So there I was at my inaugural writers conference back in 2011, sitting in the audience at Sleuthfest gathering in Florida, waiting for a panel to begin. I’d met John Gilstrap the day before and we closed down the bar (the first of many…and I mean many bars), and was sucking down a large coffee to absorb some kind of food for the brain.
Another swallow of scalding coffee. It was some kind of flavored stuff, but that didn’t matter, because I’d scalded my tastebuds with the first sip, so the black liquid was essentially flavorless.
Panelists drifted up to the front and took their seats. A gentleman on the front row opened a tripod and attached a video camera (yeah, it was ten years ago). I watched with interest as he dug out a stack of notebooks and settled himself in for the event.
The room filled. The panel on finding an agent began. I wondered why I was there. I’d just met my new agent, the one John said I needed to fire, so I didn’t need to be in there, but I couldn’t help myself.
I wanted to hear what Miss Lily had to say (of course that’s not her name, but I have to call her something). She was a presence in the bar the night before and people gathered around as she held court, but I was too green to join in, so I figured that she’d have plenty to say in that session.
The moderator barely had enough time to welcome everyone when the back door opened and a tardy Miss Lily blew in and made an entrance.
How do I say this delicately…humm.
Somewhere around six feet tall, she had a mane of dark hair, and wore oversize, comfortable clothes that were accessorized by lots of concealing scarves and big earrings. She came down the aisle like an expressive train.
Miss Lily took control of the conversation, and fielded dozens of questions as the hour progressed. I had a hundred questions, but the session recessed, leaving me reeling and feeling as if I’d been drinking from a firehose. With John’s previous recommendation about putting Starter Agent in a shallow grave, I was already wondering if I’d made a mistake.
I was in over my head.
The next panel didn’t interest met, and since I it was around two in the afternoon there in Florida, I wanted to absorb a little sunshine. The hotel had apparently learned their lesson and the bar was open. Taking my drink, I found a shaded table beside the swimming pool and settled in to ponder this new career.
That’s when Miss Lily blew through the doors and into my serene world. Cigarette and highball glass in one hand, and a cell phone in the other, she paced the pool, sending out great puffs of smoke and talking somewhere around AC/DC decibels.
She noticed that I was near the deep end of the pool, and established her territory near the shallow water. After ten minutes, and half a dozen cigarettes, she ended the call and shot me a look.
I gave her a smile in return.
She took a table several yards away and lit another.
I waved. “You can join me if you like.”
“No, thanks. I’m smoking.”
“The wind is in your direction. It won’t bother me.”
The Hairy Eyeball. “No, thanks.”
“Look, I know you’re an agent. Heard you inside a few minutes ago, but I won’t pitch to you. I already have an agent. I’d just like to talk about the business for a little while and get to know people. I’m on a learning curve since I recently sold my first manuscript. Come on. Sit down.”
A second beat.
A third beat, and she gathered up a pack of toonies, cell phone, and a purse big enough to hold a case of beer. “All right.”
She joined me and noted my hat that was resting crown down on the table. “You a cowboy? You write westerns?”
“I’ve cowboyed some. I’m from Texas, but I don’t write westerns.”
We introduced ourselves and she lit another. “So what do you want to know?”
“So much I’m not sure where to begin.”
We talked for the next forty-five minutes or so, about writing and her end of the business. She told me how to write a query letter, though I didn’t need that particular bit of info, then we drifted on to our lives and exchanged brief histories.
My glass was empty, and so was hers, when conversation kinda dried up. “I need another drink.” I stood. “Can I get you one?”
“Sure.” She opened her purse.
“I’ll get it.”
“No. Men don’t buy me drinks, and especially writers.”
“Like I said, I’m from Texas. I’ll get it.”
Half expecting her not to be there when I returned, I crossed the patio. “Here you go.”
She took the glass and peered at me over the rim. “So, what’s your manuscript about?”
“It’s a historical mystery.”
“Tell me about it.”
Now, in the shade of an oak fifty years earlier, my Old Man taught me how to fish. Sitting by a lazy creek, he cast a bright top water lure. “Bass like things that are big and flashy. The idea is to throw your lure out into a likely looking place and watch it splash down. Be patient. Let the ripples expand and disappear until the lure is still.”
I’d unconsciously pitched out a big, flashy lure to Miss Lily. “Can’t tell you about my book.”
“I said I wouldn’t pitch to you.”
The Old Man’s lure drifted slowly with the current. The rings expanded and disappeared. He shifted the chew in his cheek. “Then you give that lure a twitch. If nothing happens, give it a second twitch a few seconds later.
If you’re lucky, the water will explode when that big ol’ bass blows up from underneath.
“Who’s your agent?”
I told Miss Lily.
“I’ve never heard of her. You should get someone with more experience.”
“Someone’s already told me that.”
“They’re right. Get someone in New York. Like me. So what’s your book about again?”
The bass that had been eyeing the Old Man’s lure launched itself toward the surface. The water exploded and it grabbed the lure. “Then you set the hook!” He yanked on the rod and the fish was his.
It was at that moment that understanding dawned on me in Florida that day. I’d pitched out a lure, and Miss Lily couldn’t stand it. She wanted it, and struck. But unlike fishing, I wouldn’t set the hook.
“Said I wouldn’t pitch to you. I keep my word to people. I was raised by folks and grandparents who borrowed money from the bank on a handshake. That sense of honor reaches into many corners.”
She frowned, not understanding. “I’d consider representing you. If you write like you speak, I can market that voice.”
“I’m honored. And two or three months ago, we’d get serious about this, but I’ve signed with someone else. You understand.”
She didn’t. Miss Lilly spent the next two days working on me, trying to get me to pitch my manuscript. I was polite, but turned her down, the same way I’ve done it in the years since. Every time I run into her at a conference, we talk and she invariably asks me to send her something if my current agent and I part ways.
So, like I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, do your research, talk to agents if and when the opportunity presents itself, but don’t come roaring in with pitches in inopportune places. Go to the bar, or the pool, or anywhere we gather and meet those agents. Talk to them. Get to know them. They’re hammered on a daily basis by hopeful writers. Be restrained, but have that pitch polished and shiny and ready when they ask.
Then throw out that lure and give it a twitch.