How not to pitch an agent

Call me Captain Obvious, but after reading a lot—and I mean a LOT—of advice about face-to-face pitching story ideas to agents, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it when the time really came due. So much of it was contradictory, or impossible to do at once, or over the top, or not applicable. So here is my list, after taking myself to my first writer’s conference, of what not to do, as obvious as some of these items may seem. I’m not saying I did these things, but I or someone I noticed did each of the things in this list.

  1. Don’t use your pitch time or session for anything other than your finished work. They want to think you’re really into the thing you’ve written, and hello, you need to show you’re a closer and can finish a project.
  2. Don’t get so into memorizing your pitch that you’re a nervous wreck when you sit down to pitch. I’m going to put on my usability evaluator’s hat and remind folks that we humans hear differently than we read. A few interesting words are fine, but agents aren’t going to dissect your perfect language by ear. I like the notecard approach, personally. You know your project, be confident you’ll advocate for it well, and leave the memorization to the . . . memorizers.
  3. Don’t leave at the last minute to go to your pitch session. I don’t see how huffing and puffing and wiping sweat off one’s brow emits a glow of success. As I’m a classic overthinker, I also need to not give too much ramp-up time to myself, or I’ll work myself into a different kind of stress aura. Ten minutes beforehand to leave the workshop session, etc., is perfect.
  4. Don’t waste your pitch time blowing smoke up the agent’s ass. They have to endure this so often some may have mounted smoke detectors inside their underwear. Which I guess would make it hard to sit, but that’s not the point. I think there’s a middle range agents like to see—where the writer knows a bit about their client list and book selections, and can compare their work with each. But there’s no point to looking like a stalker-in-waiting. That’s just freaky.
  5. Don’t be an island unto yourself. Agents and editors and everyone in the book publishing business expects that writers are good readers—that we have knowledge of the other books in our genre of interest, that we know how to avoid duplicating other well known (or even somewhat known) plots and characters, that we want to contribute to the literature generally. Acting like we’ve been so well holed up in our literary caves that we don’t know what’s going on in the field won’t play well once the agent asks herself how we’ll market ourselves, because the answer will come back that we’ll look like asses.
  6. For email queries, don’t rush querying. I know, I finished my memoir and went straight to the “How to Query an Agent” blogs and books. It was like a hot potato in my pocket, that manuscript. Hey, I have big pockets, okay? Go back and make it tighter. Hack out sections that really don’t need to be there. Let it sit in the drawer for a while and in the meantime, go fishing, catch a movie or *gasp* read a book. When you finally sit down, after all of that, to write your query letter, spend some quality time with it. What was the point in writing the best book ever if you’re just going to send out a half-baked query? The query is the singer of the band—the bassist may be great, but very few people will get past poor singing to notice the bass.
  7. If an agent says no, leave them be and don’t hound them. One agent at the conference I attended says she receives the same query every day, starting more than a year ago. She’s never going to say yes to this person’s project. While that may be an extreme example, it’s a good reminder to respect an agent’s no. Keep refining your pitch and researching which other agents might be better advocates for your work.

I say all this in the midst of getting turned down for representation after the same agent asked for my partial manuscript, book proposal, and then full manuscript. That’s a long way to go in the process just to be rejected. It’s not easy, for sure, but I tell myself that if my project didn’t have any merit, I wouldn’t have heard back from anyone, much less the half dozen who’ve shown interest. And at least I know now that I should cut it down to about 80,000 words. It may be my baby, but heck, I’m trying to sell my baby, so who am I to complain about cutting it a little?

Okay, bad metaphor there. I do not encourage traumatizing babies, let me just point that out.

Writers, put yourselves out there. Keep pushing to be better. One of these agents, one of these days, is going to say yes.

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