Pitching to Agents, The Throat Punching Aspects, Part 2
As I wrote last week, Maddie and I attended a writing conference where we pitched our books to ten agents. I thought long and hard about how much to share about our personal life, as well as the conference we attended and the people I met. I struck a balance on privacy: I am not revealing the names of any of the agents we pitched to, nor am I sharing the names of any of the writers we met–no matter how much I liked them. As far as our privacy, I decided that anyone who’s considering the whole pitching and querying process, or the one-on-one pitching writers do at conferences, may draw some benefit from seeing an inside and unvarnished look at how two writers, a mother and daughter team, worked through a hard day–together. The second part of the story picks up where Part One leaves off: the first pitch Maddie has to make.
Maddie’s first pitch was to a sweet lady who specializes in YA. I knew going into the pitch that we were sort of trying to fit a circle into a square hole. The Third Eye of Cain is not directed at the YA market alone. Although several of the POVs we write through in the novel are teenagers, a few other leading character-narrators are adults. Just to explain for non-writers, novels can be written through three different perspectives: first person; third person; and, omniscient. Maddie and I both write mostly through third person, and we like to go with third person shifting POV, which means that when a scene changes, a different character is followed, and the reader only sees the world through their eyes. Shifting third person POV is very effective because it allows you to paint different facets of your fictional world. This approach has plenty of fans and it is not revolutionary. However, the YA world apparently doesn’t like writers to shift POVs. Or so we found out during this pitch.
As another aside, I have the same issue with Off Grid: it shifts POV from teens to adults. Which means the audience for the book could be adults, but it could also be teens or young adults. To me, this an interesting but not overly big issue, but some agents do’t feel the same way. And plenty of readers, not to mention agents, say they’re open to books that cross over between or bend genres, so to speak, but some agents, as well as readers, prefer to remain immersed in one genre at a time, and the YA genre is distinct from the adult genre. In addition, the YA genre has different protocols or accepted stylistic approaches, and one of these is that shifting POVs is or may be a negative against a book.
Once I introduced us, Maddie settled in and got through several paragraphs of her pitch uninterrupted. The agent was young, with long dark hair and a pretty way about her. She said several complimentary things. For one thing, she raised her eyebrow and asked Maddie, “Wow, did you memorize all that? That’s pretty impressive stuff, you did a great job,” and her words didn’t seem insincere. We talked some more, and then got to what I call the denouement. The pregnant moment, where an agent says, “Yes, no or maybe.” The agent raised her issue with the book: she said that in the YA market, books sell better if they follow one POV alone. All the same, she asked us to send her three chapters. We thanked her and headed outside, me to prepare for my third pitch, and Maddie, to make friends with a trim, well-dressed older lady who would end up talking to and eventually exchanging emails with Madeline by the end of the day.
My third pitch was with an editor (rather than an agent) who I can best characterize as sharp, fair but tough. She even had, as do I, a last name that was Polish or Russian. She was attractive, with blonde hair and a well-ironed pants suit. Overall, she looked well kempt and well educated–but tough. And she went right for the jugular as far as analyzing my book: she asked me what my climax was. I knew from talking to another writer that this question was coming, so I handled it just fine. Then the tough editor asked the standard questions about market and writing background. I felt like I was before a stern but reasonable judge or answering questions from a senior lawyer—which is not an uncomfortable place for me. After I worked through all her interrogative words, she came back with a yes of sorts. “Well,” she concluded, “Your novel comes down to voice, and I can only assess it if I read it, go ahead and send me three chapters.”
Once again, I went off in search of Maddie, and we spent the next hour or so chatting with other writers, particularly the older lady Maddie had befriended. We observed writers walking in and out of classrooms. We noticed what folks were wearing and overheard snippets of strange but ordinary writer talk. All writers are, Maddie always says, a little strange, and I defer to her conclusion with a chuckle. I at least fall into this category, I fully admit.
My fourth pitch and final one before lunch was with this lovely human being. I am not going to name any of the agents I met with because I don’t think it’s respectful, but I respected and loved this woman. She’s the same agent who complimented Maddie’s dress, and that alone would be enough to form a judgment as to her character. But she’s got a tremendous resume: she’s had her own radio show, she is a leader among the Christian fiction world, and she has published many well-reviewed books of her own. She’s of middling age, and she has an appearance that I can best describe as friendly and maternal. This kind lady listened to my pitch with actual interest. She leaned forward, her eyes lit up when I spoke, and later in the day I came to the conclusion that she treats everyone like that, because I observed her throughout the afternoon, talking to everyone she came across with the same light in her eyes and interest in the human sitting across the table from her. Anyway, agent #4 said basically the following to me: “Fascinating concept. I don’t take on many novels, but please send me a few pages, and who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with it or I can pass it along to someone who will and will want to work with it.”
It’s funny, how kindness is such a gift in a profession that can be so hard. I talked with Maddie a lot about this kind agent as we shared a turkey sandwich at lunch. “She really does do Christian fic,” I said, “So I’m not sure we’re a fit for her, but I am sure she’ll be awfully kind to you, and she’s your final agent to pitch to, so we have two to look forward to,” and I kept going over her pitch as we shared lunch. I was exhausted. I knew Maddie was too. But, I thought to myself as we walked back to the Intercontinental, I’d gotten through a hard morning.
I felt like my day was almost over, and hers was just starting. I felt like we were going to be okay, if not great, as far as that elusive thing we were searching for: a home for our books, or someone who would like our work enough to take it on professionally. I was cautiously optimistic, and that’s about as good as I do when facing the obstacles that come with trying to bring a book to market via the traditional gatekeeper method. I try to keep my chin up, and remind myself that though my books are different, they will be wanted and are of value.
I simply wasn’t prepared for just how hard Governor 4 could be, until we got back from lunch and were sitting in front of Maddie’s second pitch recipient: the benevolent Canadian man wearing the hat. Right off the bat, I could tell he was just waiting for our ten minutes to pass. He had his hand on his chin, almost covering his mouth, and his body language spoke of disinterest. He listened, more or less, to Maddie’s pitch, which was rough, and it’s because she was reading all the same things I was reading in our listener. When I tried to take over and handle my share of the pitch, market analysis, he interrupted and said, “That’s not necessary, I know the market, I’m an expert on it,” but I’m hard sometimes too. I kept going. I would and did discuss the market–at least for thirty seconds or so, and then we got to the point where he simply said, “You’re welcome to drop me a line, but this probably isn’t for me.”
Maddie looked drained, and I summoned all the energy I had left to buttress both of us. After all, we had the tough editor in twenty minutes. And we couldn’t sit there, like beaten dogs, but we both felt the pressure at this point. It was almost two, and neither one of us had a full manuscript request. I was thinking about everything, from the price of the hotel room, to the cost of the conference, to the potential audience for The Third Eye of Cain, to how much more my co-writer could take. “Don’t worry,” I said, “This next lady is tough but she’s fair, it will be fine.”
But from the moment we sat in front of the tough but fair blonde editor, I realized things were far from fine. This pitch occurred in the middle of the room, where the noise was at its highest decibel rating. This meant that the now tired editor (after all, she had thirty authors or so on her schedule) had to work harder to hear us. From a simple physical standpoint, the editor couldn’t hear Maddie very well, and Maddie’s voice was quieter than usual. Because the editor couldn’t hear Maddie, she kept interrupting and asking questions. On top of that, she had no interest in following Maddie’s memorized spiel. If anything, she was annoyed at the very thought of a memorized spiel, and she took her annoyance out on this newbie, seemingly soft-spoken first-time writer. She asked questions that interrupted her own questions, and throughout all this, Maddie’s voice grew even softer.
Indeed, at this moment I was realizing Maddie was at risk of losing her voice altogether. She’d been swallowing cough drops all morning. She’s not used to talking all day. Unlike me, Maddie has never taken a full jury trial or deposed witnesses for hours on end. She speaks well, and she’s improving constantly at public speaking (indeed, facing the right circumstances, she is a damn good orator, and will became a consistently good speaker as she grows), but she was facing a hard crowd of one. On top of that, and also in contrast to me, Maddie is a classic introvert. She really just wants to write—all day, if possible. Whereas I can talk all day. After the editor got to her climax of her annoyance, she started to lecture us, her eyes fixed on Maddie. “Look, you need to have an elevator pitch, a one sentence summary of your book, not some long canned spiel.”
I should have interrupted then and there, because of course we have an elevator pitch. Here it is, for sake of posterity:
Three thousand years in the future, a technologically advanced dictator controls the world, and the only hope for humanity is nine Chosen humans, who are the personified elements of nature.
It’s one of the first things we wrote while we worked on the synopsis and on rewrites about three drafts ago, this summer. But I couldn’t get a word in, nor did I feel like begging or explaining or apologizing. If anything, I wanted to argue, but this wouldn’t do us any good. And I realized that the editor needed for some reason to vent. So I did what I could: I tried to explain the book and why it had a market, but the time was flying past, and I knew that nothing I said was gonna sway her. She did finish the sentence with a halfhearted, “Congratulations on finishing your first novel,” and we got up and left the room, both of us blushing.
“Oh my god,” Maddie mouthed to me.
“Yeah, um, let’s go upstairs and talk,” I murmured. We took the elevator almost in silence.
Once we got in the room, Maddie exploded in anger. “Did she need to be such a bitch?”
“No,” I said. And then I talked at length. I said I was sorry it went like that, and a lot of other things. Then I asked my co-writer, “Do you want to do your last two pitches, or should I take over?”
Maddie shook her head. “I’m doing them.”
Please stay tuned for the next installment, which talks about how we finished strong.
As a reader I resent books which are sandwhiched into one genre. The cross-over suits me much better.
And I mourn that you met with rudeness and disinterest. A professional should know better. A professional should do better.