Back from the 2024 TORONTO WRITING WORKSHOP it was a bit of a whirlwind. Flyout Friday evening, do the workshop, and fly back literally immediately.

Literally immediately:  The workshop ended at 5:00, took the cab to the airport, went through security and back home a few hours later.

So … the experience?

This was a bit different from other Conventions I’ve attended.  There were two tracks of programming, a couple of morning sessions, a couple of afternoon sessions, but that was peripheral. What really drove this Convention was the opportunity to make pitches to Agents and Editors.

I did attend a couple of programming sessions. Marketing yourself and Ten Keys to Writing Succes – they were okay, mostly inspirational. There were some practical sessions I didn’t make because I was doing pitches that would have been useful. I’m sorry I missed those.

There programming sessions I couldn’t care less about. Twelve ways to start a story, crafting satisfying endings, that kind of thing. I’ve been writing thirty years; I’ve got multiple short story and book credits. Don’t teach grandma how to suck eggs.

The Pitches:  It was like speed dating. Or what I’ve read speed dating is like.

Most Writers conventions are fan or community run in my experience. I don’t have a lot of experience of Writers Festivals generally – I’m basically a genre writer, so that’s what I stick to. But this was a force of a different colour.  This appears to be a for profit, one-day convention, primarily devoted to bringing a bunch of agents together with a pile of writers for the purpose pitching. I don’t really object to that.  The company or group “Writing Day Workshops” that’s doing them were doing 24 in the US, West Coast, East Coast and Great Lakes mostly, plus 6 online. This was the only one in Canada.


So how did the Pitches work?

There were seventeen agents or editors, mostly agents. There was a list with bios and connections to their sites so you’d know who was what.  Ali McDonald and Jes Trudel for instance were exclusively kidlit agents and Aletha Spiridon was a Romance Publisher. Some expressed preferences for LGBTQ or diverse voices, some were literary, upmarket, etc. Basically, with the profiles and a bit of research, you could figure out who would be a good or a bad fit. Some of them were there for their whole firm, so they’d be looking at you, in terms of not just themselves but who else in the agency you might be good for.

You signed up, paid a standard fee to pitch, and you’d get assigned a ten-minute slot to pitch your book. I signed up for five pitches, and bought a sixth at the last minute.  My times were 9:20, 10:00 and 10:20 in the AM, and 1:40, 3:40 and 3:50 in the PM.

All the agents, of course, had a full schedule. You got to figure, starting around 9:20, through to 4:20 (with an hour and a half for lunch), that works out to six pitches an hour, thirty-six pitches max through the day.

Or to put it another way, thirty-six eager, bright, dreamers pitching their dreams, nonstop at an agent for a solid day. The Agents for my morning pitches were bright eyed and bushy tailed. The ones at the end of the day were looking pretty pole-axed and dazed. I can imagine how draining it must be.

But I give them credit. Each agent I spoke to was polite, personable, they were friendly and very positive, they listened and seemed really interested and positive.

I put this down to civilized demeanor. The days when people could walk around being brutal assholes, as in The Devil Wears Prada, seem to be long gone. Perhaps we as a society have really embraced courtesy, or social media may be making people more cautious, or maybe we’re all just realizing how accessible weapons are to badly socialized people and we’re more careful.

Every pitch I did was very positively received. I would have assumed everyone’s was, but talking to a few people, there were turn downs and rejections. So it’s hard to day. I get the impression even the rejections were nice.

The thing with Agents, the reason that they’re sitting at the table is that they’ve all got the hope that the next person that sits down with them is the next J.K Rowling or Dan Brown, the wunderkind that is going to explode and make them wheelbarrow-fulls of money. They’re also hoping beyond hope that they’ll recognize that Stephanie Meyer or Andy Weir when they sit down.

No guarantee that they will. But they’re hoping.

Basically, the thing with publishing, is it’s all about lottery winners.  Something like 80% of fiction books professionally published lose money.  The entire industry is propped by the 5% or 2% that are best sellers.

When you think about that, this notion that 2% of books are literally floating the other 98% and literally producing or creating the real profit, that’s amazing.

And deeply disturbing.

It’s basically, lottery tickets. Everyone in the entire process is buying a lottery ticket, hoping for the big time.

For writers, it’s kind of ‘Captain Insaneo making.’  Elsewhere, there’s a little more stability, if you’re an Agent, or Editor, a Publishing Company there’s a shot at making some kind of steady living. Obviously, there are a lot of people making a living as agents, and they get their 15% from a lot of writers, and that floats the boat. I think some of them have side gigs or collateral work – they write themselves; they work for presses; they teach or something. But overall, sustainable.

But every single one of them, I’m sure, dreams of the Leprechaun at the end of the Rainbow with their Pot of Gold, the J.K. Rowling or Steven King. So they sit at the table and smile politely and listen to someone pitch their dream, and hope they can spot the golden ringer if they show up.

They get a lot of email queries – up to 250 a week, or a day. I’ve tried that. The thing with a deluge like that is that there’s no way to handle it. You get 250 a day to clear through, you just go lawn mower, looking for reasons to say no, just clearing it away.

That’s why Agents prefer some connection, some referral from a friend, a relative, a successful client, or some accomplishment to say ‘not just another supplicant, this is someone out of the pack’ that they can take a close look at. Well, if you’ve got a pal or connection, great. Not a guarantee, but a leg up.

And yes, that’s a pretty random way to run a business.

So the other side of it is pitch sessions like this – where Agents give strangers a shot at making a proposal and a personal impression. I can appreciate them being hopeful and positive and friendly.  Who knows who is going to be sitting down with them?

There’s also, for Agents, the sense of commitment by the author. Anyone can send an email and proposal. It doesn’t tell you anything about them. There’s potentially no effort involved. You could send a hundred email queries.  A thousand.

But someone who makes the effort to come to one of these things and meet personally. Well, there’s a chance to get a sense of the person. And it shows real commitment, the effort to do it.

And financial commitment – let’s be serious. The Conference cost about $300. Agent pitches were $40 each, and most people attending were doing a minimum of two or three, I spoke to one guy that went seven, I did six, there were people who probably did more. Most were Torontonians or could drive in, but even then, they were taking the entire day, paying for parking or meals.  Me, I flew in – $500 plane fair, $250 hotel, $200 cabs, $50 meals. All told probably over $1500 that I don’t actually have to spend.

Of course that segues into a personal hobbyhorse – the Arts are pricing themselves out. But I’ll rant about that some other time.

But as far as an Agent is concerned, if you’ve got people willing to make the organizational, financial and personal commitment to get their ass in gear and deo this… well, they’re probably worth taking seriously, at least for a ten-minute sit down.

But Geez! Thirty in a row?  I’d be pudding at the end of it.  Hell, half way through, I would be biting heads off.

Honestly? Talking to only six spread out across an entire day, they started to run together for me.

And not all the Authors pitching are…  let’s say, entirely sane? Before I went, the convention made available a training video – how to pitch to an agent. One of the things they said was don’t give an agent food, don’t give them presents, don’t tell them the story of their life. About half the video consisted of advice not to do weird, toxic, lunatic things that normal people with basic social skills would never do.

I think maybe some of us as authors are maybe a little socially dysfunctional? I know I am. I’m basically a Neandertal, possibly Australopithecus with less body hair. But apparently, somewhere out there, there are people even more hopeless than I am.

Terrifying, isn’t it.

So my experience:

First step, brush teeth, comb hair, trim nose hairs, ear hairs, remove catlike extensions from eyebrows, wore a suit, had it dry cleaned, pants pressed for a nice crease, good shirt (no tie, didn’t want to overdo it). I was hoping to make a good impression.

Yep, had it all going on, until I caught a glimpse in a mirror and saw what amounted to a shaved troll doll in a badly fitting suit.

Ah well, trying doesn’t mean you succeed.

I prepared hard, signed up for a lot of pitches, made notes, worked on log lines, comps, blurbs, bios, etc. I was pitching two novels, The Luck and Princess of Asylum, had all the details worked out on cheat sheets for both, plus printed of the bios and pictures of each agent I wanted, looked up their interviews, their Agencies. I had a huge pile of notes.

I pitched a third novel, The Squad – that was a last-minute impulse. Basically, there were a few open slots, there was an agent that liked horror, so I thought, what the hell. Went in with no notes, nothing prepared, and just took a swing. It went pretty well.

Sometimes you need to so that. You prepare, and prepare, and prepare. But you also need to commit sometime to a seat of the pants move, do the unexpected, and just go for it.

And of course, my standard dark night of the soul: Two prior days of second guessing myself, despair, worthlessness, the feeling that I was doomed from the start, that I’d be laughed at, that everyone there would be smarter, faster, more talented, that everyone’s book would be better, the certainty that I would be unwelcome and unwanted, that it was all pointless and futile, and I should just give up now. Basically, that’s my default. The trick is not to let it stop you.

Anyway, so that’s me going in – all dressed up, prepared to the max.

Like I said, it went well. General feedback – my pitches were excellent. I was focused, organized, had all the right material in the right order, the characters and ideas were engaging. General downside – the consensus seemed to be the books were too long, particularly for a debut author. One called it a Doorstopper. Despite that, everyone suggested I sent in a pitch letter, plus the requisite ten or twenty pages, etc.  Two were specific referrals to other people in their agencies. Of the six, nothing was negative. I think four were extremely positive. I felt very comfortable with at least three on a personal basis.

So six requests to email pitches and pages.  I’m not surprised by that – if you’ve sat through thirty pitches, your brain is probably mush, so what counts is the follow up.

“Hey, we met at the Pitch Session, you asked me to send in…”  They can then process it at leisure and make a real decision. Still likely you’ll get a ‘No.’ But going through this exercise gets you out of the ‘250 email queries a day’ pack, and into the ‘dozen  or so viable outcomes from the pitch day’ category.  It gets you, as an author, closer to the possibility of ‘Yes.’

So while I feel that I scored an invitation on all six, and that’s good – it’s kind of a step on the road. It’s not victory. I wouldn’t go overboard.  It’s not as if they got stars in their eyes, leaped across the table, French kissed me and offered me a contract on the spot. Maybe that kind of thing does happen, but I suspect it’s rare, and it definitely didn’t happen to me.

Some people kind of went overboard, so desperate for any kind of affirmation, or so poorly socialized that they’re not up on the process. I feel sorry for them.

Some people got ‘No’ either from some agents or across the board. I feel really sorry for those.

So there it is. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. Participation makes me eligible for an Online Conference, and a second round of Zoom pitches in May. I plan to take advantage of that.

In the meantime, next up is an Indie Publisher’s Conference in May, which should help me learn and develop my self-publishing side, particularly, hopefully.

And in the short term, the next two weeks I’m going to go through my notes and do my follow up emails, to see what happens.

Beyond that – a lot of writing to do, I have a couple of novels on the burner, more stories to write; I want to follow up on short stories to submit to publications;  there are five or six self-pub books to get out into the world, with all the attendant work involved in those – proofing, editing, covers, etc.; then the round of conventions, with panels, presentations, pitch sessions; plus doing the nonfiction stuff.

That’s about it. Along the way, met a few people, made a few friends. That’s Liana Ting up top with me. Originally from Hong Kong, now a heartfelt Canadian, graphic novelist and total dynamo. We hung out a little bit.  She’s one to watch for.

Didn’t get to see much of Toronto, but maybe the next time out in May.  I’m looking forward to it.