Agent Monday: But What’s the Story?

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Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel confused. Like WHY was it snowing on Saturday? Boo. And WHY does a grocery story ever think it’s a good idea to rearrange where everything is? Seriously.  And here’s another one that bewilders me: why would a writer spend an entire pitch talking about everything BUT what their book is about? During these pitches, I actually find myself stopping the writer and asking them: But what’s the story?

Last Saturday (yes, when it was snowing!), I spent an enjoyable day taking pitches from a ton of nice writers at The Philadelphia Writing Workshop (thanks to Chuck Sambuchino for having me along). There were some seriously good pitches coming my way. These were well-crafted, and writers were able to convey a cool story idea within the 10 minute time frame we had together. But other times, writers buried their stories in such a way that I didn’t have a clue about the plot, the genre, and sometimes I struggled to figure out what, exactly, they were trying to present. It was like I had to play detective to get any real answers.

As not only a literary agent, but a writer myself, I get how this can happen. It can be nerves. Or perhaps the writer is having trouble boiling their complex book down into that one pithy line followed by a brief description. Sometimes we writers are so wrapped up in how a book was put together, or why we decided to write it, or in trying to impress an agent with our overall persona, that we forget that none of this really matters as much as the story itself and how it will engage readers.

Yes, when I see a pitching author squander their time on everything BUT their novel’s story, I do stop them and start asking questions to parse out what I need to know. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes writers get flustered, or they truly haven’t thought out the answer to: what’s my book about?

Don’t let that happen to you.

First some do’s: Tell me the title, the manuscript length (in words not pages), and the genre right away! Then tell me a one line description that captures the overall plot of the book. Then you can elaborate on the story a bit more. And you can add in a bit about yourself, plus leave time for us to chat a bit.

Now for some don’ts: Don’t fill up your pitch time with talk about yourself, about your motivation for why you write, or about the mechanics of your writing. Discussion about how awesome you are at your full-time job, or about the way you transition from paragraph to paragraph is not going to draw an agent in.

Don’t waste time telling an agent details about things that have nothing to do with the actual story you’ve written. Just don’t.

Don’t spend lengthy time explaining about all your followers on Twitter and Instagram, etc., unless your social media presence and platform is startling (like a hundreds of thousands of followers), and don’t share every moment you’ve ever spoken in front of a group of people (unless you did something really extraordinary like were on Oprah or something). Just say: I’m active in social media and will be an eager promoter.

Don’t waste a ton of time talking about a book you’ve written that isn’t the one you are actually there to pitch. Just don’t do it.

Don’t put yourself down. Time and time again writers tell me that their pitch is going to be awful, or that their book probably isn’t any good, or that there are probably a ton of these types of books out there already, but…  Stop that! Seriously STOP! Best foot forward, people.

And do not come with papers for me to read or an ipad with a manuscript you want me to skim. Pitches are verbal. If you are nervous and must refer to your own notes, that’s okay with me. But I won’t take your book or manuscript or massive media kit home with me. Not even your first chapter. If I’m interested, I’ll ask you to email me material. If an agent is too polite to say no to your offered stack of papers, chances are VERY GOOD (like 100%) that these will end up in the trash minutes after you go. Save your money, people. No props required or bling, or printed up stuff.

Just a pitch. About your story. No mystery there!

 

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: Conferences – a Post Worth Repeating

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I’m a tad busy today and with next Monday being a holiday and all, I thought perhaps it’s time to repost something you might have missed.  With many conferences coming up in the Fall (you can see which ones I’ll be at by clicking here), here is another look at my post: Close Encounters of the Conference Kind.

SHere goes:

Close encounters of the conference kind can really instill fear. But they don’t have to, and if you keep a few things in mind, conferences can be so helpful to a writer’s career. And, dare we say it, enjoyable?

Nerves! We all get them.  As a writer, I well remember the sweaty heart-pounding panic that filled me when I realized that right there next to me was THE dream agent or THE dream editor.  Palms became damp just before I’d shake hands. I’d speed talk and ramble a bit.  I did manage to pull myself together enough to talk coherently, but after a close encounter, I felt like I’d aged a few years.  Zowie.

Some of us writer-folk are shy. I’m not exactly the shy type though, so what was going on? First of all, this was all so new to me. Fish out of water, and all that. I didn’t really have a good idea of what was expected of me, or how to act, or what, even, I really wanted from an editor or agent. No wonder I felt awkward.

But this newness was also exciting and challenging. It propelled me to go to the next conference, and then the next to get smarter, more comfortable, less mouth-flappy. I read up ahead of time about the editors and agents who were there. What were they really interested in? What was interesting about them? And what questions did I have for them based on this info? I also spent time at conferences listening more, learning, and talking a ton with other writers there. Fellow writers, I soon learned, were eager to swap thoughts and of course they make great friends, too.

I also think my nerves stemmed from me telling myself that this is it! The big moment! My huge chance! I can’t blow it!!! In this scenario, OF COURSE a writer will be nervous. You see the editor or the agent as your savior. The one person who will make your dreams come true. They are iconic. And you have this one and only chance…

Blah. Why do we do this to ourselves? I think after you are in “the business” for a number of years most of us “get it.” There isn’t one chance, but many continuous ones that build like a chain from one experience and encounter to the next. There isn’t one book, but many books and ideas that will flow from you, each a stepping stone to better and better things, even when some stones seem to be leading you backwards. You are learning and growing. You are meeting people and making contacts. And hopefully you are having some fun, too.

I remember standing in a pitch slam line waiting to talk to an agent. The writers waiting there shuffled their feet and exchanged nervous smiles. And one lovely writer turned and said to me something like, “I just try to remember that they are people. That we all love books. And we are just having a nice little chat. An exchange of ideas.”

Genius. They are people… That, more than anything else I read or heard, helped me so much.

Now that I’m an Associate Agent at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency, I see the wisdom of this statement even more. When writers approach me as a person, and share their idea in a friendly way, we connect and enjoy it.

And when writers approach me all nervous and sweaty, I smile and tell them I understand, and that it’s okay. Take a deep breath. You’re gonna do just fine. Then we enjoy our own little chat. And it IS just fine.

In next week’s Agent Monday post I’ll share what it’s been like for me to now be on the other side of the pitch table as an agent, and some things I’ve learned along the way. Stay tuned!

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Pitch Power

Smiling Little LeaguerHappy Agent Monday, all!  Last week was a blur of pitching client manuscripts to potential editors.  And this week? More pitching!  So today’s post is all about pitch power.  POW!

This is an exciting part of agenting, and there’s a ton of hard work behind it.

The author has worked their butt off to finish writing the manuscript and to polish it. Never mind all they had to do to craft an excellent query letter and research and snag the right agent for them!

The agent (that’s me) has done a ton of work culling through endless queries to find this gem. Has worked with the author to get the final polish on the manuscript before it’s ready to submit. Plus the agent (me again) has done her own extensive research about the perfect editors for this work. That includes deep online research, studying numerous publisher’s imprints, meeting with countless editors, chatting with countless editors on the phone, too.

And after all of this, I sit with the manuscript and think of the perfect way to position this book. Just as it’s important for the author to pitch their novel in the best way to an agent, it’s crucial that I pitch my client’s book to the editor in a manner that perks up their ears and makes them think, “Yes! I MUST see this one!”

So I spend time selecting my words carefully. If I’m comparing a book  to the epic scale and passion of The Thornbirdsyou better believe I first make sure this comparison is accurate (BTW, it is! Shout out to my author Harmony Verna).  Because if it isn’t, then I’ve just set up my submission for a fail. I don’t want an editor to get all excited about this only to think, hm, I’m not seeing the comparison. Or, hm, this is not nearly as good as what she’s comparing it to.  The goal is for them to think, “Zowie! This DOES have elements of that book, but so much more!”  I also make sure I pick comparables that most folks will know, even dipping into TV and movie references for these.  I want to give an editor something they can latch on to. Something they can take to an acquisitions meeting and use to excite folk. That can’t work if the people there are scratching their heads instead of going aha!

Lesson for writers: in your own pitches and query letters – make sure your own comparisons are accurate and understandable.

Another thing I’m very careful about in my pitch is nailing the genre and market for this book.  Is it upper YA? An older middle grade? Is it a literary historical? Is it a gothic thriller? Does it fill a niche in the marketplace (folks looking for the next such and such, etc.).  Get this right and the editor is already slotting the book in their list to see if it’s a fit.  Get this wrong, and the editor will be confused by the read.

Lesson for writers: pay attention to genre and market in your query and you’ll be giving a potential agent the tools they need to market your book.  When I read a query that does this well, I find I’m already thinking about the perfect editors for this book before I even read the sample pages. You want that!

When I connect with editors over the phone with my pitch, my job is to give them a clear picture of what I’m sending to them in just a few sentences, to get them excited about it, and to position the pitch in a way that the gist of the work and its tone comes through. If it’s a heartfelt book, I craft the pitch in a way that’ll raise goosebumps. If it’s a girl-power kid book, I emphasize the overcome the odds aspect of the work. If it’s a hilarious mid-grade, I’ll pull in some fun examples that will make the editor grin and nod.  As in all aspects of this business, words matter.

Lesson for writers: highlight the tone and gist of your work in a succinct way when you query. Also, when seeking an agent, if you get to talk to them at a conference or hear them on a panel, ask yourself: is this person eloquent? Do I think they’ll communicate well with others and be able to convey my book’s pitch to editors successfully?

Cheering Little League ChampionsPitches are powerful things, and I know when I’m hitting the right notes with editors.  I hear them laugh when they should. Or they say, “I like the message behind this story.” Or they simply say, “Wow. Great pitch!”

Then I know I’ve done my job. Then I send the manuscript to the editor. Then it’s time for the author’s words to take their proper center stage.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.