Destiny speed dating

It smells like sweaty palms, hotel carpet and printer paper. Whatever it is, it hangs over the anxious crowd of several hundred that has wedged itself, shoulder to shoulder, into the cramped room. But there's an extra layer of nervousness at this particular event, part of the first San Francisco Writers' Conference, staged in the gilded halls of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

The irresistible title, "Speed Dating With Agents, " seems to have drawn every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a dusty manuscript in the back drawer. While writers instinctively fear these experts in human trafficking who wield enormous power in a notoriously political literary scene, they also know that agents hold the key to success with major publishers who otherwise wouldn't even deign to send a rejection e-mail.

She's listening to agent Linda Mead (R) tell her to find an agent who handles thrillers. more SHOWN: Agent Robert Preskill addresses the gathered hopeful with the assurance that, "I DO look at westerns." "Speed Dating With Agents" at the San Francisco Writers Conference.

Hopeful authors line up to have one-on-one sessions with agents. Katy Raddatz / The Chronicle less SHOWN: Agent Robert Preskill addresses the gathered hopeful with the assurance that, "I DO look at westerns." "Speed Dating With Agents" at the San Francisco Writers Conference. more There is an unmistakable smell when I enter the ornate meeting room at a posh Union Square hotel. The lonely, frustrated, desperate hope of writers who think this could be the day they get a contract.

Many of the writers -- a diverse bunch, young and old -- wear twitchy first-date smiles, fidgeting in their chairs through the preliminaries.

I have two things to pitch, a novel (literary, but fast-moving -- "athletic," I tell them with a flourish) and a children's story about a bear cub (with cute illustrations). I make an unfortunate strategic misstep in my second line, which wastes a precious 45 minutes because the agent is allowing people to ignore the bells.

As I slip into the first line I make an unsettling observation: The overwhelming majority of the agents are women.

For the male writers, this puts the whole idea of a speed date in a new light. I am certain I have accidentally marked my chin with a wayward pen while taking notes, but there is no mirror nearby to confirm it. Who goes to an event where you have to talk face-to-face for a three-hour session and forgets breath mints?

But now's not the time for philosophizing; I'm about to start dating.

"This is going to be chaos," someone whispers behind me.

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