Twenty-odd years, three unpublished novel-length manuscripts, one published short-short story, and about a hundred agent and publisher rejections. That’s what I had invested in my career as a mystery-suspense novelist by the time I crossed the threshold of Killer Nashville. After all that work and frustration, I was still determined to see a payoff, to know success, to see my name on the cover of a published novel.
Killer Nashville promised the opportunity to learn the ropes of mystery writing and publishing. The seminars and panel discussions would be hosted by real-live authors, agents, and even acquisitions editors from publishers looking for new authors. With the inside information would come the ability to make contacts, those most sought-after of a writer’s assets. Even Michael Connelly, he of the Harry Bosch series and sharp-edged novels like The Poet, would be there to meet with mere mortals. I paid my registration fee with the sort of hopefulness one feels when purchasing a lottery ticket, but with the added comfort of knowing that getting published isn’t just a matter of rolling dice. I knew that I had a good story or three to sell, and that chance, with apologies to Louis Pasteur, favors the prepared manuscript.
Towering above all other conference activities—at least to someone in possession of a finished novel—was the agent and publisher pitch. I had written plenty of query letters over the years, one-page pleas for the attention of someone with access to publishers. I had sent these entreaties by the dozen to New York zip codes, and then waited for news like a sweetheart on a widow’s walk. There had been nibbles of interest. I even had an agent for a few months, a relationship doomed by the fact that not all agents are created equal, and mine was less equal than others. The whole process had been a demoralizing stream of failure, yet I couldn’t give it up, kept coming back to the dream. And at Killer Nashville I would get the chance to pitch a book directly to an agent and an editor, two of the gods who only occasionally descend from the rarified Manhattan air to grant audiences to the faithful.
A book pitch is sort of like a job interview with Donald Trump: short, pointed, and terrifying. I rehearsed. I searched for tips on the Internet. I attended the seminar at the conference hosted by a tough-as-nails agent—the one to whom I would make the pitch. I put on extra deodorant. Then I sat in a soft armchair in the hotel lobby and waited for the appointed time. The books and pamphlets on author tables scattered along the hall receded from my mind. Nothing existed for me but the opening line of my pitch and the fear that it would evaporate into the ether the moment I opened my mouth.
I pitched to the agent first, which was trial by fire. She was the one I really wanted to sell to, but she was also the one who had, earlier in the conference, made it clear that she tolerated fools—and mediocre writing—about as well as Rome’s lions tolerated Christians. We sat at a café-sized table, both intimate and intimidating, and she asked what I had written. My first line was delivered with style, and I saw interest in her eyes. On the fourth line of my monologue, she interrupted with a sharp “Why?” that nearly threw me off stride. I evidently passed this first test, however, because she allowed the pitch to become a conversation. Halfway through I knew it was working, that even The Donald would have approved of my performance. At the end of the ten minutes, she and I were reminiscing about the days when Border’s had been a one-store independent on State Street in Ann Arbor, and she was asking to see my manuscript.
The rest of the conference I was relaxed enough to pay attention to what was going on around me. I met a TBI agent, a friendly guy who set up a fake crime scene complete with an imitation blood-splashed body so that mystery mavens could wander through the faux gore, taking notes like so many Sherlocks and Watsons. I learned from a panel discussion that the publishing business can be as cutthroat and nasty as the fictional crimes it publishes. And I watched as other wannabes like me wandered the halls, notebooks and bags in hand, mesmerized by the idea of finding the combination of murder, mayhem, and protagonist that would unlock the door to that world.
My pitch to the publisher’s editor went well but resulted in only a request to see an outline—no better than an elaborate query letter. My hopes for glory rested with the agent, and Monday morning I was at the post office, my literary baby in hand, ready once again to begin the wait for a response from the east. When it came a month later, it was one of the most complete, considered, and encouraging responses I’ve ever had from an agent. She had read the novel carefully, understood the characters, the plot, and the theme. In short, she had given me the longest, best review of my life, and at the end I had one more rejection to add to my catalogue. Yep. Rejection number … well, I stopped counting years ago. It’s best not to know exactly how often my creations have been denied entrance to the Promised Land.
Still, purgatory is better than hell. I and my baby would live to try again. I know now that I have a good story, well written, and that someday the right agent will see it. Maybe this year my pitch will be perfect.
Killer Nashville will be held August 20-22. To learn more about the conference, or to register for this year’s events, click here.