How’s this for the premise of a suspense novel? Five eager (possibly anxious) writers, all with finished manuscripts, are locked in a small room with one literary agent and one book editor. None of them have a key. No one knows how to get out.
This could go in so many directions. The desperate writers could turn on each other as they jockey for attention of the industry professionals. They could channel their rejection frustration toward the captive agent and editor. Even scarier, they could all start pitching their books.
Or they could act like rational human beings and work together to find a way out of the locked room.
They could Escape the Room.
This is the situation I found myself in two weeks ago. I was one of the anxious writers. I’m not speaking metaphorically. We were actually locked in a room together for an hour and didn’t know how to get out. Escape the Room is an interactive strategy game run by clever folks who take tourists’ money, lock them in a room and watch on a video monitor as they race against the clock to get out.
It’s not as sadistic as it sounds. Groups hunt for clues, work out puzzles and solve riddles to find the key within 60 minutes. Only 20 percent make it out in time.
Not to brag, but our group escaped with more than a minute to spare. The agent and the editor were not harmed, and none of the writers even attempted to pitch their books. We just hung out and cracked codes together.
The event was part of a writer’s conference called The Work Conference, the brainchild of editor Rebecca Heyman. In March she brought together 22 emerging literary fiction writers, published authors, and a group of literary agents and editors in New York for three days.
The agents and editors led small group workshops, seminars, and one-on-one consultations. We all went out drinking together. No pitching allowed. (There may have been karaoke involved one night.)
It’s silly that as a reasonably confident, successful adult, I feel so intimidated by literary agents and editors. Wanting someone’s approval launches me back to the awkward middle school mentality. But after a weekend of being locked in a room, singing (bad) karaoke, sharing meals and eating a ton of candy together, I now feel much less intimidated.
I learned a lot more than how to escape a locked room and how to have fun at a karaoke bar while stealthily avoiding the microphone.
At The Work Conference we focused on elements of craft and discussed industry trends. Fine details and broad strokes. But the most important lesson I learned that weekend was that I already have a literary agent — we just haven’t met yet. And my agent is equally as excited about meeting me as I am about meeting her or him. Our paths haven’t crossed yet. But they will.
As I begin the query process for my novel, I will try to remember that every time an agent or editor sits down to hear a pitch, every single time they open a query, they want it be The One. They aren’t looking to judge us. They want to discover us. They love finding debut writers and making dreams come true.
All agents and editors really want is to find a great book.
All I want is for that book to be mine.
It’s unlikely I will ever get locked in a room with a literary agent again, but if I do, I’ll play it cool. I’ll ask about their pets and what they’re reading. Unless, of course, it happens to be MY agent, the one who has been searching tirelessly for me.
In that case, I’m going to pitch the hell out of my book.