Tag Archives: pitching

How I Tripped Over My Literary Agent

When I started calling myself a ‘legit’ writer, I sought out a lot of people in the industry. Those adventures never went the way I wanted. More often than not, I left the meeting frustrated that I didn’t get what I asked for.

No one gave feedback on my query letter, but they’d tell me how to construct a good story. As much as I had failed in my perceived mission, I got the tools I needed to plot my course long-term. They were all fruitful meetings.

What held me back and made me frustrated was the need to achieve a finite goal at the expense of a broader one. The Law of Attraction, prayer, and to some extent Being Positive are all finite, specific requests. They’re the north star – fixed high above everything else. How would it be to set sail, when you could only utilize that one star — glossing over the waves, the angles of the wind, the sounds of the boat, and the salt in the air?

What can you ask the wind?
Can you make demands of the sea and be understood?

Fixating on one specific want may make you miss the aid you need, and greatly annoy your friends who deal with your venting.

I met my agent, Lynn Brown, completely by accident. At the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, I did agent speed dating. Basically, you have three minutes to impress the agent you sit with. Not only was Lynn not planning to take queries at that conference, she wound up at speed dating as a place holder for someone else. While on line for a more well-known agent, I caught a glimpse of something shiny — her earrings, she always has fabulous earrings — and wandered over to her table. I just wanted to practice pitching my book. I had no idea who she was, and the agent’s name on the table clearly wasn’t hers.

She wasn’t planning to take submissions, and I took a risk hopping out of a long line to pitch to someone who wasn’t on my list. Neither of us had any expectations; but we discovered we have the same vision.

I couldn’t have planned that.

Whether it’s the business side — like marketing and networking — or the intuitive side – like listening to your characters — a wide net helps more than a narrow one. Hell, making friends follows this model. So too does the flow of your story. You can’t know where a relationship will lead. All you can do is keep your eyes peeled and mind open — ready for whatever comes.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

But, instead of what our imagination makes us suppose and which we worthless try to discover, life gives us something that we could hardly imagine.”
― Marcel Proust


Serendipity ain’t just a book by Stephen Cosgrove




Researching Comp Titles #SFWC2014

There are a number of materials you need to have ready to go when you start pitching your work to an agent. A small, but significant part of this preparation is knowing your comp titles.

I stole a most eloquent definition for “Comp Titles” from Above the Treeline:

Comp Title:  noun, Comparable (comp) titles are other already published books that are used as a comparison on which to base opening orders for a new title by helping to predict its performance.

This should be an apples-to-apples comparison; in which your work is similar in genre, target audience (kids/YA/adult), and perhaps even subject matter. Ideally, the example you choose is not only accurate, but an example of a successful book. Bonus points if it’s a successful book that the agent you’re pitching to has represented.

Sometimes it’s a clear match. I’m dating myself here, but the Bad News Ballet series and The Babysitter’s Club are pretty comparable to each other.

Sometimes you may have to fake it. For example, Ender’s Game and the first Harry Potter book both center on a young boy going off to school; but beyond that you’re going to have to make a really good argument for their similarities. Think about where these books get shelved in the bookstore (genre, age group they’re aimed at, etc), on top of what they’re actually about.

Researching comp titles is handy for both you and the agent. To the agent, the comp titles help them figure out how the book is marketed to publishers and also to the public. It indicates the business path your work is likely to follow.

Your business path is vital for your own knowledge as well. Looking for work that’s similar to yours gives you a much better sense of the market. For a lot of us, we write the stories we wish we had growing up. The market — the world, for that matter — has changed a lot since then. Best case scenario, you’ll start reading and learning from authors with whom you have a great deal in common. If you find work that’s extremely similar to yours; don’t fret. It means there are kindred spirits out there in authors — and an entire readership.

Pretty exciting, huh?

You can reverse-engineer it as well. Go to the books you really adore and grab one that has a lot in common with your own. Read the publishing information in the front. Read the author’s acknowledgements in the back. Amidst the friend and family names, their editor and agent are probably listed as well. If you can make an argument for it, that’s a comp title. Go to their website and see if they’re taking submissions.

Even if you fake it ’til you make it, getting others to read your work is the goal. If you can do that, the world is your oyster.

“We…we could be friends.’
We COULD be rare specimens of an exotic breed of dancing African elephants, but we’re not. At least, I’M not.
— Neil Gaiman (Coraline)

So obscure are the greatest events, as some take for granted any hearsay, whatever its source, others turn truth into falsehood, and both errors find encouragement with posterity.
— Tacitus

(Rammstein, Sonne)
What’s similar? Different? Where do you fit on the shelf?

San Francisco Writers Convention – Pitchquest

This post is a bit long. Last weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, from 7am to 11pm, I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference.

It was extraordinary.

At the crossroads of opportunity and enthusiasm I had to take a second and stop — think about where I was on my writing path — and decide where I wanted to go. I had a completed manuscript and was ready to put it out there; so I mostly focused on pitching and marketing panels. I think I might have had more fun at the craft panels. No agents were harmed over the course of the weekend; but everyone wound up happily exhausted anyway. I’ll post my notes in the next few days.

Katharine Sand’s pitchcraft and pitch-a-thon started us off right on the first day. Most of us thought a pitch was a query letter, after reading them aloud we found out how wrong we were. We had to get a place, a person, and a pivot (or hook) as quickly as possible. I pulled out: “In an isolated kingdom, a monster raised by humans must rescue the queen and prove her innocense even if it means losing her family forever.”

Katharine Sands and Sorche Fairbank tore my pitch to shreds. Formula was good, but the world wasn’t clear. The idea of “monster” wasn’t clear. If you invent a system, you need to show it.

That bubbled in my head all the way through to the next morning.

Good thing, too, as almost everyone there was learning how to pitch. Asking to practice pitching was the easiest and quickest way to build a rapport with a stranger. We were all in this together, with the agent speed-dating right around the corner.

By speed-dating, I mean we have three minutes to sit in front of an agent and impress them. Boiling the pitch down to its barest bones, hopefully, would invite the agent to ask questions about the story, your background, your blog, and comp titles.Three minutes is not a lot of time to impress someone.

I met with an editor, Heather Lazare, to talk a bit more about my book. We reviewed my query letter, and I listened to what she said was interesting in the hopes I could frame my pitch around it. She said that as much as I captured the plot, all the interesting stuff — the worldbuilding, basically — was missing from the query.

I left her musing about the pitch, and re-writing it for the 12th or 13th time.

As the conference went on I met non-fiction authors, memoir authors, men who were trying to write YA women with no clue as to what women want or how they communicate. They were all kind and fascinating people, and I pitched to all of them. I heard a lot of really neat story concepts, from the pogroms that forced Jews out of Iraq, to life in various communes, to high-school activists escaping to Mexico. I did my best to help people winnow their pitches down as much as possible. During one of our wonderful lunches, one of my new friends and I must have passed a notebook back and forth nine times before we figured out how to frame her story.

After doing that for a day and a half, I had almost given up hope. I was so frustrated with my pitch I wasn’t sure if it would work. I even pitched to featured guest Julie Kagawa who, with infinite patience, gave me feedback and chatted with me about the industry and the time she almost met Neil Gaiman.

About an hour before my friend and travel-buddy Margit Sage went into her pitch session, it hit me.

“My fantasy novel is called ***. Pax, a Banmar raised by humans to hide her corrosive magic, is forced to choose between the humans she loves and the feral race that abandoned her.”

Ooh, said Margit. I think you’ve got it.

I went to the speed-dating session.

Who are the Banmar, the agents asked. Why is magic corrosive, they asked. Is it finished, they asked.

Would you send me pages, they asked.

That pitch, born of complete exhaustion, earned me a request for pages from every agent I spoke to. I sat with a non-fiction agent by mistake, and wound up talking to him about my monastery journal. I also pitched to an agent I knew wasn’t interested in my genre; but she agreed to forward pages to her colleague. With the time left over, I told her about my friend Lauren Sapala’s work. It felt really good to get out of that session and shoot off a text saying, I hope your manuscript is ready because I just pitched your book and got a request for pages.

As for the cherry on this serendipitous sundae… one of the last panels I went to was about turning books into movies. The producer running the panel asked us to pitch to her and offered critique. One of the other writers said my story reminded her of Frozen. The producer asked me to lunch afterward.

Now I’m sending out submissions and thank-you notes, with a moment to think back on it all. It was as if everything I was afraid of, how unready I felt, how sad I had been, had been smoothed over by this experience. I feel brave and validated for having gone. I’m so grateful to the agents I met and for their answers to my questions — even if this story isn’t a good fit for them right now. I appreciate the other authors, editors and publicists I met, from the terrified newbies to the industry veterans. I’m thankful that I finally have a sense of how to write about my writing. Our public face all boils down to what we stand for… and isn’t that the core of a good story?

Do one thing every day that scares you.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
— Sun Tzu


Sleep tight, Wee Ninja. You earned it.