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Friday, July 27, 2007

Pitching to editors and agents at conference, part two

My previous article on pitching to editors and agents was in informal settings. This is more targeted information about when you have an appointment to speak to an agent or editor.

Because you have several minutes, the purpose of an agent/editor appointment at a conference is more than just pitching. It’s a chance for you to learn about the agent/editor’s personality, and if they’re someone you want to work with. This is very important. A business relationship is more than just professionalism—it’s how personalities work with each other, kind of like a marriage.

Therefore, use your time wisely.

I’m going to break this down into writer experience level, because I agree with Randy Ingermanson when he talks about Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior level writers. (If you haven’t read his article yet, please do so before continuing with this one, since I’ll be referring to it.)

For Freshmen, Sophomores, early Juniors:

My suggestion is not to officially pitch your story at all. I’ve heard Randy Ingermanson suggest this, as well (so actually, I’m borrowing parts of this idea from him).

The reason is that for a writer at Freshman, Sophomore, and even early Junior stage, it’s more beneficial to the writer to make a positive personal impression on the editor/agent than it is to pitch a story idea. Editors and agents remember writers, just like they remember story ideas, even if it’s only subconscious and a vague “liked it” or “didn’t like it” feeling.

You want them to have a vague “I liked this person the last time we met” feeling. It improves your chances of them being interested in your story idea the next time you see them and officially pitch.

So what do you do when you meet them? Randy suggests you tell them, “I’m not going to pitch to you, but I’d like you to look at my proposal and let me know what you think. I’d really like feedback on it.”

This accomplishes several things.

a) The editor/agent will give you more detailed feedback on your story and the layout of your proposal than if you’d pitched. They’ll highlight your strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes give you suggestions for improving the story or proposal.

b) The feedback not only helps you improve your story idea, but it also gives you insight into the agent/editor—what they like, what they don’t like, what they expect from new authors.

c) It takes the pressure off of you to present a perfect, professional pitch. Because really, unless you can do a perfect, professional pitch, you’re not going to give a very good first impression.

d) If the agent/editor reads the proposal—with the intent to give feedback, not to hear your story idea—but likes the story idea anyway, they might ask you to send the manuscript to them.

e) If the agent/editor only gives feedback and doesn’t ask you to send your manuscript to them, it softens the emotional blow of this form of face-to-face “rejection.” If you’d pitched to them and they hadn’t asked you to send your manuscript, let’s face it—that just hurts more. With this method, you wanted feedback, and you got it.

f) If the agent/editor doesn’t ask you to send your manuscript, you at least have good feedback about why they didn’t ask you to send it. If you’d pitched to them, they wouldn’t have given you as much detail about why they didn’t want to see more. In asking for feedback, you definitely get it.

g) In asking for feedback rather than pitching, it shows the editor/agent that you’re teachable. This is key in giving them a good impression of you both professionally and personally.

This feedback session might take up the entire time you have. If it doesn’t, then engage in small talk with the editor/agent. (For tips on this type of conversation at conferences, check out my article “How to Network at Conferences, part two: Questions to Ask”)

For Seniors:

By this stage, you’ve met several agents/editors and feel comfortable talking with them. You don’t have that Oh-my-gosh-you’re-an-editor/agent look or I’m-naked-in-front-of-a-crowd look when you talk to them.

This comfort will translate into confidence when you pitch, and that is very important. It shows the editor/agent that you are a professional, not a new or insecure writer.


Yes, I’m yelling. Practice your pitch until it’s smooth and you don’t have to think too much when you give it. Make sure it’s natural, and that you actually sound excited about your story.

Be informed.

Know your story. Know all the aspects about it that you’d put into your proposal—theme, audience, spiritual take-away, marketing plan.

Know the publishing business. Research everything you need before the appointment—what the editor’s house publishes, what they’re looking for, how your story would fit into their stable, what books are in the Christian and mainstream market that are similar yet different from your story.

Be professional.

Don’t dissolve into tears if they’re not interested. Smile and take it in stride. If you have time in the appointment, ask them for feedback on how you could improve the idea, or their thoughts on what would fit better into the market/their stable.

Be time-conscious.

Don’t take up more time than what you’re allotted. You don’t want to wear out the editor/agent’s time with you, nor do you want to be selfish and steal someone else’s time with them.

You don’t want to appear either pushy or selfish to this industry professional. That would be like farting and belching at a job interview.

If you’re not time-conscious, it will give the editor/agent a vague “There was something I didn’t like about you” feeling the next time they see you.

In sum:

Utilize your time with an editor/agent to best effect, giving the best impression you can. Don’t feel like you have to sell yourself or your story to this agent/editor—just concentrate on presenting yourself as upbeat and professional.

I'll write another article later on some other practical tips for an agent/editor appointment. Leave a comment if there's something specific you want me to talk about.

Interview with agent Wendy Lawton

(reprinted from Camy's Loft blog)

The ACFW Conference is only a couple months away!

I’m totally excited about the awards ceremony. Besides the Genesis contest winners, ACFW will also announce the Book of the Year winners, the Mentor of the Year, the Editor of the Year, and the Agent of the Year!

Today I’m very happy to have my agent Wendy Lawton with me. Wendy is one of the nominees for Agent of the Year, and I heartily hope she wins it!

Wendy Lawton, me, and Debbie Macomber

You've attended various conferences over the years. In your opinion, what makes ACFW's conference stand out from the others?

The content is focused entirely on fiction, the presenters are knowledgeable and approachable, the atmosphere is fun and friendly and the attendees are among the best prepared anywhere.

Any advice you'd like to offer to a 1st time conference attendee?

I'd love for attendees to remember that building a writing career is usually a slow process. It takes a number of meetings, lots of rejections, many near-misses, a few almost-successes and a whole pile of fits and starts to get going.

Relationships are the most important thing. Connect with other writers and don't stress about editors and agents. (We're probably the least important element in the mix.)

As an agent taking appointments, what do you look for most in a new author?

Honestly? The market is tough these days and one of the hardest tasks for an agent is to place a debut author. So for me to consider an unpublished author, the writing has to practically knock my socks off. That said, one of the most frustrating things about a conference setting is that we don't get much opportunity to evaluate the writing. We hear the pitch but we've come to realize that some writers are extraordinarily good with pitching but it doesn't necessarily mean they can write. Other writers may be positively tongue-tied when it comes to selling their idea but the story that winds out of their imagination is pure genius.

From the editor/agent point of view it makes it a tough call. We can't ask for everything to be sent--there is precious little time to read non-client work. It all comes down to gut instinct.

An established author?

Again, I have to love the writing. I also have to be drawn to the writer as a person and see career potential. It's all about relationship. In the book, Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby says we need to see where God is already working and come alongside. That's my philosophy as an agent. I look to see God at work and that's where I want to partner.

Of course there are also the hard realities to consider. When an author has been published, their track record becomes an important part of the equation. It's difficult to place an author who's had dismal sales because a potential new publisher has to overcome the reticence of the bookstore buyer who never forgets those books that had to be packed up for return. Revitalizing a sluggish career takes real energy and the writer has to bring even more to the table than the never-been-published author. It doesn't mean it can't be done, but it's one of the things we need to factor in.

Some people have said an agent will request something from each appointment they have at a conference--simply because it's easier to reject via snail mail rather than face-to-face. What's your stand on this?

I don't know any agent or editor who is afraid to pass on a project. (We get over that kind of squeamishness real quick.) Sometimes we say yes because we don't have enough information to say no. The idea might be interesting but until we see the writing we won't know.

As to whether it is easier to reject via snail mail, nothing could be further from the truth. Any submission that comes to us takes time to evaluate, to respond to and to mail back.

When I ask for a proposal, I'm committing a chunk of time, a serious evaluation and the inevitable burden of guilt that comes when I can't get back to a writer in a timely fashion. Nope, for me, I don't invite submissions lightly.

Can you share with writers some specifics of what you're looking for now?

I'm looking for writers with a well-developed style, writers who are distinctive-- different from every other writer out there. I love books that make me look at things in a new way. I'm always looking for those stories I can't forget-- the books that make me better for having read them.

As for specifics, it's easier to talk about what I'm not looking for. I'm not looking for children's or YA, fantasy or SciFi. To consider a mystery it has to be something out-of-the-ordinary. I'm not drawn to adventure, political intrigue or end times.

I do know I'd love to find a great gothic writer who can sustain that brooding atmosphere throughout. I'm very interested in multi-cultural writers who can open the door to their own brand of the American experience. I love women's fiction that's not issue driven and I love a good southern novel.

I guess most of all, though, I love to be surprised by great writing. If I found a fantasy adventure with end times overtones that was so well written I couldn't put the thing down, I'd eat all the words above.

What are you looking forward to the most about the upcoming conference?

People. Reconnecting with writers/editors/friends. Spending time with some of my clients. Making new friends.

We've all shared the horror stories of worst pitches, stalking of agents/editors, and most horrible moment. What BEST moment of an ACFW conference can you tell us about?

There are so many best moments. I think the time spent getting to know each other around the meal tables is the best. I'm guessing I've found more writers I wanted to represent over meals than at the one-on-one appointments. There's something about seeing each other in a natural setting, watching how people interact and hearing about the writer from their friends that is far more meaningful for me.

Thank you so much for stopping by and giving of your time to answer my questions. Any parting words?

An agent/author relationship may be one of the most important of your career. It's almost like a marriage. (And we know that love at first sight is rare.) It's going to take time to find the right agent. We're probably going to have to meet more than once before we feel comfortable enough to make the decision to work together. Don't set unrealistic goals like, "I'm going to find an agent this conference," or "If I don't get positive responses with my appointments, I'm hanging up my career."

It just doesn't work like that. You keep writing, keep going to conferences, keep getting better. We'll keep meeting. I keep watching you, keep evaluating. When the time is right, it happens. I'm thankful that God is the one in control here— it takes the burden off both of us.

Camy here: Thanks a bunch, Wendy!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Backstory should foster more questions

I got this tip on backstory from Brandilyn Collins:

Any knowledge you give to the reader has to cause the reader to ask more questions.

Let me repeat that: Any knowledge you give to the reader has to cause the reader to ask more questions.

What that means for you as the writer is that any narrative or backstory has to be very carefully chosen and given.

Any narrative or backstory has to have a very specific purpose for the story, and that narrative or backstory should work to make the reader ask more questions about the character or storyline.

You want to foster that sense of “What’s going on?” for the reader that will make the reader keep reading in order to find out.

For example:

He sidled up to Anna, two hundred pounds of male testosterone, smelling faintly of tobacco and whiskey. “Hey, good lookin’, want some company?”

She saw through his rough-and-ready façade. He worked for the Evil Triumvirate. She had crossed three state lines to try to escape them, but they’d found her at last. She had to find a way to get away from him. It was a crowded bar—hopefully that would be to her advantage.

Her shoulders slammed into place, rigid as iron bars. “No, thanks.”


He sidled up to Anna, two hundred pounds of male testosterone, smelling faintly of tobacco and whiskey. “Hey, good lookin’, want some company?”

He wasn’t what he seemed. How many state lines would she have to cross to get away from them?

Her shoulders slammed into place, rigid as iron bars. “No, thanks.” Her eye darted around the room. There—she headed toward a rowdy crowd of twenty-somethings at the bar.

In the second example, you keep the aura of mystery about who he is, who she is, and you show her intention to lose him with her actions, not telling it with her narrative thoughts.

Go through your manuscript and look for sections of narrative and backstory—even short paragraphs. Try to rewrite it to only give information that would make the reader ask more questions.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Some tips for using flashbacks

Flashbacks can be great things because they show backstory in real time, versus just narrative (which is “telling” rather than “showing”).

However, they tend to slow the reading flow—either with the content of the flashback or the initial transition into the flashback. So you have to place and use flashbacks very judiciously.

1—Be careful about WHEN you go into flashback. Since the transition will slow the reading flow, specifically time your flashback for when you want to create a lull in the reading pace, maybe after a tense or conflicted scene.

2—Be careful about HOW you go into flashback. The best thing is to have the flashback triggered by a very significant event in the story. Don’t just morph into a flashback from a scene that’s already meandering, or else you could lose reader interest.

3—Make the flashback as CONFLICTED and TENSE as you can. The transition is already going to slow the reading pace, so make the flashback powerful and vivid to keep the reading flow going smoothly. Use the principles of Scene and Sequel from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I have several articles based on Swain here.

Go back over your manuscript and find your flashback scenes. Can you rewrite the scenes for more vividness? Can you change their placement for better story rhythm? Can you find a better trigger for the flashback?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Emotions and contrast

One great way to show emotion is with contrast. You can contrast the character’s emotions to another character, or maybe the surroundings.

The man’s gaze didn’t waver, and she shivered in the hot noon sunlight.

She turned away from the child’s sunshine smile, sodden and shivering from the thunderstorm in her heart.

Contrast can both intensify the emotion and enable ways for you to be creative in your emotional writing. Don’t fall back on clichés (like I did in the first example above, although the second example isn’t too bad). Be original and richly emotional at the same time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How to Network at a Conference, part two: Questions to ask

(Part One is here.)

When I first started going to conferences, I had the Hello down pat, but couldn’t think of what to say after that. I had to learn the art of conversation, but I discovered it’s actually not that hard.

More than a list of questions to remember—which you won’t remember when you’re nervous and meeting people—here are a few tips on how to keep the conversation going.

Keep up with publishing news. This is useful for conversation with editors, agents, and even writers. You can ask editors questions about their publishing house based on information you might have read, or you can ask the agent questions about a certain genre market.

For example, there were several personnel changes in a specific publishing house in a short period of time, and I had read about it. I chatted with an employee for that publishing house at a conference and asked her how things were going, if things had settled into a routine, if the personnel was replaced yet, etc.

Keep yourself well informed, not just marginally informed, so you can ask INTELLIGENT QUESTIONS. You don’t want to ask about the historical fiction market if there’s nothing going on. However, say it’s doing poorly—you can maybe ask a question about where the agent/editor thinks it’ll go in the next few years, or if they think it’ll upswing soon.

Keep up with book titles. Being well-informed about authors and titles, and especially knowing their publishing houses, is good for starting conversations with editors and authors. You can talk about titles you’ve read or heard about, and ask about any titles they mention that you haven’t heard about.

For example, I chatted with a marketing director from NavPress and was able to talk to them about their most recent titles. Obviously, I hadn’t read them all, but I mentioned that I’d heard wonderful things about Sharon Hinck’s The Restorer and Tosca Lee’s Demon. The NavPress marketing director also mentioned a couple titles I hadn’t heard of, so I immediately asked her about them.

Ask people about themselves. You obviously don’t want to get too nosy, but friendly questions about themselves will usually get people chatting. Women typically like talking about their children. Anyone in the publishing industry will enjoy talking about what they’re reading now.

This is an easy conversation to keep going, because you can also mention books you’re reading and enjoying (or not enjoying). Although be careful about bashing books in public—you don’t want to be complaining about a Zondervan book to a Zondervan editor or marketing director.

Once the person mentions something about themselves, jump onto that. Ask questions, or mention your own personal experience in relation to it.

When I did my first booksigning, since the book was Sushi for One, I asked people if they ever ate sushi. Some people would go on about their experiences, others said, “No.” So I asked what foods they did like. They usually gave a little more information, and I’d ask questions based on what they said. If they said they liked Mexican, I’d mention a great Mexican dive near my house that I enjoy eating at, and asked if they had a favorite restaurant.

Present yourself as real and authentic, but upbeat and positive. For your own side of the conversation, don’t degenerate to whining or complaining about things. It tends to give a negative first impression for you. Venting is for when you’re with your friends—keep a lid on it with strangers.

Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Fakers are easy to spot. Don’t try to be someone you think they want you to be like. Try to relax and just be yourself (a positive version of yourself)—be real and authentic.

(And if you’re not a positive person at all, then that’s something you will need to take up with God and a counselor. No one—whether an editor, agent, or Joe Schmoe on the street—likes talking with someone who’s always negative or complaining.)

Remember to listen. I mentioned this in my previous article, but this is worth mentioning again. Listen closely to what they’re saying. Don’t be thinking about your next question to ask them, or worrying about what to say, etc.

If you listen to their answer, you can better know what question to ask next, or what you can say to continue the conversation. The conversation always goes better if your next statement is based on what they just said, using that as a jumping-off point.

If you’re still unsure, PRACTICE. Get some friends to call you on the phone or meet with you in person and pretend to be a stranger. Practice your skills on continuing conversations.

Networking is definitely a skill you can learn. Practice at home, and you’ll be ready for conferences.

Monday, July 16, 2007

How to Network at a conference

I am not a natural extrovert, but I exert myself when I’m at a conference because I want to meet people. However, since I’m not naturally an extrovert, I had to teach myself how to meet people at a booksigning, or while walking the floor of ICRS, or when mingling with writers at a conference.

These are a few tips for writers who are introverts like myself. Much of it is simply common sense or common politeness, but it’s good to reiterate here so you are aware of specific things to avoid doing, and specific things to exert yourself to do.

DON’T go up to chat with someone you know if they’re talking with someone else. Be sensitive. They might be in an important conversation with their agent/editor/publicist/marketing director.

If they wave hi to you but go on talking to the other person, definitely don’t crash their conversation—just keep walking past. However, if they pause the conversation to give you a hug or say a few words, then it’s fine for you to approach them.

DON’T gush when you see your favorite author/editor/agent. Be friendly but polite. Remember not to go up to chat with them if they’re in conversation with someone else.

However, if they’re waiting, or not talking to anyone, it’s fine to go up and introduce yourself, as long as you’re professional and not blubbering with stars in your eyes that you’re actually speaking to Francine Rivers or Ted Dekker.

DON’T monopolize the person. A few seconds of chatting—less than a minute—is enough, especially if they’re a stranger.

If they ask you questions and seem to want to continue the conversation for longer than a few seconds, then by all means, be friendly and polite.

If they seem distracted, or it’s obvious they’re waiting for someone, or if there’s someone else who arrives whom they appear to want to talk to, then graciously thank them and say goodbye.

Remember, it’s no reflection on you—it’s just that you’re a stranger, and that person has other people they need/want to network with. You do not want to be remembered as the chatty writer who kept Liz Curtis Higgs from speaking to her editor.

DON’T stalk or follow agents/editors/authors into bathrooms or meeting rooms or anywhere. Come on, people, use some common sense and exercise common courtesy. The place to pitch is at a meal table, in a scheduled appointment, or if you’re in conversation with them and they ask you what you write.

If you’ve approached an agent/editor, introduced yourself, and are in friendly conversation, and if you politely ask if you could pitch your story to them and they say yes, then go ahead. However, if they say no, simply smile and thank them. Do not dissolve into hysterics.

DON’T offer your business card unless the conversation has been long and friendly, or if they offer their business card first. It’s pushy to force your card on someone to whom you haven’t talked for a substantial amount of time or have just been introduced, because in doing so, it’s obvious you’re networking for your own purposes.

It’s tempting to want to keep connected with someone like Karen Ball when you meet her, but unless she’s shown interest in you personally or professionally, don’t force your card on her. Wait for her to offer her card first.

DO make extra effort to SMILE. A lot. Many introverts don’t smile because they’re nervous, but not smiling can make your expression look cold or uninterested. So practice smiling and loosen up your facial muscles before heading into a crowd.

DO wear clothes that are professional, yet that you feel completely comfortable in. Nothing tight, binding, too loose, too short. Spend extra money on clothes you like to wear, that make you look professional, that won’t cause you any type of discomfort.

Why is this important? Because if you’re worrying about the waistband cutting into your stomach or the potential for your pinned bra to slip and show itself, you won’t be comfortable talking to people.

DO introduce yourself whenever possible and polite. For example, if you see a friend, and she waves you over and hugs you, then at the first polite break in the conversation, introduce yourself to the person she was speaking to. “Hi, my name is …” and a smile and an outstretched hand. Not hard, even for an introvert, right?

This serves several purposes—you’re networking by meeting someone new, and you’re including them in your conversation with your friend, so they don’t feel excluded.

DO keep your nametag visible, because often it’s so noisy that the person can’t hear your name when it’s mentioned, so they’ll read it off your nametag.

DO spend more time listening than talking when meeting strangers. People like to talk about themselves, even introverted people, so ask a few friendly questions and listen as they talk to you.

If they don’t talk much, ask more questions, or maybe interject with a short anecdote of your own, but do try to encourage them to speak. This will help them loosen up and feel more comfortable around you.

DO take a Media Training class beforehand if you anticipate any type of radio or video interviews while at a conference.

For unpublished writers, a Media Training class is useful to teach a bit of poise when speaking to strangers, so I recommend this option for them, too. If not a Media Training class, at least some public speaking experience—such as Toastmasters—can help you gain more confidence in simply talking with people.

I hope these tips give you a better idea of how you can work a conference. You don’t have to be a winning personality—you only have to be yourself, polite and friendly.

Check out Part Two: Questions to Ask

Thursday, July 05, 2007

On haitus, and a question for you

I'm at ICRS until late next week.

Also, any particular writing craft or business topics you want me to cover on this Story Sensei blog?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Don’t forget the emotion

Sometimes a scene will seem flat. It might be because you need to add more emotion to the scene. The richness of physical description, character actions, dialogue, thoughts.

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, the very first thing Dwight Swain talks about is emotion, because it’s one of the important aspects of fiction writing.

No matter if you write action, women’s fiction, suspense, or chick lit, emotion is the key factor in any scene. Whether it’s your hero’s dogged determination and rush of adrenaline as he runs from an exploding oil refinery, or it’s your heroine’s angst and frustration at her matchmaking, meddling mother. Emotion is what drives the character, and rivets the reader to the action or drama on the page.

When you read your scene, what emotions do you feel? What emotions do you want to feel? Focus on the emotion and write it—write what matters to you, what you want the reader to care about. Ramp up the emotion in your scene to give it depth and vitality.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Common problems in first person POV, part three

First person internal thoughts also tend to be a lot of backstory, which slows down the reading flow. It might be fun and quirky narrative, but it’s still a backstory dump however you look at it.

Mom ran off years ago with the family lawyer, and while I can’t say Dad was all that great, the lawyer was worse. She finally clued in when she found him groping his admin in his office one day. Mom, being Mom, told him, “I have decided to seek new legal representation.” And then she walked out.

Anyway, the entire incident has made her gunshy about hiring any lawyers, which is why she now bothers me to bother my boyfriend, who will give her free legal counsel without the inconvenience of actually paying for it. Gasp!

The cure for this is the same as in third person POV:

a) Give only snippets of backstory, not a whole bunch at once.

b) Mention backstory only when it’s absolutely vital to the current action.

c) Make a character absolutely need to know—that way your reader will also absolutely need to know. And don’t give the backstory easily—make a character have to fight to get it out of the other one.

d) Create emotional intensity attached to the backstory. Someone repeating an old piece of gossip isn’t going to have the same impact on the reader as someone who had been intimately involved in the incident confessing it to someone else.

“Mom, I am not going to ask Jim about custody laws.”

“Why not?” She shoves her hands on her hips, making her seem larger, but I refuse to back down.

“Because he’s a contract lawyer.”

“He at least would have an idea.”

“He’s also not being paid.” I cross my arms and eye her narrowly.

She rolls her eyes. “He’s your boyfriend. The least he could do is give a little advice to your mother.”

“A little advice? This is the third time this month you’ve come to ask a legal question.”

She shrugs. “I’ve had a lot of questions this month. Shoot me.”

I’m tempted. “Why don’t you just hire your own?”

Her face turns red like the beets in my garden. “I’m not hiring another lawyer, ever!” She stamps her foot.

I set my jaw. “Mom, I’m tired of your tantrums about this.”

She gasps. “Don’t you talk to me that way, young lady—”

“You’re being completely unreasonable about hiring lawyers.”

“Oh, so it’s not unreasonable to find your lawyer sleeping with his admin?”

“So your lover cheated on you. You cheated on Dad when you ran off with him in the first place.”

“Your father was a pig. And lawyers are pigs, too.”

“If you’d run off with the family doctor instead, would you never go to the hospital?”

Don’t use internal thoughts to give backstory. Look through your manuscript and rewrite anywhere you have backstory dumps in the narrative.
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