The coup de grace: a professional title page

Yes, I know: I was going to move on to writing about polishing up those first 50 pages of your submission. However, before I do, I want to spend a day talking about the very first thing an agent or editor will see in your submission: the title page.

And yes, Virginia, your submission needs one. Even if you are sending the second 50 pages, your manuscript is simply undressed if it goes out without a title page. Why? Because, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it is not just a billboard for your book’s title and your chosen pen name. It’s both the proper place to announce how you may best be reached and a fairly sure indicator of how much experience you have dealing with the publishing industry.

(And no, for those of you who have been asking about it, Anne Mini is not a nom de plume, but the name on my birth certificate, believe it or not. My parents were so literarily-oriented that my father demanded to be led to a typewriter before they settled on a name, to see how each of the top contenders would look in print. The better to grace future dust jackets, my dear.)

Thought I was just going to leave that startling earlier statement hanging in the air, didn’t you? The title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. Why? Well, there is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I, or any editor, will correct in a manuscript.

I find this trend sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes. Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers — but once again, I do not, alas, run the universe, nor do I make the rules that I report to you. If I set up the industry’s norms, I would decree that every improperly-formatted title page would be greeted with a very kind letter, explaining what was done wrong, and saying that it just doesn’t count this time. Perhaps, in the worst cases, the letter could be sent along with a coupon for free ice cream.

But I digress.

The single most common mistake: the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript — which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier for a submission, since these are the standards for the industry. (The logic is complicated here, but in essence, it boils down to an affection for the bygone days of the typewriter: Times is the equivalent of the old elite typeface; Courier is pica.)

Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. All of it, even the title. No exceptions. DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes – and I hate to tell you this — it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

Do I hear disgruntled voices out there? “Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface choice pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right, of course — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Unfortunately, though, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are often formed, well, within seconds. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It seem be silly — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it IS silly — but it’s true, nevertheless.

Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. If you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. As any agency screener will tell you after you have bought him a few drinks (hey, I try to leave no stone left unturned in my quest to find out what these people want to see in submissions), the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants, once they sober up again) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

That being said, as in so many aspects of the publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, your agent will tell you which one she prefers.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but I shall a new page on this site as soon as I can figure out how to do it, to show you what a title page should look like. I shall describe them here, though, first:

I like to call Format #1 the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work. In the upper left-hand corner, you list:
Your name
Your address
Your phone number
Your e-mail address.

In the upper right-hand corner, you list:
The book category (see how important it is to be up front about it? It’s the very top of the title page!)
Estimated word count.

Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page in Format #1.

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean and easy.

As I have mentioned before, approximate word count appear more professional to agents and editors’ eyes than exact ones. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t possibly go wrong.

Do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. If you want to use a quote at the opening of the book, center it on a separate page that follows the title page.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry these days. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like. In the upper right corner:
Book category
Word count

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)
Your name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots and lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.
That’s it, my friends – the only two options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. And believe me, you do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

Keep up the good work!


Hey — I’ve just finished re-posting my former PNWA blogs all the way back through the pieces I did on all of the agents and editors who were scheduled to come to the 2006 PNWA conference. So if you are looking for background information on these fine folks, before or after you query or submit to them, it is finally available again! Phew!

Waiting by the telephone

A faithful reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, wrote in with a couple of questions that I think would be of interest to everybody. So I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret author and agent, and am reproducing the essential questions here:

“Agent Abraham Lincoln requested the full manuscript and I sent it. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author… I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?”

Mystery Reader, there are short answers and long answers to these questions. The short: don’t even think about following up until after Labor Day, and when you do DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, you SHOULD move on: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case.

On to the long answer. Badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely not get it read faster, so it is not a good course to pursue. In fact, most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works — which, trust me, is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you.

Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first. Think about it: the agent makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general badgering, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales. So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Trust me, agent Abraham Lincoln already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more. How does he know? Because he deals with authors all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

All you can do is wait, at least for 6 weeks or so. The reason that there are no set timelines, except for ones that the agents may tell you themselves, is that a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is probably not the only full manuscript requested by Mr. Lincoln within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

Most agents read entire manuscripts not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only ms. sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Lincoln’s, it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers. That takes time. Furthermore, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so there is always a big crunch around this time of year.

He may well read it on vacation, but actually, with an entire manuscript, I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if he didn’t give you a timeframe, 6 weeks is the industry norm to wait. In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent.

That is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking. Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Mr. Lincoln venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until Mr. Lincoln antes up a firm offer. Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave you? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course.

For those of you who have never been a heterosexual teenage girl, this may be a new problem, but for those who have, this probably feels very, very familiar. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Don’t sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Mr. Lincoln DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Lincoln an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

Even after 6 weeks, you might want to e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster. If you haven’t heard back, it’s not because he’s thinking about it; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet, so most agents get a bit defensive if you call.

Like, if memory serves, teenage boys. Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next few weeks. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Mr. Lincoln WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: if you have questions about your writing, querying, submission, etc. processes, please post them as comments here on the blog. That way, everyone can learn together!

The query checklist, part V: the mythical perfect query letter

Ah, a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer day: the sun is out; the sky is blue, or rather, just starting to cloud over — and the writers of the Puget Sound are inside, away from it all, tapping away at their computers. All is right with the world.

Today will be the last installment in my series on polishing your query letter to a high gloss. I’m feeling a trifle rushed, since I know that many of you are in the throes of submitting your first 50 pages (or even, in some cases, the entire manuscript!) in the wake of recent conferences, so I want to get to first chapter revision as soon as possible. If any of you are going through synopsis trauma, leave a comment, and I shall do a post or two addressing your concerns.

All right, back to the querying checklist. Some of these questions may seem very basic — or even redundant, if you have constructed your query, as I advised a few days ago, from the constituent parts of your pitch. However, there is a LOT of advice on querying out there (almost all of it in that arrogant, you’re-an-idiot-if-you-don’t-listen-to-me tone that unfortunately seems to dominate the advice-to-unpublished-writers market), and a LOT of different versions of the so-called perfect query letter, so I want to make sure to hit the points that those cooking-mix perfect letters often miss.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet, still less a formula where you just add your book’s title and stir. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances. Simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I gave you a few days ago tends to work well; it has a proven track record. However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are scary — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day. If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance, for instance, even if that’s her specialty; if an agency screener has just blistered his tongue by biting too quickly on a microwaved knish, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling literary collaboration. No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved.

Frankly, this took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, “This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass” in the margins of my missive. I was flabbergasted. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant and couldn’t take on any more clients, due to imminent maternity leave, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was utterly beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers and telekinetic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. On to the checklist.

(10) Have I mentioned the book category?
I discussed this last month, in connection with your verbal pitch, but it bears repeating here: like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book it is. You’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms. (Hint: this is not a context in which the phrase “sort of” should appear.)

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry understand. Any agent will have to tell any editor what category your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

Since I posted on this fairly recently (June 29 and 30, now available on this very site! I am transferring the archives as fast as I can.), I shall not run through the available categories again. If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(11) Have I avoided using clichés?
You’d think that this one would be self-evident, wouldn’t you? However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup in my cringing ear. (Long story.)

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that borders on the pathological and, like any tigers you might happen to meet in the wild, it’s best not to provoke them. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout (agents, not tigers), “not somebody else’s.” Don’t tempt these people to pounce; this is not the place to try to be cute. Cut anything from your query and submission packets that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(12) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context.

(13) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
Here is one of those reasons to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect lists of agents and editors’ pet peeves. Referring to your book as “a fiction novel” is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction. Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

In seeking to stick to the single-page limit, however, do not fall into the opposite trap of margin-fudging or using an ultra-small typeface to make it so. As someone who spends her days reading thousands upon thousands of manuscript pages in 12-point type, I can tell you with absolute confidence: anyone who has screened queries for more than a week will be able to tell at a glance if you have shrunk the typeface or margins.

(14) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I have found that this question almost invariably surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. “Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that an relatively observant agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not the best impression you could possibly make. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

Your query letter needs to sound like you at your very best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is a preliminary invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part IV: work that body!

For the past few days (interspersed with other business), I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered — as opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds are legion. Oh, and that your book is interesting, too. So pull up or print up your latest query letter (or the one derived from your pitch via yesterday’s blog), and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail, shall we?

Everybody comfortable? Good. Let’s promote the heck out of your book.

First, please read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again. And again and again. And if you don’t read it aloud one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it… well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the Mediterranean guilt wagon now. (My mother’s favorite joke — Q: how many Mediterranean mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: None. “Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark, while you do what you want…”) Resuming the checklist from the day before yesterday:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I said what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book available right there in the envelope? That’s 3-5 entire glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book. In this context, you honestly do have only have 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are or premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

Still tempted to spend the entire page recounting plot twists? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these two summaries: seriously, which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he met Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Clear in your mind? Now here is entry #2:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee™ can bring on a pain-filled flashback. This traumatic circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights staring at little dots printed on paper. Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, who is exactly the type of Frisbee™ tossing lunkhead Basil had spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…

Okay, agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

(7) Is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure. I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about them.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.” It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time.

(8) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that wasn’t a surprise to you; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads it what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers in your chosen genre. One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

“CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men,” with

“Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, intertube-navigating men. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.”

Okay, cover up those last two paragraphs, and take this pop quiz: what do you remember most from the first? Anything specific, after the second? Now what do you remember about the second? As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

Tell me, if you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women? I rest my case.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure that your summary is sexy. If it’s a comedy, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If it’s a horror novel, make sure it’s creepy. And so forth.

(9) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather foolish in a marketing document, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for her to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no. Tell her.

Have a nice weekend, everybody, especially those of you who are going to be floating down the some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym. As for me, I shall be right here, as I so often am, working on my next novel. Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Go have your fun.

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part III: the jigsaw puzzle approach to success

I got so excited going through the red flags that often turn up in query letters that I neglected to point out something that those of you doing it for the first time might very much like to know: if you have been reading my blog since, say, mid-June, you probably already have the constituent part of an excellent query letter written, or at least conceived. You just need to put the parts together.

Was that a great collective “Huh?” I just heard out there, or a gigantic sigh of relief?

Honeys, it’s true: if you went through all of the steps I suggested for developing your conference pitch, you can use them to construct a professional-looking query letter. And if you didn’t, check out this nifty new function: if you select the Pitching Tips category on the right-hand side of the page, it will pull up the relevant archived blogs. How cool is THAT? (And okay, I’ll admit it: I stayed up late last night, posting the relevant back blogs, so they would be there for today.)

Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of a few weeks ago, when you watched wide-eyed as my blog walked you through the dark and mysterious waters of your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6). Then finally, after a long, hot week toiling our way up a very steep learning curve, we pulled it all together with the pitch proper (July 7).

Think about how you constructed your two-minute verbal pitch. First, you began with the magic first hundred words: “Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).” Then, with nary a pause for breath, you launched into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech. But to add a little piquant twist, and to make your work come across as memorable, you took fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Ah, those were the days, weren’t they?

I have a little secret to share with you: the query letter is a written formal pitch. So if you boiled your book down into the formula above (or some other that worked for you) for the conference, I’m here to tell you that you already have a very solid query letter floating around in that pretty little head of yours. And you know what? If you gave that pitch even ONCE successfully, you already have a proof positive that it’s a darned good query letter, one that at least one agent found appealing.

Go ahead; pat yourself on the back for that. I can wait.

Naturally, taking all of these constituent parts and arranging them in a single-page (single-spaced, 1-inch margins; no cheating, please) query letter in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier (hey, you want the typeface to match the manuscript’s, right?) on quite nice, bright white paper is going to take a spot of editing, but I’m confident that you have it in you. Here is a structure that I have found effective:

Header (for those of us who don’t have preprinted letterhead easily available), centered: your name, your address, your phone number, your e-mail address. This information should sound very familiar indeed: it’s the contact information on your title page.

The date is a nice touch, then the agent’s name and address. “Dear Ms. Specific Agent,” please, not “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.” If you are unsure whether that cryptic first name in the agency listing refers to a man or a woman, call the agency and ask.

Then comes your first paragraph. As I have been discussing how you should open over the last few days, I suspect you already have that cold. But if you need a jump start, it might conceivably run something like this: “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference/Since you so ably represented Anne Boleyn’s recent book, THAT DARNED HENRY,” or some other appropriately flattering but dignified identifying remark, “and since you are seeking (insert specific preference expressed at conference here), I believe you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY), (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).”

Sounding a little like your first hundred words, isn’t it? And you were comfortable with that, right? So you should breeze through what’s coming next:

Second paragraph: ELEVATOR SPEECH. If you have room, you can include a sentence or two describing that nifty, vivid image you used in your verbal speech here. Remember, specifics are almost always more memorable than generalities, so do make your image as crisp as possible in your query reader’s mind.

Paragraph Three (or Four, if the elevator speech looks better split in two): some permutation of: “I am excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.” This is the proper place to include previous publications or awards, if any — but hey, you knew that, didn’t you, because those were featured prominently on your list SELLING POINTS?

The next paragraph can be all business, something along the lines of: “Thank you for taking the time to consider my project. I am seeking an agent with whom to build a long-term working relationship, and I would be delighted to send you all or part of the manuscript for your perusal. I am enclosing a SASE, for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

There, now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? If you can manage to fit all of that onto a single page, and can affix your John Hancock to it, you will have yourself a mighty fine query letter. Hooray!

Of course, there are many, many other ways you can structure this information, but I can tell you from experience that this format works awfully darned well. But please, those of you veterans of the querying wars out there: if you have formats and clever techniques that have worked for you, please post a comment and share them!

Isn’t it nice when you can reach into your writer’s tool bag and find there everything you need for the task at hand? Let me know how the querying works out for you, and keep up the good work!

Repeat after me: I do not fear the calendar; I do not fear the calendar…

I shall return to querying tips later today, but as a freelance editor, I get to have a LOT of conversations with writers in the throes of trying to send out post-conference submission packets. Since I just finished hearing for the fifth time this week that old saw that writers only have 1 – 3 weeks in which to mail off requested materials, and as we are drawing near to the end of Week 3 after the PNWA conference, I wanted to address this as soon as humanly possible.

For the record, it’s not true. Yes, it’s nice if you can send the submission off sooner rather than later, but trust me, no one is sitting around at your dream agency, holding a stopwatch, all ready to shout triumphantly, “There! It’s been 1,814,400 seconds since the last pitch of the conference! Ha! Now we don’t have to accept any more submissions!”

Unless you were unlucky enough to pitch to the mythical troll who lives under the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s just not going to happen.

Honestly, they don’t have the time to worry about this kind of deadline — and you would be surprised at how many writers ultimately do not send requested materials at all. Partially, I think, this silly conference truism about the short time window is to blame. People panic, and then they think, mistakenly, that they’ve missed their big chance. Some of you may even be fretting that you have already waited too long, but you haven’t.

Yes, I know: you’re worried that they won’t remember you if you wait too long. At the risk of bruising a few egos out there, though, as someone with a lot of experience both pitching and hearing pitches, I can tell you that realistically, the agent is far more likely to remember your project than your name, anyway. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most agents and editors forget pitching authors’ names before they get on the airplane home; most of them take some notes on the pitches they hear, to remind them down the line.

So an extra few days will not make them forget you more. Besides, you will be writing CONFERENCE NAME — REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your submission, right? That’s an awfully darned fine spur to memory, as is beginning your cover letter, “Thank you for asking to see the first chapter of my novel…” These are smart people; they will figure out where they met you, given such subtle clues.

In my experience, it’s FAR better to take an extra week or two — or even a month or two — to send out perfectly polished pages than to rush them out the door quickly in order to meet some arbitrary deadline. So yes, the prevailing wisdom dictates that writers should send in requested materials within 1 — 3 weeks, but that is the expectation among writers, not agents and editors, for the most part.

Why? Well, summer is conference season; very few agents and editors go to only one literary conference, if they attend any, so they will be receiving packets all summer long. I have literally never heard of an instance where a writer’s submission got rejected because it turned up after 6 weeks, instead of after 3.

In practical terms, too, sending your work off toute de suite will not necessarily mean getting it back sooner. Many Manhattan-based agencies work short weeks in summer — and this summer, with an unprecedented heat wave flattening even the hardiest, is unlikely to be an exception. Also, the norm in the industry is to take vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so you may not hear back from some of the agents (and most of the editors) until September.

So try to relax, and concentrate on sending out pages you love. If you notice the kids going back to school, and you still haven’t followed up on those pages you promised back in July, you will want to bestir yourself, stop revising, and get to the post office. I promise, no one will yell at you.

If you are sure that your revisions are going to take longer than that, send a polite note or e-mail now, informing the requester of the delay and giving an estimated delivery date. No need for a long apology; it’s just a courtesy message. When you start noticing the leaves changing color, or find yourself decorating a Christmas tree or spinning a dreidel, then you can legitimately start worrying if you have waited too long.

But whatever you do, do NOT let fears or conference rumors prevent you from following up on a requested materials request. The only book that can NEVER get published is the one that never sees the light of day, because it is decaying in the bottom of a file drawer or lurking in a seldom-opened file on a computer. Such a request is a great opportunity: please take advantage of it.

Yes, it’s scary, but there’s a community here to support you, come what may. That’s the nice thing about hanging out with writers: we’ve all either been there, will be there, or are there now.

Let’s talk about this: querying fears, submission terrors, and coping mechanisms

In the interest of promoting community, I am establishing a new periodic series on this blog: Let’s Talk About This. In these, I will propose an issue, and any or all of you can share your views on it via the comments function, to get a conversation going. There are so very many issues that writers seldom get a chance to discuss with other writers — we are an isolated breed — that I am very excited about the prospect of our being able to chat about them here.

The first topic: What fears, reasonable and unreasonable both, assail you while you are getting ready to send out query letters? Are the qualms different when you’ve actually met the agent you’re querying — better, worse, the same? If you’re submitting requested materials, are your fears different than when you are cold-querying? How do these fears affect your day-to-day life? And, finally, have you found coping mechanisms to deal with these fears effectively?

I’ll start the ball rolling: back in my querying days, I developed a nearly pathological fear of the mailbox. I knew it was irrational, but after all, it was the first place I saw every rejection I got, right? I did not think it would suddenly develop fangs and devour me like something in a child’s nightmare, but I did start to feel that its depths were a den of rejection. Over time, I just learned that if I had queries out and circulating (i.e., most of the time), I should delegate picking up the mail to someone else in the household.

Your turn. Let’s talk about this

The query checklist, part II: feeding our furry friends

I am presently being overrun by raccoons. Baby ones, four of them, along with their parents and a mangy beast who appears to be their dissipated adopted uncle, or perhaps just The Raccoon Who Came To Dinner, a houseguest our resident raccoon family is just too polite to evict. The babies think I am the Goddess of Cat Food, and will scratch on my back door after they have eaten up all of the food our outdoor kitty was not swift enough to gobble up first, to demand more. Why do we feed them? Well, most of our neighbors have concreted-over yards (for reasons that escape me; in my experience, fallen rain needs to go somewhere after it hits the ground), but our yard is largely wild. Thus, we get a disproportionate share of the neighborhood’s wildlife traipsing through our yard.

The raccoon parents were born under our deck, and know me of yore as the Queen of the Kibble from their childhoods. They pick up each piece of kibble between their long front paws and nibble it daintily, like the well-bred critters that they are. The babies, on the other hand, almost spherical with fur except for tiny pointed ears and stripy little tails shaped like isosceles triangles, are ravenous little maulers, indiscriminately shoving everything they can manage to pick up into their sweet little maws: kibble, the edge of the doormat, small rocks, their siblings’ tails. When they discover a non-foodstuff in mid-chew, they blithely discard it and eagerly snatch up the next thing, hoping it will be something that they will want to ingest this time.

So you see, my friends, my back yard is run identically to the publishing industry. Like many experienced agents and editors, Mama and Daddy Raccoon have a very strong preconceived notion of what they want, and do not pay the slightest attention to anything, however tempting, that does not conform to their idées fixes of what they should consume. The babies are like agents new to the biz, or ones afraid that the next bestseller will pass them by: they will bite on anything and everything once, only to spit it out quickly and move on to the next thing. (See why you should consider querying the less experienced agents from time to time, as well as the big names?)

I mention this, because I have been talking lately to quite a few writers who were feeling dispirited by having been brushed off by agents and editors to whom they pitched at a recent conference that shall remain nameless, or rejected via form letter for the fiftieth time. Please, if the Mama Raccoon you had set your heart on picking up your work did not recognize it as her preferred brand of kibble, do not take it as proof positive that your work is not palatable. Take it as a sign that your pitch or query did not fit the masked one’s preconceived notions, and move on to find an agent who has been dreaming of exactly your flavor of book.

But to do that, you will need to make sure that your query letter is very nummy indeed. On with the checklist of red flags to avoid:

(4) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America? If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, do I make that obvious immediately?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, definitely mention that in your query letter. As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel… Trust me, this kind of personal recognition makes the garden-variety agent’s furry little ears perk up instantly.

I picked up this little trick not at writers’ conferences, but in my former incarnation as an academic. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Yes, she is expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first. Think of it as going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast. And that’s even before the department chair slips the senior graduate students a few bucks to take you out, get you drunk, and worm your other prospective job offers out of you.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia.

I had lunch this very day with a writer who just used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading. There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publishers’ Marketplace, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news.

If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was for the book in question; legally, they must tell you, due to some obscure quirk of jurisprudence that I have never been able to track down. In any case, they will tell you, even if the book came out decades ago. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that in the first line of your query letter. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to invent a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

I am dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. (Yes, even if this is an agent to whom you are sending requested material.) Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you might want to ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection. Remember, one of the primary purposes of the query letter is to identify your work as something that the raccoon reading it will instantly recognize as her favorite filet mignon.

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part I, and some new ground rules

I’m going to start with some good news today: blog reader Soyon Im has just taken 5th place in the MySpace short memoir contest! Way to go, Soyon! And the rest of you, please: write in to share your triumphs, so we can all enjoy the vicarious thrill.

From that high note, let me move on to a little housekeeping. Since we are starting a new blog relationship here, it is probably a good time to establish some new ground rules. Because my old blog at the PNWA was not, to put it mildly, set up to encourage reader input, the standard way for readers to ask me questions was to send me an e-mail. This was not very efficient; in fact, especially in the days leading up to the conference, it was quite time-consuming for both asker and replier.

So here is my first request: if you have a question you would like me to answer, please post it as a comment here, rather than sending it to my e-mail (or calling). That way, everyone can benefit from learning the answer, and I won’t end up answering the same question twenty times individually. And since we now have a forum where we can discuss topics of common interest, other readers can ask follow-up questions, or tell me how wrong I am, or make any suggestions they want. It will be much better, I think, for everybody.

Second, please do not send me query letters, synopses, or manuscript excerpts, asking for my feedback. I love seeing what my readers are writing, but if I read all of the samples I receive, I simply would not have time to write the blog (or write, or work, or sleep). I am a working writer and editor, and like everybody else, my time is limited to a mere 24 hours per day. Besides, my editors’ guild frowns upon its members providing editing services for free, even casually. I am posting a link to the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild today, to make it easier for readers who want professional editing to hook up with a good freelance editor.

Third — and I hope that this won’t be an issue for very much longer — please do not ask me to give updates or explanations about why I am no longer blogging for the PNWA. I understand that many of you are curious, but frankly, I do not anticipate that I will ever know for sure what happened. I would much rather use my limited time and energy (the above-mentioned scant 24 hours/day) concentrating on you, my readers, than looking backward. If you really, really want to find out more, please feel free to contact the PNWA directly and ask. In this space, I would really, really, REALLY like for all of us to get back to the work we love.

In that spirit, let’s get back to query letters. As I mentioned yesterday, I think it is a good idea to have several out at a time, rather than only one, and to send out a new one the very day a rejection comes in. That way, you can do something constructive in response to that silly form letter, rather than letting the negative feelings sink into your psyche long enough that you start to believe them yourself.

As I have said before, no matter how much an agent may insist that “there’s no market for this right now” or “there’s not enough money to be made with this book,” and no matter how prominent that agent may be, ultimately, a rejection is one person’s personal opinion. Accept it as such, and move on.

But before you do, make sure that your query does not contain any red flags that might be preventing your work from getting a fair reading. Unfortunately, many writers automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a bland querying letter or a confusing synopsis. Or, still more hurtful, that somehow the rejecting agents are magically seeing past the query to the book itself, decreeing from without having read it that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. This particular fear leaps like a lion onto many aspiring writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many of us, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work, and part of that work is being persistent in submitting your work.

Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials that are being used as an excuse to reject your queries. If you can ever manage to corner someone who has worked as an agency screener for more than a day, believe me, the FIRST thing she will tell you about the process is that she was given a list of red flags to use as rejection criteria for queries. And, oddly enough, many of these criteria are not about the book project at all, but the presentation of the submission packet.

The single most common culprit, believe it or not, is typos. Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine already. Writing groups are also tremendous resources for this kind of feedback, as are those nice people you met at a conference recently.

Remember, we’re all in this together; let’s help one another out.

As long-time readers of my blogs are already aware, I STRONGLY advise against using your nearest and dearest as your proofreaders, much less content readers. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing, unless they have won a Nobel Prize in Literature recently. And often not even then. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — did I mention those great writers you met at a conference? — and blandish him into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary, feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from compulsively line editing while she reads my work, of course, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity of a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who has not been a fan of my writing since I wrote my first puppet play, ALEXANDRA MEETS DRACULA, in kindergarten. (Alexandra wins, by the way.)

As always, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen; the average person reads material on a screen 70% faster than the same words on a page, so which method do you think provides better proofreading leverage? Uh-huh. Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask the following questions:

(1) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. In my humble opinion, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent. But hey, I could be wrong.

I’ve seen some real lulus. My personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, A QUERY IS A BUSINESS LETTER. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar. Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

(2) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters (or, still worse, sending them out in droves) is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it. Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, but not the best way to pitch your work. Try to sound as upbeat in your 17th query letter as in your first.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.

(3) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

Trust me, it doesn’t work.

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (preferably with statistics) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic. (For tips on how to do this, please see my late June — early July posts on pitching — now available on this very website! — especially those on identifying your target market and selling points. See, all of the skills you have been learning DO tie together in the end.)

Tomorrow, I shall move on with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The post-conference query

I know a lot of you intrepid hallway pitchers out there are feverishly reworking your first 50 pp. (or, as some readers of my old blog wrote in to report, entire manuscripts! Hooray!) to send out to the agents and editors who requested them at recent conferences that shall remain nameless, but today, I would like to talk about how to handle those slippery folk whom you never managed to buttonhole, despite your best efforts. (Rumor has it that a few of the agents who attended the PNWA conference — oops — were blessed with prodigious bladders and scant appetites, so they were seldom seen in the hallways.) In short, today is going to be all about post-conference querying.

As I mentioned yesterday, I believe it is ALWAYS legitimate to use an agent’s having appeared at a writers’ conference as a personal invitation to query — in theory, they would not be there if they were not looking to sign new authors, right? (This is not always true in practice, but hey, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is, just for today.) So if you so much as saw the agent’s name on a conference program, go ahead and write “CONFERENCE NAME” in gigantic letters on the outside of the envelope, and begin your query letter with, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XX conference, and based upon what you said, I believe you will be interested in my book…” These are both legitimate tricks of the trade to get your submission read more quickly.

Do be sure before you lick the envelope, of course, that the agent in question actually DID speak at the conference you mention. At the recent PNWA conference (I give up), not all of the advertised agents (or the keynote speaker, I’m told) were able to show up, for various reasons. Does this mean these fine folks are not available for querying? Heavens, no. If you were interested in, say, Arielle Eckstut or Jandy Nelson, the outside of your query envelope should be handled exactly in the same way as the one described above, but your query letter should begin with some permutation of, “I was so sorry to have missed seeing you at the recent PNWA conference, because I believe that my book will interest you…”

I hear some of you murmuring out there, and who could blame you? “Why is Anne harping so much on the outside of the envelope,” I hear disgruntled voices whispering, “when it’s the quality of the submission within that will determine whether the agent will want to see more? And hasn’t Anne been impressing upon us for a year now that the first person to read ANY submission to an agency, be it requested chapters or a query, is generally a screener, and not the agent herself? If the agent is not going to see the outside of the envelope, why does it matter what it looks like?”

Reasonable questions, all. To understand, let me take you inside the average Manhattan-based agency, once that receives 800+ queries per week. I think it is safe to say that the excellent employees of the US Postal Service harbor some resentment toward agencies, because of all that heavy, heavy paper some luckless mail carrier must deliver every day. Once there, it is all dumped on the desk of a screener, often an intern (translation: this person may not even be paid to be there; he just wants to be an agent some day, and is collecting some résumé candy. If he is paid, it’s a pittance.). Let’s call him George, and assume that his unhappy lot is to decide which 2% out of this morass of pleas should be passed on to his (paid) superiors at the agency.

Got that image firmly in your mind? Good. Now think about the moment when your query letter first touches George’s damp fingertips. Since he is a bright boy (he’s a junior majoring in English Literature at Columbia, and he has NO idea how he is going to manage to pay off his student loans, if all of his early agency jobs pay as poorly as this one — and in all probability, they will.), obviously, the first thing George does when he receives a new mail delivery is to pull out everything marked REQUESTED MATERIALS: that goes into the top-priority pile. Then there is everything else, opened in the order that his hand happens to fall upon it.

Note that George is already scanning the outside of the envelopes, looking for clues as to what magic awaits within. Any envelope with a clear indication is going to make his life easier, right?

And that, dear friends, is going to get your query placed in a read-first pile, even if the agent who attended the conference did not (as some do) order George and his ilk to set all of the conference attendees’ queries aside into a special pile. After all, 98% of the querying writers in North America NEVER attend a conference at all; as agents like to tell anyone who seems remotely interested in the matter, queries from conference attendees tend to be far more professionally presented.

I would like to report that writing “Reader of Anne Mini’s blog” on the outside of your envelopes provokes the same hope, but alas, that is not yet true. But tomorrow, the world!

It pains me to say it, but I HAVE heard of some clever and unscrupulous writers who take advantage of the pervasive agency belief in the power of conferring to label their envelopes untruthfully. Since at a large conference, agents frequently will not remember everyone they asked to send material, I have known certain black-hearted souls who went ahead and wrote REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of — gasp! — unrequested materials. After all, they reason, how is George to know? They’re right: he won’t know the difference. I strongly advise against this strategy, however, on ethical grounds: for all you know, the karmic record-keeper assigned to track your triumphs and misdeeds was a literary agent in her last life. Don’t tempt that lightning bolt.

Another common, clever, and unscrupulous method adopted by those who would transfer their work into the read-first pile is to troll the net for literary conferences (large ones work best), jot down the names of the attending agents, and send “Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at the recent YY conference, but…” queries with appropriately garnished envelopes. (This only works, of course, if the agent in question actually showed up there.) Oh, this is not good. How on earth am I going to convince you not to do it?

Hmm. It may take me weeks, or even months, to come up with a truly compelling argument that will keep my readers’ feet firmly planted on the paths of virtue. I guess you’re just going to have to consult your own consciences until then.

Whatever strategic choices you may make (hey, I believe in free will), white, gray, or buff Manila envelope, please, for any submission longer than 6 pages — more than 5 might make a normal business-size envelope tear in the post. Use high-quality (at least 20 lb.) white paper for EVERY sheet that you intend to have touched by an agent.

Why? Well, if you’re lucky, that query and submission are going to pass through quite a few hands at the agency. Do you have any idea how fast poor-quality paper wilts when it is handled by hands that have just clutched an iced latte or walked inside after brisk walk back from a power lunch on a sweltering New York day?

Tomorrow, I shall deal with some of the common mistakes made in query and cover letters (you ARE sending winsome little cover letters out with your requested materials, right?), but for today, one final piece of advice: even if you garnered permission to send your first 50 pp. to several great agents — and more power to you if you did — please consider querying the other agents who attended the conference as well, if their interests seem anywhere close to yours. And do it soon, before you hear back from the others.

I know, I know, this may seem unnecessary, or even disrespectful to those who have asked you for a peek at your baby. But listen: agencies take time to read material; since most of the publishing industry takes vacation between mid-August and Labor Day, in all probability, you will not hear back on all of your submissions before the fall. (They’re going to send George on vacation, too. Poor lamb, his eyes are going to need the rest by then.) That’s a couple of months of your life, and if — heaven forefend! — none of the requesters is ultimately interested, won’t you be happier if you already have second-round requests lined up?

The post-conference advantage fades when the days start to cool, my friends. Get your work under as many already-primed eyes before the Georges of tomorrow will no longer recognize the initials PNWA. Yes, it is time-consuming to keep querying, but honestly, it takes less energy to keep seven or eight queries out at any given time than to start from scratch each time you (again, heaven forefend) receive a “Sorry, but this is not for us” missive.

Keep up the good work!

Speaking the industry’s lingua franca

Congratulations to all of you intrepid souls who managed to track me down already! At some point, I hope that the PNWA will allow a link from my former blogsite to this one, but at the moment, they flatly refuse. (Sic transit gloria, eh?) So for now, I am relying upon my loyal readers’ intuition and the writers’ grapevine to let people know to search for me under my name, rather than my former institutional affiliation. Let’s hope this works.

I’m going to try to start posting my old blogs into the archives here as soon as I understand the new system well enough to do it, so please be patient: over the course of 11 months, I wrote 1,126 pages of advice for writers as the PNWA’s Resident Writer. That’s a LOT of material to move, but rest assured, I shall keep the ferry service running until it is all safely archived here. (Clever readers Ute and Harold both alerted to me to the fact that it IS still possible to access my old blog’s archives, but I assume that the organization will catch on to its incomplete hatchet job soon. I’ll be happier once they are all safely stored here.)

I think today’s topic will interest both those readers who attended the recent PNWA conference and those who did not: today, I shall be talking about how to translate industry-speak into words and phrases that make some sense in the English language as she is spoke by commoners such as ourselves.

Since some of you may be currently in the throes of trying to figure out whether you liked a particular agent well enough to send a post-conference query (and if you are not already aware of it, it is ALWAYS a good idea to write on the outside of such queries THE NAME OF THE CONFERENCE in great big letters, and begin your query letter with, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent X conference, and I believe you will be interested in my work…), I thought it might be a good idea to provide at least a rudimentary Rosetta Stone.

Those of you who followed my old blog might remember that I had suggested lo! these many weeks ago that it was advisable (by definition, since I advised it) to go to the agent and editor forum at any conference in order to figure out to whom you should be pitching in the hallways. After you had been sitting there for an hour or so, you may have gleaned some marvelous insights, or you may have wondered whether all of these people were speaking Urdu. Unfortunately, the way agents and editors talk about their work in general can be bewildering for writers new to dealing with it.

What are we to make of publishing professionals who, for instance, brush off pitch attempts quickly, saying, “I don’t handle that sort of book,” in a tone that implies that you should already have known that? Or the agent who tells a pitcher, “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment.” (If so, why come to a conference to solicit more?) Or when an agent gives a statement of work he’s seeking that’s so wildly different from his stated preferences in the standard guides, or on his agency’s website, or even in the blurb that he submitted to the conference organizers that you want to leap to your feet, screaming that this man is an imposter?

What can you do, other than check the conference center basement for pods?

You may have noticed that this ambiguity of intention sometimes gets reflected in the blurbs in agents’ guides, too. How many of us have read that a particular agent is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, including our own, only to be crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work? Years ago, I made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m considerably nicer than she is) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the rather tumultuous end of our association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

Why would an agent advertise that she is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike. He is a gambler.

Honestly, most agents and editors who attend conferences ARE good at heart. Most of them truly do want to help new authors. However, not all of them are necessarily there to discover the next Great American Novel: in fact, it’s rare for an agent to pick up more than a single author from any given conference — yes, even at PNWA — or for an editor at a major house to pick up anyone at all. There are agents who pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend.

There is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any writers at all. The soulless few who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m morally sure that the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from above.

Oh, how I wish these people came with great big signs, so writers would know who is serious about finding new clients and who isn’t. But they don’t, and in fact, sometimes the ones with the least intention of being helpful to the writers in the room sound on the podium like the greatest lovers of good writing. And now that the conference is over, you may be wondering in retrospect which is which.

One way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to weight agents and editors’ concrete statements of likes and dislikes (“I never want to see another SF book again,” for instance, is probably a reliable indicator, as is “I am desperately looking for books on squid cookery for the pre-teen NF market”) much more heavily in your assessments than the general observations (e.g., anything from “I represent a wide variety of commercial fiction” to “I love good writing”). The more specific the expressed preference, the more reliable it is, generally speaking.

That being said, there is an accepted array of platitudes that agents and editors tend to spout during speeches and in pitch meetings when they are trying to discourage writers, and over the years, I have gathered a list of them. I suppose they are not lies, per se, so much as polite exit lines from conversations and ways to make themselves sound better on a dias, but from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

Because I love you people, I am posting my top ten favorites today, so you may check them against what was said to you at the conference or in response to your latest query letter. I have included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak — and I suspect some of the translations may surprise you. Please bear in mind that these are accepted industry euphemisms, and thus if you do find one that was applied to your book by an agent or editor, you should NOT take it personally — or even necessarily as a reflection on your book. Do not, I beg you, use any of them as a basis for thinking your work is not marketable. Like all platitudes, they are easy substitutes for a thoughtful response.

(10) “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: “I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with what is selling at the moment. Do not press me for my reasons, please, because they may be based upon trends that will end tomorrow.”

(9) “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: “I prefer to represent previously published writers; I want to be the second person to take a chance on a writer, not the first, so I might be willing to make an exception for contest winners. Since it is now possible for an author to self-publish a blog or write for a website,” (despite the fact that such writing is generally done for free) “I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume.” Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever published anything themselves.

(8) “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: “Your pitch was good, but I’m looking for something just like the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.”
OR, in the nicer cases: “This was an interesting pitch, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately”

(7) “We give every submission we receive sent careful consideration.”
Translation: “I’m having a hard time keeping a straight face for this one, because it’s so palpably untrue. Like most agencies, we spent less than a minute reading the average query — and by we, I really mean an underpaid summer intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter.”
OR, from a nicer human being: “If I had actually taken the time to read all of them, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. I do know that we ought to give some reason for rejecting each submission. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I habitually make this defensive statement in my form-letter replies and from the podium.”

(6) “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: “This is a definitional issue. If it is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to conventionally-approved NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.”

(5) “The length doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is good.”
Translation: “I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be longer than 450 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. For some genre fiction, it could be as short as 200 pages, but frankly, I think it’s the writer’s job, not mine, to check how long works in her genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits. It might be the next DA VINCI CODE!”
OR: “I think the industry’s current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.”

(4) “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: “We do have fairly strong preferences, and actually represent only specific kinds of books, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller if we tell you people that. Does anyone out there have the next DA VINCI CODE?”
OR: “We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents which genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that might be.”
OR: “We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us manuscripts. Lots of them. My kid sister is out back right now, going through the slush pile, in the hopes of finding something marketable in the mess.”

(3) “I am looking for work with a strong plot.”
Translation: “I am looking for books easy to make into movies. I’d feel a little bit silly saying this out loud, but for my purposes, BRIDGET JONES’ characters are miracles of complex characterization, and a plot too complicated to explain to the average 8-year-old before he finishes his Slurpee is not for me. Sorry.”

(2) “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: “We are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well.” (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)
OR: “We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.”

(1) “True quality/real talent/good writing will always find a home.”
Translation: “…but not necessarily with my agency/publishing house.”
OR: “If you’re having trouble finding an agent or publisher, you either do not have talent or are going about it the wrong way, but I don’t have time to sit down with you and figure out which. Come find me when you have honed your craft to professional standards.”
OR (and this is both the kindest and the most common version): “Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. My nightmares are haunted by the specters of good writers who have given up trying to hack a path through a hostile system to get their books read. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.”

In this industry’s lexicon, there are two sentences that mean exactly the same as in our language: “I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and “I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.” These, you can trust absolutely.

Here’s to all of you out there hearing those last two very soon. Keep up the good work!

A New Beginning

How nice it was to meet so many of you at last weekend’s PNWA conference and hear your pitches! The Pitch Practicing Palace staff heard over 300 pitches over the course of the conference and, as a testament to the quality of many of those pitches, we had barely stepped into the parking garage before we were all saying, “Wow. Let’s do that again sometime soon.”

Deep, heartfelt thanks a thousand times over to the Pitch Practicing Palace staffers, the generous and gifted Suzanne Brahm, the lovely and talented Phoebe Kitanides, the hilarious and incisive author-to-watch Kevin Scott, and the brilliant and lyrical prose stylist Cindy Willis, all of whom took time off work to volunteer to help other writers. Memorize their names, my friends, so you will recognize them on bookshelves in the years to come. These writers are the real deal, and the best way to express gratitude to those who have helped you is to buy their books down the line!

Kudos to all of you who were brave enough to come to the conference and pitch your work. A conference muckity-muck yanked me aside on Saturday and read me the riot act about how my readers and Palace visitants were buttonholing agents and editors in the hallway, because that is Not How It Was Done in Days of Yore, but I was genuinely proud of all of you who did. Like the outdated insistence that all pitches should be under 35 words, I think that limiting your prospects to a couple of formal meetings, followed perhaps by a few meek follow-up queries a week or two after the conference, is not to the writer’s best advantage.

And I just have to boast about this: longtime loyal blog reader Toddie even summoned up the courage to give her elevator speech to an agent IN AN ELEVATOR. I predict that she will go far. (And if you think THAT’s not going to be a great interview story when her first book comes out, think again.)

At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, given the opportunity, I think an ambitious writer should pitch in a box, and to a fox, and on stairs, and over the back of chairs, and…in short, Toddie and the rest of you who pitched aggressively, I think you did the right — and hugely brave — thing.

Please remember, all of you who pitched successfully, to write PNWA — REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters three inches high on the outside of the envelope. Also include a cover letter that reminds the agent or editor in the first line (a) where you met him or her and (b) thanking him or her for asking to read your work. As I’ve been telling those of you who were kind enough to read my former blog as PNWA Resident Writer for the past 11 months, politeness pays off in the long run.

Why do you need to remind an agent whose bloodshot eyes lit up when you described your project who you are? Well, agents and editors meet so many writers at conferences that they sometimes do not remember individuals; names start to blur together fairly quickly, even if they remember the project.

If you did not get to pitch to all the agents you liked at the forum, go ahead and send each one a query letter that begins, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference, and I think you will be interested in my work.” Or something similar. Then write on the outside of the envelope PNWA in great big letters.

And please, for my sake, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope with every follow-up missive — stamped, not metered — and read every syllable of your submission OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY before you send it off, to catch errors. Make sure, too, that it’s in standard format — seriously, this is not the time not to be indenting your paragraphs because you think it looks cool. 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, please, and spring for at least 20-lb. paper. All of this will make your submission look professional, and assure that your good writing gets a fair reading.

If I seem to be rushing through this advice, I assure you that there is a very good reason: until Monday, I did not know that I was going to need to spend this week setting up my website! For those of you who did not follow me from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association website, I had been the organization’s Resident Writer for almost a year. On Monday, the first business day after the conference, I found myself unable to post a conference wrap-up blog; all evidence of my blog or me had been summarily removed from the PNWA site, with no advance warning.

Since I still have not been given any explanation for this, I’m not comfortable speculating here about why this happened so abruptly (take me out for coffee, and I’ll speculate up a storm, however). The president of the PNWA has taken over as Resident Writer, and I certainly wish her well in that capacity.

My experience at the recent PNWA conference reminded me of a story my learned father used to tell me when I was a child, about a great Athenian general and philanthropist of the 5th century B.C. (Hey, my parents were beatnik intellectuals; my bedtime stories were pretty heavy stuff.) Themistocles was a brilliant military strategist, leading the Greeks to many startling victories against their then-enemies, the Persians; equally adept at peace, he sponsored civic art. After many years of being an all-around praiseworthy fellow, Athens won the war, and returned to the important yearly business of picking whom among its citizens to ostracize – i.e., to throw out of the city for ten years. Think of it as a really heavily-enforced good neighbor agreement.

Being a civic-minded guy, Themistocles hied himself to the agora to vote. Every Athenian citizen was given an oyster shell upon which to write the name of a bum to throw out. As soon as Themistocles walked into the forum, he saw a blind man struggling to write on his oyster shell.

Our Themistocles, as my father used to say, had listened to his parents, and was kind to everybody. “Here, old man,” he offered, “let me help you vote, since I have two good eyes.” (This was before disability sensitivity training.) “Whose name would you like me to write?”

”Themistocles,” the old man replied promptly.

Themistocles was taken aback. Perhaps the old man was senile, and no longer understood what the ostracism ceremony entailed. Gently, he suggested that the old man reconsider, listing all the good things he had done for the city in the last twenty years. “Knowing all that,” he concluded, “would you still want Themistocles to be ostracized?”

The old man did not even pause to think about it. “Ye gods, yes! I’m so sick of hearing people praise him!”

Themistocles shook his head at the old man’s logic, but what could he do? He wrote his own name on the shell. And an hour later, he found himself unceremoniously escorted out of Athens, banished for a decade.

Did he sit down and weep? Did he curse his former beneficiaries? Did he beat on the city gates, demanding to be let back in? No: Themistocles knew he had done nothing wrong, and that he still had a lot to offer his community. So he picked himself up from where Athenian thugs had cast him into the dust, brushed off his toga, and took himself and his family to Persia. He knew they would need him there; they had an army to rebuild.

”And that,” Daddy used to say, “is why you might not want to be the most popular kid in school.”

I’m back, my friends, and I’m more committed than ever to contributing my mite to the support system that every writer deserves. This is where you will find me from now on, tackling the mundane, the difficult, and the ridiculous obstacles good writers face on the road to publication. We’re all in this together, so onward and upward.

Everybody, as always, please: keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Soyon Im, longtime correspondent of my former blog at the PNWA, has a short memoir up in the current myspace competition! It’s a great piece: “Dreaming of Houston,” listed under the name Soybean (July 18). If you read and like it before July 25, vote for it, and maybe our homegirl will win! Go, team!

Pitching day arrives!

Hello, readers —

I’m packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and heading off to the PNWA conference shortly, but since I won’t be posting again until Monday, after all the pitching dust settles, I wanted to leave you with some final pre-conference thoughts.

First, at risk of repeating myself or sounding like a Lamaze coach, I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to take deep breaths throughout the conference. A particularly good time for one is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor. Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then, and it will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.

And please remember, writing almost never sells on pitches alone; you are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it. Whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.

This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely. Try to maintain some perspective.

Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for awhile. But it IS vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job, because regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it. So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DON’T STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.

Trust me on this one: you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.

If an agent does fall in love with your work this weekend, you may well hear one or both of the following pieces of industry-speak fall from her lips: “I need you to overnight this to me” and/or “I want an exclusive look at this.” And you, in your giddiness, may be tempted to say yes immediately to one or both.

I wouldn’t advise saying yes to either, because the first will cost you quite a bit of money (manuscripts are heavy, and overnight shipping is expensive), and the second is not in your best interests.

Why? Well, in the New York-based publishing industry, the normal pace is hectic, so writers dealing with it are exposed to an odd rhythm: delay/panic/delay/panic. So when agents and editors say, “I want it now,” it’s not usually a statement of intention, as in, “I am going to read it as soon as it arrives,” but rather an expression of serious interest. Ditto with a request for an exclusive — it’s intended to convey to you that the agent is very, very interested in your work, not that she is going to clear her schedule for an entire day as soon as she gets back home to read your book.

It’s meant as a compliment, not as a time prediction — and thus there is no reason for you to break the bank in order to get your manuscript to New York before the agent has even unpacked from her trip. Besides, it’s pretty generally understood that we have a slower pace of life out here; she may not be sure if we even have clocks on the walls of our vegetarian commune yurts. There’s no reason that misconception shouldn’t work to our advantage from time to time. The fact is, it’s a good bet that the requesting agent already has a million manuscripts on her desk, and a few days will not make any difference at all.

I have a firm policy for myself and my editing clients: NEVER overnight ANYTHING to an agency or publishing house unless the RECEIVER is paying the shipping costs. Packages with overnight stickers on them are NOT attended to more quickly; Priority Mail packages with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside are opened just as fast.

Save yourself the dosh.

Because of the industry’s peculiar sense of time, where having your manuscript be on the top of someone’s to-read list might mean he’ll read it tomorrow and it might mean it will still be propping up fifteen other manuscripts on his desk four months from now, I also always advise writers to refuse to give any agent, even the best in the world, an exclusive look at any book. It is almost never in the writer’s interest to do so — all you are doing by granting it is making sure that no other agent at the conference can beat the one you’re promising to the punch. It’s tying your hands so you can’t send your work out to anyone else, while at the same time depriving the agent of any possible incentive to read it quickly, since he knows that there’s no competition over the book.

Just say no.

If you absolutely must grant an exclusive — or if you read this AFTER you already have — say (and repeat it in your cover letter when you send the book), “I am happy to give you an exclusive look at my book for three weeks. After that, I shall still be eager to hear from you, but please know that I shall also be submitting it elsewhere.” Three weeks is plenty of time for anyone to read any manuscript. And then on Day 22, submit it to another agency. If they really are rushing to read it in time, trust me, they’ll call you to ask for an extension.

Okay, my attitude problem and I are heading off to the conference now. See some of you there, and everybody, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

More conference advice: keeping it upbeat

Hello, readers —

Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour?

I realized (due in part to intelligent questions from several readers, so thank you) that I left out something important from yesterday’s post on ways to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed at the conference. And it is indeed important: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit stressed during your meetings.

So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.

And do dress comfortably, but not sloppily, for your meetings. I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length on June 5 (check out the archives), so if you’re in doubt, go back and read that. If you still find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet tomorrow, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.

Yesterday, I wrote about one of the great fringe benefits of conference attendance, making friends with other writers. The person sitting next to you at the agents’ forum might well be famous two years from now, you know, and won’t you be glad that you made friends with her way back when?

Today, I am going to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the naysayers and depression mongers one occasionally meets at writers’ conferences. And, still more potentially damaging, the infectious rumors that inevitably sweep the halls from time to time. You need to inoculate yourself against them.

So think of what I’m about to tell you as a cootie shot.

Let me step outside the writing word to give you an example of the classic naysayer. The weekend before last, I went over to a friend’s house for a “let’s save the garden from being reclaimed by the jungle” party. Lopping off branches and deadheading roses in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but notice that another party guest — let’s call her Charity, because she was so VERY generous with her opinions about other people — kept looking askance at everything I did. I could not so much as pull a weed without her telling me I was doing it wrong; it was exactly like cooking with my mother-in-law.

At first, I thought it was just me, but I soon noticed that Charity was striding around the yard, correcting everyone, in the most authoritative of tones. We all took it meekly, because she seemed so sure that she was right. However, the third time she gave me advice on pruning that I — the girl who grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, pruning shears in hand — knew to be balderdash, I realized something: she was barely doing any gardening herself. She had no idea what should be done. And yet, she had appointed herself garden manager.

Why am I telling you this? Because I can guarantee you that no matter which writers’ conference you choose to attend in your long and, I hope, happy life, you will run into at least one of Charity’s spiritual cousins: it will be the writer who tells you, in solemn tones, that there’s a national database of every query that’s ever been submitted, so agents can automatically reject ones that have been seen by too many agents. Or that if you’ve been rejected by an agency once, you can never query there again, because THEY maintain an in-house database, dating back years. Or that you’ll get into terrible trouble if you EVER have more than one query out at once. Or that you should NEVER call or e-mail an agency, even if they’ve had your manuscript for over a year.

None of these things are true, incidentally; they’re just persistent rumors circulating on the conference circuit. To set your mind at rest, there are no such databases, and unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous submissions, it simply does not have that policy. Period. And if an agency has lost a requested manuscript, believe me, they want to know about it toute de suite.

But these rumors SOUND so true, don’t they? Especially after you’ve heard them 147 times over the course of a weekend. It’s like brainwashing. I don’t think that people perpetuate them on purpose to dishearten other writers, but I have noticed that anyone who speaks with apparent authority on the rules behind the mysterious world of publishing finds it pretty easy to locate an audience. So there are some definite rewards to being the person who walks into a group of writers and says this and this and this is true.

For instance: you believe me, don’t you?

It works, of course, because the publication process IS often confusing and arbitrary. As anyone who has ever spent ten minutes browsing in a bookstore already knows, there are plenty of published books that aren’t very good; as anyone who has a wide acquaintance amongst writers also knows, there are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers whose work does not get published. There IS a lot of luck involved, unquestionably. If your manuscript happens to be the first one that the agent reads immediately after realizing that her marriage is over, or even immediately after stubbing her toe on a filing cabinet, your chances of her signing you are definitely lower than if, say, she has just won the lottery. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect whether your work hits someone’s desk on a good or a bad day.

The more you know about how the industry operates, however, the better your chances of falling on the right side of the coin toss. But the right way to learn about it is not through rumors; ask people you are positive know how the industry works. Go to the agent and editor forums at the conference, and listen carefully. Learn who likes what. These are people with individual tastes, not mechanized cogs in a homogenous industry where a manuscript that interests one agent will inevitably interest them all.

Contrary to what that guy in the hallway just told you.

Which is why, incidentally, you should always take it with a massive grain of salt whenever even the most prestigious agent or editor tells you, “oh, that would never sell.” What that actually means, in the language the rest of us speak, is “oh, I would never want to try to sell that.” It is, in fact, a personal preference being expressed.

It may well be a personal preference shared by a substantial proportion of the industry, such as the nearly universal declaration prior to the success of COLD MOUNTAIN that historical fiction just doesn’t sell anymore, but it is still a personal opinion, and should be treated as such. If you doubt that, consider: when the author of COLD MOUNTAIN went out looking for an agent, the platitude above WAS standard industry wisdom. And yet some agent took a chance on it. Go figure.

I am harping on this point for two reasons. First, it is a very, very good idea to bear in mind that not everything everyone who speaks with authority says — no, not even a senior editor at a major publishing house, or me — is necessarily accurate 100% of the time. That knowledge can save your dignity if you get caught in a meeting with an agent who dislikes your book’s premise; trust me, I’ve been there. Just thank the speaker for his opinion, and move on.

If you find yourself caught in a formal meeting with an agent or editor who tells you within the first thirty seconds that she does not represent books in your category, or that the premise isn’t marketable, or any other statement intended to prevent you from completing your pitch, try to remember that you can always learn something from contact with an industry professional. (I say that, even after my famous meeting eight years ago with an agent who not only told me flatly that the book I was trying to pitch to her would never sell; she mixed ME up with my fictional protagonist and gave me a long lecture on MY moral turpitude!) Take the moral high ground, and turn the conversation into a learning experience.

For example, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t represent this kind of work,” (try to say it politely, even if the agent or editor’s blurb actually did state specifically that they DID; I’ve seen it happen) “but if you were me, who else at the conference would you try to pitch this book to, given your druthers?” Or, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that you think it won’t sell. Would you mind telling me why? Do you think this is a trend that will go away after awhile, or do you think books like this always have a hard time selling?” Or even, “If you were a writer just starting out, how would you try to market a book like this to agents and editors?”

Beats losing your temper, and it certainly beats bursting into tears. Often, agents and editors are happy to give you tips in exchange for your sparing them a scene.

Oh, and speaking of sparing scenes, since I will be at the Pitch Practicing Palace during most of the agent and editors forums, I won’t be able to ask my usual disconcerting questions — you know, the ones that need to be asked, such as sweetly demanding of the editors on the panel, “Since most of the major publishers don’t accept unagented work, how many of you would be able to pick up an author you met here? For those of you whose houses prohibit it, what would you do if you fell in love with a pitch today?” That sort of thing.

If any of you felt brave enough to ask this sort of question, PLEASE come and tell me about the response. Another that has been much in my mind of late is, “Not all of your agencies have websites or list much (if any) information in the standard guides. Yet we’re all told that we should do our homework before we query. First, could those of you whose agencies aren’t on the web tell us why? And could all of you tell us what the best way to get up-to-date information on your agencies’ preferences is, beyond listening to you today?”

Okay, back to the other reason I am harping on why you should take blanket pronouncements with a small mountain of salt. While rumors about secret ways in which the industry is out to get writers may roll off your back at the time you first hear them, they can come back to haunt you later in moments of insecurity. And the last thing you will need if an agent has held on to your manuscript for two months without a word, and you are trying to figure out whether to call or not to check up on it (do), is a nagging doubt at the back of your mind about whether writers bold enough to assume that the US Mail might occasionally misplace packages are condemned forever as troublemakers, their names indelibly blacklisted in a secret roster to which only agents have access.

Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it?

When confronted with a hallway rumor, don’t be afraid to ask some critical follow-up questions. “Where did you hear that?” might be a good place to start, closely followed by “Why on earth would they want to do THAT?” With an industry professional, you can use polite interest to convey incredulity, “Really? Do you know someone to whom that has happened? Did it happen recently?” Whatever you do, if you hear an upsetting truism, do not swallow it whole. You look that gift horse in the mouth, and everywhere else, before you wheel it into Troy.

And when someone of Greek descent tells you to give a Trojan horse the once-over, believe it.

Let me just go ahead and nip the ubiquitous database rumor in the bud, since it is one of the most virulent of the breed. Since the average agency receives around 800 queries per week, can you imagine the amount of TIME it would take to maintain such a query database, even for a single agency? It would be prohibitively time-consuming. They barely have time to open all of the envelopes as it is, much less check or maintain a sophisticated tracking system to see if any given author queried them (or anybody else) two years ago.

A good rule of thumb to measure the probability of these rumors is to ask yourself two questions each time you hear one. First, would the behavior suggested serve ANY purpose to the agency, other than being gratuitously mean to writers who query it? Second, would performing the suggested behavior require spending more than a minute on each query — say, to input statistics into a database? Could the agency accomplish it WITHOUT hiring an extra person — or five — to do maintain the roster of doom? If the answer to any of these questions is no — and it almost always is — chances are, the rumor’s not true.

Even unpaid interns’ time costs something; they could be opening all of those envelopes, for instance.

I’m going to one final post tomorrow morning, then it’s all hands on deck for the conference. (I had hoped to be able to send far-flung readers updates from the conference floor, but literally every second of the day is booked for me.) Get some extra sleep tonight, potential pitchers, and I look forward to seeing all of you at the Pitch Practicing Palace.

And for the rest of you, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

More pre-conference advice, and an editor

Hello, readers —

Still breathing regularly, everyone? With the conference only a couple of days away, it’s very important that you take good care of yourself, to help cope with the extra-high levels of stress. This is no time to be skimping on the Vitamin C, or to be skipping needed hours of sleep.

And yes, I know I sound like your mother. More on that later in the blog.

For those of you who have been writing in because the blogs for the first couple of days of July haven’t yet appeared on the archives: we have heard you, and the problem has been fixed! We’d gotten a bit behind, because everyone here at the PNWA is working triple overtime at the moment, trying to tuck in the last hanging threads before the conference hits the runway. (Had I mentioned that it’s a LOT of work?) But now we’re all caught up, and life is happy again.

As I mentioned yesterday, another agent and editor were added to the conference rolls after I completed my series on the agents and editors who will be attending. Yesterday, I filled you in a little on the agent, Kate McKean; today, I want to talk a bit about the editor, Michelle Nagler of Simon & Schuster. Here’s what she has to say for herself in her conference blurb:

“Michelle H. Nagler began her publishing career at Scholastic, where she edited all levels of children’s books from preschool novelty formats through young adult. Her primary focus was on middle-grade paperback series including Goosebumps, Animorphs, and Tony Abbott’s The Secrets of Droon.

“Michelle is now the Senior Editor at Simon Pulse, a division of Simon and Schuster. With their fingers on the “pulse” of the teen market, Simon Pulse is one of the leading commercial teen imprints, and the publisher of such classic hit series as Francine Pascal’s Fearless and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street; and newcomers including the Seven Deadly Sins series by Robin Wasserman, Scott Westerfeld’s successful Uglies trilogy, and the bestselling Romantic Comedy line. Michelle edits both series and single-titles, in a variety of formats.”

Well, that sounds promising, doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at what she’s acquired lately (with the standard reservations about the accuracy rates of the industry databases that are providing me with this information):

Julie Linker’s DISENCHANTED PRINCESS, “about a rich socialite who’s sent to live with her aunt in rural Arkansas.” (acquired 2006; are there many poor socialites?); Kristen Tracy’s debut LOST IT, “the story of a wilderness-wary girl coming-of-age on the outskirts of Yellowstone, and her first romantic misadventures, in which she also gains insights into bomb making, bear survival skills, and the actual size of a bull moose.” (acquired 2006; now THAT’s a pitch!); Deborah Reber’s CAREER BOOK FOR TEEN GIRLS (acquired 2005); Kristopher Reisz’s “coming-of-age novel about two girls on a psychedelic road trip.” (acquired 2005); Johanna Edwards’ CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE SPY, “about a high school girl whose world is turned upside down when her FBI Agent dad brings his work — protecting a very cute 17-year-old boy — home with him.” (acquired 2005 at auction, in a two-book deal); Derrick Barnes’ SHE ROX MY WORLD! The Making of Dr. Truelove, “a humorous look at an African-American boy’s attempt to win back the girl that got away through the creation of an internet advice column.” (acquired 2005); Jennifer Echols’ debut QUEEN GEEK, “about a high school beauty queen turned band geek in a small southern town,” and a second untitled book (acquired 2005); Kelly McClymer’s SALEM WITCH TRY-OUTS, “about a girl who goes from being the star cheerleader at Beverly Hills High to a witch school in Salem, where it becomes apparent that her magic skills are sadly lacking, but she’s determined to improve,” and THE EX-FILES, “about a college student who never goes on a third date (while everyone deserves a second chance, not too many deserve a third), and is pushed to go back through her ex-files to see if she might have missed the love of her life.” (acquired 2005); Lauren Barnholdt’s debut IN THE HOUSE, “a snarky account of an eighteen-year-old woman’s attempts to distract herself from the fact that her college basketball player boyfriend is going to school a thousand miles away by trying out for the reality show In the House — shocked to find that she, the most normal teenager in the world, get cast, and will be watched during her first semester at college.” (acquired 2005 in a two-book deal)

Kind of a fun list, isn’t it? Before we move on, oh ye prospective pitchers, go back through these book descriptions: which is a good pitch, and which isn’t? Why?

Three things about her list caught my eye: first, note all the debuts. Ms. Nagler has a track record of being willing to take a chance on a first-time author, and for that, we should all look upon her with kindness, if not actual adulation. Second, three of these sales were from the same agent — Nadia Cornier, formerly of CMA, now of Firebrand Literary. Now, if I wrote YA, and I were taken with Ms. Nagler at the conference, I would seriously consider shooting a query off to Ms. Cornier before I set down my bag after coming home from the last day of the conference.

But hey, don’t ask me — I have it on pretty good authority that a couple of the writers who will be staffing the Pitch Practicing Palace at the conference know quite a lot about Ms. Cornier’s tastes, and perhaps by extension Ms. Nagler’s. Rumor has it that she’s their agent. If you write YA, stop by the PPP for a chat, why doncha?

Which gives me a perfect segue to reiterate: if you will be attending the conference, PLEASE come by the Pitch Practicing Palace and give your pitch a test drive. Everyone there, including yours truly, has a track record of successful pitching, and we are very eager to help you refine your pitch before The Big Moment. Why, two of the Palace’s pitch-listeners — again, including yours truly — landed our agents by pitching to them at past PNWA conferences! We’ve been there, and we can help.

And when will the PPP staff be there to give you feedback on your pitch, you ask? Why, Thursday, July 13th, 3 pm to 5 pm; Friday, July 14th (Bastille Day!), 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, and Saturday, July 15th, 7:30 am to 3 pm. We’re anticipating being pretty swamped beginning Friday afternoon (the actual pitch appointments begin at 1:30), so please, plan to visit us early (and WELL before your first appointment, please) to sign up for a time to practice with the pros!

Okay, back to conference-attending advice. Perceptive reader Judith writes in to ask a series of questions that I suspect are on everybody’s mind right now: “Looking at all the program’s offerings over four days, and imagining approx. 400 folks mingling, learning and networking — the question for me is: how do I best pace myself and use my energy in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me? Any advice you can give would be much appreciated.”

Judith, that’s such a sensible question that I seriously considered devoting all of tomorrow’s blog to it. However, since so many of you are tense right now, I decided I should just go long today and try to set your minds a little at ease.

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would take something out of you, and here, you will be surrounded by, as Judith notes, a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

Most of my advice is pretty much what your mother would say: watch your caffeine intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally. I know that you may feel too nervous to eat before your pitch meeting, but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, this is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint. (I’ve seen it happen, believe it or not.)

And do try to take some breaks. Yes, the schedule is jam-packed with offerings, but cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time. Get out of the building; sit in the sun; take a new friend you’ve made at the conference out for coffee, or even to the hotel bar for a drink. If you are new to the conference circuit, learning so much so fast can be overwhelming, so give your brain an occasional rest.

Oh, before I forget: open your word processing program right now (it’s okay; I’ll wait) and print out fifty little slips of paper with your name and contact information printed on them, so you are ready to hand them out to people you meet at the conference. Or bring your business cards. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people: network! But prepare in advance, so you do not add to your stress by having to scrabble around in your tote bag every time you meet someone nice.

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings; this is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed. As I pointed out yesterday, not only will the Pitch Practicing Palace’s services be available to you, but you will also be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them. Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand. Seriously, the first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world is, “So, what do you write?”

Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do?

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s a mistake, I think, to walk into any conference only looking to talk to the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the published authors. Yes, you should try to meet them, too, but a literary conference, particularly if it’s your local one, is an INVALUABLE forum for meeting other writers. It’s the ideal place, for instance, to find fellow critique group participants. It’s also a perfect location for making friends for the long haul that is the road to publication. Trust me, it’s a much, much easier road if you’re not traveling it alone.

Why? Well, long waits, punctuated by mad, last-minute deadline-meeting rushes, are inevitable parts of the professional writer’s life. I say this, even speaking as a writer whose milestones were reached fairly quickly: after I won the PNWA’s Zola award in 2004, I had signed with an agent within three months; she sold the book for which I won the award six months after that. And now Amazon says my book is going to ship at the end of this month. (Keep your fingers crossed, please. I still do not have a firm publication date, alas.) That, my friends, is practically unheard-of speed in this industry.

That doesn’t mean that while each stage was going on, it didn’t feel positively interminable. Unfortunately, most non-writers have no real conception of what it means to sell a book to a publisher, land an agent, or even finish a book: bless their well-meaning little hearts, the vast majority of my non-writing friends have expressed their support, since I won the award, primarily by asking every time they see me: “So when is it coming out?”

Which, trust me, is an annoying question when, to pick a random example, one’s publisher is being threatened with lawsuits over one’s book and the publisher is waffling about whether to publish the book at all. (Not that I’d know anything about THAT.) But I’m positive that each and every one of them thought that he was being as supportive as humanly possible.

Fact: you will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if you do not currently hang around with writers much, I can virtually guarantee that the first thing that 85% of your acquaintance will say when you announce that you’ve landed an agent is, “So, when is your book coming out?”

Seeing a pattern here? Guess what they’re going to say when your agent sells your first book? I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year, at least. Ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, have a hard time understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

Thought I got off track from Judith’s questions, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout. (Among other things, it gives you someone to pass notes to during talks — minor disobedience, I find, is a terrific way to blow off steam — and you can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.) Making friends will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless.

To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world fell warm and friendly; it is having friends that makes the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book! And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too. This can be a very lonely business; I can tell you from experience, nothing brightens your day like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold her first book.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU’ve just sold your first book is rather more of a day-brightener. But the other is still pretty good.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Iris: on question #2, hold off on asking until Friday, then go to the appointment desk and see if she has openings. On #3, I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out between now and the conference. See you there!

Pre-conference jitters, and another agent

Hello, dear readers —

You are all especially dear to me today, my friends: so many of you have been writing in for pre-conference advice over the weekend that I feel as though the first thing I should do at the conference is spike the water supply with Rescue Remedy! Please do understand that thousands of people read this blog, so I cannot possibly read every potential pitch that is sent in. I do want to help you all as much as I can, however.

For starters, everybody, please: take a nice, deep breath. Repeat often.

I understand that getting ready to pitch, particularly for the first time, is stressful, but please do remember, agents and editors are only people, albeit people with power over whether your work gets published. They are not going to laugh at you, they are not going to make fun of your dreams, and they are not going to throw things at you.

How do I know this? The PNWA honestly does go to some trouble to make sure the publishing types they ask are nice to its members. (So if anyone, be it agent, editor, or speaker, is mean to you: please let me or one of the many fine conference volunteers know ASAP. Or write about it on the conference feedback form.) The agents and editors really are coming to the conference to find fresh new voices, so they are as eager to hear about your book as you are to tell them.

Well, okay, ALMOST as eager.

Generally speaking, they will be polite to you if you are polite to them, so try not to build them up in your mind as either evil demons bent on your destruction or angels who are going to hear your pitch, cry out in incredulous joy, and sweep your book off to Manhattan to be published tomorrow. In order to be successful in your pitch, all you have to do is convince them that your book’s story or argument is gripping enough to deserve their reading the first chapter.

Make this your goal, not convincing them that your book is going to sell as well as THE DA VINCI CODE or Bill Clinton’s autobiography. Approach the task in small, bite-sized pieces: tell the nice person in front of you your name, your book’s category, its title, its target market, and what it is about, briefly. Identify a few selling points, and have an answer ready about why it will appeal to its target market. And really, that’s all you have to do.

Breathing a little easier now?

Practice will make you calmer at the crucial moment, I promise you, so please, make friends with lots of other writers at the conference and pitch to them. Listen to other people’s pitches; over the years, I have learned a TREMENDOUS amount about what does and doesn’t work this way. (It’s also the easiest way in the world to meet terrific people who share your passions: literally all you have to say to start a conversation at a writer’s conference is, “So, what do you write?”)

And please, PLEASE take advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace at the conference, where yours truly and four other excellent, already-agented writers will be ready and eager to hear you run through your pitch (ideally, BEFORE you give it in a meeting) and give you feedback on how to make it better. We have all been in your shoes, have all pitched our writing successfully, and have years of experience in knowing what makes a pitch work. I promise you, we’re all very nice people, and we all truly do want to help you present your book to the agents and editors in the best possible light.

When, I hear you asking, can conference registrants avail themselves of this FREE service? Why, Thursday, July 13th, 3 pm to 5 pm; Friday, July 14th (Bastille Day!), 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, and Saturday, July 15th, 7:30 am to 3 pm. We’re anticipating being pretty swamped beginning Friday afternoon (the actual pitch appointments begin at 1:30), so please, plan to visit us early (and WELL before your first appointment, please) to sign up for a time to practice with the pros!

And, of course, if you just want to meet me and ask questions I haven’t yet answered on the blog, that will be the place to find me for pretty much all of the daytime hours of the conference. But again, before the pitch appointments start is probably your best bet for chatting time.

Now, on to other business: sharp-eyed reader Brenda sent me a charming message this morning, pointing out that I had used the term PLATFORM last week without remembering to define it. My apologies; I spend so much time steeped in industry jargon that I sometimes forget to translate. (For a glossary of similar industry terms, please see my archived posts for September 23 — 28). Platform is a term that all of you, especially those of you who will be pitching NF, should know before the conference:

PLATFORM, n.: For nonfiction, the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic of your book. Generally, the first thing an editor will want to know about a prospective NF author.

Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a NF author enough to want to read her book. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — but by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State or NBA superstar, do mention it. The platform is ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the best person in the universe to write this particular book.

For example, in the case of my memoir, I have written about a very well-known science fiction writer, as others have before me; if you are not a SF aficionado, the films BLADE RUNNER, MINORITY REPORT, TOTAL RECALL, and the recently-released A SCANNER DARKLY were all based upon his work. (The book, should you be curious, is A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, as of the last time I checked ranked in the 26,000s on Amazon! Catch me if I faint. PNWA members, please remember, if you should be kind enough to want to buy it at the SIGNIFICANT discount Amazon is giving for preorders, if you go through the PNWA member site to get to Amazon, the organization gets a piece of the action. I just mention.) The authors of the already existing PKD biographies had platforms that were pretty straightforwardly professional: they had done extensive research, conducted interviews with people who knew the man, and in some cases, even had in-person interactions with Philip. My platform was considerably more personal: Philip was married to my mother for 8 years; from the ages of 8 to 15, he was my primary adult confidante. Because of this, we saw sides of each other that we showed no one else.

Why is this a credible platform, in the eyes of the industry? I have direct personal experience that makes me an unusually-situated narrator; the fact that I was so young during our years of contact, and going through major changes myself, adds an additional interest. Furthermore, through my parents and a lifetime spent in contact with Philip and his friends, I have interview sources another writer could not.

See my point here? The fact that I have a Ph.D. is actually irrelevant to my platform for this book. It’s not why I am literally the only person on earth who could have written this memoir — and THAT’s what’s essential for a compelling platform.

All of you NF writers out there: prepared to answer questions about your platform BEFORE you walk into your meetings with agents and editors. Even my fellow memoirists — yes, I know, it seems self-evident that a memoirist would be an expert on the story he tells, because it’s his own life. (As someone whose memoir has been plagued by legal threats over whether I had the right to tell the story of my own life or not, I am here to tell you: not everyone may agree with you that your personal experience is yours to discuss in print.)

But a memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, and your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter. If your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, for instance, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, going “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of model trains.

For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the novel I am writing now is set at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree: think that is going to make my novel more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.

Technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform (and to set your mind at ease, Brenda: neither does any other non-NF writer), but it’s always a nice touch if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two. (See my July 2 post on selling points for tips.)

My, I got carried away there, didn’t I? My real goal for today was to fill you in on an agent and editor added to the conference list after my April 26 — May 26 series on those who were coming. So I took a gander at the standard industry databases (usual caveats about their accuracy), to see what I could tell you about them.

Kate McKean, the lately-added agent, until fairly recently was with Dystel & Goderich, the agency that represents me (and who is sending sterling agent Lauren Abramo to this year’s conference). So recently, in fact, that Ms. McKean is still listed on Preditors and Editors (always a site worth checking) as being at DGLM. Now, Ms. McKean is with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Let’s see what she had to say for herself in the blurb she submitted to the PNWA:

“After earning a Masters in Fiction Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi, Kate McKean (Agent) set out to start her publishing career as an agent in New York City… Her interests lie in contemporary women’s fiction, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, sports related books, pop culture, and health and wellness. She is primarily interested in people and the strange, wonderful, surprising, and heartbreaking stories they tell. She’s most happy immersed in a good book, especially Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Carver, and Chabon.

“Howard Morhaim Literary Agency represents a wide variety of clients in a number of areas including science fiction/fantasy, history, politics, literary fiction, science, business, and journalism. Some of the agency’s notable clients include Stephen R. Donaldson, author of the Thomas Covenant fantasy series, Joanne Harris, international best selling author of CHOCOLAT, and international best-selling author Arturo Perez-Reverte, just to name a few.”

Setting aside the glee with which the immortal phrase “she’s primarily interested in people” (as opposed to, say, those agents who eschew any topics relating to human endeavor?) raises in my bosom, what can we learn from this? What excites me most is that she has an MFA in writing — and from a good program, at that (and one that would render her NOT being a Faulkner fan surprising). This is a writer, my friends, and although it pains me to say it, writers understand other writers better than other people understand them.

In the past two years, while still at DGLM, she sold a book for middle readers, Suzanne Selfor’s debut CURSE OF THE MERFOLK, “about what happens when a brother and sister find a baby mermaid and the trouble that ensues.” (Little, Brown Children’s, 2006, in a two-book deal), and a three-book deal for women’s fiction writer Richelle K. Mead, including SUCCUBUS BLUES, “about a modern-day succubus living in Seattle who prefers her normal life to the alluring, shape-shifting life of legend and myth.” (Kensington, 2005) She’s probably had other sales as well, but if so, they were not listed in the standard industry databases.

As I said in my earlier agent and editor series (April 26 — May 26), an agent who is trying to build her client list may be a tremendously good bet for a previously unpublished writer. She may well be open to a broader array of voices, as well as more queries, than someone with an established list.

What gives me a bit of pause, though, is the fact that the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency listed itself in the latest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS as not accepting new clients. As, I notice, they did in the 2003 guide of the same name. Since the agency does not have a website, I was not able to confirm or deny this preference. I wouldn’t panic, though, since they are in fact sending an agent to the conference: this might just mean that their staff is not fond of filling out the questionnaires the guide sends every year, or it might mean that they are very, very selective indeed.

I do, however, have ways of finding out who is represented by the agency, beyond the limited list above, which may help you determine if this would be the agency for you. Here are the names and titles I was able to turn up, in alpha order (hey, I’m a librarian’s daughter): K.J. Bishop (THE ETCHED CITY, Bantam Spectra), Robert Cowley (WHAT IFS IN AMERICAN HISTORY, Putnam), Robert Crease (TEN GREAT EQUATIONS THAT SHAPE THE WORLD, Norton), Stephen R. Donaldson (THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, among hosts of others, Putnam), Christopher Fowler (FULL DARK HOUSE), David Gemmell (THE SWORDS OF NIGHT AND DAY, Ballentine), Richard Grant (ANOTHER GREEN WORLD, Knopf), Joanne Harris (JIGS AND REELS, Harper), Mira Kirshenbaum (THE EMOTIONAL ENERGY FACTOR, Delta), Stan Nicholls (THE RIGHTEOUS BLADE, Morrow; my, what a lot of sword imagery we have going on at this agency, eh?), Arturo Perez-Reverte, David Rosenberg, David Sandmire, MD (THE SAVE YOUR LIFE TESTS: LIFESAVING MEDICAL TESTS YOUR DOCTOR WON’T ORDER UNLESS YOU INSIST, Rodale), Michael Stackpole (CARTOMANCY, Bantam), Barry Strauss (THE TROJAN WAR, Simon & Schuster), Lisa Tuttle (THE MYSTERIES, Bantam Spectra), Jeff VanderMeer, (CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, Bantam), Barbara Victor (TERRORISM; ABSENCE OF PAIN; MISPLACED LIVES; FRIENDS, LOVERS, ENEMIES; CORIANDER; HANAN ASHRAWI, PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST; GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER; THE LADY, THE LIFE OF ANG SAN SUU KYI; THE MATIGNON OF JOSPIN; GODDESS, INSIDE MADONNA; ARMY OF ROSES; THE LAST CRUSADE, Harper Collins), Ann Volkwein (ARTHUR AVENUE COOKBOOK, Reganbooks).

So if you have your heart set on Bantam, I would advise making friends with Ms. McKean as soon as possible: her agency apparently has some excellent connections there.

I had hoped to get to the new editor today, but I see that I am already running very, very long. I shall post about her tomorrow. In the meantime, keep remembering to breathe, conference-goers, and everybody, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part IX: Finally, the pitch!

Hello, readers –

Understandably, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from nervous readers about my continuing series on the building blocks of the pitch. Several of you pointed out, for instance, that my elevator speech examples varied rather wildly in length — my PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example was 190 words (which I know not because I counted it myself, but because two different readers did), while the example that followed was 83. A differential, I must confess, due in large part to the fact that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is an actual book, one that I know well enough to quote at length, while the examples that followed were not. I mean, really –would YOU want to be the person who couldn’t pitch PRIDE AND PREJUDICE successfully?

While I must confess that I myself have seldom had enough free time to sit down and count all of the words in other people’s pitches, the implied question here is a good one: is briefer always better in an elevator speech or pitch?

In a word, NO.

So, please, those of you out there who are so attuned to following directions that you are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: take a deep breath. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly. No agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words. They may, however, begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of periods, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Let me recast that in graphic terms: the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor. Get it?

Remember, too, that AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. As I mentioned yesterday, the elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them, so if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words. Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch (see yesterday’s post) to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so.

While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say the elevator speech I wrote for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: one minute two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance. That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper (and really, as soon as I finish addressing these issues, I am going to get around to defining it), I might add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I were planning to walk around the halls of PNWA, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I might try to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is mainstream fiction and the title. Oh, and to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you. As I was explaining yesterday, it’s really the proponents of the three-sentence pitch that have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches.

I consider this a mistake, because if you’re pitching a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (I spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you from experience: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

So, to be as clear as possible: if you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it. Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

Okay, all that being said, let’s move on to the pitch proper, the one you will make in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor. (And for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I misspoke before: the PNWA meetings with agents will be 10 minutes, not 15.)

For the benefit of those of you who have never done it before, in an agent meeting, you will be led to a tiny cubicle, where you will be expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent. You will introduce yourself, and then spend approximately two minutes talking about your book. After that, the agent may ask you a few questions; you may feel free to ask a few as well. At the end of the meeting, the agent will tell you whether your book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. If so, the agent will hand you her card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for NF, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Note: this should not be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot, even if you have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet. Manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed rather than to carry them onto a plane. At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, in which case you should pull out 5 pages or so. (If you are unclear on why you should carry a 5-page writing sample with you at all times at a writers’ conference, please see my post for May 29th.) In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about cities being farther apart on the West Coast than on the East, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail on Monday.

And that’s it. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.) If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work.

Those two minutes when you are describing your book, of course, are the pitch proper. It is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by visiting the Pitch Practicing Palace at the conference, manned by yours truly and other valiant souls who have fought successfully in pitching wars past. Otherwise, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes doesn’t allow any rambling time.

Sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book is quite a different experience from giving a hallway pitch. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum. If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you (a) regard this as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length, (b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” (c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project, or (d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the whole series again. In fact, go back to last August’s blogs and read the whole 1000+ pages I have posted here. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) In a ten-minute meeting, there is actually time for them to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now. (If you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right?) So in a perverse way, a formal pitch is significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

Fear not, my friends: if you have been following this series and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a formal pitch constructed.

And I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: IT IS A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand that — and once you accept that in this context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch can be seen not as an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but as a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed premise.

What the formal pitch is, in fact, is a spoken query letter, and it should contain the same information.

This may seem obvious, but allow me to remind you: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it. A flubbed pitch is actually NOT a reflection of your writing talent; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences. I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore.”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing. But it isn’t; it can’t be.

Does that make you feel any better?

What a formal pitch can and should be is you taking the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would, the terms in which I have been encouraging you to define it throughout this series: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6).

Really, you’re almost there. In fact, if it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional pitch from these elements alone.

First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words: ”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Then, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech.

Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right? You could easily flesh out your elevator speech with interesting and memorable plot points, without going overlong. One great way to be memorable is to include a telling detail, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else.

Think back to the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example: do you think someone else at the conference is likely to pitch a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met? Probably not.

Here is the icing to put on the cake, the element that you have not yet constructed that elevates your pitch from just a good story to a memorable one: take fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. This is an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief. Do be specific, and don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger – scenarios that leave the hearer wondering “how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation?” work very, very well here.

Include as many sensual words as you can — not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the senses. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some frosting.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and long to read the book.

There is a terrific example of a pitch with this kind of detail in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is a film executive, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell the film in 25 words.

Before launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting. He spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

”That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free!

One last thing, then I shall let you run off to dig through your manuscript for the killer image or scene that will wow the agent: once you have gone through all of the steps above, given your two-minute speech, SHUT UP. Allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic. Most writers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material.

Don’t; it won’t help your case. If you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is only charitable to leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!” A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.

And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Between now and the conference, I shall of course post a few more helpful tidbits, but I’m going to keep it light, so you can focus your energies on crafting your pitch. As always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VIII: the ups and downs of the elevator speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the building blocks of a fabulous pitch — and to the 200th blog I have written for the PNWA! Not including today’s post, that’s 1,032 pages of irreverent advice, in standard manuscript format. I wish I had more time to linger on this major milestone, but with the conference a scant week away, I want to move through the rigors of pitching as quickly as possible.

News flash, though, everybody: sharp-eyed faithful reader Ron was kind enough to point out to me that the agent meetings this year are TEN minutes, not fifteen, presumably so more writers can see more agents. I have no idea why they should have changed (I couldn’t go to the conference last year, so it’s possible that this is a change from last year), but a shorter meeting requires slightly different advance planning. Many thanks, Ron, for alerting us to this.

Also, I notice that David Moldower is no longer going to be attending the conference, but agent Kate McKean and Michelle Nagler of Simon & Schuster will. I hope to have time to check out their respective sales and acquisitions records before the conference, but right now, my top priority to make sure to get through the basics of pitching.

Yesterday, I discussed the elevator speech, and gave you several examples of how to construct one for a fiction book. ”This is all very well for a novel,” I could hear your NF writers out there grumbling, “but how does all this apply to a MY book?” Today, I am going to deal with that very issue, and explain where and when an elevator speech can be more effective to use than a fully-fledged pitch.

In an elevator speech for a NF book, your goal is the same as for a novel: to intrigue your hearer into asking follow-up questions. Here, too, you do not want to tell so much about the book that the agent or editor to whom you are speaking feels that you have told the whole story; you want to leave enough of a question hanging in the air that your listener will say, “Gee, that sounds intriguing. Send me the first 50 pages.” However, for a NF book, you will need to achieve one other goal in both your elevator speech or pitch — to establish your platform as the best conceivable writer of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

To achieve these goals, you can use the same tools as for a novel, providing specific, vividly-drawn details to show what your book offers the reader. Demonstrate what the reader will learn from reading your book, or why the book is an important contribution to the literature on your subject. In other words, make it clear what your book is and why it will appeal to your target market. Here’s an example:

“Swirling planets, the Milky Way, and maybe even a wandering extraterrestrial or two — all of these await the urban stargazing enthusiast. For too long, however, books on astronomy have been geared at the narrow specialist market, those readers possessing expensive telescopes. ANGELS ON YOUR BACK PORCH opens the joys of stargazing to the rest of us. Utilizing a few simple tools and a colorful fold-out star map, University of Washington cosmologist Cindy Crawford takes you on a guided tour of the fascinating star formations visible right from your backyard.”

See? Strong visual imagery plus a clear statement of what the reader may expect to learn creates a compelling elevator speech for this NF book. And did you notice how Prof. Crawford’s credentials just naturally fit into the speech? By including some indication of your platform (or your book’s strongest selling point) in your elevator speech, you will forestall the automatic first question of any NF agent: “So, what’s your platform?”

Remember, your elevator speech should entertaining and memorable, but leave your hearer wanting to know more. Don’t wrap up the package so tightly that your listener doesn’t feel she needs to read the book. Questions are often useful in establishing WHY the book needs to be read:

”EVERYWOMAN’S GUIDE TO MENOPAUSE: “Tired of all of the conflicting information on the news these days about the change of life? Noted clinician Dr. Hal Holbrook simplifies it all for you with his easy-to-use color-coded guide to a happy menopausal existence. From beating searing hot flashes with cool visualizations of polar icecaps to rewarding yourself for meeting goals with fun-filled vacations to the tropics, this book will show you how to embrace the rest of your life with passion, armed with knowledge.”

Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who have been following this series so far: what techniques did the NF pitcher above borrow from fiction writing?

Give yourself at least a B if you said that the writer incorporated vivid sensual details: the frigid polar icecaps, the twin heat sources of hot flashes and tropical destinations. And make that an A if you noticed that the savvy pitcher used a rhetorical question (filched from Dr. Holbrook’s keynote statement, no doubt) to pique the interest of the hearer — and double points if your sharp eye spotted the keywords agents love to hear: happy, passion. Extra credit with a cherry on top and walnut clusters if you cried out that this elevator speech sets up conflicts that the book will presumably resolve (amongst the information popularly available; the struggle between happiness and unhappiness; between simple guides and complicated ones). Dualities are tremendously effective at establishing conflict quickly.

And now congratulate yourselves, campers, because you have constructed all of the elements you need for a successful hallway pitch — or, indeed, an informal pitch in virtually any social situation. Did that one creep up on you? Because — brace yourself for this one, because it’s a biggie —


Ta da!

With advance preparation and practice, you should be able to say all of this comprehensibly within 30 – 45 seconds, certainly a short enough time that you need not feel guilty about turning to the agent next to you in the dinner line, or walking up to her after the agents’ forum, and asking if she can spare a minute to hear your pitch. (Always ask first if it’s okay.) Because that is literally what you will be taking up, less than a minute, you may feel professional, not intrusive, by giving your hallway pitch immediately after saying, “Please pass the rolls.”

You’re welcome.

The elevator speech has other uses, too, the most important being that it makes a stellar describe-your-book paragraph in your query letter. There, too, you will be incorporating the elements of the magic first hundred words — minus the “Hi, my name is” part, they make a terrific opening paragraph for a query. The elevator speech also gives you a concise, professional follow-up after someone you meet at a conference responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Wow. Tell me more.”

You see, I really am working hard here to keep you from feeling tongue-tied when dealing with the industry. Don’t be afraid to give your hallway speech to other writers at the conference — it’s great practice, and it is absolutely the best way imaginable to meet other people who write what you do. (Other than starting a blog, of course.)

You’ve noticed that there’s a situation I haven’t mentioned yet, haven’t you? ”But Anne,” I hear some of your murmur, “if the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why SHOULDN’T I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors?”

That’s an excellent question. The short answer is: you can, but what would you do with the other 14 1/2 — no, scratch that; make it 9 1/2 — minutes of your pitch meeting? And why would you trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

The longer answer is, a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as a pitch; in fact, if you ask almost any writer who signed with her agent between 5 and 15 years ago, she will probably tell you bluntly that the 3-sentence pitch is industry standard. And so it was, at one time. To be fair, it still can work.

However, by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…in short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words.

You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to (a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings, (b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, (c) indicate whether the book has a title, or (d) all of the above. I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue AFTER the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with her battery pack on the fritz. “And?” the automaton says impatiently. “Well?”

”What do you mean?” I hear some of you gasp, aghast. “Doesn’t the agent or editor make a snap decision after hearing those three or four sentences, and immediately leap into chatting with me about her plans for marketing my book?”

Well, not usually, no, and in fact, in recent years, as the elevator speech has come to be regarded as the standard pitch, I have been noticing an increasingly disgruntled attitude amongst agents and editors at conferences. Whey walk out of pitch meetings complaining, “Why does everyone stop talking after a minute or so? I’m getting really tired of having to drag information out of these writers on a question-and-answer basis. What do they think this is, an interview? A quiz show?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

Nor is the other common situation, where writers talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you. Make sure you come prepared to talk about it — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

And how are you going to do that, you ask? Tune in tomorrow, my friends, and I shall fill you in on the conclusion of all of this work we have been doing for the past week: pulling it all together into a persuasive face-to-face pitch.

In the meantime, keep up the good work, everybody! And happy 200th anniversary to the blog!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VII: Your Elevator Speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the constituent parts of an effective pitch. Since I’ve been at it for a while now, if you’re just tuning in, you may have to dip back into the archives to catch the earliest installments. And for those of you faithful weekday readers who took the holiday weekend off, and are wondering what is going on: yes, I don’t usually post on weekends and holidays, but with the conference so close, I wanted to plough ahead at top speed.

A quick personal aside before I return my hand to the plow, however: as some of you may have already noticed, Amazon is saying that my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, will be shipping on July 17th, less than two weeks from today. Since my publisher has not yet informed me of a firm release date — the author is always the last to know, alas — I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor. Not that it is a state secret or anything; for legal reasons, I’m not supposed to be talking about it with any specificity here. (For as much detail as I am allowed to give about what’s been going on with the book, please see my post for March 30th. Contrary to the claims on the Dick estate-owned fan forum, I have given a grand total of one published interview on the subject: ) All I can tell you at the moment is that while the book is still in presale mode, Amazon is offering it at a substantial discount.

I promise that I’ll tell you the release date proper the instant I know it myself.

All right, we’re cooking with gas now. So far in this series, I’ve discussed building blocks of a great pitch: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), and pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (yesterday). Today, I am going to talk about what was considered the height of pitching elegance five or ten years ago, the 3-sentence elevator speech.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description (a longish paragraph) of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE. It is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

How is the elevator speech different from the keynote, you ask? Well, it’s longer, for one thing, and although the purpose of both is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your job is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation. You don’t have room here to tell how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, just enough to identify them and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you will resolve them in the book.

I know it’s hard in such a short space, but try to steer clear of generalities — and definitely avoid clichés. Neither show off your creativity as a plot-deviser or your talent for unique phraseology, do they? Show your protagonist being as active as possible (you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations), and enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one MEMORABLE unique image.

What kind of images you ask? Since elevator speeches vary as much as books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes a good one without showing a few examples, so here is a pitch for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (note to those of you who took my pitching class: I am not going to post the pitch for my own novel, for exactly the reason that I advised you not to send your chapters out electronically, if you can help it: there is absolutely no way of knowing where anything posted on the web is going to end up.):

”19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano in front of company, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?”

Tell me — would you read this book?

At the risk of tooting my own horn, why is this a good elevator speech? It establishes right away a few important things about the protagonist: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many issues). It also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, Elizabeth is actively struggling to determine her own destiny.

Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it. (Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”) The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements (the big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections). Do make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book; it’s more compelling as a sales tool that way.

You’d be surprised at how often this basic, common-sense advice is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious — usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book. This undersells the book, frankly. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

If you really find yourself stumped, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood Hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie:

“For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis. + (sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her) + But how can she pursue her passion to (secondary goal), when every aspect of the world she has known is being swept away before her eyes?”

This works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours; you don’t need to fill in as many details. What you do need to do in this sort of elevator speech is establish your protagonist firmly as an individual in FRONT of that backdrop, in order to be memorable. To do that, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which YOUR protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

”In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Woman-Who-Is-Not-Scarlett loves Man X, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?”

Tomorrow, I shall delve into how to construct an elevator speech for a NF book, as well as explaining when to give your elevator speech and when your pitch — because yes, Virginia, they are not the same thing, at least in my lexicon.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini