Agent Monday: But What’s the Story?


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: Digging for Buried Treasure

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I’m so relieved that it’s March. A definite sense of “phew we made it-ness” has pervaded my mind.  A huge snow storm was predicted for today, so imagine my glee when I flipped up the shades this morning and discovered we’d gotten not 12 inches but barely an inch! HA! Take that winter. So instead of wasting time digging out mounds of white stuff I can devote a little extra time to digging for buried treasure. That’s right! It’s time to hunt through my inbox for that query that’ll tempt me to request a full manuscript. Wanna come along for the adventure? Pack your treasure map and your spy glass and follow me. Arrrrrr….

First query – science fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent science fiction. Rejection sent.

Second query – non-fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent non-fiction (aside from memoir). Rejection sent.

(Are you noticing a trend here? If so, here’s the link to my own treasure map, er, I mean submission guidelines.)

Third query – memoir. Something I actually represent. Yeah! Unfortunately, I found this one to not be unique enough, and the sample chapter was stilted. Rejection sent. (For what I think makes a memoir stand out, check out this post.)

Fourth query – YA, something else I actually represent. But this one is not at all ready for prime time. The writer needs to learn a lot more about the market and about writing before being at a professional level and ready to submit to agents. Rejection sent.

Fifth query – Women’s fiction, something I’m looking for. Length of the manuscript is right and the query follows my guidelines, but I’m not drawn in by the premise. I read a little of the sample pages pasted in below the query (something my guidelines allow for) and I’m not crazy about the voice or the writing. Rejection sent.

Sixth query – Category romance. My guidelines state I do not represent category romance. Rejection sent.

Seventh query – Women’s fiction. I found the query letter to be flat and it didn’t evoke anything for me. Rejection sent.

Eighth query – YA. The themes were cliché and the language used didn’t feel like it belonged to a teen. Rejection sent.

Ninth query – Middle grade fiction. Definitely looking for these. But this one didn’t sound unique, and the writing wasn’t up to snuff to me. Rejection sent.

Tenth query – YA. Strong query, except for a cliché tossed in. Opening pages have a nice voice.  I’m still worried about the cliché, though. Hm…  No rejection, but no request for more yet either.  I’m setting this one aside to look at again later, maybe after another cup of coffee.

Eleventh query – YA. I like the query and the plot hangs on an interesting hook. Encouraged, I read the opening pages, but quickly find myself skimming. Lots of back story. Pacing is way off. Rejection sent.

Query twelve – Fantasy. While I like fantasy elements, full-on fantasy is not my thing (as I say in my guidelines). Rejection sent.

Feeling a bit discouraged here.  Will there be any treasure in them-thar hills or not? Shall we shoot for lucky thirteen? Okay pirates, take a swig of rum (or coffee) and let’s journey on to one final spot.

Query thirteen – Horror. Guess what? I’m not at all into genre horror. Plus, I’ve seen this plot before in a very famous novel. Rejection sent.

MP900341872Ah well, fellow treasure hunters. Be not discouraged. The majority of my clients have been found through the query process, so treasure hunting does pay off.  And for you writers, know that crafting an interesting query plus a fascinating manuscript is what it’s all about. And here’s a takeaway that is simple, yet pure gold: read an agent’s guidelines and follow them!

Until next time, me mateys, Arrrr!

*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: An Invite for the Busy!

Woman Having Birthday at WorkHappy Agent Monday, gang.  I know I know. I’ve been noticeably absent for a week or so. Why? Well it could have something to do with traveling to a conference in NYC, followed the next day with teaching a special class, followed the next day with travel, day of catching up, three more days of travel, oh, and teaching another class. And all this time I’ve been reading requested full manuscripts while in a train or bus, tending to my clients, doing deep edits on a manuscript, and, above all, my inbox has been filling up with queries like cwazy!  During the class I taught yesterday, I was sharing with folks info about querying and pitching, and how a query is not a hard sell, it’s an invitation to read more. So, today I’d like to talk about how it’s not only an invitation, it’s an invite for the busy.

Do it wrong and a busy person ain’t showing up, do it right and quick and make your book feel like “the place to be,” and even the most harried agent will pop in for a quick visit, perhaps even staying to the end of your manuscript.  Look, everyone’s busy, right? Ever since I’ve become an agent, though, I’ve become beyond busy. Even when I’m sleeping, I’m dreaming up pitches for my client’s manuscripts, when I’m making dinner, I’m stewing over editors to submit to, when I’m on the phone in the evening with my mom, I’m writing up a to-do list for the morning (sorry, Mom), and at 6 a.m. I’m doing stuff like this column (with my jammies on and my first coffee of the day in my hand). And during the work day? Zowie, that’s when things get busy! Check out my typical day in this post.

So my point is that I am juggling things and trying to use my time very wisely. You, on the other hand, are trying to tempt me into reading your full query, and your sample pages, and especially your full manuscript (which will most likely take several hours to get through). Hm.

MP900385582Here’s something to think about, then: Is your query a tantalizing invite to a smokin’ once in a lifetime happening that I’d be a fool to miss? Or even a delightful gathering of comforting and heartwarming characters that will become like a second home to me? Ooooo!

Or, as with most queries I see, does it feel more like I’m being asked to Uncle Wilbur’s house to eat stale pigs in a blanket and watch (yet again), his dreadfully dull slide presentation of his day at the supermarket?  No thanks!

I, and many of my colleagues, look at queries in quick bursts. What’s it about? Is it something I care about? Is there something special about the writing, story, author? No? I’m outta there. Yes? I’ll give it another tiny bit of time to dip into the starting pages pasted below the query. Do those pages build on what’s in the query and pull me in? No? Then I’m not sticking around for the next course.  Yes? Then I’m getting comfortable and eager to meet folks at the party and hang out all night if I can…okay, you know what I mean.  I’ll want to see the rest of your book pronto!

What’s that mean to you, the writer? It means address your “party invite” correctly: put QUERY right in your email message line, along with your title and genre.  It means you lead with your best quality in your query, so when I open that query and my eyes dash over the starting lines, I won’t glaze over.  Are you an award-winning author with well-known books? Then why the heck would you put that at the bottom of your query? Is your book’s strongest quality a highly marketable hook? Then give me a one-line description of the book that includes it right at the top. Don’t make me read several paragraphs till I find that.  Is your voice exceptionally strong? Then perhaps a line from the book in italics should start off your query.

MP900405062Think of your query as an invitation. What’s the reason to attend your party and stick around? Lead with that and it’ll be as if you’re saying “open bar!” (or, in my case, “unlimited dark chocolate”).  And even the busiest of us agents will show.

(By the way, pleeeeease don’t start sending me chocolates!)


*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.