african-american1-3370087_1280At any writing conference, the interview with an agent, or editor, is the most nerve-wrenching, anxiety-ridden, nightmare-inducing few minutes a writer will have. The best way to prepare for an agent interview, and reduce the nerves, anxiety, and nightmares, can be boiled down to one piece of advice: give ’em what they want.

If you have never attended a writer’s conference, I need to explain that usually your attendance fee covers the opportunity to schedule appointments with editors and agents. You pitch your writing project in the hopes someone will want to work with you to get it published. Each conference has its own rules about how many interviews you can get and how long each is.

For the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, all the editors and agents are listed on the conference page with what kind of writing they want to see and what materials you need to bring to the interview. You sign up when you fill out your attendance form. You may ask for as many as eight appointments, but you only get two to four, and you don’t know who you will be seeing until you arrive at the conference. Another conference I attended only allowed you to sign up when you arrived at the venue.

No matter what the rules are, you must research the people you want to see to find out what they want. One agent might want to read your first chapter. Another might want a 1-page synopsis. Another requests a one-sheet. If you don’t know what a one-sheet is, click here. Because I don’t know who I am going to see at ACFW until I arrive at the conference, I have to prepare a lot of materials, so I have exactly what the editor or agent asked for.

I also research what kind of writing the editors and agents want. Usually it’s listed on the conference site, but you can also check out the sites of the publishing houses and literary agencies these people work for. I write Christian YA. Not a lot of agents represent that. So I only sign up for the agents who state on the conference website that they are looking for it.

The Genius Myth

There is a myth, perpetuated by Hollywood, I believe, that a genius of the arts, whether in writing, music, or visual arts, makes it to the big-time by breaking all the rules because they are so talented they don’t need to follow the rules.

Hogwash.

I’ve been to enough conferences to realize that if I don’t follow the rules, no one in the publishing industry will want to work with me. Pitching a YA novel to an agent who only represents nonfiction will get me nowhere and will show the agent I am not professional. Writing is an art; publishing is a business. Editors and agents set up these rules because they are looking for writers with whom they can have a successful business relationship. Even if they personally love my writing, they will not take me as a client if they don’t think they can sell my work.

So if the agent you want to meet says bring me three sample chapters, you do it. If she only wants adult novels, you do not sign up so you pitch your self-help book. If she wants to you dress up as the main character of your scifi dystopian novel for the appointment, as unlikely as that is, you do it. Or if you think that’s ridiculous, you don’t do it. This business relationship is a two-way street. So many writers are so desperate to break into publishing that they will take any agent who offers them a contract. But you don’t want to get stuck with an agent you can’t stand. I have had interviews where I get a very strong feeling I would not work well with this person’s particular personality.

If you have had interviews with agents and editors at conferences, what advice would you give writers attending a conference for the first time?