Pitch Perfect: How to Make the Most of Face Time with an Agent


Pitch Session

One of my favorite things about fall is that I always have several writers conferences to attend. (Next up: Castle Rock Writers in Parker, CO, November 6-7.) In that spirit, I’m due for a post about the most fear-inducing activity writers face…worse even than writing a query letter…you know what I’m talking about: PITCHING.

In my literary agency days, I was often asked to take pitches, and for me, that face-to-face interaction was so refreshing after the relative anonymity of the slush pile. But I also knew how hard it was for the person on the other side of the table: ten minutes to make someone else believe in your dream is a lot of pressure. So, is it easier to get a manuscript request in person? Absolutely. Agents are more likely to take a chance on a project after direct contact with the writer. So take a deep breath and go for it—every time you get a chance.

Now, as an indie editor, my role has shifted to one I enjoy just as much: coaching writers on how to make the most of their time in front of an agent. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced pitcher, here are some tips to help you avoid the jitters at your next appointment:

Relax and be comfortable. Agents hate making people nervous (really!). Remind yourself that they are regular people, and they’re just as eager to find their next client as you are to be that client! They might be nervous, too.

Do your homework. Research the agents you are pitching so you can show you know something about them. Agents like to know you are interested in their agency in particular (not just any agency).

Along those same lines, be prepared for the agent to close the pitch session with this: “What questions do you have for me?” It’s a great chance to show your professionalism and satisfy your curiosity about the agent or the publishing business.

• Get ready to elaborate. Agents will usually ask for more information once you have delivered your initial spiel, so try to anticipate some of them in order to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights look. Here are some that I often asked writers during a pitch session:

Is this your first book? Are you working on anything else?

Where do you see your novel fitting in the market? Who is your target audience?

Does your book have series/sequel potential?

Where did the idea for this book come from/what made you just have to write this book?

What do you love most about your story? About your main character(s)?

What does your writing process look like? What do you enjoy most about writing?

• If you have extra time after your pitch, use it! For example, mention you have another novel completed and you’d love the agent’s take on which might be more marketable. Just give a very quick nutshell version—some agents might get annoyed if you’re clearly trying to pitch two novels at once.

What if the agent turns you down? This is the worse-case scenario, but it can happen. If an agent knows your book isn’t her cup of tea, she’s actually doing you a favor by being up front. Don’t be discouraged. Use any remaining time to ask for advice about improving your pitch—so that when you do get in front of the right agent, it will be right on target.


Seriously, You Get to Read for a Living?


shutterstock_322480529smallI love it when people ask me about my job as a freelance editor. It always leads to interesting conversations about books and the writing biz.

Recently, I got to continue that discussion through an interview in Southern Writers Magazine. I really liked the pool of questions they sent, so I asked if I could post some additional content here as a supplement. In true Southern style, they graciously acquiesced.

SWM: What are the biggest benefits of being an editor?

I think the very best part is that I constantly get to work on something new and exciting. One month I might be working on an epic fantasy and a middle grade mystery. The next, a contemporary YA novel and a paranormal thriller. It’s always fresh and interesting. Another big advantage is flexibility. I set my own schedule and as long as I have a good internet connection, I can work almost anywhere. It allows me to travel frequently to industry events or to visit my out-of-state friends and family, while keeping up with my work as usual.

The biggest challenges? Is it difficult working on your own?

Since every manuscript has a new and unique set of challenges to tackle, I never get to just sit back, relax, and go into autopilot. But honestly, that’s another of the perks—no chance of boredom! Time goes by so fast.

Working as an indie editor carries many of the same challenges writers face: you’re alone in front of a computer for long stretches of time with a manuscript, a stack of writing manuals, and your thoughts. There is definitely a potential for cabin fever! I mix things up by regularly presenting workshops at writers’ conferences and retreats. I also Skype with my clients, or if they’re local, we meet in person to check their progress and discuss issues in their works-in-progress.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an editor?

I’ve gleaned this piece of advice from the mentors and colleagues I respect the most: seek the right balance of criticism and praise. If you only point out the faults in someone’s writing, they may not see a reason to persevere. If all you do is praise what they got right, they might assume their work is fine and never grow in their craft. Somewhere in the middle is that sweet spot, where you help the writer understand both the strengths and weaknesses, so real progress can happen.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a writer?

Hmm…probably this: “Where you are today as a writer is not where you were yesterday, and it’s not where you’ll be tomorrow. Take feedback with a grain of salt and learn from it. Promise me you won’t stop writing.” That’s from agent Kristin Nelson, my former boss. I think that really says it all.

What do you think is the most important quality it takes to be a successful author?

Persistence. It takes years of honing craft and working through multiple manuscripts and drafts to become an excellent writer. Once you start submitting your work, rejection will happen. Shake it off and keep moving forward! We all know real-life examples of how this pays off (name your favorite author).

This wouldn’t be complete without a slush pile question…What are your query letter pet peeves?

Ha! Nowadays I don’t really get to have pet peeves because it’s my job to fix them. :) But thinking back to all those submissions I read…I’d say queries that are too long and rambling. It’s so important to be able to boil it down to the heart of the story in just a paragraph or two; without that skill, you can have a really strong novel but still miss your chance with agents. A good rule of thumb: if agents have to scroll while reading your email query, it probably needs a slim down.

Want to find out more about freelance editing or how to pursue this career? Two good places to start are The Editorial Freelancers Association and Author-Editor Clinic.

Hot Topics from the Conference Scene: Diversity in Fiction Writing + Subjectivity in the Slush Pile


Happy Fall, Word Cafe readers! For me, it marks the beginning of conference season, and I’m just back from the Colorado Gold Conference from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s always a top-notch event, but this year’s offering of workshops and panels was perhaps the best yet. I’ll give a quick overview of some themes and resources that resonated with me, and then I’ll zoom in on a vital topic for writers heading into submissions: subjectivity in the slush pile and the publishing industry.

A couple of sessions that really stood out to me put the spotlight on diversity in fiction. They were “Writing the Basics of Queer Characters” by Charles Yoite, Emily Singer, and Cath Lauria; and debut MG author Judith Robbins Rose’s talk about writing characters from a different culture/background than your own. A theme that emerged in both sessions was the importance of including a broad array of experiences and viewpoints within what we consider “diverse characters,” in order to avoid what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” In other words, including a cisgender gay male character in your fiction (for example) does not begin to encompass the entire LGBTQ experience, just as writing about a young second generation Mexican girl from a tough neighborhood does not encapsulate “the Latino/a experience” in the U.S. If you’d like to explore this further, check out the website of the amazing We Need Diverse Books campaign. Now in its second year, the BeyondTheTropecampaign has made great strides toward getting the publishing industry and our literature to more accurately reflect the diversity of this country (it focuses on the U.S. book market, but hopefully the message will go global!).

Another dynamite workshop, “Tropes 101,” showed how to turn fictional tropes on their heads, and featured the team from the Beyond the Trope podcast. A few questions that arose: “Why do women warriors wear bikini-like armor–isn’t there a chance someone might try to stab the parts the armor doesn’t cover?” and “How can I subvert the ‘faithful dog/man’s best friend’ trope? (Answers from the brainstorming session: “Make the dog an alligator,” or “Let the dog think her master is an idiot.”) If you’re not acquainted with the podcast, I recommend it for excellent writing advice and a hearty dose of cerebral humor.

I always like to attend the agent/editor panels at conferences to stay current on what the publishing world is looking for, and this year’s RMFW sessions did not disappoint. For me, though, the prevailing message was one you have (hopefully) heard before:

In the world of publishing, it often comes down to individual tastes and opinions.

AgentEditorReadsSlushPilePanel croppedCase in point: the “Agents/Editors Read the Slush Pile” panel. It featured two agents and two publishers/acquiring editors, who were to listen as Angie Hodapp (my friend and former colleague at Nelson Literary) read the first two pages of audience members’ manuscripts. The panelists were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading if these were submissions in their slush pile, and then explain why. Talk about a nail-biting experience for the participating writers! But there was a twist: Angie had mixed in the opening pages of four New York Times bestsellers to add a little nail-biting on the other side of the table as well. Here’s how it played out:

Every participant received genuine praise from the panelists, and nearly every one made it to the end of the two-page read with at least one panelist still interested. The agents and editors were clearly impressed and noted that this was not at all typical during such an activity (or in the slush pile); the pool of submissions was exceptionally strong. Some things the panelists liked:

Elegant prose. They noticed when the writing was flowing beautifully, and if it ever started to feel over-written or stilted, hands went up (the “stop reading” signal).

Questions raised in the reader’s mind. There were cases where panelists said they might have stopped reading, had there not been a compelling question raised in those first two pages, ensuring they wanted to hear more in order to find out what would happen next.

The panelists did find room for improvement in each submission. Here were the most common pieces of advice:

Trim, trim, trim. For at least half of the submissions, panelists recommended tightening the writing on the sentence or paragraph level. Several authors were told their story started in the wrong place; that they should trim the first couple of paragraphs, the first page and a half, etc.; start the story in a more dynamic spot, and then weave in any relevant information from the cut material later. Some stories had an overload of descriptive language. Others contained too much thinking/ruminating from the main character, preventing the story from really taking off.

Clarify who the main character is (in the context of the story) and help readers get to know her/him better, right off the bat. Some of the submissions had excellent prose, but the panelists were left with a vague notion of the POV character. More grounding was needed.

Infuse the story with more emotion or a reason for the reader to care. Some of the submissions flowed nicely but left the audience feeling apathetic about the characters (often a precursor to yawning). Tackle the “So what?” factor early on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Remember those four NYT bestsellers? Can you guess how they fared?

The four published novels received reviews ranging from “good,” to lukewarm interest, to “no thanks.” None of them gave the impression of blowing the panelists away. Two received a stop sign from all or most of the panelists before the end of two pages. They were novels by…drum roll…Philippa Gregory and Nora Roberts. Yes, really!

Each of the four bestsellers received suggestions for improvement; the most common was again “I could see room for a bit of trimming/tightening.”

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. After hearing the samples, I agreed with those critiques and suggestions, but on a big-picture level, it’s something I’ve seen over and over in the publishing industry. In writing, as in any art form, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is such a thing as incontestable good writing, just as there is cringe-worthy writing. But in the middle is a vast gray area, where it often comes down to individual tastes, preferences, and opinions on the part of industry professionals. It has become an axiom: Every agent has rejected a book that went on to be a big hit.

During this critique session, there was definitely overlap in the panelists’ feedback, but not a single submission received exactly the same assessment from all four agents/publishers. And though they appeared a little sheepish at rejecting those bestsellers, the panelists stuck to their guns and delivered what I think was the most important take-away: Publishing is a subjective business, and debut authors have the hardest road. You have to get your foot in the door and prove yourself before you’re allowed a few missteps or a saggy opening scene. Then, once you have established yourself as a master storyteller (AKA sold millions of copies), you just might get away with murder.


My workshop at the conference was titled “A Layered Approach to Worldbuilding: The Macro, the Micro, & the Unseen.” You can read some of the content in this blog post.