By E.A. Aymar
Attending PitchFest can be both stressful and rewarding for a writer. Often, it’s your first exposure to a seasoned publishing professional, and the first time someone “on the other side of the fence” has considered the publishable merit of your manuscript (with you sitting RIGHT there!). With that in mind, we at The Thrill Begins were delighted that Chantelle Aimée Osman, who will be serving as a PitchFest coach at this year’s ThrillerFest, suggested a Q&A to help prepare attendees. Whether you’re preparing your query, one-page, or practicing your presentation, Chantelle has you covered:
When you pitch in person, you’re pitching yourself—a passionate person with a great idea. Query letters and first pages are all about your story and how well you present it. Think in terms of crayons. The more colors you get, the more details you can fill in. When you’re writing your query letter, you’re only using the standard six-pack of crayons, when you get to the synopsis and pitch, you get the 24-count box, and the entire manuscript is the ultimate 152-crayon case, with the built-in sharpener.
When writing a query letter, make sure to:
* Study other successful query letters. There’s no need to reinvent the felt-tipped pen. Spend time reading actual examples from first-time writers.
* Address the agent by name. It personalizes your message and shows you’ve done a little research, so you’ll be taken more seriously.
* Mention your platform, if you have one. If an agent knows you have the resources to reach an audience on your own, it makes you a more attractive client. Have a blog that gets 20,000 page views a month? Mention it. A million twitter followers? Mention it. Public speaking engagements? Mention it.
What are the essentials that a query should include?
A query letter should be no more than one page, single spaced. It has three concise portions. Remember when writing all of these, your goal is to elicit a request for full or partial manuscript. When in doubt, keep it simple.
* The Hook: The title, the word count, the genre, followed by a concise one-two sentence tagline (kind of a really unique thesis statement).
* The Mini-Synopsis: A (generally) one to two paragraph synopsis, following the standard three-act structure, hitting only the main emotional and plot arc points. This should be told in the same fashion as a back-cover synopsis.
* The biography. Keep it short, and related to writing (see question 5 below).
What are the most common mistakes writers make in their query and first page?
Top Query Letter Mistakes:
* Arrogance. Taking the focus off of your story and putting it onto you is the number one query letter mistake I see. Never say any of the following: “my manuscript is a bestseller,” “you’d be lucky to represent my book,” “everyone who has read it thinks this should be a movie.”
* Vague genre. Always include the title, word count, and genre. If you include a statement like, “this book appeals to readers of all genres,” what we hear is, “this appeals to no one in particular.” Agents need to know the genre to know how to market it to a specific demographic.
* Cheesy leads. Don’t be cute. Have a real hook. Skip the rhetorical questions (“What if you were stuck on a sailboat in a hurricane with a mysterious killer?”). Those get old fast.
* Overly complicated. Stick to the three-act structure, only hit the major plot points, only refer to main characters by name.
* Too vague. Be specific, don’t describe your plot in thematic terms (“this book is about peace and love”). Only refer to main characters by their name, all supporting characters should be listed by relationship (“Suzie’s mother”).
* Unprofessional Appearance. Two words: COMIC SANS. Use normal margins, 12 point Times New Roman.
* Insincere Flattery. If you’ve done your research on an agent, great. Let them know how honored you’d be to be part of their list—but only if it’s true. Agents know a generic compliment from the heartfelt one.
* Irrelevant writing history. Never say, “I’ve been writing since I was five,” unless you are currently six years old (this is the only time you should mention your age). Be extremely cautious mentioning numerous prior unpublished manuscripts. Although that history indicates a level of dedication, it begs the question of why those weren’t published or successful.
* Not including method of contact on all documents. We need to know how to get in touch with you (it’s amazing how often that’s overlooked).
The first two chapters (and the last two) are the most important you’re going to write. The beginning is vital— it may be the only chance you have to grab the attention of a reader or agent. When it comes to the first page, I’d like to really just say one word, make it bold, underline it, italicize it and then repeat it for the entire paragraph just so writers really get it. That word is: BACKSTORY. We don’t need it. At least not up front. It’s like saying, “Before I tell you the story, you need to know…” That’s not how life works, and that’s not how writing works. Drop us in the middle of a really great scene, we’ll get the gist. Give us details later. Make sure something happens. Make them need to turn the page.
Click on the image below to see an example of an edited query letter.
Click on the image below to see an example of an edited one-sheet.
What happens if a writer gets there, reviews his/her one-page with you, and wants to make a change?
Create a distraction, release some tigers from the zoo, buy yourself some time. If at all possible, try to space enough time between appointments so you can pop off to the hotel business center if absolutely necessary. But I doubt that will be the case. Last year everyone I saw was, on average, extremely well prepared.
If you don’t have time to make the changes on paper, make them in your verbal pitch. Sell them on the correct version, and they likely won’t notice the slight differences. If the changes are legion, just be honest. This is a chance to show how well you take notes and criticism. Give them what they ask for, and explain that you had a critique session and would really like the opportunity to make a few changes, ask for the possibility to e-mail them the corrected version immediately that evening. Then fix it for the next set of appointments.
Should you always lead with the hook? What if there’s something in your bio that’s relevant and sales-worthy, like you just left the Navy SEALs?
There are only so many basic storylines out there. What sets you apart is your angle on the tried and true. What makes you stand out from all the others on the same shelf?
You only need to talk about yourself if what you’re saying reflects on how qualified you are to write it. If your protagonist is a spy, and you’ve had a 20-year career in the CIA, great. If your protagonist is a sommelier and you are a sommelier *waves to Nadine Nettmann*, that’s great information. Only include writing credits that are meaningful, like prior traditional publications. Otherwise, just stick to selling your story and concept.
That is, UNLESS you have an extremely marketable story of your own. Information which would be a talking point in its own right. Some sort of personal notoriety: you are a celebrity; you have 10,000,000 followers on your YouTube channel; you scaled Kilimanjaro blindfolded, with one arm tied behind your back, and Wayne Newton as your Sherpa.
How familiar should a writer be with the agent he or she is meeting with?
You’ve been studying the poster of them above your bed for months, so I would expect very. You know every freckle, every line garnered squinting at submitted manuscripts by firelight…at the very least, you need to do your research. Nothing turns the conversation sour faster than an ill-prepared writer. The agents at PitchFest are likely in your genre, but that’s not true of all conferences. It’s a waste of the agent’s time and yours (and likely your money) if you make an appointment with someone who does not represent the genre in which you write. Don’t schedule time with random people based solely on reputation or popularity. Review the list of available agents, find out if they represent similar authors and titles. Not only will they know how (and to whom) to sell your work, but probably love reading it themselves.
Also, although PitchFest vets all of their experts, not every conference does. And sometimes you’ll be doing this all on your own. Doing your research will prevent you from falling in with a less reputable agent. They can generally be found hanging out behind the bleachers selling black market Pokémon cards, but sometimes it’s more subtle.
When it comes to the pitch portion, what’s a good way to combat nervousness ahead-of-time? Agents know writers are often introverts, right?
Be prepared. Practice your pitch in front of as many people as you can. Watch to see what areas grab their attention and when they look confused. Once you’ve got the basics down, switch it up, tell it more casually to let your personality shine through. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not, don’t try. Do certain words trip you up? Take them out. We’re not seasoned actors here, and agents know that. Most of all, you need to be committed and passionate. If you don’t appear excited, how can the agent be? Remember, we’re all people, and as much as you want the agent to like you, you need to like the agent. You’re not looking for someone who intimidates you and you can’t share your ideas and honest feelings with; you’re recruiting a long-term business partner. This person will be advocating on your behalf, and you need it to be the right one.
When’s an appropriate time to follow up with an agent or editor after you’ve sent them a partial or full?
First, I have to add here, getting a face-to-face with an agent is a golden opportunity, and a ‘no’ can be as valuable as a ‘yes’. If they say ‘no’ and you have a few minutes left on the clock, ask politely for feedback, or what you could do better next time. Should they say ‘just not for me’ then ask if there’s another agent in their firm (or that they know of) they could recommend.
Don’t be discouraged. More often than not, they’re not commenting on the quality of your presentation or your writing, but instead, as a reader, saying, “Not for me, not today.”
Also, I have to remind everyone to submit only and exactly what the agent has requested. Don’t send more or less, and if they ask for a specific subject-line, etc., follow it to the letter. It’s the best way to get their immediate attention, and ignoring directives is the best way to get kicked out of the running.
I highly suggest following any agents you’ve met (or would like to meet) on Twitter; that’s often the best way to know the status of their submission pile. Sometimes the website will tell you an average amount of time to hear back. Generally, submissions requested in person or at a conference are prioritized by agents (over the slush pile), but it often takes a while to go through, in addition to other post-conference catch-up work. Wait about a month, and politely follow up: “I met you at PitchFest last month and you requested…”
Above all, be polite and respectful.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone let a bunch of tigers out…
Chantelle Aimée Osman is a consultant with 22 Literary and former Editor-in-Chief of RT Book Reviews. A freelance editor specializing in mystery, suspense, thriller, science-fiction and fantasy, she is also an instructor with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and LitReactor. Chantelle is the author of the non-fiction series on writing The Quick and Dirty Guide To… and has also published numerous works of short fiction and served as editor for several anthologies. She is currently editing an episodic collection, Serial Killer, featuring authors Jeffery Deaver and Eoin Colfer among others. Find her at www.chantelleaimee.com and at www.22literary.com.
To read our interview with Chantelle Aimée Osman about freelance editing, click HERE.