Conference Lessons: Pitching Agents

lunch-chatHello, internet friends! I hope you’re having a lovely fall. Mine is so far suuuuuper busy. It’s like the closer we get to winter, the more frantic I get. I’m the white rabbit running around with a pocket watch shouting, “I’m late! I’m late!” Seriously, everywhere I look is DEADLINES ABOUNDING and I’m going a little crazy.

But I have managed to cross one big thing off my list: the annual AWG Fall Conference! *blows party horn* For those of you who haven’t heard my spiel yet, the Alaska Writers Guild puts on an annual conference (in conjunction with the Alaska chapters of SCBWI and RWA) which is small and a little quirky and all around delightful. It’s low key and friendly and I just love these folks.

For one of the breakout sessions, an agents was slated for a pitch session, but it was unclear whether the session was supposed to be about pitching or an opportunity for pitching. And since there were like ten of us in there, the agent posed it to us which one we would rather (although in the end there was really time for a bit of both).

What came out during the very casual Q&A was very comforting to me. Like many writers, I am an introvert. Socialization takes a lot of energy, even when I enjoy it. I get nervous around strangers, particularly around adults. Pitching terrifies me.

Don’t get me wrong. I do all the things I’m supposed to. I have a succinct elevator pitch for every book I’ve ever written. I come prepared to conferences with my pitches printed out and in hand. But Heaven help me, I can’t ever remember them. As soon as the big moment arrives, I can’t even remember what genres I write, let alone my cleverly honed pitches for specific books. Assuming I don’t lose my nerve completely, I either rattle off something completely unprepared or read what I had worked out earlier. I always figured cold pitching was just something I’d never be able to do, something I’d just have to learn to work around in my career as a writer.

But I’ve since learned that that might not be the end of the world I was led to believe it was.

Some agents expect you to be able to cold pitch on the spot in any given situation, at any given moment, like a first responder ready and waiting to save lives. (First responders: you are boss. Carry on.) But a lot of agents don’t. In fact, a lot of agents would rather you didn’t.

So what’s the best way to approach an agent? Like a human!

Be friendly. Don’t just run up out of the blue and drop a pitch in their lap. Strike up a conversation first. Chat about something besides your book for a minute. And if it feels right, maybe ask them about their manuscript wishlist and then pitch. But don’t forget that they’re a person before they’re an agent.

The agent we were talking to confessed that she actually hates unsolicited pitches, especially if they show up without warning. She told us about being pitched in lunch lines, in bathrooms, and outside her hotel room, and it was clear that just remembering them made her uncomfortable. This isn’t true for some agents. Some agents probably really prefer just getting down to business. But for a lot of them, pouncing tactics is a big turn off. They’d rather have a chat and then you can just ask if you can query later after the event is over.

Honestly, I like that course better, and not just because I can’t remember my own pitches worth beans. If I’m to interact with humans, I really prefer unscripted, inconsequential chitchat. It puts me at ease and it’s nice to know that it puts the agent at ease too. Plus, I feel like I’m much cleverer on the page than in person, so being able to send in a polished query instead of having smelly garbage pouring out of my mouth is just better for everyone.

And it seems to work! The two agents I chatted with both told me I should query them after I got home. So, one conference off the to-do list, and two submissions on.

Happy writing!

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With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Writing Magic

This week’s post is by writer extraordinaire Laura Lancaster, Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild. She is fun, clever, and has excellent taste in apple juice. Behold her wisdom!magic cards

When I was 12 I learned a magic trick from my next-door neighbor. She showed me an ordinary quarter, put both her arms behind her head like a pitcher about to throw a curveball and scrunched up her face. Then she brought her arms forward and showed me her empty hands.

“See, I just pushed that quarter into my neck. In a few seconds, it will land in my mouth. It doesn’t hurt because it’s magic.” Then she reached into her mouth and tossed the quarter in a high arc. It bounced across the floor with a magical metallic ring.

If I ever see you in person, I’ll teach you the trick that turned me, a shy awkward tween into an awkward ham who did goofy magic tricks.

My favorite went like this: I placed the magic baseball cap in front of me on a table. I declared,“I can make three balloon animals in the time it takes most people to make one.”

Then I whisked a rubber glove from my ball cap, blew it up, held it on top of my head and yelled, “chicken.” I held it high and squeezed the fingers, “cow.” Then I let the air out and the glove dangled, limp. I slowed and dropped my voice. “Jelly fish.”

Even though my shows got lots of laughs, I made lots of mistakes. I once had an audience member stand next to me while I did the quarter trick. He looked behind me and learned the secret. Once I had a large audience and my mom told me I had turned away from the microphone and everyone in the back hadn’t heard a word. They applauded out of politeness.

Now I’m a beginning writer. I look back on my career as a teenage magician and I realize I had found my style, or genre, of magic, but I needed more tricks, practice and critique. Writing is no different.

magic levitationMagicians have to master stage presence, precise movement, and misdirection the way writers have to learn plotting, character creation, effective research, world building, precise prose and any number of other skills. If any of those elements are weak, the magic disappears.

Fortunately, if I, as a goofy, awkward teenager could learn magic tricks and face the nerves of performance, I can learn to write fiction.

I’ve learned from books, blogs and magazines, but one of my most helpful tools are writers groups and professional organizations. I even became the Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild Interior and I’ve found that even if you are not published, there are three reasons to get involved in the writing community.

Practice Makes Better-

Often writers organizations sponsor critique groups. If you are at a place where you can show your work to others, you ought to. Critique groups, whether online or in person, are a great place to start. You may find partners who understand what you want to do and help you do it better. Like magic coaches, they can show you where your patter is flawed, or when they saw the quarter hidden in your sleeve, so to speak.

Guidance In Going Big-

The community talent shows where I did my magic were a place to start, but to get noticed, you have to work a lot harder. Many writers groups sponsor writing classes or conferences and they’ll give you access to big-time writers who teach craft and agents who can advise you about your pitch or query letter. If you are considering hybrid, indie or self-publishing, many authors in professional organizations have done it and are willing to share what they know about publication options, promotion and sales. Magicians never reveal their secrets to the audience, but the most generous reveal their secrets to other magicians and it’s true of the writers you’ll meet at professional organizations.

Encouragement-

Communication is possibly the hardest thing we humans do. We must have a clear idea in our own heads, then convey it to someone else. Miscommunications have caused professional ventures to fail, battles to be lost and families to split. No one gets it right the first time or all the time. How can we persevere long enough to become effective writers?

I’ve found that meeting regularly with writers is my most powerful motivation. When I meet with my critique group and I didn’t make a submission, everyone one reminds me that they want to find out what happens next, and I know it’s not just politeness, they want to help me write better.magic marbles

I have solved many a plot or characterization problem with other writers over coffee, writers I met at Alaska Writers Guild meetings, and I have helped them do the same. The topics speakers bring to monthly meetings and conferences, such as how to submit to an agent, help me, even if I don’t apply the lessons…yet.

Some people have said that writing cannot be taught, but most people would not say that about stage magic. Natural performers still need to learn skills through professional guidance. Natural storytellers have weaknesses that they must recognize and overcome. Every writer has been there. Keep working. Learn from those around you. Professional writers organizations can put those people around you. So when you watch David Copperfield perform an illusion or read Dicken’s David Copperfield, remember, you too can make your writing magical.

Laura Lancaster is a foodie, sci-fi aficionado and fortune cookie baker. She has been the Vice President in charge of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild for the last four years. She is writing sci-fi novels and short stories. Find her on social media: Twitter: Phoenix40below Facebook: @Phoenixseries and blog: lalancaster.com

To find out more about the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild email awginterior@gmail.com or go to www.alaskawritersguild.com/interior-chapter

First Impressions with Nicole Resciniti

NResciniti“It only takes a sip,” Ms. Resciniti told us. One needn’t drink an entire carton to realize the milk has soured, and readers treat books the same way. It doesn’t matter if the second page, or the second chapter, or the second novel, is magnificent; agents and editors won’t wait around to see, and neither will readers. This is why first impressions are so vital. They make the difference between ‘slush’ and ‘sold’.

Nicole Resciniti is a literary agent with the Seymour Agency. Like all agents, Ms. Resciniti sees a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff come through her inbox every day. Literary agents are so busy, and have so much material to get through, that a first impression is usually the only impression a query will get to give. Ms. Resciniti highlighted three parts of a submission packet as being key to a good first impression: a high concept hook, back cover copy, and first pages.

A high concept hook is only one or two lines, but carries a punch. Also known as a one-liner or a log line, your hook is what first grabs the reader’s attention. (High concept, a term which I have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to define via Google searches, is what Ms. Resciniti calls “the familiar idea with a twist” and “a concept easily visualized.”) The hook usually goes something like this: “[Character + descriptor] wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] and [possible consequences].” Pretty catchy, huh? It sounds better when you fill in the blanks. Try it out with your own story!

The back cover copy is two to three paragraphs that encapsulate the heart of the story. The goal, motivation, and conflict create the vehicle for the characters that propels them through the story, and should be front and center in your back cover copy. (Side note: Ms. Resciniti recommends that you have each of these three things for your main character, second main, and antagonist. All of them might not show up directly in the back cover copy, but they should in the story overall. Know what your characters want, dangle it in front of them, and then rip it away.)

Ms. Resciniti recommends a six-pronged attack in hooking readers within those first few pages.

Begin with a bang. Open with action, with characters in motion. Be visual. Avoid clichés, info dumps, background, coincidence, set up, and an excess of characters.

Establish the mood. Convey an immediate tone. Keep in mind your audience and the expectations of your genre, and respect- or subvert- the conventions.

Evoke instant emotion. Immediately establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the character. Make your character inspire emotions in your reader- admiration, pity, envy, kinship, sympathy. It’s not enough to have a passive character that we follow through the story. The characters should be active, making choices, growing and changing, and it should all happen in a way that the reader can feel.

Convey conflict. Conflict is the core of emotion. Present problems on the page quickly, and structure characters so that they are at odds with one another. Create problems that are based on the characters and their weaknesses. And for every problem that is solved, create two more.

Create visceral reactions in the reader. Incorporate humor/danger/tension to make your readers laugh, cry, and tremble right along with your characters. Never state an emotion or action- show it, and make the reader feel it too.

 Make a “what happens next” moment. Don’t immediately tie problems up neatly for the characters. Evoke curiosity. This goes hand in hand with conveying constant conflict.

A book on a shelf has about thirty seconds to sell itself: cover, title, back cover copy, and pages. Agents and editors are themselves readers, just of earlier forms of the book. You don’t need to impress them with a gorgeous cover, but you do need to grab their attention with your submission materials, and never let go.

Ms. Resciniti’s final advice? “Do not be discouraged. Do not.” Editing is hard, and submitting is hard, and selling is hard. Every step of the process is hard in its own way. But don’t give up because of the difficulty. The difficulty is the very thing that will transform your book from an awful first draft into a beautiful final product in the hands of people who love it. So do not get discouraged in the in-between. You can do this.

Tune in next week for the cliff notes version of Jane Friedman’s three hour intensive, How to Get Your Book Published. We’ll be talking about traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing, and the most important steps to take down each route.

Until then, happy writing!

Query Letter Tips with Paul Lucas

Guys, the conference this year was great.  I got to see old buddies, make new buddies, and learn new stuff about the industry’s past and present. I was awarded a grant, and declared the guild’s Writer of the Year- now doesn’t that sound fancy! I also had a very helpful manuscript review, and then a quick query letter review. Everyone is always so generous with their time at these things!

PLucasThe presenters were also very generous with their knowledge, and so we’ll have three weeks of conference lessons this time around. This week’s post is based on a query letter workshop with literary agent Paul Lucas, who works for Janklow & Newbit Associates.

For context, keep in mind that Mr. Lucas’ work day often looks something like this: 100ish emails- per day!- to writers, editors, colleagues, etc; meeting with editors; on the phone with editors; internal meetings with colleagues; researching to keep abreast of industry news; and going through queries. (He tends to do his manuscript reading after work or on weekends. The guy gets no rest.)

Queries are important. Queries are (usually) how agents find new talent and sign new authors. But agents are super super busy folks, so a query has to really stand out to make any noise in all that daily cacophony.

Here are some basic tips that Mr. Lucas shared on helping your query to make the cut:

Be polite. Don’t be crazy.

A query should have three things: who you are, why you’re writing this agent, and what the book is about. If something in your query is not one of those three things, axe it.

Never mention others who liked the book. (The only exception to this would be an author or editor who will endorse the book with a short blurb.)

Edit, edit, edit. (Side note: I got called out for an intentional fragment sentence, which Mr. Lucas feels is always a bad thing. I made a squinchy face of disagreement, but he’s the pundit, not me. So maybe stare at those stylistic choices long and hard before hitting send.)

Follow agency submission rules. Always. No exceptions. No squinchy face.

Specify age range, genre, and word count.

Keep comp titles within five years of publication. (I’ve heard other agents who suggest no more than two years.) Don’t use megastars or absolute nobodies; look for recent comps that sold 10k-ish.

Be succinct. Queries should never run longer than a single page.

Be specific. Name awards in your bio. Describe why a certain book is a good comp. Tell why you chose this agent to query.

Queries are hard, and way less fun than drafting the next book in that bubblegum space opera you’ve been working on, but they’re vital to getting your work eventually seen and published. Work to make sure that your query is intriguing and reflective of your writing style in each of the three sections Mr. Lucas mentioned: why you’re writing this agent (hook), what the book is about (blurb), and who you are (bio).

Once you think you have a good query, run it past several pairs of eyes before sending it out to literary agents. Workshops are great because you can get instant feedback from several people, but if you don’t have access to a group, send it out to several writer friends for their opinions. When you are ready to submit to agents, do it in batches so that you can incorporate any feedback you might get in order to hone your query down to its best possible form.

Finally, if you are getting feedback on your submission packet, keep sending it out to as many agents as you can find who are good fits. But if you’re only hearing crickets, consider making major alterations or moving on to a new project after fifty ignored queries. Either way, don’t get discouraged. Querying is difficult, but a necessary bump on the road of traditional publishing. Don’t give up on your dream.

Next week, we’ll get into more details for query letters and first pages with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Until then, happy writing!

Podcast: Why Go to Writing Conferences?

Podcast the Second! Tune in as I hassle folks about why they go to writing conferences, including Brooke Hartman, Conference Chairperson for the Alaska Writers Guild, and Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/pn7de-691a6f?from=yiiadmin

Thanks to all the podcast’s participants: Brooke Hartman, Patricia Nelson, a handful of modest writers, and singer/songwriter Becky Beistline, who voice acted Patricia Nelson’s quote for me in exchange for chocolate chip cookies.  Thanks also for the patience and support of my husband.  Sorry I kept you up so late to complain about technology.

Still looking for a little more conference guidance?  Check out these links:

How to Make the Most of Any Writing Conference | Writer’s Digest

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare | The Write Life

Why Attend a Writer’s Conference | The Steve Laube Literary Agency

And a video from the Book Doctors!

Also, you can snag Brooke and I’s full interview here, stutters, ums, and all.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/5dxcw-691a7e?from=yiiadmin

Podcast music credit:  “and your Love”
Exzel Music Publishing (freemusicpublicdomain.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is, right?  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”

“Twenty-two.”

Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously though, trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age http://www.dummies.com/education/language-arts/getting-published/age-levels-for-childrens-books/

Categories by ages, pages, and content http://www.right-writing.com/genres.html

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post