Pitching at Conferences



I’m back boys and girls, ladies and gents! What kept me away? Well, it was a bit of good news. I have three literary agents interested in my work. Cool beans! I’m so excited. That’s what’s been eating up my time, preventing me from posting. But I promise to make this blog a weekly event. There is so much to share.

How did I get these agents interested? I attended a writers conference is how. Agents, editors and publishers frequent writers conferences all over the country in search of that fresh new voice. Believe it when I tell you that they are actually desperate. Sure we’re getting rejected constantly by them, but that hasn’t curbed their enthusiasm for more new writers. And we must meet this demand by going to writers conferences and pitching to them.

From August 17-20th, I attended the 2017 Writer’s Digest Writers Conference, with one of my Climbing Ivies of Blackrock partners, Justine. This was the second year in a row that I attended. I’ll write about some of the workshops at this conference in a future post. But what’s so special about this conference is that it has a Pitch Slam where aspiring writers can pitch their book ideas to a plethora of literary agents in speed dating style fashion. Last year, when I attended this conference, I did not participate in the Pitch Slam. With no manuscript to pitch, I was too scared to create one to pitch. But this year, though I was still scared, I had a story idea I felt worthy of pitching to the agents in attendance and decided to suck it up.

How did I prepare? I studied and crammed like I was back in school preparing for a test. That’s what part of your pitch is you know — a test to see how much you are familiar with your own story. The more you know your story inside and out, the more you are able to break it down to its component parts, the better you will be able to relate that story to agents and make them feel engaged in your subject matter.

For two weeks, I distilled my story down to two paragraphs. When starting a novel, you should have a one or two paragraph synopsis that you know well enough. You should also have a two sentence log line that you should be able to rattle off with ease. From these two concepts you chisel out your pitch.

One of the rules of the Pitch Slam was that each writer was given three minutes per agent. We were given an hour to try and meet as many agents as possible. I was able to see only three agents because most agents didn’t pay attention to the three minute limit if they were positively engaged with a writer. While waiting for one particular agent I was burned by this. On the flip side, I was aided twice by being able to spend well over three minutes with two different agents.

Knowing I had in theory only three minutes to spend with an agent, I managed to get my pitch down to 40 seconds allowing more that enough time for the agent to ask me questions. For a week and a half, I practiced that pitch over and over. I enlisted my wife to randomly ask for my pitch at odd hours and in odd places. One time she asked me right before I went to bed. Another time she asked me from the shower. My co-workers also took part in listening and indiscriminately requesting my pitch. It was most helpful and I greatly appreciated their support.

The day had finally come. The Pitch Slam was on Day 3, which was a Saturday. I scheduled my pitch session for 2pm-3pm. This was the session that took place after lunch. I chose this hour because of something I heard on a podcast once (I think it was Freakanomics Radio or Radiolab, I can’t remember). The gist of it was that the best time to get paroled if your a convict was after lunch. The reason being is that the parole board has had their lunch by 2pm and are well fed and satisfied. You don’t want to be paroled just before lunch because the parole board might be hungry and antsy and take it out on the poor convict who just wants to be released from prison. During my pitch session, the agents looked well fed and not hangry. My critique partner, Justine, had the session before lunch, but she suffered no adverse reactions from the agents; successfully scoring callbacks from 4 out of 5 of them.

What was great for me was that I was able to pick Justine’s brains on what to expect from the Pitch Slam before I went in. Thankfully, she warned me about one agent who was stone-faced throughout the entire process. It just so happened that agent was my number one get!

Now if you’re going to attend one of these pitch slams, you must obtain the list of agents who will be attending beforehand. Study that list. Find out what type of work they are looking for and compile a list of agents who are appropriate for your genre. Then take that list and pick a top three. Go to those agents first. You don’t have time to mess around. I debated if I should’ve gone to a random agent in order to get rid of my nerves, which were off the charts. I couldn’t stop sweating. But I saw the amount of writers in attendance inside that massive meeting room and knew I didn’t have time to waste.

With your featured agents at the top of the list, go to your top agent first. I did this because I needed to rip the bandage off and get it over with. If I failed, I failed. At least I would know where I stood. Justine was right. This agent, who I’ll call Q, was ridiculously stone-faced. Q was not playing around. Q refused to have any sort of expression. I’m sure Q’s heard it all before and was probably a little jaded, so Q didn’t want to give writers any wrong messages or high hopes. Q heard my pitch and true enough I couldn’t read Q’s reaction. Q requested I go into more detail about the amount of magic that was in my story. This almost threw me because I just assumed that if I say my story is a ‘fantasy’ the magic was simply inferred. No. I needed to be clear. That’s on me. And you should be ready to clarify anything and everything in your pitch at a moments notice.

Then Q asked for comps or comparables or comparison titles. Comps are stories  or titles that are similar to your story. You know, the old “it’s Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry” or “Julia Child meets Rain Man” or “Lord of the Rings meets Pacific Rim”. That’s what comps are. Now I know that you hate the idea of your story being compared to anything else. Your story is a unique little flower. Trust me, I get it. But the deal is this, agents want to sell your story to a publisher and to do that the publisher and agent need to know what the market is for your story. The easiest way to do that is to understand what your story is like in relation to what has successfully sold before. The night before the Pitch Slam, I crammed online looking for writers and stories that were similar to my afro-fantasy novel. I found Charles R. Saunders, who is the father of Sword and Soul, an ethnic version of Sword and Sorcery or Sword and Sandal. My story is more medieval though, with Saunders’ work being more tribal and Hyborian Age-like. So I found that 2015 Man Booker Prize Winner, Marlon James, was coming out with a black medieval fantasy trilogy in 2018 called the Dark Star Trilogy. I used them as examples. But Q asked what writer who was currently out now did my story compare to. Luckily, I name checked Nnendi Okorafor for her mystical fantasy style. Q seemed to like that.

Satisfied with these answers Q started to slide their business card across the table to me as Q asked if I had a full manuscript. I told Q I did. It’s nowhere near ready in reality. I told Q it was in revision. But terrified that Q would pull the business card back, I blurted out that the first two chapters were ready to go. Q continued to push the card forward and said to make contact when the full manuscript was ready for me to send.

Taking Q’s card, I was still raw nerves. I managed to thank Q but forgot to shake Q’s hand. We were done with 30 seconds to spare. Success! And on my first try!

Here is something else you need to understand when pitching an agent. Always remember, you don’t want to give the agent any of your work at that moment. They don’t want to carry around your work at that moment either. You don’t give them anything except your pitch. What you do want is to get the agent to give you their information/business card. That’s how it’s done. That’s how you know your pitch was successful.

The other two agents were much smoother sailing going forward. There was P, my other big get, who immediately introduced themselves to me. We even bonded over what borough we had in common. P’s demeanor was very disarming, which helped me calm down big time. P was glad to hear that my work had a protagonist of color in a world of color. P was also very enthusiastic and said, “Your story idea is great, now I need to see that in the writing.” P didn’t want the full manuscript. P only wanted the first 50 pages. He said that he would be able to see if I had “it” or not in those first 50 pages.

Finally there was C. C was icing on the cake because Justine suggested I go to her if I had time. I did have more time so I went. Good thing I did. C was very attentive, supportive and friendly. C liked what I had to say and asked really good questions about my world-building and how ethnicity played into it. She too was glad to see a world of POC. Like Q, C wanted full manuscript though.

I tried to get a fourth agent but ran out of time. Justine and I were so happy that we called the conference a success and didn’t attend any other workshops after that. We achieved what we came to do.

Now in the aftermath of the Pitch Slam, I have once again re-dedicated myself to writing and completing this novel. Everyday after work, I have spent at least two hours at the library to work on my story. Lately, I’ve faced resistance when I try to write at home, because there I get lazy after eating dinner and try to catch up on peak television. So by working at the library, I delay my gratification by putting my time. It would be awesome if I could log 1000 words a day, but that hasn’t happened yet; the most so far has been 800 words. But I am satisfied if I can write 500 words a session. For a novice like me, that is a good pace. I now use a calendar to log in my daily word count. I’ve been averaging between 350-600 words a session. The key, as I have stated in earlier posts, is putting my butt in the seat for an extended period of time. One writer called it TIC or Tush In Chair. If you dedicate yourself to doing that, instead of waiting around for inspiration, the words will come.