Friday, December 18, 2009

Finding an Agent

At a friend’s suggestion, today’s blog is about writing conferences. Specifically, how to go about shopping your manuscript at them

I’m no expert, but I’ve been to a few conferences (and one convention, which looked a lot like a conference, but felt somewhat looser in format). I have a few thoughts about how to approach agents and/or editors at these places. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen some crash-and-burns. Hopefully, I can steer you toward the former.

Some conferences have slots of time set aside where attendees can speak one-on-one with an agent/editor in private. These are worth their weight in gold. If you’ll forgive me, I will give a shout out to the Pennwriters group, which hosts just such a conference event each year. If you live in or near Pennsylvania, it would behoove you to check them out.

/promo off

But what if you don’t have the privilege of a pre-set time slot with an agent/editor? Not to worry. There are some easy steps that can guide you to a successful encounter.

First, study your target. Obtain a list of all the agents and editors who will be attending the conference, and find out what they represent. Some agents like SFF, others won’t go near it. A little homework before the event can save you time, and possibly avert an embarrassing mistake. You can find everything you need to know either online (most agents and editors have a company web page, if not their own site these days), or in a resource like Writer’s Market.

Okay. So you’ve narrowed down the list of agents/editors to those who handle your type of fiction. How do you approach them? Well, it helps to remind yourself they are just ordinary people–PEOPLE WHO HOLD THE KEY TO YOUR WRITING FUTURE! Just kidding. Hey, these folks love books. That’s why they got into the industry. And they want to find new authors. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother attending conferences and conventions at all. Plus, every agent and editor wants to be credited with finding the next Stephen King/JK Rowling/etc...

There is an etiquette of sorts to approaching an agent/editor you don’t know.

Tip #1: Don’t drink before walking up to them. Not even a bracing shot of Old Granddad for your courage. You want to be lucid and alert, not a whiskey-smelling lush.

Tip #2: Don’t bring your manuscript to the conference. It’s tempting, I know. You’ll keep it in your car, or the hotel room, just in case the agent of your dreams MUST see it right now. But pushing your manuscript into an agent/editor’s hands is the social equivalent of greeting a blind date with a wet kiss and a handful of condoms. If your pitch interests them, they will ask to see the manu, or more likely a sample. That’s a score. That’s what you want. And really, do you expect them to haul your 20-pound proposal all the way back to their office? It’s got a better chance of going in the trash.

Tip #3: Smile. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve watched who approach an agent/editor like they’re going to their own execution. This isn’t a time to be bashful or depressed. You have a small window of face time with which to impress this person. How excited will they be to work with an author who can’t summon up a simple smile? Not very. So plaster on your best (non-crazy) smile and say hello. Be confidant! Be charming!

Tip #4: Brevity is your ally. Have you ever been stuck someplace, like an elevator or a long plane ride, beside someone who doesn’t know when to shut up? I guarantee your target agent/editor has, and they probably don’t enjoy it anymore than you do. It helps to have your pitch already prepared and memorized so you can spit it out without stumbling over your tongue. (What’s a pitch? We’ll get to that.) My point here is that it’s a good idea to tell them what you have to offer, and then . . . be quiet. If the target asks questions, you’ve got the start of a conversation that may, perhaps, wind up with a submission. If they don’t—if they just stand there and blink, or maybe glance down at their watch—then it’s time to make a dignified exit. Be polite. Thank them for their time. And move on. Don’t pepper them with a barrage of details about your book, about how you’re going to single-handedly revolutionize the literary world (I’ve seen this tried. Believe me, it’s embarrassing to witness.) Make your pitch, and leave. Unless they ask questions.

Tip #5: The Pitch. A pitch is a brief statement that tells what your book is about. If that seems rather vague, it’s on purpose. I’ve listened to a lot of pitches, and made a few myself. They aren’t all the same, and there’s no magic pitch formula that can guarantee success. But there are some general parameters. First, mention the title of the book and its genre. Second, mention that’s a completed novel, and not just a work in progress (it is complete, right?). Then give a summary of your book in two-to-four sentences. Think interesting. Think creative. Think about what kind of book would you want to read?

Example: “Mists of Serenity is a completed urban fantasy about Serenity, a high school senior with magic powers she inherited from her dead grandmother. But she doesn’t know she has these powers until her life is threatened by a clan of time-traveling Mongols who happen to appear in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia just in time to wreck her Senior Prom…”

Okay, you get the idea. Refine your pitch over and over until it sounds pitch-perfect (pun intended). Then read it aloud, as many times it takes until you can recite it at will. Yeah, you’ll probably mess up a couple words when you’re actually in front of an agent/editor, but you’ll get enough of it right to convince them that you know what you’re talking about. The pitch itself shouldn’t take more than 15-20 seconds to recite, in my opinion. Any longer than that and you run the risk of sounding like a motor-mouth, or a used car salesperson. Be like Muhammad Ali: float and sting. And smile.

Tip #6: Reel them in. So you’ve approached a suitable agent or editor, introduced yourself without vomiting, and even blurted out your pitch. If you’ve done your job, they may be showing signs of interest. They ask to hear more. They want to know more about the main character. Does she have a boyfriend who factors into the story? What kind of magic does she possess? Boom. It’s like the heavens have opened, and a choir of angels is singing your name. Awesome. But you’re not quite out of the woods yet. See, the agent/editor has taken the bait, but they’re still a long way from your net. So smile. Be interesting. Be charming. And stop with the I-want-to-wear-your-skin-as-a-bathrobe eyes!

If all goes well, you will asked to submit something, either the entire manuscript (YAY!) or a sample of a few chapters (yay!) with a synopsis, etc… At this point you deserve to feel good about yourself. On the strength of your pitch and your personality, you just gained a foothold into the industry. That’s how it starts.

Tip #7: Don’t take it personal. Even if you do everything right—the prep, the pitch, the smile—there’s still a chance your proposal will be rejected out of hand. Wait? What went wrong? Maybe nothing. It could be a simple case of barking up the wrong tree. Stories are highly personal, a ‘one man’s junk is another man’s treasure’ kind of thing. For whatever reason, your story didn’t pique their interest. It’s not the end of the world. Dust yourself off, check for tire prints on your rear end, and get back in the saddle. For a writer serious about going professional, rejection is part of the game. You’ll either develop a thick skin, or you’ll flunk out and go back to macramé. Actually, after the first thirty or forty rejections, it doesn’t sting so much. Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you about the box of rejection letters I keep in my attic. And let me tell you; every ‘no’ you rack up on the way to success makes the ‘yes’ all that much sweeter.

Good luck.

Next stop: the submission proposal.

4 comments:

madisonwoods.wordpress.com said...

So. If you happen to be in a to-die-for situation and your manuscript is NOT finished, should you just keep your mouth shut? Is it taboo to pitch it anyway, letting the agent know it's incomplete?

Jon Sprunk said...

If you walk into a pre-planned meeting with a pitch for an incomplete novel, I think the agent/editor has the right to be a little miffed. Time is money. But if the setting is casual (like chatting over drinks in the hotel bar), you can mention your work-in-progress guilt-free and see if it flies.

madisonwoods.wordpress.com said...

That's how I had it figured, so thanks for verifying. I agree, it would be bad form to use appointed time to pitch unfinished work. But no one ever mentions the serendipitous encounters and what to do then.

Bryce said...

Thanks for the info!

This reminds me a lot of a post on John Brown's blog where he gave a similar rundown of this process. It's always good to read these sections from people that have actually made it. It reminds me that at one point, all authors had those "I-want-to-wear-your-skin-as-a-bathrobe eyes."