I’ve had a subscription to Writer’s Digest for a few years now, and have purchased a handful of their books, read countless articles, and had at least a dozen “ah-ha” moments thanks to Chuck Sambuchino and Brian A. Klems. So when I saw that Chuck was coming to town to host a writer’s workshop (and it wouldn’t involve me having to drive right into downtown Toronto), I jumped at the opportunity.
In addition to covering many topics I’d love to learn more about, the opportunity to pitch a manuscript to agents was part of the offering. In addition to that, they also had an “America’s Got Talent” type of competition. Brave writers had the opportunity to submit the first page of their first chapter (anonymously) to be read aloud by Chuck, and then critiqued by the agents.
There were eleven agents in attendance, and I chose the two whose bios struck a chord with me, and also represented agencies that seemed to be the right fit for both my current and future projects.
I sat myself between two men near-ish to the back door, so that I would only be minimally disruptive should my infantile bladder misbehave. That’s where I met Salizar the sci-fi writer. Yes, I’ve changed his name for the sake of his privacy… but I also think I’ve chosen a really cool name that suits his genre. He could totally rock the name Salizar. I’m sure his friends would call him “The Zar” whenever the need arose for him to defend his college beer pong title.
“Sali” seemed nervous. I overheard him taking a few deep breaths, and recognized that breathing from when my husband is struggling with stress or anxiety. Was he stressed about sitting next to the coolest chick in the GTA? Nah… He was about to go up to bat for his first pitch.
I wanted to hug him, but I knew that our relationship was too new, and my motherly hug of comfort might come across as “the cougar who groped me” when he recounted the story to his girlfriend later that evening. So chose the path safer travelled and only offered verbal encouragement.
The pitches took place throughout the entire day, so we were instructed to simply get up and leave when we needed to. As engaging as Chuck was, I found myself distracted by the comings and goings of the attendees. I wanted to see the looks on their faces before they left the room (it was always an ashen look of panic), and then again upon their return. One of three different looks accompanied those who returned:
- Elation; or
- “Well eff you! I didn’t want to get picked up by your lame-ass agency anyway! You wouldn’t know talent if it hit you in the face.”
Salizar came back with a number two look on his face. I was so thrilled! I didn’t know how I’d be able to deal with numbers one or three, and was considering changing seats if necessary.
After lunch, we all settled in for the critiques, and my thoughts of “Please let them pick me,” soon turned to “Oh gawd! Please don’t pick mine!” as they systematically slaughtered each and every one of them. They picked my buddy Sali’s, and his face immediately turned fifty shades of red.
Oh gawd! Let his be one they like so I don’t have to move.
As I helped Sali’s pick up his shattered ego from the floor, I told him (and I meant it), “This is a great thing! Now, you know that you can beat the hell out of your first fifty pages before sending it to the agents who already requested it of you. You’ve got a great upper hand!”
Honestly though, Salizar was cool with it. He obviously had what it took to become a writer—humility and absence of ego. He was not angry or bitter, and recognized the benefit of what he had just experienced.
One of the agents did express a disclaimer of sorts during their literary massacre to all of the participants. They are not this brutal in their day job, and are only behaving like Simon Cowell so that we have a better chance with our future queries.
Chuck held up the last selection. I held my breath… yup… it was mine. Oh gawd!
I prepared myself for one of the agents stand up and say, “I must know who wrote this exquisite piece! Stand up and show yourself, because I am ready to sign you instantly.” Instead, my heart sunk as I became the actress who thinks she’s going to win the Oscar and doesn’t hear that they called someone else’s name. Then the camera catches her standing up and kissing her peers while the actual winner takes the stage. Only to be caught on camera again as she mouths an expletive in a very unladylike manner and withers back down in her seat.
Slowly I gathered up my dismembered ego parts and stepped out of the room to try to compose myself for my two pitches. The pitches that were now a distant memory to me. I think all I could remember was, “Hi, I’m Veronica. Nice to meet you.”
I did my best to compose myself and, at the end of each of my pitches, I came clean and told the agents that my manuscript had been their final victim that day. Despite how brutal their counterparts had been towards my manuscript, they both asked to see more.
So what did I learn that day?
I learned that I do have what it takes to be a successful writer.
I’ll tell you why and how.
Even though I wasn’t carried away on a gilded throne by buff men in loin cloths and hailed “Queen Veronica! Writer to The People,” I recognized that their comments didn’t hurt me—they benefited me. They gave me that window into what an agent is (and isn’t) looking for. Sure, it was only a handful of opinions, but it was a handful more than just sitting back and having my mom tell me, “But I think you’re pretty…”
I truly believe that, in order to be a successful writer, you need to embody these five elements:
In my opinion, number five is the most important. If your craft doesn’t make your palms sweat, then why do it?
For those of you who become defensive when your art is critiqued—take some time to reflect on why you are writing; and why you react so poorly to critiques that can only make you more rounded as an artist.
For those of you brave enough to put your heart on paper for the world to read—bravo!
My hope for you is that you continue to have sweaty palms!