This past weekend I attended Books Alive! 2015, the Washington Writers Conference in Bethesda, MD, and I had a blast! Full disclosure: Since I am working on my own novel, the most important thing for me was the fact that I could pitch my manuscript to four agents in person. However, attending the panel discussions, interacting with speakers and -even more importantly- other authors added so much more to this experience than just getting a shot at selling my writing. It was incredible to hear all the great stories that attendees are working on, fiction and non-fiction alike, and I can only encourage every aspiring writer to try and attend next year’s conference.
During the first session of the morning, How to Pitch to an Agent, the panelists offered advice on how to make your pitch successful. I was happy to hear that their advice pretty much was the same I had received during a 2-week workshop I took last November (Get a Literary Agent, Mediabistro):
- Create a hook – Something that captures the agent’s attention.
- About your book: How long is the manuscript? Where on the shelf would you place it? (I.e. My novel [title] is a commercial science fiction novel with some dystopian and gone-girl elements, and is complete at 108,000 words).
- Your elevator pitch: Give a high-level overview of what your novel is about. Don’t try to summarize the entire plot in a synopsis-like style. You want to be as brief as possible. Think of it as your elevator pitch. Mine sounded something like this (and takes me about 30 seconds): Kyra Taylor is known as a Y, one of the very small percentage of telepaths who are considered the most powerful of them all. Her world is turned upside down when she discovers her own fate: to become a Mind Hunter, an elite professional with just one job—finding rogue telepaths and bringing them in…or bringing them down. She is assigned to Nathaniel Cadwell, the most powerful hunter in service. Their relationship is torn between contempt and secret affection, and it is about to become a lot more complicated when powers unknown to both Kyra and Nathaniel attempt to use them for their own agenda: to create a new and even more powerful generation of telepaths. With Kyra on the run and Nathaniel being misled by those above him, both must find and overcome the secrets hidden in the Rivers of the Mind.
- Give comparative titles. It shows the agent that you know your market and your target audience. Avoid comparing yourself to bestsellers. You want to be confident, not cocky. However, if specifically asked, be prepared to humbly mention some books or writers whose target audience you share. In my case, I compared my novel to The Office of Mercy (Ariel Djanikian) and The Mind Readers (Lori Brighton), but I mentioned that I believe my novel would probably appeal to readers who enjoy stories like Divergent and The Hunger Games.
- Your bio: Give a brief overview of who you are, your credentials (i.e. previous publications) and anything that shows the agent you are basically qualified and have worked on your craft. In my case I mentioned that I have published various professional articles, and that I have taken several writing workshops including one lead by Orson Scott Card.
- Be your biggest fan! Publishers are looking for people who can market themselves. Probably not what introverted writers want to hear; in fact, a good but very introverted friend of mine who hates the entire putting yourself out there-thing said that “this makes you long for the days when it was acceptable to be a writer just so you didn’t have to interact with anybody” (I am paraphrasing here). My response to this was that being outgoing and selling myself and my work to people did not come naturally to me. I had to learn and work really hard, but by now I can talk to strangers and in front of crowds with ease, and I have no problem conveying my passion for something to others. And if I can learn how to do that, so can you!
- Say what’s next! Are you working on other projects? Maybe even a sequel (which is what I am working on).
Throughout the day, people dashed in and out of the rooms to take advantage of the five minutes of face-to-face time with four agents. Think of it as verbal Twitter … five minutes really feel like 140 characters, much to the dismay of my above mentioned introverted friend, who hates Twitter and the concept with a passion. I was really nervous when I pitched to the first agent, but it got better each time I did it. I kind of wish that, at the end of the day, I could have pitched to the very first agent again, simply because I felt so much more confident. All four of my agents invited me to submit the beginning of my story, which made me very happy (cross your fingers!).
Whereas I enjoyed each panel and presentation I attended, I particularly want to highlight the last session of the day, From Magazines and Blogs to Books, moderated by Holly Smith and featuring Caitlin Kelly, Monica Bhide, and Adele Levine. Their stories of how they got published were fun to listen to; even more interesting was their advice on how to deal with rejection. As we writers are all well aware of, rejection is part of our craft. In fact, one panelist said that she had once been told by a mentor that “if you haven’t been rejected at least 72 times, you have no right to complain”. Adele Levine revealed that she allows herself to get angry with an agent or editor that rejects her work (“Screw you, [name]!”)
Biggest and most important take-away: Listening to their experiences and talking to the agents made me realize that just because somebody does not want to take on your project does not mean that it sucks, or -worse- that YOU as a person suck. This is something that I struggle with (and I am pretty sure I am not the only one): If my work gets rejected, I feel like a failure. We really should not feel that way though. It just means that the project was not the right one for a particular agent. The most important thing is to keep believing in you and your work! And then you can get angry all you want at the person that rejected you
Keep writing, be your biggest fan, and remember: You can live your dreams, it’s just a matter of will (and perseverance)!