By Natalia Sylvester
I’m a huge fan of writing conferences. Even when I only had a 150-page first draft of my novel, I’d flip through writer’s magazines and daydream about which conference would be “the one” to eventually lead me to my agent. At the time, I was living in Miami, and being just out of college with a limited budget, decided to opt for local conferences. But the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference was on my to-do list.
Two, three years passed, and I attended conferences in Florida and met agents, but since I wasn’t yet convinced that my book was ready, I never pitched them. Then in 2009 my husband changed career paths, and after traveling to many different cities we decided on Austin. I was thrilled—it looked like I’d finally make it to the conference after all.
We planned our move almost a year ahead of time, which gave me time to psyche myself up for the June 2010 conference and actually finish my book.
My novel, set in Miami, is about a woman who inherits her ex-husband’s house and is forced to deal with a secret she’s kept from her daughter for 20 years. It’s told partially from the point of view of the house, and so moving in and out of homes, having spaces filled with life and then emptied out, are huge motifs throughout the book.
Maybe it was the fact that we’d just moved, or the fact that being away from Miami suddenly helped me see it differently, but within a few months of living here I realized that the story needed one more rewrite. All this, and only four months left till June!
So, no, I didn’t complete the book before the conference. But I had my last draft, the one that just needed some polishing, and for once I had a very clear idea of what my book was about. This was crucial, since at the WLT agent’s conference, there’s a huge emphasis on verbally pitching your book. You can’t just hand an agent pages at a cocktail party; you have to speak for your work, and you need to do it in a concise, compelling way.
Lucky for me, my one-on-one with Brandi Bowles wasn’t until Sunday, the last day of the conference. By then, I’d had a chance to pitch my novel to so many agents (and writers) that the nerves we wearing off. I got five requests for pages—four partials and one full.
The great thing about the one-on-one session is that there’s time for more questions. Brandi had tons—she wanted to know more details about the plot, what my character’s big secret was, and how I built up the suspense throughout the book. She told me her concern was that the book would be too quiet, and offered suggestions on how to up the drama. At the end of our ten minutes, she told me to send her three chapters—when the book was ready.
There were immediate and eventual takeaways from the conference. Together with three of the writers I met, we formed a monthly critique group. I added some new scenes and polished my manuscript over the next few months, always keeping Brandi and the other agents’ suggestions in mind. When I (finally!) started querying in October, they were the first agents I contacted.
And then…I waited. I got some no’s. I pitched agents I never met and got requests for a partial and a full, followed by a couple more no’s. Then, I got “the call.” It was one of the agents I’d met at the conference, wanting to represent my book.
I jumped up and down, cheered awkwardly into the phone, and as much as I wanted to say, “Yes!” right away, I also wanted to follow up with the agents who still had my query. So I told this agent I’d make a decision in a week, then emailed the remaining five. Brandi was one of the first to get back to me. She said she’d take a look, and three days after that, requested the full. My deadline to make a decision was now four days away.
Three days later, I got an evening email from Brandi, asking if I could chat on the phone later that night. We spoke for an hour, discussing everything from revisions, to the agent-author relationship, to books we’d enjoyed. When I hung up I knew I had a really difficult decision to make: both agents were amazing, and talented, and kind, and most importantly they were enthusiastic about my novel. By this time I hadn’t slept in the week since I’d gotten the first call, so I stayed up all night, making lists, comparing the two agents, trying to understand who would be the best fit for me.
In the end, it came down to Brandi’s vision for my book, which I felt was completely in line with my own. There was also a less tangible factor, one that basically came down to a gut feeling. Sometimes, it’s about chemistry, it’s about how you mesh with someone on a personal level. I completely understand now why the agent-author relationship is often compared to a marriage: this is the person you’ll be raising your writing career with. Like all relationships, finding “the one” is a strange mixture of chance and preparation, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get the help of a great conference to make that initial introduction.
Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin. Visit her writing blog at www.nataliasylvester.com (where she tries to make sense of this journey) or follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/NataliaSylv