As August draws to a close, there are a couple of failsafe signals that fall is coming: the temperature has returned to windows-open level, the days are growing shorter, and half the emails in my inbox have to do with Bouchercon.
The mystery genre’s largest conference, Bouchercon is a four-day orgy of shop talk and writing tips, packed with opportunities to meet your literary heroes in the bar or blow the mortgage in the bookseller’s room. For hundreds of hopeful authors, it also means something else: the dreaded agent pitch.
As a guy who signed with an agent less than a year ago, I relate. So with Bouchercon a month a way, I thought I’d share some of the tricks I picked up, in the hope they’ll help someone else.
GOOD NEWS / BAD NEWS
In the old days, authors used to submit to editors directly. Today, most of the big houses won't accept unsolicited submissions. To get read at a major house, you need an agent.
But here's the good news: agents want books. Desperately. People become agents because they love good books. All you have to do is show them that yours is a good book.
First impressions matter. Dress appropriately — business casual— and greet them with a smile and a handshake. It's easy to be nervous, but remember, these folks want what you're trying to sell. So take a deep breath, wipe your palms off, and let them see that you believe in yourself.
You paid for your book with sweat and tears. Don't skimp on your pitch. Write it in advance to make it as compelling as possible. Here's the pitch I used for The Blade Itself:
Danny Carter used to be the man with the plan, a cool-headed criminal who always made the smart play. But these days he doesn't think about his past. He's built a normal life, with a job, a long-term girlfriend, and a condo as far as possible from the blue-collar streets where he grew up.
But when his former partner Evan is released from prison, Danny's carefully constructed world begins to crumble. Evan is now a hardened killer with dreams of a big score. He wants to ransom the son of Danny's millionaire boss — and he needs Danny's help.
Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.
Refusing could cost him his life.
It's a character-driven thriller about 90,000 words long, in the tradition of Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos.
Can I send you the first 50 pages?
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Notice how brief that is? The goal is to trim out subplots and side characters, and boil the plot down to its essence. Get people excited with the idea.
Also, you shouldn’t expect the agent to remember a lot of names. They're listening to this, not reading it, and they may hear a hundred more over the course of a conference. To assure you don’t lose them, use the name of your main character and refer to others by their role.
Lastly, and this is crucial, the pitch must establish the stakes. What is at risk? We read novels to see how characters perform in situations we've never had to face. There has to be risk, and you need to lay it out clearly.
KNOW YOUR STORY, KNOW YOUR PITCH
While there's no rule against bringing notes or a printed sheet into a pitch, it doesn't inspire confidence.
At the same time, don't memorize word for word, or you'll seem mechanical. Instead, read it over and over until you have the gist down cold. That way you'll be fresh and engaging. Don't worry if you don't say every single word you wrote.
RESPECT THEIR TIME
For an agent, attending pitch sessions can be grueling. They're locked in a tiny room in the basement of a hotel, listening to a series of strangers. Sure, they're panning for gold. But there's a lot of mud to sift through.
That means that one of the best things you can do is be brief. Sessions are often scheduled to last ten minutes; be able to finish your pitch in one. Don't worry that you won't hit every detail. You’ll have allowed plenty of time for the agent to ask questions. And with brevity, you demonstrate that you understand the rules of storytelling well enough to clearly explain your own.
Besides, an author who leaves an agent time to go to the bathroom and get a cup of coffee is an author who can count on that agent's goodwill.
If you’ve been confident, prepared, and respectful of their time, chances are good an agent will ask you to send a partial (usually the first 50 pages) or even the whole manuscript. Congratulations!
When you send it, include a brief cover letter reminding them where you met and summarizing your story. Be sure to mark the envelope or email REQUESTED MATERIALS in big black letters. Agents get hundreds of blind submissions a week, and you don't want to be lumped in with them.
After all, you were pitch perfect.