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Mason ‘speed dating’ event pairs writers with agents

May 22, 2017   /   by Cathy Cruise

Ben Rader, a second-year fiction MFA candidate, speaks with agent Jeff Kleinman during the “speed dating” with agents event at this year’s New Leaves Conference. Photo by Bethany Camp.

Aspiring writers in George Mason University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program enroll in many courses to learn how to make their writing rich and captivating. Those in the program’s fiction, nonfiction or poetry residency are also interested in what to do with their pieces once they’re as polished as possible. How to publish? Where to start? What are the steps involved?

This year’s New Leaves Conference, hosted at George Mason each spring as part of the Fall for the Book festival, helped answer these questions by putting writers face-to-face with agents from a noted literary agency. The new “speed dating” with literary agents event allowed MFA students and alumni to sit down with agents Jeff Kleinman and Erin Harris from New York’s Folio Literary Management to talk about how to make their manuscripts appealing and marketable to readers.

Twenty-six writers submitted the first few pages of their manuscripts, along with a query letter or proposal. This proved good practice for them, said Amanda Bender, a third-year MFA creative writing candidate and one of the event organizers.

“They are the sort of deliverables that seem easy, but in reality are usually quite difficult to write,” she said.

One participant, Michael Stein, MFA Creative Writing ’13, spoke with Kleinman during his 15-minute pitch session. Stein is working on a book called “Capital Cider” about how cider making is tied to the history of America. Kleinman loved the idea, Stein said, and gave him concrete steps to turn his proposal into a manuscript.

“The meeting was beneficial to me and my writing, and I learned a good deal about the sales and marketing of nonfiction manuscripts,” Stein said. “I’ll revise the proposal and follow up on Jeff’s suggestions so that I can have a sellable manuscript.”

Second-year MFA candidate Sarah Batcheller spoke with Harris about her thesis, a novel  about three generations of Chinese American women in the United States.

“It’s a fictional retelling of my own family’s heritage,” she said.

Batcheller said Harris gave her advice on restructuring her book and on reconfiguring her query letter.

“It was useful to hear what makes an agent’s ears perk up,” Batcheller said. “It was also useful to hear how to get a pitch through to an agent, and that [my book] is something Erin would be interested in when it’s complete.”

Ben Rader, also a second-year fiction MFA candidate, said the event helped ease some of his concerns about pursuing publication.

“Entering the literary marketplace can be daunting for some and, at best, mildly unpleasant for others,” he said. “It seems necessary to help candidates gain some exposure to these more monetized avenues in the literary world, even if it's just to help them understand the language and processes of those avenues.”

Bender hopes the event will be part of New Leaves next year as well.

“I think this is the sort of event Mason would like to host consistently because it's such a great opportunity,” she said.