Golden Opportunities

The Wrangling with Writing conference gives writers a chance to meet agents face to face.

Writing a book is one thing; getting it published is something else altogether. As if writing and revising weren't enough of a struggle, once a book is ready to go out into the world, it can take months or years to find the right person to champion your brainchild and bring it to the attention of publishers. While this process can be done via mail, pitching a manuscript in person offers an incredible advantage in the process, according to literary agent Cricket Pechstein. In fact, she says, writing conference participants who bring a manuscript to sell "put themselves in the top 5 percent of submissions," both because of what they learn at the conference as well as the face-to-face contact and networking opportunities.

This will be the third year that Pechstein, of Vero Beach, Fla., will be in Tucson at the 31st annual Wrangling with Writing conference of the Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA), held this year on Jan. 24-25. In her earlier visits, she has found four new clients among conference participants. She describes the conference as "one of the best in the country" for its variety of workshops and the opportunity to meet with agents, editors and publishers.

One of her clients is Bruce Morganti, a Tucson teacher. Before meeting Pechstein at the 2001 SSA conference, he had accumulated about 30 rejections on his first two novels, which he'd mailed to various agents. In a 15-minute meeting with Pechstein, though, things clicked. "That face-to-face contact is the best kind of connection," he says. "It's the biggest benefit of the conference." Pechstein signed Morganti as a client and is sending his manuscripts to various publishers.

Sinclair "Zeke" Browning also found an agent at an SSA conference. She's the Tucson-based author of four--soon to be five--mystery novels, two historical novels and two nonfiction books, including Feathers Brush My Heart and Lyons on Horses, now in its 23rd hardcover printing.

Browning has had about 10 agents, and the one she met years ago at Wrangling with Writing was the first to represent her popular Trade Ellis series, which includes Crack Shot and Rode Hard, Put Away Dead. She says that one of the biggest benefits of a writers' conference is the networking opportunities.

"You never know where a break will come from, so if an agent meets you face-to-face, it's better," than being one of numerous faceless writers who mails in a manuscript, she says.

New Mexico writer Bob Yehling, a freelance magazine writer and editor for more than 20 years, found an agent for his Full Flight, a biography of rock star Marty Balin, at the 2002 SSA conference. Due out this spring, it's his first published book other than poetry.

He recalls that one reason agent Barbara Rosenberg was so enthusiastic about his project is that she's a huge fan of Jefferson Airplane, Balin's first rock group. That points out one important aspect of attracting the right agent, according to Yehling: emotional involvement in your work and career. Rosenberg, who handles both nonfiction and fiction, has also contracted with him for his forthcoming memoir and several novels.

Yehling offers one important bit of advice to less-experienced writers: "First, go to an experienced book doctor or editor and have them look at the chapter you intend to show to an agent. That way, your work will be of a quality that's publishable. I bet 99 percent of writers don't do that."

Meeting with an agent, editor or publisher for the first time can be nerve wracking. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go more smoothly:

· Be sure that the agent handles the genre of your work. Don't give screenplays to agents who handle only novels; don't offer a poetry manuscript to someone who deals only in science fiction.

· While agents have various requirements when meeting potential clients, you can be prepared by bringing the following: a one-page letter that includes a two-sentence description of your book, why you're the person to write it, your contact information and writing experience, and some ideas on how the book can be marketed. This letter "should look like a business letter, but it should sound like the writer in style and personality," Pechstein says.

If you're pitching a nonfiction book, also have an outline and one or two sample chapters. For fiction, particularly if you haven't yet had a book published, have the full manuscript available, even though the agent might not want to review it in a short meeting.

· Don't try too hard, says Pechstein. Be yourself and relaxed as possible, but remain professional and able to handle critical comments on your work. Being upset over constructive criticism will tell agents you're a newbie.

· "Everyone thinks their book is a masterpiece," says Browning. "But it's probably not. So don't fling too much hyperbole at a potential agent or editor." In other words, don't claim to be the next John Grisham or Barbara Kingsolver.

· Consider your appointment a business meeting, which means "don't be desperate," says Browning. At the same time, she reminds conference participants that "a lot of business is transacted in the bar or over lunch. Hang out and eavesdrop. Buy someone a beer without grilling them. Make it painless for them."

· Finally, be sure that your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it. That means correct grammar, punctuation, format, etc. If you don't care enough to polish your manuscript to a high gloss before showing it, why should an agent bother to represent you?

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