The Last Thing An Agent Wants to Hear From You

You’re at a writing conference.  You’ve scheduled your ten minutes with someone from New York you’ve never heard of. 

That person is an agent, and this is your shot.

The pleasantries are over.  You’ve introduced yourself, you’ve both commented on how wonderful this hotel is and how funny the morning keynote guy was.

Your butterflies begin to settle down.  This agent seems nice, not the bored been-here-heard-that intimidator you expected.

You’ll throw up later, but for now, in that awkward pause between hellos and getting down to business, you believe you’re ready.

That’s when the agent says it.  Or some form of it

So what are you working on?  Tell me about your story.

And suddenly all those butterflies are back.

The next thirty seconds will decide the fate of this relationship.

Because you are now at a crossroads.  You have two choices. 

You can do this properly and demonstrate your mastery – not only of your story, but of the craft of storytelling – or you can make the most common mistake in the business. 

At least when it comes to pitching agents at writing conferences and in elevators.

Which is… you simply start.  At the beginning.  In sequence.

You begin to narrate the whole damn book, as if your words are to be heard as a condensed stand-in for the printed story itself.

As if you can tell it as well as you believe you wrote it.

Newsflash: you can’t.

You may be allowed to go on and on and on before the agent holds up a hand and asks for clarification… if that even happens at all.

Or they just say it sounds interesting but it’s not for them, and ask if you have anything else in the works.

It’s too late.  You’re already toast.

Here’s what’s going on in those 30 seconds.

At least, if you don’t do this properly.

Within seconds the agent is asking herself questions like… excuse me, what genre is this again?… where did this idea come from?… where the hell is this going and why is it taking so long?  

And perhaps… I wonder where the closest Carl’s Jr. is?

Because a professional author (which doesn’t necessarily mean published) – someone who knows what makes a story really tick – doesn’t do it this way.

A professional knows that what makes a story tick is context.

A set-up.  Just as when a reader who picks up a book off the shelf (a form of pitching at the retail level), there are things that are clear from the outset: the genre, a hook from the inside flap or back cover, a sense of story from the cover art, and some semblance of context-setting by way of revealing the novel’s backstory.

In other words, why the author is excited to tell this story – indeed, must tell this story – and a preview of what the thematic impact of it all will be.

If Dan Brown was pitching The DaVinci Code, he might begin by saying something like:

“I’ve written a thriller that blows the lid off the entire Catholic church and threatens to undermine the very heart of the Christian religion, all within the guise of a murder mystery involving priests, crooked cops, secret sects, Leonard DaVinci and some pretty cool codes, all of it based on accepted mythologies.”

He’d say that before he utters a word about the sequence of the story itself.

And the agent – because they can smell a winner from the parking lot – would already be praying that this will work.

Imagine you’re a realtor, and you’re driving the client to see a new house you think they’ll love.

In the car on the way over you tell them why you think that.  You tell them what kind of house it is, the background of the house, the way the house will make them feel, and the quality of the construction.

When you get there – if you’re a pro and you’ve done your job well – the client is already arranging their furniture in the back of their mind.

When pitching your novel…

… if you don’t do something similar before you launch into the story itself – if you don’t set it up, don’t preview and pre-sell it – the agent’s defenses are already up.  Once they hear you begin with… “So there’s the guy who leaves home when he’s sixteen, and then he meets this girl…” they know this isn’t going to work.

Chances are they won’t ask for clarification.  You haven’t given them a reason to.

No, as they sit there politely listening, they’re already asking the questions – the ones I told you about a moment ago – that you forgot to cover.

Agents aren’t readers, they’re sales professionals. 

Which means, they’re looking for a professional-level sales pitch on your book.

Expose yourself as an amateur by simply launching into the nature of your first chapter and you’ll not only induce a fog in the listener – no matter how good the book may be – you’ll announce yourself as someone that doesn’t understand storytelling as well as you should.

Because if you can’t pitch it properly, if you don’t recognize the power of context and theme and intention and passion and a killer hook – not to mention the limitations of the pitch vehicle itself – how can you possibly write it well enough to interest them?

But the agent won’t be asking that question. 

It’s a given in their mind, and they’re already deciding between a salad and a tuna melt as soon as you’re done.

If you’d like to understand more about the relationship between your story and your pitch, as well as concrete ground rules and examples of how to deliver one effectively, please consider my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”


Filed under getting published

17 Responses to The Last Thing An Agent Wants to Hear From You

  1. Misty Dietz

    Wow, Larry. You’ve nailed it again. Yours is the only blog I subscribe to and I’m reminded why every time I read a post. Thank you–always–for the USEFUL information. In less than a year, I’ve grown at my craft considerably, and I attribute most of what I’ve learned to you. “Story Structure Demystified” changed my entire writing paradigm, and damn, I’ll be buying “Get Your Bad Self Published” today. 🙂
    All the best,

  2. I enjoyed the post, too.

  3. Sandra S. Richardson

    Thank you, Larry!
    I can sure see the difference this makes and I know I would have started off with the amateur approach. What a powerful thing to learn!


  4. Right for the jugular! Great advice, Larry.

  5. This is CRUCIAL advice. I fall into the same trap when people ask me about my blog, “Well first I started writing about this, and then it gradually turned into X, and…” meanwhile people are thinking, “Yeah, yeah…get to the point – what is the PURPOSE – what is the MEANING behind it all?”

    We can improve upon our pitch by first asking “Why did I write this book in the first place? What did I want to achieve?”

    Great article! I’ll be coming back for more sometime soon!

  6. As always Larry you cut through the crap and deliver the information in a clear concise manner. I can’t help but laugh, you about covered every damned thing I’ve done wrong till now.

    Thank You. Hopefully I won’t cause more agents to slip into a comatose state.

  7. Excellent piece, sums it up quite well.

  8. Brilliant! Good advice for the covering letter too, because it’s all too easy to try to tell the story there too. Thanks, this is great.

  9. Chantal

    I did a Pitch the Publisher session last Sunday and did just what you suggested, as did the majority of the pitchers, because what you indicated was also what they gave us with regards to guidelines. Two people with legitimate fiction pitches did not adhere to the guidelines. One of them was told they needed to be more succinct, but the other person was given the prize for the best pitch. Those of us who did what we were told? We were all told we needed more arc, more scope, more in depth exploration of plot and character in our pitch. In other words, if we followed their guidelines and given a pitch similar to the Dan Brown pitch you provided here, we would have flunked their pitch test (please tell me why they gave us those guidelines?) Apparently, there was a middle ground between what they said they wanted and what was too much, where they really wanted us to go.

    Sometimes you just can’t win for trying…

  10. @Chantel — you’re right, this isn’t an exact science. Pitching is like dating (a blind date at that) — one person’s cup of tea, stylistically, is another’s Ipecac (look that one up if you haven’t heard of it). Not all men like stilettos and not all women like a guy wearing his hat backwards.

    The thing I want to clarify… this “set-up” strategy isn’t supposed to stand alone. It’s a prelude to the actual story pitch (which should be driven by story milestones, rather than first-this-happens-then-this-happens-then-this-happens, etc.). The Dan Brown example is such a set-up, but not the whole pitch by a long shot. This is a strategy, a means toward an end, and the end is a story that sounds promising to the listening agent, however that happens. Context-setting will help you get to that goal. The one that “won” (in your example) simply was able to hold the agent’s attention and then describe a story in a way that got that job done. The trouble with exact science, and dating, is that it doesn’t always turn out as planned, there’s chemistry involved. We do the best we can, and we always do better with a strategy that includes set-up and context, rather than simply sitting down and gushing out the story (i.e., Ipecac).

    Thanks for contributing. Hope this clarifies and helps. I wish you the best with your writing and pitching efforts. L.

  11. Excellent! I was blogging about something similar, but I think you’ve summed it up perfectly here.

  12. This post gave me a scare.
    Not a “Stephen King” type scare…a worse kind.
    When I read the line “I wonder if they were done” my first thought was “Oh no, he’s going to write a book similar to mine, and here I thought I had something original.”
    Naturally I’m not so vain to think I could come up with something completely unique…but that’s not the point. The point is…well it’d be easier for me to just share the synopsis of the novel I’m working on and let you see for yourself.
    The working title is “Unfinished Business” and the synopsis is;

    We all have things to do…until we die.
    When you die, your ‘to do’ list gets cancelled.
    That is, unless your corpse is prepared for burial by Meg Seabury.
    For thirteen unremarkable years, Meg has embalmed and prepared corpses at the Peaceful Slumber Funeral Parlor. But when she prepares the corpse of an 82-year-old World War II veteran something extraordinary happens. Suddenly, she becomes acutely aware of an unfinished task that had been weighing heavily on the man’s mind and she feels compelled to finish it.
    Her next client is a woman who died in a tragic car crash while driving to see her suicidal brother. Meg soon finds herself visiting the brother, determined to give him the will to live.
    Suddenly, each new corpse brings with it a new mission and she is powerless to stop it. To Meg, it’s a bizarre, nightmarish curse until she realizes that she is the last hope for these souls to rest in peace. But when she embalms the corpse of a convicted murderer bent on revenge, it becomes a deadly threat to her own life.
    Detective Dave Steere is investigating night club owner Mike McMahon for racketeering. When McMahon is murdered and the evidence points to Meg, Steere’s gut tells him that something isn’t right. McMahon had plenty of enemies, but Steere can’t find any connection to Meg.
    Now he has to figure out if he’s tracked down a murderer, a victim… or something he can’t explain.

    At the risk of flattering myself…great minds think alike?

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  15. Thanks for the tips Jim. I’ve been blogging and working my 30 second blurbs and pitches the past couple months. People are easily bored, and if they’re asking what genre is this again from the very start, then you’re sunk. I’ll save this to my Bookmarks. Have a great weekend!

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