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It was a long and tough spring day at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society. Hundreds of women, some just beginning to scribble, others with metaphorically ink-stained fingernails, had converged in Manhattan for the annual convention of the International Women's Writing Guild. After a weekend of seminars, workshops, and genteel musings on literary inspiration, the convention got down to business with the most important event of all: the much-anticipated "Meet the Agents" panel discussion. A group of agents talked about what it takes to get represented and published. And then we were wrangled into separate areas of the room and permitted to deliver a one-on-one spiel to the agent of our choosing.
In other words, it was a cattle call for the kid with starry-eyed dreams of a glittery, literary life. Or, for the old hats who've managed to cobble together a modest career without the coveted blessing and professional cachet of an agent, it's a journey to the land of one more try.
Like any other scribe with two completed screenplays, a novella, and a bunch of newspaper and magazine bylines, I wanted an agent to love me. A lot of other women needed some love too, and we'd all arrived with our good blazers, uncomfortable shoes, and minty breath. At the panel discussion, the agents looked out at us and kvelled over the authors they currently represent. We wanted to know only two things: What are you looking for, and how can I get you to represent me?
It wasn't exactly an inspirational presentation. Most of the agents began with "I represent everything but"—well, everything but what most of us had to offer. That's an exaggeration, but not much of one. They didn't rep children's books. Or literary fiction. Or screenplays or science fiction or even cookbooks. Little was left but how-to, crime, romance, mystery, and Oprah-sanctioned pop lit. I was knocked cold before the fight even began.
They took great pains to explain what they don't want and won't tolerate. One agents shared a disturbing piece of industry information: Editors are so busy, she said, that they'll often buy a mediocre manuscript that needs little help over a sterling new literary voice requiring more lubricant. "Keep your eye on the long-term, not the day-to-day struggles," she advised. "That's what will sustain you through the tough times." It was discouraging to witness the agents' own exasperation and foreboding, and it made it difficult to accept with enthusiasm the few morsels of encouragement tossed to the audience. But, of course, they can't be too encouraging: It's a tough business, and it makes their jobs that much harder if they set up unrealistic expectations.
So what do agents want? Just the first three chapters—never send the whole manuscript (and never bring your work to one of these in-person events). For service-oriented projects (say, Finding an Agent for Dummies), send a knockout proposal and an explanation of why you're an expert in the field, although you have a better shot if you require no such introduction. Of course they don't want spelling and grammatical errors. Ever. Nor do they want query letters more than three paragraphs long. "Query me, and if it's more than a paragraph then it's clear you don't know what it's about yet," advised one of the more assertive agents on the panel.
The hot projects, the agents said, include "ethnic" fiction, service (health, how-to, pop-psych) and nonfiction subject matter that includes survival stories, celebrity scandal, crime, or politics. The literary novel appears to have lost a few champions in this marketplace—if you're not already a name, selling fiction is about as fruitful as hunting for terrorists.
Armed with this info, we women got our shot—if we were willing in line for two hours just to get a moment with an agent. I thought I sensed some wiggle room from a few of them, and so I decided to stay on.
It was like the school cafeteria over again, with women fighting for spots in line and arguing over their exact coordinates. Some attempted to save spaces while they weaseled in and out of other lines, trying to hustle multiple agent one-on-ones. One woman insisted on pushing her way through a bottlenecked coagulation of editorial desperation. I tried to publicly humiliate her into being more polite; she pushed on. By the end of the day, she'd finagled sit-downs with three agents. I waited more gingerly, heaving, sighing, and practicing my pitch.
Sharp and zingy was the point, and your pitch, we learned, should get to the point in under 30 seconds. Balance speed, accuracy, and eloquence, especially if you're pitching more than one project. If your first pitch doesn't wow the agent, don't bother arguing over it. Just move on to the next one, like taking a pass on the $25,000 Pyramid. The agent won't change her mind on the spot if you argue, but another project might hook her and then you can revisit that first idea later.
Of course, everyone else on the line was practicing, too—and everyone had the same go-getter approach. "The writing business is like show business," one agent had said. "You have to have the stomach for it." My stomach was churning. But maybe that was unfair: Most of the other women waiting were quite friendly. I talked shop with a travel agent trying to sell a memoir of her journeys through Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I dug the idea and threw a few tips her way. In return, she gave me the name of a possible screenplay contact in L.A. We traded emails and now I'm reading her manuscript. An engaging Long Island housewife I talked to fancies herself a Candace Bushnell for marrieds. I see it. She's got the moxie and the great pitch. If I could, I would represent her.
As we inched closer to the agent, who, by this time, seemed less of a person and more of a temple idol to whom we had made a pilgrimage, I encountered a number of great stories and accomplishments along with the flakes and fringe elements. I vacillated between solidarity with my fellow writers and empathy for the agents who managed to remain gracious while being assaulted by bad ideas.
At last it was my turn. Ten seconds later I was out of the running, even after I delivered with lightning speed a pitch of my screenplay, mentioning with all due humility that little contest I'd won at the Cannes Film Festival.
It did me no good. Nor did my years of experience writing successful query letters to editors. Turns out the agent I had waited for—the agent who'd said earlier she represented everything but children's literature—informed me politely that she didn't rep scripts. She didn't think I had much chance getting my novella represented until I first established myself as a fiction writer. I leapt from the chair before she could finish telling me that even a short-story credit in The New Yorker (which I don't) or the humbler Bucks County Writer (which I do) wouldn't guarantee my viability. In other words, I wasn't a sure thing. And in this tight market, you basically have to be a sure thing before you can even dream of publishing fiction, unless it's the kind with Fabio on the cover.
Again I exaggerate. A little.
Finally I stole five minutes with a panelist who'd been a little vague on her status as an agent. One moment she had producer contacts and could generate interest in my work. The next she'd first need $150—cash— to "doctor" my script.
But I'd already been doctored. I was looking to be agented. And while some reputable agencies do charge a reading fee, it's best to investigate them first and see if, at the very least, they take credit cards. I'm trying to get my script produced, not buy heroin.
That comes later. For now I'm still trying to figure out how to become a sure thing.
Angelina Sciolla is a freelance writer and editor.