Three Lessons From The Brooklyn Writers’ Workshop

So last weekend I went to Brooklyn’s Writer Conference and I learned a lot about how to start a novel, what YA is (according to one agent) and especially how to pitch to an agent. I’ll be writing about those other two topics later on, but this pitching thing is tough. I got a request for a partial and two and a half requests to send first chapters (I’ll explain the “and a half” below), so fairly successful. I wanted to get my notes on it out into the world so that I could reference them myself the next time I pitch.

It boils down to three things: Tell a Story, Know Your Audience, and Be Human and Professional

Be Human and Professional

I had meetings with four agents and the first one was late to our pitch. I was terrifically nervous, so in a way it was good because I had a moment to sit and feel in control of the space. This also gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on the other writers pitching.

Oh, we are awkward, nervous people.

I heard a lot of rehearsed and lifeless pitches, and it reminded me of watching middle-school students suffer through their first presentations. The same advice teachers gave you then, counts now. Don’t recite your notes by rote. Smile. Make eye contact.

Now, I’ve got a leg-up on other authors in this way. My day job is as a teacher and tour guide, so while I am the strong, silent, prefer-to-sit-under-the-stairs-and-take-notes-on-mere-mortals type, I’ve learned to command a conversation and talk naturally.

There’s a ton of resources on how to speak confidently at job interviews and in business meetings, but I think the best thing to do treat the agent like a person. They are not a genie who will grant you a best-seller if you rub them the right way (please don’t rub the agents). So, get out of the straight-jacket of a rehearsed monologue.

I can’t believe this is advice we need to hear, but I saw this three or four times (mostly men pitching fantasy to women): don’t argue with an agent during a pitch. I don’t care if she just said that the only good fantasy is about sparkly vampires or you will never sell your book. Bottle your pride, your rage, your contrarian nature and be professional. That agent wasn’t for you; don’t go off on her and make an enemy out of all the other agents in the room.

It helps me to start the conversation with something besides the business (since the temperature was wildly fluctuating at the conference I opened with the weather. Terrible idea in writer, awesome advice for small talk.) Then lead into my name and credentials.

Tell a Story

With one of the agents, I got detoured from my pitch and we went down a rabbit hole about the world. I got so carried away explaining the history of the world, how magic functioned, how it was based off the people in the area I was raised, that I never got around to telling her about the main characters’ stories. Not until she asked me, “what are the stakes? What’s the germ of the story?” I got lucky that she brought us back to that, because the details of my world weren’t enough to sell her on the pitch.

I applied her advice (leading with a log line that I had buried deeper in my pitch) and it lead me to my most successful pitch. I went into charming storyteller mode and told my novel the way I talk about movies and pieces of art. I hit all the marks professionally but entertainingly and it engaged the agent enough to ask for a full partial. We also finished early so I got to talk about my sales as a romance writer, my other work and ideas, and how the market might respond to such a book.

Know Your Audience

A.K.A.: do your fucking research. When I signed up for the conference, I remember choosing one agent who only represented fantasy and thinking she’d be a great fit not for the novel I’d be pitching to everyone else, but for a separate project I’d just finished. So, I signed on for her and thought in my hubris I would prepare a second pitch just for her.

I forgot.

I cannot explain how embarrassing it was to sit down with an agent and have her listen to me pitch a YA fantasy/sci-fi romance and then immediately explain she doesn’t represent sci-fi. It’s especially bad, when you’ve paid for the pitch session. But this is good advice for an email query too. When an agent reads queries, she is working for free, so not researching wastes her time and more importantly your rejection threshold. There you are agonizing for two days, two weeks, two months anticipating feedback and she deleted your email because you didn’t respect her guidelines.

When things went south, I was able to roll with it. I apologized for the misunderstanding and asked how I could improve my pitch and what advice she had (you know besides, doing my fucking research).

Towards the end of our conversation, I thought she was throwing me a bone when she gave me the name of another agent at her company who might fit the work. I almost didn’t write the name down, since I figured it was a pity gesture. But I’m glad I did, because she was right; that other agent would be a really good fit for my book. Because I acted like an adult and didn’t collapse completely under my own humiliation and despair, I have a personal introduction to an agent who has represented a lot of very lengthy books that have sold well. Which is like… half a point, right?

On the other hand, I knew one of the agents dislikes The Fae, so when I referred to my world I was able to speak to that by calling it a kind of post-industrial fairyland, but you know without the fairies. And that really interested him.

So, know the agent, be a kind professional, and tell a story. Pitching is hard; but it’s a necessary step in an author’s career. You can’t level up until you master it.

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