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

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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.

BEST OF LUCK!

Five Ways to Impress an Agent with Your Opening Pages

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[ Note: This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter. Go RMFW! ]shutterstock_138099389

Today I’d like to tackle one of my favorite FAQs: What does it take to hook an agent with your opening pages? (Insert profanity if you’ve been through or are in the midst of this process!)

The truth is, on any given page of your novel, agents weigh dozens of factors based on their knowledge, experience, and personal taste. They’re also employing another vital skill: instinct. If their gut isn’t telling them to read on, their brain probably won’t win the argument. But I think I can boil it down to five key elements that really make agents swoon:

A Remarkable Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes one captivating and another lackluster? One major element is uniqueness—both at the “big picture” level (how your characters see the world) and in the details (word choice, flow, syntactic quirks). Another is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with our understanding of the characters and story? A third is unobtrusiveness; while not invisible, a strong voice effortlessly captures the reader without calling attention to itself.

Flawless Writing. An agent is hooked when she reaches the end of your pages and had forgotten she was reading a sub- mission. This happens when the writing is so polished that there was nothing to trigger her “agent brain” and pull her out of the story. The opening pages must deftly balance scene and summary, clear dialogue, and just enough intriguing backstory. Disappointment comes from sending out a project too soon. Find a critique group or writing partner you can trust to be brutal with your early drafts. You’ll thank them later.

Irresistible Characters. No matter how beautiful the writing, a manuscript is in trouble if an agent doesn’t fall in love with the main character(s), or at least find them hard to forget. Like all readers, agents want to feel a strong emotional stake in what happens to these people/dragons/aliens/werefolk. At the end of your sample chapters, you want to leave agents in anguish, dying to know what will happen to your characters.

A Compelling Inciting Incident. Another thing agents look for is an inciting incident within the first thirty pages or so. Granted, there are excellent novels that take longer to get there; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is an example. But Outlander is an 800+ page tome, and long stories like that are the exception, not the rule. An author has to have a good reason to delay the spark, such as relevant scene setting or character development. In the slush pile, a long delay is more often the result of unpolished writing that needs a trim.

Smooth Mechanics. As sexy as that sounds, this one has more to do with nuts and bolts than instinct. Still, it’s important enough to make the list. One or two typos is probably not a deal breaker, but if a manuscript includes frequent mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, agents start to see red flags: Is this author unprofessional? Downright careless? Would our working relationship be a mess, too? Don’t take chances—run it by your exasperatingly anal copy editor friend before you hit that “send” button.

Whether you’re about to start the submission process, or already in the trenches, best of luck!

Advice from a Multi-Published Author: Q&A with J.D. Mason

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So I know what you’ve been thinking: “Anita, you haven’t posted any author interviews lately. What’s up with that?”

Good question! Instead of apologizing like I should, how about I offer a Q&A session with bestselling author J.D. Mason? J.D. is a fellow Denver resident so I’m very excited about the chance to spotlight our amazing writing community.

About J.D. : JDMason2

J.D. Mason is the author of several bestselling novels, including And on the Eighth Day She Rested, This Fire Down in My Soul, You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, and Somebody Pick Up My Pieces. J.D. has been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Awards in the African American Fiction and Best Contemporary Fiction categories. Her novels have consistently been chosen as Main Selections by The Black Expressions Book Club, and her work has appeared on bestseller lists in the Dallas Morning News, Black Expressions Book Club, and on Amazon.com.

AM: Welcome, J.D. You just celebrated an amazing milestone: your tenth book, Drop Dead, Gorgeous, came out just in time for your tenth anniversary as a published author—congratulations! Any lessons you’d like to share with debut and yet-to-publish authors? How are you different as a writer now than when you first started?

Thank you! Yes, Drop Dead, Gorgeous was released June 25th.  I would tell new authors to get a thick skin, but that’s impossible.  Writing is personal and any criticisms you get are going to sting.  You’re going to have critics no matter how fabulous you think you are.  So, expect it, but have enough faith in yourself and your writing to continue doing what you love despite the negativity.  This business isn’t for sissies, so man or woman up, dig in and commit to it.

As for how I’ve changed through the years as a writer, well, the critics still hurt my feelings, but I don’t dwell on it like I used to.  And I’ve changed my idea of what success looks like now, versus what I thought it would look like when I first started.  I used to think that if I didn’t land the six figure contract advance or land a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, that I was a failure as a writer.  But now I know that there are thousands of writers who’d love to be standing in my shoes.  I have worked with some of the top publishing houses in the business, have one of the most sought after editors in the publishing industry who loves working with and supports just about all of my crazy ideas.  I have readers standing by tapping their foot waiting for my next release.  Years ago, I set out to become a published author, and I’ve done that.  Define what success means to you, and go for it.

DropDeadGorgeousWhat’s the best thing and the worst thing about being an author?

The best thing is being able to express myself creatively.  When you’re a kid, your imagination is everything, but as you grow up, people start to try and convince you that imagination is childish, and tell you that you need to stop pretending and grow up.  Well, I have never stopped pretending, and now I get paid to make stuff up.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

The worst thing is time.  Time is the enemy in this business, especially if you don’t write for a living.  There never seems to be enough of it, and you’re always scrambling to try and meet deadlines despite the interruptions of life.  But even during the periods when I did write full time, the issue was still the same for some reason.  Adding to that is the effort it takes to put together a story.  I have a million ideas or new stories, and can’t seem to write fast enough to get them all down on paper.

You’re in a writers’ group with fellow published authors Carleen Brice and Kimberly Reid (who also happens to be an NLA client—lucky us!). The three of you write in different genres and for different audiences. How did you find each other, and how is this variety an asset to the way you support each other as writers?

I found Carleen from an article I read about her and her new book, Orange Mint and Honey, in Essence Magazine.  I was so happy to find another writer in Denver, and especially a writer of color, that I stalked her on the internet until I found her email address and forced her to be my friend.

She introduced me to Kim and the three of us found sounding boards in each other and meet monthly to talk books, cry books, and drink margaritas.  Oh, and sometimes, we even eat.

Even though we write very different kinds of books, the writing world is pretty much the same for all of us, and we support each other in trying to navigate our way through the industry.  I think that it’s great that we don’t write the same type of books.  The differences we bring from our experiences stem from the different backgrounds, and so we get insight into parts of the industry we wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to.

Many thanks for sharing this fabulous insight, J.D. And best wishes for your next ten books!