Nov 12: Time to head to New York City!
After a delayed and bumpy flight due to wind, our NYC cab driver called some people assholes and idiots on our way to our hotel (The Distrikt Hotel on W. 40th between 8th and 9th. When you speak “New York street speak” you must say the address and then throw in “between X and Y street”). We were 2 blocks from Time Square and 2 steps from a lot of trash bags, homeless people, and an overabundance of Thai restaurants.
We hit up Bare Burger for a super late lunch (I know there’s one in Columbus right by my work, but we were borderline hangry and just trying to figure out which way was which) and then strolled around Central Park until I more than exceeded the amount of daily steps needed for a virtual trophy on my Pebble watch.
It was a sweat-a-little-with-a-jacket-on weather.
We ate dinner at a place called Esca where the tables were so close to each other they had to pull the table out for me to get into the booth. Nearly every dish had seafood in it. I ordered chicken.
Once back at Distrikt, I spent the rest of the night reading the bios (again) of every editor who was expected to be at the conference and jotted their bios in my notebook while wondering if other conference participants would think I was an editor-stalker if they looked at my notes.
I said “I’m getting nervous” a couple times that night and set my alarm for a time that would give me 45 minutes to get to the conference (which was 5 minute walk, but I like to arrive super early when I’m nervous).
Pictures from Central Park
Nov 13: Day 1 of the conference.
4:45am – wake up, check clock, make sure I didn’t wake up late.
5:47am – wake up, check clock, make sure I didn’t wake up late.
6:30am – wake up, check clock, make sure I didn’t wake up late.
7:00am – (time I’m supposed to wake up) wake up, waste time playing on Facebook.
After breakfast at the hotel, Chris escorted me to the conference – 1 block over and 4 blocks up. It was held at Ripley-Grier Studios which is a high rise of studios that at any-given-minute can have singers, dancers, actors, and writers auditioning or pitching something. I find the studio on the 16th floor and see 7 other people who must have the show-up-early nervous plan going on too. I see the New York Writers Conference has the studio until 4pm, followed by StripXpertise who rented it from 4-5pm.
I quickly realized I’m one of the youngest ones at the conference and began to feel like Vada Sultenfuss in the movie “My Girl” when she’s the only kid in an adult poetry class and proudly reads her poem entitled “Ode to Ice Cream.”
“I like ice cream a whole lot, it tastes good when days are hot....”
We did the check-in, name tag, not-enough-chairs-in-the-room routine followed by a welcome/kick-off. There were about 25-30 people attending, which is exactly what I expected, and they divided us into 2 groups. Each group had a leader who would help you work on your pitch since day 1 was full on workshop style. My group leader was the author of 5 books and a former editor-in-chief at McCall’s magazine (not that I cyber stalked her prior to the event). She was direct, to the point, asked amazing questions, and I’d say she could be described as a slightly softer version of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. She had the black framed glasses that matched the persona. And she lives in the Upper West side.
We sat at a long table and it felt like a table read (as if I’ve ever been an actor or done a table read, but it’s what I imagine it to be like). At this point, the only thing we all know about each other is how we all handled the initial chair shortage, first names based on name tags, and the fact that we’re all there because we’ve written some sort of non-fiction.
I decided I would go 2nd if we got to select the order of pitch readings. I’d normally go first, but I just wanted to hear 1 person’s pitch before mine. Turns out, the 2 people (co-authors) who volunteered to go first only had an electronic copy of their pitch on google docs and were slow to connect to wi-fi, so I said “I’ll go first while you guys connect” because I was getting overly confident when I knew my pitch had all the key pieces of info our group leader was talking about to stall time while they tried to figure out the wifi password.
So I read my pitch.
It was 1 page single spaced (recommended pitch length was 2 minutes). I can feel my neck breaking out in a pink rash as I was simultaneously getting angry at myself for having just removed my scarf that I purposely packed for this very nervous neck moment. My voice was shaky and everyone in the room seemed to be giving me blank stares. I don’t know if it’s New York, or other writers, or the fact that I went first, but apparently no one was in the mood to do the standard head nod and half smile to make other people feel better sort of thing (we call that “Nationwide nice” at work).
As soon as I said the last line of my pitch, the group leader dove right into questions:
“How old were your parents when they had you?”
“What is your blog about?”
“Do you have stats on how many people have watched your TED talk?”
“Can you think of a more popular book to compare yours to?”
And then there were a lot of directives:
“Start your pitch with the title.”
“Say how many essays you’ve completed and how many you’re still working on.”
“State what it is about your comp books that make yours similar.”
“Emphasize the quality of voice.”
“Quote your favorite piece in the pitch.”
It was all rapid fire. I was very agreeable and open to the feedback while furiously taking notes and doing the accepting nod I had wished they would do to me.
She called my book “humorous and poignant.”
Someone complimented the title.
And then it was the next person’s turn.
The entire day was this format. We went around the table and every person gave their pitch followed by 15-20 minutes of feedback. Honestly, listening to other people’s pitches and watching our group leader ask rapid fire questions and say blunt things like “don’t say that phrase, that’s cliche” or “stop talking in 3rd person, do it again in 1st person” or “let’s change your title, you need something with more edge” was amazing. I learned so much from this process!
Want to know what everyone else was writing about (skip this numbered list if you don’t)? Here goes, in order of how we sat at the table….
1. Yours truly (read my previous blog post for the shortened version of my pitch)
2. Lady writing a memoir having to do with quitting her job to take care of her ill mom and being forced to reach out to her estranged siblings.
3. NYC real estate agents co-writing a book on behind-the-scenes of NYC real estate. I got to hear the brainstorming of their title and somewhere in there one of the authors told us about the drugs and sex behind the life of real estate in the big apple.
4. Lady writing a memoir on her time living in Paris, there were 2 divorces, and now she lives in NYC again. She hasn’t started the book yet but we all found out her 2nd husband had a mistress by the end of the feedback discussion.
5. Lady writing a book to help girls navigate through applying to college/the college years on what is really important to their success. I got to hear the group leader help her brainstorm if the book should be targeted to girls or to all students as well as title brainstorming.
6. One of the youngest living Holocaust survivors wrote a memoir (she co-wrote it with her husband who just-so-happens to be a former reporter for The Washington Post). It sounded like a pretty intense story and starts with her parents having to leave her when she was 3.5 months old and a foster mother putting her into hiding.
7. Lady writing a book about her time in the Peace Corps, highlighting her time serving during the end of the Cold War.
8. Guy writing about a year he spent in Berlin and the gay scene/gay pride in comparison to other places like Budapest where he also spent some time. He was going to title it “A Love Letter to Berlin” but was told to make it more edgy and use the word “queer” in the title.
9. Lady writing a memoir that included her experience having synesthia (seeing things as colors), there was mention of addiction and a lot of other intriguing things that I’m butchering. The group leader felt her pitch was best. It was.
10. Lady writing a book about her son who has autism and a couple chromosome related disorders – and as if that story wasn’t intriguing enough, she also had brain cancer and had to undergo surgery during the same time her son was dealing with his diagnosis. It sounded like a very interesting and personal story. I applaud her!
11. Lady writing a memoir about religion/politics. She is from Africa and she grew up Muslim but was told to act Christian publicly. I can’t do her pitch justice but I know she said she is done with her book at it’s 150,000 words (that’s like a 500 page book).
When the workshop wraps, the group leader tells us she will review revised pitches up through 8pm if we want to email them to her. I couldn’t believe she would commit to that! I decided to head back to the hotel and spend about an hour and a half making changes and send her way because I couldn’t pass on the opportunity for personalized edits. It was a struggle. I had to change nearly everything it seemed and I felt like I was under a tight timeline.
I have always wanted to be a writer, with a tight timeline, in NYC. And here I was….emailing an editor on the Upper West side.
I shipped over the revision and by the time Chris and I were ordering dinner she had responded with revisions and said “I love the line about fighting the war on cute millennials” (referring to my mention of writing a story about interns, highlighting when you’re no longer the youngest and prettiest in the office). Receiving my word doc back with red edits from an official author and former editor-in-chief felt amazing!
I ordered vanilla bean ice cream for dessert and felt really proud of myself tonight.
“….on a cone or in a dish, this would be my only wish. Vanilla, chocolate, rocky road, even with pie…a la’ mode”
Nov 14: Day 2 of the conference
10-11:30am was an agent panel. 3 agents came in and sat at a long table while a moderator asked them all the questions we’d want to know. “What do you look for in a query letter?” “What’s the market like for non-fiction?” “How many publishing houses do you pitch a book to once you’ve committed to working with an author?”
I took notes and was not surprised to hear some of them say you should have a social media platform that draws over 100,000 followers to really catch an agent/editor’s eye. So if you’re reading this blog and you’re my friend, acquaintance, or frenemy….can you please share this with 96,000 of your closest friends? First one to get me to 100,000 followers gets my entire book advance someday.
We took a break for lunch and I visited Mood fabrics because I was addicted to Project Runway during it’s initial seasons, and coincidentally a coworkers daughter works there so I had to seek her out for a selfie to send to him.
1-2:30pm was an official pitch session. An editor from Penguin Random House would be coming in and one-by-one we would go to the front of the room and sit across the table from her and deliver our pitch. Everyone in the group would remain in the room so we got to hear how everyone’s pitch had evolved from the day before (which was very cool!). I was the 8th person to go and clearly my revisions had drawn a better reaction than the day before. Both the editor and my group were laughing when I said phrases like “someday they’ll hire someone younger and prettier than you…and you’ll hate them…just because” as it’s a quote of my mom’s I use in my book. The editor was a super nice vegan girl who didn’t look too much older than me and she said my pitch was constructed very well and said it sounded humorous. She compared me to Alida Nugent by saying “she’s young and writes zany essays too.” I plan to now use Alida Nugent’s book as a comp book going forward (publisher code for a book I should compare mine to when I pitch it to agents/editors) because the editor delicately told me that I don’t have a platform as large as Mindy Kaling whose book I used as a comp. In my defense, I didn’t use her book as a comp in my original pitch, but in day 1 they told me to use a more familiar title than the ones I had in there so I reluctantly threw it in. (If you don’t know who Mindy Kaling is….she’s the Indian girl on The Office).
2:30-4pm was an official pitch session, but this time we were doing private pitches to an editor from HarperCollins, meaning it was just you, the editor, and the group leader. The rest of the group waited in the hall and I quickly realized most were frantically saying phrases like “wait, who am I after? wait, how will we know when it’s our turn? so like….are they going to come out and get us or do we just go in?” This pitch went quick. The editor had a calm demeanor, laughed at the same points the other editor did, and ignored the couple times I messed up some words. She told me I should incorporate an intro about what my relationship is like with my mom (sidenote – after day 1, my group leader told me to go back to my original title that just focused on my mom’s quotes. I spent the rest of the night saying “so did she just cut my dad out of the book?!” to Chris. My dad responded to the news with “omg, I’m on the cutting room floor”). The editor was pretty brief otherwise and that was a wrap.
The group leader told us on day 1 that editors will either 1. Not ask to see anyone’s manuscript, 2. Tell her the names of the people they want to see a manuscript from after all the pitches are complete and the group leader will let us know at some point, or 3. Editors will wait for weeks and follow back up with her if they’re interested and she’ll get in touch with us to let us know.
Pretending to be on Project Runway
In front of Ripley-Grier Studios (where the conference was held)
I couldn’t get the perfect Time Square picture, but you get the gist of the chaos and lights and traffic
Nov 15: The 3rd and final day of the conference
10-11:30am was our third and final pitch of the conference. It was a private pitch process again so they posted the list on the door and starting at 10am we went in one at a time and pitched to an editor from Feminist Press (the other group pitched to an editor from St. Martin’s Press). I was the 3rd one to go. I read the pitch better than I had any other time and the editor kept a stone cold face and reaction. She didn’t laugh or even fake laugh at anything I said. I knew about 10 words in this wasn’t going to be her gig. She asked me to give a specific example of one of my mom’s quotes and the story that went with it. I was thrown off because two of them are in my pitch so I mentioned one other story but used a quote from a fourth story because I was just going blank and wanted to just say “listen lady, we both know you’re not going to publish me, so…..peace out girl scout.”
I waited in the hall during the remainder of the pitches and people were coming out of the rooms with either a business card in their hand and an excitement they hadn’t shown before or no business cards while whispering grumbles about the editor giving them confusing or conflicting information. I was genuinely excited for the ones that received business cards and were asked to send an editor their first few chapters, and then later realized all my pitch opportunities were done and I walked away without any business cards from editors.
I have learned very quickly (and the group leaders said it several times) that it isn’t always a reflection of your writing, it’s all about what an editor is buying or interested in right now. Even the Holocaust survivor’s husband point blank asked the editor (when we did a public pitch) if she was interested in the story and she was already publishing a Holocaust book with another author….so….yeah….your story can be amazing and it’s about timing and finding the right agent/editor.
11:30-12:15pm there was a wrap up/q&a session. The group leaders ran through some basic things to keep in mind, gave us some inspirational words that were laced with discouraging words on the industry and then we all parted ways. I felt a little sadness inside when it was all over.
Chris text me that he made it home and I headed out for brunch where I got a free bellini with my meal. Make that 2 free bellinis when the server told me they forgot to make my omelet (also known as the only thing I ordered). I went to see Wicked where the singing brought tears to my eyes and then downed a margarita pizza at a restaurant a few blocks away. I weaved my way through construction zones, people sleeping on the streets, and 1 puddle of urine and made my way back to the hotel.
Tomorrow I will fly home and begin my next steps.
So….what’s next, you ask?
-Get my hands on Alida Nugent’s book to see how similar my writing is/isn’t to hers and figure out who her agent is and which editor published her book.
-I need to go back and edit a few of my essays and get them in tip-top shape so that they’re at-the-ready if an agent asks to see them.
-I need to get an agent which I’ll (hopefully) do by sending query letters (aka my pitch) to 10 or 12 of them at a time until one bites.
-I need to continue writing more essays because my book is not done yet
-I need to consider if I want to work with a freelance editor or one of the group leaders from the conference who could help shape up my stories so there aren’t elementary grammatical errors if/when an agent wants to see them.
-I need to cook Chris like 5 gazillion dinners and let him pick our next vacation spot because he got me through this weekend with his company and humor and encouragement.
-I need to check my email 5,000 times on Monday to see if my group leader says that editor #1 and editor #2 had an interest in seeing my work since they didn’t hand out business cards and tell people the day of.
That was my NYC experience in a lengthy nutshell. I could’ve written more. This was such a good learning experience on so many levels!