Writer’s Digest Conference Part II: Pitch Slam

Ah the dreaded pitch slam. For many writers, this is the big reason to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference and also a truly terrifying proposition. All of that was true for me. There were four Pitch Slam sessions on Saturday of an hour each and you signed up for one of them. There were over sixty agents in a big room sitting at tables in alphabetical order, you had three minutes to pitch your book to however many of them that you could and get feedback and hopefully, a request to see more. The pitch slam is really its own beast. Here’s what I learned from participating in the pitch slam.

Prepare, prepare, prepare! All of those months of preparation I was yammering on about in my last post? This is where it paid off. Write a pitch you feel good about. Tell the agent about your book and get them interested in seeing more. Be yourself. Remember that you are one human telling another human about your book – that is all! You have ninety seconds, so keep it short, the shorter the better, in my opinion. Don’t ramble. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you do this, so google away, little grasshopper! I had a pretty good pitch when I arrived in New York, which I then tweaked a little after the pitch perfect information session and yammering with my fellow writers. I felt pretty good about my pitch and knew it by heart. This is key.

They limit the number of people in each pitch session. I read some horror stories about long lines, agents that were not there and all of this stuff. None of that was true for me. There seem to be a million people when you’re waiting to go in and that is terrifying. It seems like you will never get to any agent, but the room is big and there are a lot of agents. I had a list of ten agents I wanted to pitch and I made it to seven of them, which is pretty damn good. Best advice here came from Chuck Sambuchino – do not stand in long lines. Go to agents that have a short line or none at all. If Chuck is there, he will hustle you to a shorter line anyway. He knows what’s what, listen to him. On average, I had one person ahead of me. Several times I went right up to the agent. Time was not an issue.

When you’re getting ready for this, it’s easy to believe that agents are mean, scary dragon people just waiting to crush your dreams and spit in your face. Maybe, but not any that I spoke with. They tell you way ahead which agents will be there, so research them like a crazy person. Yes, the list changes, yes, there are additions and subtractions, but you need to know who you want to pitch to. Ten seems to be a good number. Anyone I didn’t make it to is getting a query. My strategy was to avoid long lines and also not to pitch my top agents first. This was my first pitch slam, I was nervous and very, very tired. I didn’t want to blow my first pitch on my top three agents. This worked great for me. My ‘last’ agent had no lineup when we first went in there, so I went for him. He was very nice, liked my pitch, asked me some questions that let me know that he understood what the hell I was trying to get across, and guess what? He requested more. First one, bam, feel good, flying for the rest of the slam. That was key for me, to start on the right foot. I tried to set myself up for success and it worked. I pitched seven agents and got five requests. Some of the best advice I read ahead of time was to remember that agents are just people and all that is happening is that you are having a conversation with them about your book. I tried to be happy, friendly, relaxed and normal as possible and it paid off in a big way. The two agents that did not request were just as excellent. One said my pitch was great and sent me to another agent she thought would like it, that agent was not on my list. She requested it. The other agent also complemented my pitch and suggested some comparison titles I hadn’t thought of whose agents I might want to investigate. She also told me that if I wrote anything with a more literary bent in the future to send it her way because she liked how I presented things.

So I got five requests to see my book and a massive boost in the confidence department. No one I spoke to at the conference regretted doing the pitch slam. Even if they didn’t get requests, they got valuable experience speaking about their work in a concise way, and some great feedback. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Writer’s Digest Annual Conference: A Review

Just over a week ago I was travelling home from the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York. Hard to believe that a week has gone by, I still feel like I’m processing everything. Since it was my first writing conference and my first trip to New York, I did a lot of preparation before the actual conference. Part of that work included reading blogs by people who had attended before to gain some insight on what to expect and how to best meet this in a competent way. All of that preparation served me well, dare I say very well, so now I would like to do the same for others.

New York

Welcome to New York!



First of all, go. Go to the damn conference. Don’t sit around, don’t debate it, don’t weigh pros and cons, don’t check your bank account, don’t worry if you’re ready, if you’re awesome enough to go, if you suck too much to go, go, just go. You will not regret it.

The Sessions

The conference ran over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they also had some introductory stuff Thursday evening, but I missed that because I was in an airplane traffic jam at LaGuardia airport, but that’s a story for another blog.

The sessions began at 9am every day and there were five offerings for each time slot addressing different aspects of writing and publishing. These ran until about 5pm and were followed by a keynote speaker. Ahead of the conference, you were encouraged to sign up for the sessions you wanted to attend so they could figure out what size rooms to put them in, but at the actual event you could go to whatever ones you wanted. Since I paid actual dollars to attend, I went to a session in pretty well every time slot, save pitch slam day. Overall, they were a great experience. I took a lot of notes and received a lot of informative handouts, book recommendations and practical, useful information. All of the speakers answered questions from attendees, which was excellent. Highlights of the sessions for me included:

Pitch Perfect – Chuck Sambuchino

Informative, motivating and extremely patient answering many, many questions. Helped calm the terror of the upcoming pitch slam.

Pulling the Rug Out: How to Craft Twists Your Readers Will Never See Coming – Steven James

Funny, informative, a very useful handout and practical approaches to really make your book the best, most interesting version of itself that it can be. Steven James is an excellent speaker and I wish I had gone to all of his sessions. I will be purchasing his books for sure.

Rework, Rewrite and Rock Your Revisions – Gabriela Pereira & Elisabeth Kauffman

Perhaps the most loathed part of the writing process, no one likes revising. It sucks and it’s boring and how in the hell do you coherently revise 500 pages of work??? I did manage to do all of this with my book, but it took me many years. The next one won’t take me nearly as long thanks to things I learned here. More books to buy.

The Keynotes

There was a keynote speaker Friday, Saturday and Sunday to close out each day. These were Kwame Alexander, David Baldacci and Emily St. John Mandel. Each one gave about an hour talk and then very graciously answered questions and stuck around to sign books. The room was packed for each one, but talking to people, I was surprised how many skipped these. I did not, and boy am I glad. SO ENCOURAGING. Each and every one of them. Super fast summary – Kwame Alexander – Say a big fat yes to every writing opportunity you get, it will take you where you need to go. David Baldacci – being a big, famous writer does not equate to having the faintest clue about what you’re doing, so don’t even worry about it. Emily St. John Mandel – Don’t get caught up in all of the noise about writing, just write, and guard that time ferociously.  All of them were very genuine and provided valuable insights. Connections were made here. More books to buy.

The Cocktail Reception

This was Saturday night, pitch slam day. This is where you go say hi to David Baldacci, get a drink and schmoose with your fellow writers, the people from Writer’s Digest, a few agents still kicking around and some of the people giving the sessions. I am not going to lie, I was extremely tired from travelling, pitching and sleeping in a hotel, but Writer’s Digest gave everyone a free drink ticket and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on a free drink, so I hauled my sorry ass to cocktail hour, got my free drink and stood with it awkwardly by myself – for about five seconds.

You are all there for the same reason – to celebrate the stupidity it takes to be a writer and try to be the best damn crazy writer that you’re capable of being. Most of the other attendees had travelled to be there and were alone, just like me. This should equal a room of sleep deprived, surly people, but instead it equals INSTANT FRIENDS. Guess what, cupcake, you’re all in this together, so just start chatting. It was actually awesome. People just talk to you and eventually, you just talk to people. I met people from California, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Arizona, Ohio, Vancouver, England, Australia and those are just the places I recall. Great conversations, lots of laughs, many cards and info exchanged. It’s not very often you’re surrounded by people that get this thing you do, so take full advantage of the opportunity. I actually nursed my free drink right until the end of the reception just chatting away at which point Chuck Sambuchino came around handing out free glasses of wine. So stay until the end, you might get a free drink and make some friends.

Your Fellow Writers

When you arrive at the hotel and register, you get a fancy name badge to hang around your neck. This shows that you’re part of the conference, your name and where you’re from. You have to wear it when participating in the conference so they know you’re not some weirdo who wandered in off the street. Well, maybe you are, but you paid to be there, so it’s fine. I wore mine the entire weekend, everywhere I went in the hotel. This again equals instant friends. Other people with the same badge just start talking to you and soon you’re a group chatting about the conference and things beyond. Business cards are exchanged, connections made. I assume I will always be the awkward person standing with my lunch tray in the busy seating area with nowhere to sit and this did happen to me, but just like at cocktail hour, it lasted for about five seconds when I was hailed over by a fellow attendee. By the end of the hour, we were a group of four. We talked about the conference, our own writing projects and practiced for the pitch slam. It was great. Talk to people and wear your badge so people don’t have to break the ice. It’s already broken and for a bunch of weird introverted writers, this is key.

Curious about the pitch slam? Of course you are! I’ll cover that in my next post since this sucker ran long. Until then, keep writing!

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Turkey Vulture!

Everywhere I go for the last few weeks I see turkey vultures. Turkey vultures here, turkey vultures there. I look out my window, turkey vulture. Driving, stopped at a light, turkey vulture. Go out to the back yard with my dogs, two or three turkey vultures circling overhead. They’re everywhere. Since I am a rational, level headed human being, naturally my first reaction when I noticed this phenomenon was that it must be an omen from the spirit world bringing tidings of my impending death.

I’ve always seen turkey vultures I guess, they aren’t exactly uncommon. But this has been a daily occurrence for a few weeks now, me and my turkey vultures, sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three times a day. Has the turkey vulture population recently exploded? Have there always been this many turkey vultures and I’m just noticing them right now for some reason? Possibly. After about a month of this, I turned from my computer to stare blankly out my office window (to think, of course) and saw two turkey vultures, circling high in the sky over my neighbourhood and asked what I guess all writers ask eventually: all right, pal, what’s your story?

“In the earliest of times, the sun lived very close to the earth – so close that life was becoming unbearable. The animal world got together and decided to do something about it. They wanted to move the sun further away. The fox was the first to volunteer, and he grabbed the sun in his mouth and began to run to the heavens. After a while the sun became too hot, burning the fox’s mouth and he stopped. To this day the inside of the fox’s mouth is black.

Then the opossum volunteered. He wrapped his tail around the sun and began running toward the heavens. Before long, the sun became too hot, burning his tail and he had to stop. To this day the opossum has no hair upon his tail.

It was then that vulture stepped forward. Vulture was the most beautiful and powerful of birds. Upon its head was a beautiful mantle of rich feathering that all other birds envied. Knowing that the earth would burn up unless someone moved the sun, the vulture placed its head against it and began to fly to the heavens. With powerful strokes of its wings, it pushed and pushed the sun further and further up into the heavens. Though it could feel its crown feathers burning, vulture continued until the sun was set a safe distance in the sky away from earth. Unfortunately, vulture lost its magnificent head of feathers for eternity.”*

Stories are everywhere. Thanks for the reminder, turkey vulture!

*Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak (Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1993), pp. 201-202.