A Feast of Days (Part 2): Agents

Today’s guest post is by emerging writer Darrelyn Saloom, who recently attended the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, and is offering up a 4-part narrative on the experience. Darrelyn is a regular guest here at No Rules. Follow her on Twitter or read her previous posts. Pictured above: Plaque on the wall of the Overby Center third-floor meeting room.

Friday, the official start of the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference and Workshops, I longed to attend the manuscript session with Dinty W. Moore or the one with Kristen Iversen. “Making Words Cinematic” with Michael Rosenwald and “The Personal Essay” with Lee Guitkind and Neil White also beckoned. But the workshops occurred at the same time. It would’ve been a grueling decision to make. Fortunately, the choice was moot. I knew what I had to do. 
I faced my fear and signed up for “A Day with Literary Agents,” which advertised: “Renowned literary agents Jeff Kleinman and Gillian MacKenzie will spend a day with participants covering query letters, secrets of nonfiction book proposals, everything you need to know about working with agents and a ‘Buy this Book’ role-playing workshop.”

Perhaps the description should have enticed me, but only terror and dread buttered my hotel’s complimentary breakfast bagel on that chilly November morning in Oxford, Mississippi.  
I’d just completed a memoir after four years and two days of collaboration. I needed to find an agent—a problem since I don’t know any literary agents and these people I didn’t know were shadowy figures who chased me in dreams. People scoffed at my fear. I scoffed at my fear. Why did this part of the process frighten me? I’m not a shy person. In fact, I’m a talker. I ask for directions and recommend books to strangers in coffee shops, bookstores, and airports. I’ll talk to anybody.

So, like I’ve done dozens of times, I resolved to face the phantoms of sleep. It helped that I took a former world champion of women’s boxing with me. Deirdre Gogarty and I rushed off to the Overby Center third-floor meeting room on the Ole Miss campus. We sat at a huge oval table built to seat a presidential assembly. I steadied my hands and removed a completed proposal from my bag. Then I sat down and promptly forgot the pitch I had rehearsed earlier as Deirdre pretended to watch TV.   

When the agents, Jeff and Gillian, arrived they seemed normal enough. (Gillian is pictured above.) They asked us to scoot our chairs in closer for more intimacy. Great. I was already seated near where they plopped down their briefcases. Jeff sat on his spine with his long legs stretched out in front of him. I focused on his black slip-on loafers, then Gillian’s black pumps. I worked my way up to discover Jeff had the kind of face aunts and grandmothers would be tempted to pinch. Gillian’s features, no doubt, attracted innumerable pinch-cheeked boys. 
With knowledge and humor, Jeff and Gillian doled out advice. Jeff scrolled through his cell phone and read a few examples of bad query letters and then one that led to a New York Times bestselling book. Gillian emphasized the need for writers to be courteous and punctual. “No one wants to take on a troublesome client,” she explained, “no matter how salable the manuscript.” This was a relief to hear because not only am I courteous, I’m neurotically on time.   

My unfounded fear of literary agents began to subside. I took a few deep breaths and felt my shoulders drop and my hands steady. Then I volunteered to role-play and told Deirdre’s story.

Here, I discovered the mistake in my pitch. I needed to get to the selling point of the memoir as quickly as possible. When pitching agents, selling is primary. Story is secondary. Not because they don’t care about story, but because there is so little time. As a writer, story is everything. I’d now have to think like a vendor and revise my pitch. I had more work to do and little time to do it.

We wrapped up the workshop at 4:00 p.m. In two hours Deirdre and I would attend poet Beth Ann Fennelly’s discussion of “Curiosity as A Narrative Force in Creative Nonfiction,” then hitch a ride to Memory House for a reception and cocktails. (Pictured above: Darrelyn Saloom discusses poetry’s inspiration on prose writers with poet Beth Ann Fennelly photo by Mike Stanton.)

It would be a late night. And the pitch fest was the next day.

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About Ben Sobieck

Benjamin Sobieck is a Wattpad Star and 2016 Watty Award winner. He’s best known on Wattpad for Glass Eye: Confessions of a Fake Psychic Detective, the Watty Award–winning sequel Black Eye, and When the Black-Eyed Children Knock & Other Stories. Four of his titles have appeared on Wattpad Top 100 Hot Lists, all at the same time.

19 thoughts on “A Feast of Days (Part 2): Agents

  1. Amber J. Gardner

    Great post as always! I love the way you described your anxiety and fear.

    Looks like you had a very busy day! I think your mistake is a very common one. It just takes two brains for this sort of thing: a creative one and a marketing one. This seminar sounds so cool! I would have loved to sit in "Making Words Cinematic." It’s awesome that you’re learning so much. I think mistakes are good in that sense. Mistakes help you learn faster ^_^!

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Jillian

    I too am not a shy person and am also not afraid to tell the pimply, 19 year old adorable red head in the grocery store that he MUST never ever again buy Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup and that he must promise to ONLY buy the pure stuff that pours out of the tree.

    Come on, tell me know. I can’t wait. Which agent was smart enough to pick up your memoir? Don’t tell me, I already know.

  3. Jenn

    As always Darrelyn, I felt like I was with you. This time I had butterflies in my stomach! I’m so happy you faced the phantoms of sleep & had a chance to practice your pitch. I’ll be anxiously waiting for the pitch fest. Thank you for sharing this piece. I can’t wait to hold your memoir in my hands.

  4. Natalie Gibbins

    Very interesting. I’ve been quite curious about this stage of the process.
    This piece is just what I’ve come to expect from my favorite up and coming writer.

  5. Barbara Weibel

    Hmmm…I think I’ve got my pitch down (and my premise, thanks to you), but now I need to find some time to write the last half of my book. God knows when that will be, but I was thrilled to hear you’ve finished yours. At least I know that if I ever finish writing it, I can turn to you for expert advice, since you will have successfully gone through the entire process by then. Thanks so much for sharing the details of this conference; sounds like it was absolutely fascinating.

  6. Windmill Duke

    "Accidently" read your piece whilst my laptop ground off slowly during a cleanup and unistall session. I love Jane and her friends. Well, sorta, I’m 70 and it’s hard enough starting an affair with writing at this leg of the journey; you’re safe.

    BUT, one little snippet made my day. And the next two mag queries I’m laboring over. SELL. Hey, can do that. I’m a colorful guy with a colorful past (Navy fighter pilot and now rancher-cowboy). It fits the subject matter, but I’ve been pitching the story (father and son "partner fathering" five wild ones like they did in the Little House days). Like the cookware for hope chests I sold 50 years ago, the pitch comes first then the product. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Ken Wheaton

    You know, I never considered agents frightening. Mysterious, maddening, rude, rushed, aloof, clueless, genius (depending on they responded, of course). But never frightening.

    UNTIL NOW! Thanks! 🙂

    Good stuff.

  8. Jill George

    As you know Darrelyn, I’m a talker too. That’s probably why we clicked. Once again I felt as I was w/you in the room. I could see his legs stretched out & her black pumps. I would have volunteered also! Love the way you write & can not wait for the next part. Thanks 🙂

  9. Ro Rainwater

    I know just how you felt. That was one of the main reasons I stuck to journalism instead of writing and pitching books: the unknown, coupled with the inability to "sell" myself/project/what-have-you. In my case, deep self-doubt was a huge factor, which I sense is not your situation. Thanks for this! As always, I see myself in so much of what you write about, in your feelings about what you write about. ♥ 🙂

  10. Sally G

    Bravo, Brave Girl!!! What a great lead-in to the main event. If Jeff and Gillian read this they will know to shine their shoes during these events…I love how you face your "phantoms of sleep" with humility and humor and as always, I love your story.

  11. Jennifer

    "face the phantoms of sleep" I like that. I have feared the unknown then when I actually face the phantoms they are usually not phantoms at all. Thanks for posting & your story telling always speaks to me.

  12. Heidi

    Every time I read one of these pieces of yours I’m just blown a way. You are a wonderful storyteller, finding the perfect details to make me sit at the edge of my seat. This sounds like it was a wonderful conference. Looking forward to the next installment.


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