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: Toss Me a Hook!

??????????????????????Happy Agent Monday, folks!  I’m back from a sun-soaked weekend filled with overdoing it in the yard work department. I’m a touch sun fried and sore, but what a great switch from those mounds of Northeast snow we had to dig out of… I also spent some time this weekend digging through queries filling my inbox, and some of them made me want to cry out: Writer, PLEASE toss me a hook!

Yup, today we are talking about hooks. See, sometimes I get queries with opening pages that are written beautifully, truly. But I find myself wondering what the story is about. Who is the audience? How the heck would I pitch it? These questions, if unanswered, make me worry that this book won’t fit into the marketplace. I’m a literary agent, and my job is to fit your work into the marketplace. So you see the problem.

It’s not just an agent issue, either. Just last week, I was chatting with an editor at one of the traditional publishing houses, asking her about what she’s looking for in a submission. After she shared what sort of genres she likes and her personal tastes, she added: “And I need a hook so I can pitch it.”

You might be scratching your head right about now wondering why an editor needs to pitch your book too. It’s because the editor, once he or she falls in love with a book, must then convince folks in that publishing company that it should be acquired. The editor in a smaller press might go right to the publisher and have a chat, or, as is the case in many of the bigger houses, may have to present the title at an acquisitions meeting. That meeting could have fellow editors, sales people, the publisher, all sitting there wondering what this book is about and where it’ll fit on their list and in the marketplace.

So, please, help yourself and formulate a great hook for your book.  A one-liner… Something along the lines of: TITLE is a READERSHIP/GENRE about THE UNIQUE INTRIGUING PROBLEM. Here’s one for one of my recent client sales: ELIZA BING (IS NOT) A BIG, FAT QUITTER is a contemporary middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she can stick with something to the very end.

From this hook, we know the title, the demographic it’s pointed toward (middle grade), that it’s a contemporary novel (vs. sci-fi, thriller, etc. etc.), and we see the unique hook. A book about a girl with ADHD. Cool!  And we also see that there is a problem, a plot attached to it: proving to others and herself that she has stick-to-it-ness.

Eliza Bing jktI used this hook when pitching it to the editor. I’ll bet the editor used a version of this while pitching it to the publisher (it just came out through Holiday House). And the author, Carmella Van Vleet, uses a version of this all the time, I’m sure, when a reader comes up to her at a signing and asks, “What’s your book about?” Heck, our foreign rights rep even uses this hook when talking to publishers around the world.

So YOU should figure out your own book’s hook. Include it in your query. Toss us a hook, and hopefully it’ll help your novel catch on.

 

*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 Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: No Tricks Required

Future Rock StarHappy Agent Monday!  And a very happy Veteran’s Day to you amazing people who do so much for us all…  Today (on a completely unrelated note) I’d like to talk about the many tricks and gimmicks some writers use to get an agent’s attention. And the truth of it all: that no tricks are required. I know it feels important to get noticed. You want your manuscript or your query to stand out, to make an agent suddenly pay attention. You want to be memorable. But, trust me, if you are using a gimmick or some sort of sneakiness to get attention — it’ll backfire on you.

Here are some of the gimmicks and tricks I’ve seen over the years…

1. The Spectacle:

I’ve heard plenty of ridiculous stories about authors creating a spectacle to get noticed. What I’ve experienced myself? At pitches, authors dressed as their character and playing that role. It can get pretty awkward, especially in the realm of children’s literature. Will I remember you? Sure. I can picture some of these authors right now.  Do I remember their actual pitch? Not at all. Did I request their full manuscript? Not a one. The concept and writing are the stars of a pitch. When the author does something campy, it’s like they are saying: Hey, I know this isn’t that exciting an idea, so let me distract you with this thrilling schtick instead. But this isn’t an acting audition. It’s about words on paper and a phenomenal idea. It’s that simple.

2. Misleading Message Lines:

In queries, message lines that look like the book has a pending offer from a publisher (it didn’t), or was tied in a significant way to a celebrity (it wasn’t), or was being made into a movie (yup, also not true). All are a huge fail.

Will I open your email fast? Maybe. Will I reject you even faster? Absolutely. So you know someone, or took a seminar with someone who said something kind, or even chatted with someone at a cocktail party once. Maybe someone said, hey, send it to me when it’s done. Even someone in the industry saying your project shows merit is a far cry from a celebrity endorsement, a book contract offer on the table, or an inked film option. I promise you that agents know the difference. When the writer is misleading, that signals someone I don’t want to be in a business relationship with. I honestly don’t care how red-hot the writing is. As they say on Shark Tank: I’m out.

3. The Inflated Self-Pubbed Claim:

This is done by folks who have self-pubbed, but then want an agent for that same book in order to get a traditional publishing deal for it. All too often these writers claim their already self-pubbed manuscript is a runaway success and has crazy press and mega-reviews. It’s a huge hit!

Okay, here’s a heads up. I personally know the self-pub circuit well, probably better than most agents do. I just might have self-pubbed a YA novel or two of my own that has, in fact, gotten awesome press, rankings, awards and solid reviews, plus I may currently have a novel up at WATTPAD that has over 400,000 reads. So here’s what I know: If your ebook on Amazon has a few kick-ass 5-star reviews, all within a month or so of publication, then that is probably family and friends helping out, and not significant. If your ranking is in the millions, you haven’t sold at all. If your ranking is in the 100,000’s, then you’ve sold 1-2 copies lately. If your ranking is in the 100s, you may have just come off a free giveaway there, which boosts you for a week or so, or you may even have had a handful of copies purchased via friends (but funded by you) to boost that. Yikes, right? Also, you could be a top 10 in an obscure subcategory on Amazon – again with under 5 sales. If I jump over to Goodreads and find nada in readers and reviews, then I google your book, and ditto, I know you are blowing smoke up my you-know-whatski. I’ll feel tricked. Not cool.  So tread carefully, folks.  What does matter to me? If the writing and concept is awesome, and if you have like 10,000 or more PAID purchases within a short period of time, and true review buzz.  That’s noteworthy. No tricks required. Even better? If you have all that, but are querying me with your next ms. which is still unpublished.

4. The Prologue Trick:

I see this a LOT.  A manuscript starts off with a prologue full of darkness and danger and a life or death decision. It’s often, basically, a preview of things to come later in the manuscript. And it never works for me. It reminds me of those posters that start off with, in big bold letters: SEX! And then continue with: Now that we’ve got your attention… Followed by the real purpose of the poster.

It’s a gimmick that comes from a desperate attempt to grab attention FAST! And it signals a lack of confidence in your writing. Plus, there’s the added fact that it’s hard to care about this gripping action when we haven’t even met the character yet and don’t care about his fate. Do you really need to trick the reader into continuing? Is that what you need to do to hook them? Why can’t you hook them from chapter one with writing that pops and a situation that we are drawn into? That’s the sort of attention that you want.

???????????So, about all of these tricks… I suggest you just skip them all. The real trick is having wonderful writing and an engrossing story. Focus on that. Work hard on your craft. Get it right and believe in yourself. Then agents and readers will notice you for real.

 

*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.

Agent Monday: Wrecking Your Chances?

No Sale Sign on Cash RegisterHappy Agent Monday to hard-working writers everywhere! Something has been bugging the heck out of me, so this is going to be a kick-in-the-pants kinda post. As a writer myself, I know just how long it can take to write a full length novel.  Months to years of endless dedication are involved. You’ve invested your time and a bit of your soul into this work, right? THEN WHY THE HECK CAN’T YOU INVEST A LITTLE TIME IN FIGURING OUT HOW TO QUERY AND PITCH THE DAMN THING!!!!  Yes. I’m yelling. At you. Why? Because, my dearest writers, too many of you are wrecking your chances at success.

I see it every bloody day. I just spent the last 2 hours rejecting a slew of queries that committed too many crimes to count. I’ve been to too many conferences where authors squandered their pitch time with me, time that they should have spent hooking me with their novel idea and then reeling me in.

Sometimes I want to grab you all by the proverbial lapels and shake some sense into you. Do some research. Work on your query and pitch with care. Educate yourself about what works and what doesn’t. PLEASE. Don’t do it for me (well, okay, do it for me), do it for your creative work, which really needs your help to get it out into the world.

This is why I’m offering a special 2-session Query and Pitch Clinic over at the Word Studio in Chestnut Hill, PA on April 7 and 14. **Registration is limited to just 8 participants, and closes this Sunday, March 24 , so if you are interested you should click here to reserve your spot now.** Look, if you are going to conferences to pitch, you need to be ready. Pitch sessions are short and you want to do this right. If you are going to start submitting queries to agents, you need to know the ropes so you don’t find yourself blowing your chances with a slew of agents and getting an inbox filled with rejections, or worse, with no replies at all. At the Query and Pitch Clinic I’ll show writers how to avoid serious pitfalls and how they can best showcase their work to agents.

Here’s something to think about: Are you receiving no reply AT ALL to your queries?  Maybe you are assuming that a no reply means no.  Some agencies do this, but many do not. It could be that your query is so poorly presented and in some way actually insults agents to the point where they simply hit delete. Zowie, right?  I hate to simply delete a query, but I do if it’s justified. This happens when I feel ridiculous even taking the time to respond…like when the writer hasn’t even bothered to put my name in the body of the email.  Sending me a generic form query is actually rude…the equivalent of junk mail, actually, and will land you smack in the trash.

And what’s a mistake that I often see in pitching? Leaving the agent with far more questions than answers.  If I have to spend time during a pitch asking the writer what was the genre, whose story is it, what time period it was set in, and I’m obviously more confused than impressed with various plot points, then that writer didn’t do their work justice.

You’ve finished your novel – that’s a great accomplishment. Now finish the work of selling it and figure out how to query and pitch it right!  Do your research and learn these important skills any which way you can. You definitely owe it to yourself.

*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.

Agent Monday: Know Your Genre

As both a writer and an Associate Literary Agent, I completely get it.  As a writer you have an idea, you fall in love with that idea, and you obsess over that idea as you write and write and write until that idea is a book, and as perfect as it can be. Then you approach an agent at a pitch session. Suddenly they are asking you how long is it (in word count, not pages)? What genre is it? What is it similar to? Who is the readership for this novel? Um, huh?  You know your characters and your plot, but what agents are trying to find out is: Do you know your genre? And where does your book belong in the marketplace?

At many pitch sessions I’ve attended as an agent at various conferences, I’ve found myself trying to pin an author down on her book’s genre. And I’ve gotten blank stares, blinking eyes, sometimes downright terror in response. Folks, I’m not trying to put you on the spot when I ask you stuff about your genre. Instead, I’m trying to position this book and see if it fits with a certain readership.

If you’ve done your writerly job beyond the writing part, then you’ll know what other books in your genre look like, what your competition and audience is, and you’ll already know you’ve created something just right for those readers.  I’m actually pretty amazed at how few writers take this extra step. Ideally, you as the writer should have this market info in your brain right as you begin to develop your novel.

I’ve seen novels that are far too short or far too long for their genre. I’ve seen subject matter that was inappropriate for a middle grade reader, characters that are too young for a YA novel, books that are copying what is already on the shelf.  All these really hurt your chances of getting your novel to print. Sure, you can argue that artists break rules and that there are exceptions all over the place, but if you don’t even know what the rules are and don’t have a solid reason for breaking them, then you are surely shooting yourself in the literary foot. Just sayin’.

So you’ve got to read in your genre, not only as a fan, but as a writer doing market research. Figure out where your book would really sit on a bookstore shelf and see how it compares to the other books beside it on that shelf.  If you can tell me what it has in common with those popular titles, plus what it brings to the marketplace that is new, then you are going to raise my interest level. And don’t use books from 50 years ago, use new stuff please. Sure, you can say “in the gothic style of Poe,” but also show some savvy about today’s market by referencing today’s books too.

Sometimes I get writers who say “there has been nothing like this ever before! It’s a brand new genre!” As my buddy, author Jonathan Maberry likes to point out in his informative talks to writers, last we looked, there is no “Brand New Genre” shelf at the local bookstore. That’s not a selling point.  But if you were to say something like, “This book will appeal to readers of Anne Tyler who are also looking for a dash of fantasy…” Well, then maybe I’ve got the beginnings of a pitch to an editor.

When I pitch projects to editors, they too are trying to figure out where a book will fit on their list as well as on bookstore shelves. It is the business end of writing, after all.

So I encourage writers to do a bit of homework while they are shaping their novels. And again when they begin their querying process, so they can refine their book description and pinpoint their genre and pitch. Because after all that hard work, you do want to sell.

*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: Close Encounters of the Conference Kind

Happy Monday! This week I’m getting ready for Saturday’s Push to Publish Conference, where I’ll be on a few panels, plus doing “Speed Dates” with writers. So this seems like the right moment to share a little bit of my own experiences on both sides of a pitch table, as both a writer and an agent. 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, they 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: Starting your Pitch

If you are on the hunt for a literary agent, then you are making your pitch, whether face to face at a conference, or in a query letter.  Sure, the “live pitch” and the pitch within a query are different in some ways, but they both have the same intentions: to pique the interest of an agent. One thing you don’t want to do is to confuse the agent, or leave her with fundamental questions that will distract her from hearing your story’s plot.

In a live pitch, one of the most disorienting things for me as an agent is when the writer does not tell me the genre of the book right away. While the writer launches into his story and characters, I find myself trying to figure out what, exactly, I’m listening to.  Picture a thought bubble over my head filled with the following: “Wait, is this a memoir? No, it must be fiction. But she mentioned a school-aged character. So is it for children? Can’t be, the material is too mature.  Wait, the writer just said, ‘the ghost of his memory haunts her.’ Is this a paranormal???”

You see what I’m talking about here?  That’s why, when you do a verbal pitch, it’s so helpful if you start out with something like this: “I’d like to tell you about DAY’S END, my completed middle grade fantasy. When 12-year-old Sonia discovers…” Etc.

See what’s going on with this? You’ve already conjured a book title in my mind (makes this feel like a real book, right?).  You’ve told me it’s completed, so I know you are serious about submitting it (at conferences, sometimes manuscripts aren’t completed yet…if so, then just omit this). You’ve pointed me in the direction of the genre you are targeting, so that everything you say after that will fit into that slot in my brain.  And by giving the character’s age, you’ve shown me that you are on the right track for this age group (something that is critical for the children’s market).  Boom!  Now I’m ready to listen and my thought bubble will read something like this: “Cool! What’s it about?”

Written queries are a bit different in that you can start off with a little teaser if you want, and I can skim down to see what the genre is, etc.  But make no mistake, I will skim down to find this info.  So why not forego the dramatic question, or leading off with the descriptive paragraph, and get right to the point?

Say: I’d like to interest you in my completed YA urban fantasy THE CRUSHING POINT (76,000 words).

Then you can add in your teaser line if you want…but it’s not needed, of course.  By a teaser line, I mean something like: What would you do if your mentally ill brother held the answer to a deadly disease, but you were the only one who believed him? (Then you can launch into your plot description.) For 17-year-old Kayle Sparks, it’s a race to the death as… (Or something like that.)

Some writers put this genre, etc. info at the very bottom of their query. Yup, that weakens my read of it because I’m forced to go back to the top of the query and reconsider. You may have lost my interest if I’ve already decided, “Oh, this is a unique approach to women’s fiction,” only for me to discover it’s a YA and the main character is only 15. Hm.

Using a simple genre-positioning line as close to the top of your query letter as you can, points me to consider everything else that follows it within the proper context.  No reconsidering required.

Notice how I added in the word count in that initial line? Sure, you can do that in a verbal pitch, but you MUST do it in a written query.  The agent needs to know that you are within the range of reasonable length for your genre, and where your idea slots within the market. Hey, I’ve got to sell this manuscript, so I have to get this info, right?  I also know your book is complete (never query for a work of fiction unless it is done…but it’s reassuring for me to hear that it is), I know the title is intriguing, and I know that this novel is in a genre that demands a certain edge and gritty paranormal elements.  The main protagonist is also within the correct YA age range.  Okay, cool. Now I’m ready to read the rest of your query.

Setting up your pitch in a simple and direct manner, will help the agent focus on your story idea.  Now you can share your plot and hopefully the agent’s thought bubble will look like this: “Wow! I’ve got to read this one!!!”

Happy pitching!

*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.