This past weekend, at a writer’s conference, I attended an agents panel. The moderator asked a laundry list of questions, including one about pet peeves. I won’t name names because I think these comments are fairly universal. The agents were a little reluctant, at first, to share what bugs them when writers send queries, but eventually they warmed up to the topic. The comments were made in the spirit of helping writers appear professional and save everyone time, so read them in that spirit of useful advice.
No, not basketball, but literary events galore this month! The following are classes, contests, workshops, and launches.
March 1 – Publication date for EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley. This collection of prose and visual art salutes noteworthy women with connections to Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, with contributions by local artists and authors. I was honored to write a piece inspired by Delaware environmentalist Dorothy P. Miller.
March 8 – Book Launch party for EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS! at the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, the oldest club on Boathouse Row, and founded in 1938 by one of the extraordinary women featured in the book.
~WORKSHOPS AND CLASSES~
March 1, 17, and 25 – First Write: Now Edit, a three part editing series sponsored by the Havre de Grace Public Library. I will be presenting on March 25. This is a follow-up to a terrific series in October that pumped up writers planning to participate in NaNoWriMo.
March 9 – 16 – Online workshop: Submission Preparation: Everything You Need for a Perfect Pitch – This week long intensive is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Mary Roberts Rhinehart Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I will lead the group in preparing log lines, queries, synopses, and summaries.
~ CONTEST ~
March 1 – The entry period opens for the second Rehoboth Beach Reads short story contest, sponsored by Cat & Mouse Press of Delaware. The 2014 theme is “The Boardwalk” and I am pleased to be one of the judges for this year’s book!
So much going on in March! I hope somewhere in here is something you’ll find beneficial and fun.
Conference season will soon begin, and with it the inevitable polite questions at lunch, between workshops, during pitch sessions, and at the bar. Can you answer the following questions with ease?
~ 1. What do you write?
~ 2. What is your current project about?
~ 3. Why did you write this particular story?
~ 4. What published author’s work is like yours?
~ 5. Who is your ideal reader?
These seem like simple questions, but ask #2 to five different writers and you may very well encounter a stumbler, a mumbler, a blowhard, a blank stare, and one articulate response. Writers write, after all; we’re not necessarily good at giving speeches, even if the speech is a short description of a novel we’ve spent months planning, plotting, and writing.
An articulate response takes practice. So, practice. Imagine yourself during down time at a conference. Visualize the bar or the Saturday night party with a group of hale fellows. A colleague–a fellow writer, a visiting agent, an editor from the faculty–you met in one of the workshops orders a glass of wine. So do you. You exchange pleasantries (or snark) about the keynote’s dinner address.
And then, because your new colleague friend is polite and this is expected, he asks, “What do you write?”
You answer. “I write _________ (YA, women’s fiction, gritty mysteries, creative nonfiction, middle grade humor).”
“Oh, really? So do I!” New Colleague Friend says. “What’s your current project about?”
And so on. Write out the five questions and five answers. Answer honestly–forget what you think an agent or editor wants to hear, and write the truth. Think about New Colleague Friend as a friend. After answering all five, read your answers aloud. Do your responses fall trippingly off your tongue? Does this little Q&A sound like a conversation between two like-minded friends?
Or…does saying the lines you wrote make you feel like a robot? Are your answers to these simple questions hard to write out, or overly long, because you don’t have a clear idea of what your project is about, why you wrote it, and what published works are similar to it? Have you never given your ideal reader a thought because who cares about readers, you write to please yourself and only yourself? Are you a stumbler, a mumbler, a blank starer, or a blowhard?
If you answer yes to any of the above, stay out of the bar until you can articulate easy answers to these five easy questions. All it takes is practice. So, practice.
Addendum: In the coming weeks, I’ll be teaching two online workshops that address how to articulate what you are writing, why you are writing it, and who would enjoy reading it. The first, in March, is a one week course that will be fast and furious. It is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, but is open to the public. The second, in April, is two weeks long, and more in depth, and open to members of Sisters in Crime Guppy Chapter.
For information on Submission Preparation: Everything You Need For That Perfect Pitch!, go to the Mary Roberts Rinehart Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime website.
Conference season begins soon, which means writers are polishing their pitches and embracing the art of articulating their story concepts. Five minutes—-or perhaps two—may be all the time you have to convince an agent or editor that your manuscript is worth a look.
To prepare, and not waste time, a lot of writers memorize lines that include word count, genre, title, and hook, because you want to look professional and polished. The danger in the memorized lines is sounding like a robot. And what if the nightmare happens and you choke?
As I have posted about before, I find the 2-minute pitch concept a bit cattle-callish, but it is an opportunity and it’s popular, so I will shelve my reservations and try to be helpful:
A pitch session does not have to be you on one side and an agent/editor on the other, with only memorized lines between you. Reciting pre-packaged lines will make you sound phony, like a telemarketer working from a script that includes all possible scenarios. You don’t want to sound like a machine. You want to be knowledgeable and passionate about the story you have written. However, you don’t want to fumble and sound unsure, or be too sure and sound pompous.
How do you talk about your book without sounding like a salesman, a nervous nelly, or a bore? You treat the pitch like a conversation. Be relaxed (okay, maybe slightly anxious). Be there to TALK. Don’t be the guy who spouts a bunch of buzz words and catch phrases you think the editor/agent will want to hear. Be the guy who is sharing an accurate assessment of your story.
You may have heard the statement that, the more complex the lie, the harder it is to remember. That’s why telling the truth is the easy. You don’t have to think about buzz words or what someone wants to hear. You only have to tell the truth.
Try approaching your pitch with these two concepts in mind: You are there to talk about your novel. You will tell the truth.
That does not mean you can’t prepare. Here are two tips and five questions:
- The agent/editor will need to know the particulars of your story. Become comfortable with the basics, but don’t sound like a trained monkey. Come up with an engaging sentence that is true: “My book is a contemporary thriller called BAD SALE. It’s set in Nebraska and is about a farmer—-a good guy—who is tricked by a childhood friend into buying bomb making supplies at the hardware store.”
- Notice there is no word count in this statement. If the agent/editor wants to know word count, he’ll ask. You’ll answer. Because you know the word count, right? Look at this sentence: “My contemporary thriller BAD SALE is a 95,000 word contemporary thriller set in Nebraska about an honest farmer who is tricked by a childhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store.” <<That’s not a bad log line, but is it conversational? No. Be conversational. Start by describing your novel as a thriller, tell where it’s set, and give the basic plot premise. When the agent/editor wants to know word count (and he will!) he will ask the question. Answer it: “It’s 95,000 words.”
This is how conversation works. Someone introduces an interesting topic. If the listener wants to know more, she will ask a question.
Now for more questions you may likely hear from an agent/editor:
- What are some other books and authors like yours? A couple of names here, recognizable ones. If there’s an author the agent/editor represents or publishes whose work is like yours, here’s where that goes. TELL THE TRUTH.
- Why did you choose my agency/publishing house? This is a legitimate question. Why DID you choose this person to represent you? You must have a reason to think you’d make a good team. Be ready to explain this. TELL THE TRUTH.
- What’s the hook? This gets into telemarketing territory, but you spent a year or more with this novel, so you know it intimately. An agent/editor wants to hear about a setting, a situation, a theme, a special voice, or any number of nebulous factors that would make your story sellable. So, what is it? Only you can answer this. Maybe your hook is that you wrote the book you like to read, and it’s a fun read. Say this with confidence, and I’d buy your book. TELL THE TRUTH.
- Why did you write this? If you have expertise, special interest, personal experience or bloodline connect to an aspect of the story, bring it up now. If you don’t, then it’s perfectly fine to say you love cozies, you’ve been reading them since you could read, and you wanted to add to the genre you love. TELL THE TRUTH.
- What are you offering an audience? You wrote the story. What do you want to say to the people who read it, through the action, characters, plot, and theme? If the justice system frustrates you and you wrote a story that brings closure to a crime, share that. If you are writing an issue story about failed adoptions because the subject is close to your heart, say that. TELL THE TRUTH.
How do you prepare the above information and turn it into a conversation? Let’s turn the questions into a quiz. Answer the questions below. TELL THE TRUTH. Don’t worry about what you think someone wants to hear. Remember, you’ll have an easier time remember the truth than anything you make up that you think sounds appealing.
Here they are, if you’d like to print and answer:
- What are your story’s basics?
- What is the word count?
- What are some other books and authors similar to yours?
- Why did you choose this agency/publisher?
- What’s your hook?
- Why did you write this?
- What are you offering to your audience?
Did you learn anything from this quiz? If so, please share.
What is a Writers Conference?
A Writers Conference is a professional gathering of people involved in the publishing industry. Attendees run the range from writers, illustrators, editors, agents, publishers and techie people.
A year ago, in preparation for the Pennwriters conference, I did a post called Conferences–What to Bring, What to Leave Behind. That was a cheerleadery post meant to encourage writers not to be shy or commit faux pas. The advice remains relevant and true, as cheerleading is one of my specialties.
Today’s post will focus specifically on three conference-related opportunities: Pitches, Read & Critiques, and The Bar.
1 ~ How to Prepare for a Pitch:
A pitch is a short private session between a writer and an assigned editor or agent. A pitch is the author’s chance to sell his story. That’s the official version, the one that will make you crazy, keep you up at night, and make your palms sweat like it’s your first date/arrest/ prostate exam/time in the confessional. If you set the weight of your writing world on five minutes with another human being you believe holds the key to the universe, you’re going to be stressed out. I got stressed out just writing that sentence.
So look at it this way: A pitch is a conversation. You’re going to meet with someone and talk about your story. You love your story, right? You are thrilled to find someone who’ll listen to you discuss your story, right? Take that into your pitch. It’s a conversation.
If you are still nervous about what to talk about in your conversation, consider these three questions:
What are you writing? Why are you writing this story? Who do you think would buy this book?
Think about honest answers to these questions and prepare to chat about them for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.
If it comforts you to have a memorized log line for your story, try this formula:
Name of story is a word count + genre about a main character who must Story Question before consequences if Story Question is not solved.
2 ~ How to Prepare for a Read & Critique
A Read & Critique is (usually) a round robin type session where a short piece of work is read aloud and verbally critiqued on the spot. Sometimes the feedback comes only from the editor/agent/combo assigned to the sessions. Sometimes other writers in the group chime in.
The best way to prepare for an R&Q session is, first, understand the critiquer is working with no advance look at your work and no time to be diplomatic in response. As a veteran of R&Q, I can tell you it’s difficult to process on the spot, especially work that is delivered orally when you’re accustomed to writing on the page. It feels very Johnny-on-the-spot. Cut the critiquers some slack if a nuance or two is missed.
Second, understand that feedback is subjective–but it’s intended to be an aid and make your work stronger. This translates to Don’t Argue. Don’t Argue doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but defending your work defeats the purpose. Allowing for individual reading levels and styles, if you have to explain what’s on the page to every person in the group, it means what’s on the page isn’t explaining itself.
Third, to prepare for an R&Q session, follow the guidelines. If you are to turn in two pages, don’t turn in one, or three. Read it aloud yourself. If it sounds boring or convoluted to you, the author, guess what? It will sound dull or confusing to the critiquer. Select an opening or vivid scene that best reflects your work and that works in an oral setting. Don’t choose a piece from the middle of a story that includes a lot of pronouns–how can the critiquer know who “he” or “she” is if we haven’t yet met the characters?
Many R&Q sessions are done anonymously. If you have a positive reaction from the agent/editor, by all means seek out that person with a followup email after the conference, to express your appreciation for the helpful comments. Even if that person doesn’t accept work in your genre and you don’t see yourself working with them, it’s good to hear from this end that the session did some good. Likewise, if you have a constructive criticism about the session, I would listen to it–in an email after the conference, not button holed in the bathroom or while I’m attempting to enjoy my down time. Which leads me to….
3 ~ How to Work the Conference Bar
The Bar may not be the bar-bar, it may be the Hospitality Room, the meet-n-greet area, the foyer, or the actual bar. It’s the place where attendees gather between or after workshops.
Making contacts with editors, agents and publishers at a conference is fabulous. But on a day-to-day, practical level, it’s the contacts with your colleagues and fellow writers that will serve you best. Publishing is a small little world. We are like-minded individuals with similar goals and interests, even if we cross genres. The bar is the place to make friends. Contacts and networking aside, ask people who are repeat attendees at a conference and I’ll bet the majority will offer this as the primary reason for attending year after year: To see writer friends.
Sidle up to the bar, the bench, the pool or pull up a piece of carpet wherever your colleagues are gathering and jump in. Make some writer friends.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How to Stop Stalling
A log line is a one sentence description that gives an appealing and succinct summary of your story. Think of the blurbs in TV Guide or Publisher’s Lunch.
A log line is meant to share the story basics but also to provide an emotional hook.
An easy formula for a log line for fiction is this:
Name of story is a word count + genre about a main character who must Story Question before consequences if Story Question is not solved.
For non-fiction, try this:
Name of story is a word count +genre that verb such as explores, uncovers, explains, investigates the subject of book.
Because a log line is so short, each word is important and should perform multiple tasks. Let’s take a look at a sample log line:
“BAD SALE is a 94,000 word thriller about a farmer whose life falls apart after he is tricked by a boyhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store.”
The characters are Farmer and Boyhood Friend. The noun “farmer” tells this person’s job, but it also implies he’ll be a hard-working, honest, family man because that’s the general perception of farmers. “Boyhood friend” implies loyalty and history between the two. It’s not known if this friendship has been steady or if this is a friend from childhood who has reappeared in Farmer’s life.
“Tricked” implies deception, but the intent is not clear, so it leaves something to the imagination. It’s stronger than “fooled” but not as blatant as “coerced”.
The phrase “life falls apart” is vague but conveys the idea that havoc will fall upon the main character and he will be unable to stop it. This is the emotional hook. We should care when a good person is damaged by a supposed friend.
A log line is used in written queries and verbal pitches. It’s also a handy answer to the question, “What are you writing?”
Do you have a log line you’d like to share or show off?