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: 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.