Friday, February 17, 2017

Scene versus Summary--Which to Use for What Effect

I like picking up what I call "airport reads," just to see what's up in commercial fiction.  Airport reads are those books that airport bookstalls buy, thinking they'll take travelers' minds off flying.  It's a big coup to get your book in an airport bookstall, and over the years, I've seen more serious fiction arrive on those shelves.


Recently, I got a copy of JoJo Moyes' new book, After You.  Her novel, Me before You, a story of a woman caretaker for a paraplegic who helps him with assisted suicide, was made into a movie, and I enjoyed it a lot--good characters, tense situation.  Moyes is a master wordsmith, expertly pacing her stories.  After You is the sequel, as you may have imagined, and it also starts with a bang--the main character falls off a roof and has to return home to her parents while she heals.

This is an airport read, so it's not deep, but it's entertaining.  I started the novel one night before bed and stayed up later than I wanted, unable to stop reading the first two chapters, enjoying the dialogue, the expert delivery of character, the pacing. 

Then I hit the third chapter.  Hmmmm, I thought, it almost felt like it was written by another author.  Slow, heavy with backstory, the interrelationships not as deftly shown on the page.

I needed my sleep so I put it aside.  Tried to pick it up the next night, got through chapter 3, but I haven't wanted to go back to it since.

I spoke with a friend who'd read it.  "It's a good story, worth reading," she said, "but I also noticed a slow down after those opening chapters."

The writing teacher (and writer) in me got intrigued. 

So this week, I spent some time studying the structure.  The most obvious element I noticed was that chapters 1 and 2 were mostly scene.  They had a brisk pace, lots of tension, lively dialogue, and specific settings.  Chapter 3 was mostly summary.  Lots of backstory, not much happening, a good deal of the chapter presented as thoughts and feelings.  Very slow stuff.

A basic difference between scene and summary.

One of my writing students had asked about scene and summary in class this week, so perfect timing.  My research would come in handy.

Basic definitions of scene and summary:

Scene:  includes specific location, characters moving around onstage (movement), and dialogue.  There's tension, things are happening.  Usually doesn't include much backstory or time passing.

Summary:  can span many locations, events are often condensed or summarized, lack of movement onstage, not much tension.  Often includes backstory.  

Effect on the reader:  Scene promotes tension and movement, a faster pace.  Summary is like a pause to absorb, reflect.

When to use either:  If you want tension, use scene.  If you want the reader to pause, use summary.

It's not that I'm a scene junkie.  I like well-written summary as much as the next reader.   But placement is everything.  When Moyes chose summary for her third chapter, as a reader I was stalled out.  I still needed the build of tension before all that summarized backstory got thrown in.  It might have worked in smaller doses, along with scenes.  It might have worked in a later chapter.  As it is, I'm probably going to drag myself back to the book and work through my resistance as a reader, but I'm also going to look at my own (and my students') scene/summary balance much more carefully. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
See if you can identify scene and summary in a piece of published writing.  Then ask yourself how it comes across to you as a reader.  Finally, where has the author placed it, in the book?  Is it appropriate to that spot?

Then look at one of your own beginning chapters.  Do a careful scan for summarized sections and get ruthless:  Do you really need them, just here?  Would they be better used later, in smaller bits, or not at all?  

Friday, February 10, 2017

False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir


What I call the "inner story" in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events.  It's pretty simple, but its success depends on something called "false agreements."  Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises.   Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn't just occur, right?  It usually happens from a series of events that create change.  To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character's journey starts.  Usually, there is something they don't fully understand.  Something they are challenged by.
I like to look at this as a kind of agreement.  The character decides something is true--even if it isn't--and agrees to operate as if it is.  As the story goes along, the writer challenges this belief, conviction, desire or hope or fear, this agreement with self, another, or situation, and slowly proves it false.  

At the beginning, the false agreement might be quite intact.  As the story goes along, each event breaks down this agreement.  By the end, even the character must see that it's not real.  By the end, there is a new realization.

What are some false agreements in story?

In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger.  This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.

In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal.  This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger. 
 

In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family.  Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.

A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book.  It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story--humans rarely travel a straight line in growth--but it is exposed by the end for what it is.  Even if the character ends up in permanent denial, the reader has seen the agreement as fully false.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  How to Set Up a False Agreement in Your Story
Understanding a false agreement means really knowing your character.  If you didn't get a sense of the false agreement last week, here are some next steps. 

Most writers start by describing the status quo that the story starts with.  What does everybody put up with, to get along?  What are the accepted beliefs?   

Some examples of false agreements from different books I've read lately:
1.  If I'm good enough, nothing bad will happen.
2.  If I protect my sister, she won't be abused.
3.  If I go there in person, I can find the truth.
4.  If I keep silent, nobody will get hurt.

There are hundreds of possibilities, and yours will be unique.  The "hook" of your story starts from this false agreement.  Because something will happen to immediately cast doubt over this false agreement, right? That's what launches your story.

Once you have your false agreement sketched out (spend 15-20 minutes freewriting on what it could be), your next step is to chart how that agreement will get busted up.

In all stories, there are small and large epiphanies where the character gradually realizes the agreement may not be all it's cracked up to be. Maybe a hint of that is early in the story, within the first third.  It can be a small epiphany, or turning point. 

But the character often perseveres and tries to keep the false agreement going.  Then there's a bigger event that cracks it even more:  often, at this point, the character decides not to take this #%$$ anymore and reinvents themselves or gets new help or new clues.  This might happen midway through the story. 

There's is often a revision of the false agreement, a new false agreement, if you will, that is closer to the truth but not quite it. (Why?  Because you still have half the story to get through, and false agreements create the conflict that drives the character.  So you don't want to get rid of the false agreement entirely, not yet.)

Usually, near the end of the story, the smaller epiphanies result in a major one.  At this point, the character sees truth. 

They become different, fundamentally.  And they make changes that really show how far they have come since the start of the story.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Andre Dubus on Writing Memoir--A Podcast from Brevity


I admire Andre Dubus's writing, both his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) and his memoir (Townie).  This week, as I return from teaching in Tucson, instead of a lengthy post, I'm going to keep it short--and share an excellent podcast with Dubus, shared by one of the writers at my retreat.

Although the podcast is specifically about memoir, and whether a writer must live a dramatic life in order to write it, his comments can be helpful to writers from all genres.

Here's the link to Brevity magazine, which published the podcast. 
Enjoy!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

When the World Goes to Chaos, Writing Becomes Even More Important--So What's Your Purpose with Your Writing?


I don't know anyone who thinks our world is perfect right now.   My Facebook feed is so disturbing some days, I can't read or post.  I'm not a born activist, but I do have concerns and strong opinions about what's happening nationally and globally, so that's when I turn to my writing.

I know from many published books that writing has an effect on the world.  Just last week I got a letter from a reader of my first novel, Qualities of Light.  She lives in Switzerland and took months to read and study the book (in English, not her native language), and she says she was transformed by the story.  Since the novel was released in 2009, that's a fairly long half-life in publishing.  Still touching a few people here and there, and I'm grateful my words can make a difference.

This week, I'm in Tucson, Arizona, in the middle of the beautiful and peaceful desert, with a group of 13 other writers.  I'm teaching a retreat on book-writing, and the writers come from all different backgrounds and writing genres.  Some are just beginning, some are nearing publication. 

Over dinner, we often discuss the state of the world.  Yesterday, we expanded that into the effect our writing might have on that world.  Writer Toni Morrison is recently famous for saying, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.  We speak, we write, we do language.  That's how civilizations heal." 

So what is your intent, with your writing, in this world we're in? 

Your weekly writing exercise is a break from craft, into the purpose of why you write, why we write.  What's it all about, for you?    

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?

Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago.  She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog.  She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.


Storyboards are basic structuring tools that help a writer plot a storyline.  Many books have more than one storyline.  Consider The Time Traveler's Wife, which has three (the current story, the time travel story, the backstory).  How did this author so successful weave these three storylines together, making a cohesive whole?

It's not easy.  It's also impossible for most writers to manage just by writing through the story and never stepping back to examine the structure.

I recommend first creating separate storyboards for each storyline.  You need to be clear that each storyline is strong enough on its own.  Many times I've begun a book and not noticed when one of my storylines dropped out midway through.  Readers will always notice and disengage.  So do the structure work first thing, if you can.

Natalya also has three storyboards for her novel-in-progress.  The first is the storyline of her main character in the present time.  The second storyboard shows the same character during World War II.  She says this backstory is "an integral part of the narrative and requires its own story line vs. being presented as flashbacks."  She also has a third storyboard that shows the "secondary main character or, more precisely, the main character's main helper in the present time."

Her three storyboards seem to work individually, which is great news.  But she is struggling with how to integrate them.
Research comes first.  I always look at other authors when approaching this task.  For instance, how does Anthony Doerr do this in All the Light We Cannot See?  Does he alternate chapters by different narrator, or does he offer a chunk of chapters from one of the storylines?  The Time Traveler's Wife is another good resource.  Two narrators, three different storylines.  How does this author handle it?

There are only a certain number of combinations, so look first at published examples.  Then, try modeling one.  Take your own material and test it out using one of the structures.  If you love Time Traveler's Wife, do exactly the same with your first few chapters as Audrey Niffeneger does with hers.  Test it out.  When does she bring in the backstory storyline, when does she offer a chapter from the female character's point of view, when from the male's?  Mimic the structure and see how you like it.

If that structure doesn't appeal to you, or doesn't really fit your material, try modeling from another book you love.  Usually, within a few tries, I land on a structure that suits my book.  Then I go back to my own material and make that structure my own.  I tweak and change until it's uniquely mine.  It's a tried-and-true technique in many art forms.  Remember, you're only modeling the structure, not the writing itself.

Some writers also like to choose a dominant storyline and place those chapters at pivotal moments in the book (if you're familiar with the W storyboard from my classes, this would be points 1-5).  That cues the reader that this is the most important story.  Usually, that story is the present time one, narrated by the main character. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this! 

If you'd like to really practice this and get weekly coaching from me, check out my upcoming online class, Storyboard Your Book! starting on January 25 for eight weeks.  Hopefully, this technique can help other writers struggling with the same question.

Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.


The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

My client wrote me:  "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there.  The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical].  But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc.  Or even use a pseudonym.  I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."

First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not.  They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story.  They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too.  It's always been my experience, as a writer. 

It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places:  either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously.  I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience. 

Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed.  You may still be processing the story.

Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it.  (This is why many first novels never see the light of day.  We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.)  When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step:  How can you make this truly fictional?  Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?

Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change.  I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can.  An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country.  As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.

So, the answer isn't a simple one.  If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change.  What are you still wedded to, in the true story?  What can you let go of?  Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed?  Your choice entirely.

An exercise to find the answer:  If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might.  Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way.  Then pick three of these items to change.   

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to Succeed at Your New Year's Writing Resolutions--Two Ideas That Actually Work

I like playing with resolutions but I don't have much faith that I'll stick with them.  I usually get a "glory ride" on the new year's enthusiasm for about 30 days.  Then life takes over and crashes my makeover plans.  So I've adopted a different approach, and it seems to work pretty well. 

This week, to welcome in the new year, I wanted to share two ideas I borrowed from other writers.  
They are working quite well to keep my goals moving forward.  Maybe one or both will work for you! 

Borrowed idea #1

Gretchen Rubin, author of many happiness and habit books, has made a study of why we stick to habits and why we break them, so I thought she'd be a good person to consult first.  
She has a cool idea a recent newsletter. Choose a one-word theme to describe your year ahead instead of a long list of things you're going to do better and never do.  For example, her one word is re-purpose, because she wants to focus this year on using what she already has. 

I liked this idea of theme.  Theme can have layers of meaning (subtext).  
I'm toying with discover as my one-word theme. With a focus on discover, I can be a beginner and let myself learn stuff, not have to be the expert.  I can allow myself to explore which new skills could best upgrade my writing.  I can acknowledge that I am having problems with one character's story and rather than feeling stuck, like I should know it, I can begin to ask questions and let myself not know.  I can admit to myself that there's always new tricks to learn in the ever-changing world of publishing and look for experts to help with that.
In other words, I get to let myself off the hook.  Enjoy the discovery process.  Maybe even more than the result!   

Borrowed idea #2

A writing colleague invited me to join a private group for thirty days.  Each day she posted a question for the group to respond to.  We looked at our lives, our goals.  
It didn't take much time.  I got ideas from others' posts.  I liked looking at my own goals in a new way.  I knew it was only for thirty days, so I could engage freely without feeling like I was saying yes to a long-term commitment.  

What I took away:  by limiting my engagement to just one month, it helped me stay connected.  
We're all so busy, and this seemed doable.  
Besides, I know something about myself:  If I see an end ahead, a time of closure, I really try to enjoy a particular experience.  If we're only going to be at the beach for a weekend, I pay attention to the moments even more.  
I began to think about using this idea for short-commitment goals.  Could I choose a three-week challenge for January and pick something I wanted to accomplish with my writing?  Yes!  I chose completing my storyboard for a new novel.  
If this bombs, I'll start a new short-commitment goal in three weeks.  Or try the same one again.  It feels free and fun.  But I think I'll also get something accomplished!   

Resolutions that drag on (a whole year!) are losing propositions to many writers.  But maybe try the theme and the short-commitment goal, see if you can stick with either.  The theme can give you a way to sift your choices this year.  The short-commitment goals can give you a way to apply what you choose.
Either way, you win!  Try one or both this week, for your weekly writing exercise.
    


Friday, December 16, 2016

The Myth of Going It Alone--Why Book Writers Need Community

My fall online classes are ending this week, and the groups are loathe to leave each other.  They've bonded terrifically this semester, which often happens in these classes.  Somehow, online learning can foster a kind of intimacy among writers that I don't always find in in-person classes. 


They are exchanging email addresses and committing to exchange work too, after we end.  I am glad--it's a strange myth among writers that we need to go it alone.

I believe writers need community to thrive.

A blog reader from New York wrote me last week about this.  She has joined two writing groups and loves the feedback, but she says she has a challenge.  It's hard to discipline herself to write.  "It appears to me that I might be a one-on-one person that needs a writing companion to be accountable to for my writing," she says. 
 
Many writers feel this way.  I've been in monthly writing groups and weekly writing groups, and I love the feedback, but I also need other structures to keep myself going as a writer.  One is online classes--I teach them, but I also take them.  I've just signed up for one starting in February.  The accountability of submitting work each week is precious. 

I also work with several writing partners who I met in online classes.  They don't live close to me, so we can't meet in person, but we like each other's feedback and we're determined to keep writing, so we send each other chapters or scenes each week. 

Why do we believe the myth that we need to go it alone?  As the blog reader said, "Things come up that detour me from writing."  For me, having that writing partner waiting helps me figure out what my next sentence will be.

For some of us, this is a season of giving
.  Give to yourself too.  Your weekly writing exercise is to make a list of 5-10 writers you could partner with.   Even just to check in every Sunday night by email or phone to say, "I wrote this week."  Or "I'm having trouble getting started.  Can you give me a prompt?"  You'll find this kind of simple sharing is a wonderful gift that busts the myth of artistic isolation.

We're all in a community.  Maybe you just need to find yours.      

The blog will be on holiday break for two weeks.  Have a happy new year!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing a Book

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles.  Short stuff.  Short stuff doesn't require that much organization.  I had a good word -processing software.  I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example.  I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.


Then I began writing books.  Within months, pages accumulated.  Way beyond anything my short stuff generated.  I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.
I began struggling with my trusty word-processing software.  How hard it became to keep track of each version, the corrections I made, and what I'd missed.  I literally had to print each draft to double-check it.  Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, for example, but it was beyond clumsy.  I began looking around for something more streamlined.
 
Twelve books got written and published before Scrivener came along.  It has saved my writing life.  And many of my students' and clients' as well.

There have been a lot of programs that try to help writers both organize and write.  Some of them include WriteWay Pro, Z-Write, WriteItNow! and Rough Draft.  Some writers swear by a program called Ulysses.  They offer a list of contents or topics on one side of the screen and an editing or writing desktop in the center.  But many are plain text, no formatting ability. 

Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there.  He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents--easily--and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.

To me, Scrivener is light years beyond anything I've used--and you may agree if you've tried it.  It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it's perfect.  I can craft "islands" or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build.  If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list.  Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself. 

Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act.  The feature called "snapshot" allows you to take a picture of each version.  They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click.  You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble.  Try doing that in Word--yikes. 

Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work. 

There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven't even tapped, even though I've taken four classes on it.  I use what I need, and when I'm ready to learn more, I go for another class. 

Scrivener for ipad recently came out.  I'm still learning it, but there are tutorials if you're interested.  All versions are available at www.literatureandlatte.com both for PC and Mac.  They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying. 

It's good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener.  You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template).  Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages.  It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up.  There are also some good tutorials here. 

I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote Scrivener for Dummies.  Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels.  Check out her Scrivener Classes when you're ready to get started.     

I wish I'd found Scrivener many books ago--I've only been a fan for four years.  But it's changed my writing life.  I can't recommend highly enough (and I don't get paid to say that). 

Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven't tested it out.  If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents

Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents.  These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.


When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start.  You first need to research the agents.  There are so many right now.  Each specializes in a certain kind of book.  Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with.  It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.

If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love.  Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes.  Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business.  That's depressing.

At pitch conferences, you get much closer.  You're in the same room with agents you want to approach.  You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.

You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents.  New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers. 

How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program:  workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions. 

Pitch sessions are why most writers come.  They are brief but potent.  Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference).  Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course.  You request the agents you want to pitch.  You prepare your pitch and any questions.

How do you decide which agents to request?  Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents.  Then go do your homework:  Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for.  Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking.  If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books.  Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card.  Look for the style of writing they love.  Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?

Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com).  Compare your voice and subject matter. 

The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book.  Be ruthless about this.  You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story.  The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.

Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes.  When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully. 

What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story.  Work on it!  Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be.  Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud.  Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.

Practice your pitch a loud.  Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes.   You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other.  Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good.  This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.  

The agent will often ask questions.  How much have you written, how many words?  Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)?  Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)?  Again, if you don't, don't sweat it. 

Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample.  Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them.  All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference.  They'll give you their business card, if they're interested.  When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that.  Include what they ask for.         

If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time.  They know what they can sell, what they can't.  You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising.  Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers.  This is valuable! 

Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something.  You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels. 

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch.  Try it, even if you're not conference bound.