In my previous post, I highlighted the first three of seven strategies for successfully pitching your novel at a writers’ conference. Pitching at a conference is much different than pitching electronically when you have to develop documents such as a query letter, synopsis and bio. Presenting yourself to agents in person can be a frightening endeavor that many writers may try to avoid, but it is also those face-to-face meetings that provide you with the most direct connections to agents that you can’t get through any other means.
I continue here with Part II, which lists four additional strategies. Please comment at the end of the post and tell me if you agree, or if you would recommend other strategies I have not listed. (If you haven’t read Part I of this series, you might check that out first.)
4. Let the agent ask questions during the pitch to show interest in aspects of the book that intrigue her.
First of all, if you end up doing all the talking during the pitch session, you’re liable to come across as nervous, which won’t necessarily leave the best impression. Not only that, but if you consider social etiquette in general, a conversation is supposed to be about talking AND listening. The saying by Epictetus goes, of course, that you have one mouth and two ears so you can listen twice as much as you speak. Really, a pitch is simply a form of conversation. Sure there’s more at stake during a pitch session than when you’re at a party Friday night with a brewsky in hand and no consequences at all to speaking with the stranger standing beside you. But the agent doesn’t care about how much anxiety you’re bringing into the pitch. Professionalism warrants that you carry yourself well and demonstrate respect for the person you’re speaking with.
Pitches are not, as a general principle, supposed to last more than a minute, anyway. So if you find yourself speaking at great length beyond then without taking time to pause and let the agent ask questions, you may not be representing yourself or your work as well as you could.
5. During the pitch, sound interested in your story.
This may sound silly. I mean of course you’re interested. You wrote the book, didn’t you? SOMETHING motivated you!
But my advice here is a natural extension of point two, which I made in the previous blog post. But rather than simply recommending, as I did in then, that you not act like a killjoy and kill your pitch in the process by speaking in an emotional monotone, I here further suggest that you dig into your memory, into all those great connections you made when you were writing your story. At some point, you hit a road block. You didn’t know how this character was going to get out of a particular scenario, or how to resolve this plot point. Sometimes you had to wait it out until the answer then suddenly presented itself, almost despite your involvement.
It’s amazing how stories just bubble up once you give them time and patience. It’s like electricity. I mean, that’s why you write. As I wrote Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, I had plenty of moments when I wasn’t quite sure what came next. And then, at a particular point, I did.
Tap into that excitement during your pitch. Tap, tap, tap! Let the agent feel what you felt as you were discovering the story. Humans are social creatures and we play off each other’s emotions; demonstrate interest in the process you went through (and the result) and the agent will feel it too. She’ll surely see you are the real thing and will, likely, be more willing to show you and your story respect…and likely a greater likelihood of asking for pages to review.
6. After you’re done with the pitch, be gracious with the agent no matter the result.
If, following the pitch session, the agent asks you to send pages, do so. Promptly. The agent may not have a chance to review them right away, but the fact that you sent them right after your pitch will leave a positive impression. It shows you’re prepared and ready to get your work out there. Within 48 hours of pitching to April Eberhardt, and after she asked me to send her pages, I had done so. (The only reason I didn’t do so within 24 hours was that we were both busy with the rest of the conference).
Of course, that’s the easy scenario. The alternative and all-too-possible scenario, is that the agent will choose to pass on your story. There are many reason this is possible. It may not be that your work lacks quality or impact; it may simply be that the agent’s interests do not include the genre in which you write. No one wants to hear that, but it’s true.
Your response? Be gracious. You’re engaged in a business transaction and despite the fact that you’re emotionally vested in your project, the process by which your magical words can be brought to life is commercial. As in any other industry in which people work, people talk and when people talk, reputations are made and unmade. You don’t want to be that writer who got sour and huffy when an agent said “no, thank you”. Understand the judgment is not personal. You don’t want that agent to start talking about your response to rejection. Rejection is a part of the writing life, and if you haven’t been rejected, you’re likely not the kind of writer we all must aspire to be–the kind that puts ourselves out there, come hell or high water.
In the case of rejection, you may graciously ask the agent if she knows another agent who may be interested in your work. Agents belong to an industry; they know each other, and whoever you may be pitching to may indeed know another agent who could benefit from speaking with you about your story. And they may not volunteer that information, unless you ask.
Rejection may also be a learning opportunity. Should the agent ask you questions about your story that you’re not quite prepare to answer–What books are similar to your own? How is your book different from them? What genre do you write in?–and you go down in flames as a result, congratulations, you have just learned what it is agents want to know about your story. Go have a beer or ten and then dust yourself off and make sure you’re prepared the next time you’re pitching to an agent.
Be gracious. This may not be a fair business; it may be heartbreaking. But never, ever forget what Hemingway defined as living with grace under pressure.
7. Pitch and move on.
I’ve pitched twice in person. In Part I of this two-part blog series, I started by writing about my successful pitch to April Eberhardt at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA a few weeks ago. I sent pages from my manuscript and, as of two weeks later, have not heard back. I expect to wait about another week before I send my reminder email.
The first time I pitched, I didn’t even realize I was doing so. Or, rather, I had a great opportunity but didn’t know it for what it was. Many years ago, in the early 2000s, I went to listen to Howard Yoon of the Gail Ross Literary Agency (now the Ross Yoon Agency), speak to a group of writers who belonged to the Washington Independent Writers in Washington, DC (a group that has since, unfortunately, begun to reorganize under Chapter 11). After the event, I went up and introduced myself. I asked for Howard’s business card, which he promptly gave me. At the time it surprised me that none of the other writers at the event had done so.
I followed up with an email a few days later and ended up meeting him for coffee. Boom! Opportunity! I had a completed manuscript called Journeying Away. And I had an agent sitting across from me and a cup of coffee. I should have had a pitch ready; I should have known more about my genre and what books my own novel was about. Look Homeward, Angel, I should have said.
As it was, Howard did ask me to send him pages, which he graciously soon thereafter rejected. Likely, my guess is that he read part of my manuscript from pity. He had taken the time to meet me and got to know me as a person, right? But then again, I had also been proactive and business-like enough to ask for his business card and follow up. I definitely played my cards sufficiently well enough to get an in-person meeting.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore. That time has come and gone. There are no absolutes in the writing or publishing. Remember what Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot: “I cannot go on. I’ll go on.”
That’s writing, in a nutshell. Sam was a writer. He would know.
Pitch your heart out and when it’s done and the dust has settled, move on. Go home and write. And then write some more.
And be ready the next time you have a chance to pitch an agent.
What other strategies are important to keep in mind when pitching your novel? Feel free to comment below.
(And here are some three other articles on this topic you might want to review: The Perfect Pitch: Pitching to Agents at a Writing Conference, Tips for Pitching an Editor or Agent at a Conference and Ten Minutes To Glory: Your Editor/Agent Pitch.)