agent is like dating:
- First impressions are important.
Dating can be brutal, partly because first impressions can make or break you. So it is with writers and agents. It may not be fair, but if I see a hundred other agents in the “TO” field of your email, you just gave me an easy “no.” If I meet you at a conference and you repeatedly call me “Steve,” I’ll feel insulted (I think I look a lot younger than Steve). If my first acquaintance with you is on Twitter and your tweets are toxic or rude, I’m unlikely to greet your book idea favorably.
- There’s no accounting for taste.
Agents are people. And readers. And, as in the dating world, not everyone is attracted to the same thing. So, no matter how desperately you may want to get an agent, if I’m not excited by your genre or style or hook or plot, you want me to say “no thanks.” You don’t want an agent who doesn’t care all that much for superhero fiction. Or senior citizen romances. It doesn’t mean that your writing stinks, it means this one agent is not a good match for you. You want an agent who “gets” you, someone who is excited by you and what you do. And some of that is subjective.
- It pays to listen.
On my first date with the woman who became my wife, we took a long walk and then sat on a bench and talked. Well, she did. I listened. Okay, I was mostly waiting for her to stop talking so I could try to kiss her. But I listened, too, because I was enchanted. You may not be enchanted by a prospective agent, but you should listen. Closely, in fact. Pay attention to his or her guidelines and preferences. Don’t send a query if she says she prefers full proposals. Don’t pitch a fantasy, saying, “I know you say you don’t represent fantasy, but I think you’ll change your mind when you read this.” I’m always amazed at pitches and submissions and authors that seem to pay no attention to what I say.
- Courtesy and respect go a long way.
The best and longest-lasting relationships are based on mutual courtesy and respect. So I’m occasionally mystified when, having replied to an unsolicited submission with a polite “no thank you,” I am accused in a follow-up email of not having read it or not giving it the time it deserved or not grasping its genius. I find it especially strange when my accuser pleads for me to take another look! If I did so badly the first time, why would you want me as your agent? And why would I want as a client someone who makes such accusations? Take heart, however; such responses make a short, courteous, and respectful “thank you” more impressive and memorable—and indicative of possible future success.
- First base is only first base.
I suppose there may come a time when I meet a writer for the first time, see a gem of a proposal, and say, “Here’s a contract!” But it hasn’t happened yet. The typical process, like a dating relationship, involves a lot of getting to know, understand, and like each other. It also typically requires some tutoring, like my wife patiently teaching me which side of a sidewalk I was supposed to walk on, and more. Much, much more. But you get the idea. Similarly, when I see a promising proposal from a writer, we may go back and forth for weeks—even months—before we tie the knot, so to speak. In fact, I checked back into a few clients I’ve signed; it took an average of nine-and-a-half weeks for a submission to result in an agency agreement. And then, of course, it could take nine months or more for the first “baby” to come. But that’s a different metaphor entirely.