Monday, June 25, 2012

What teen writers should know about pitching their book

by Stephanie Morrill

Last week I had the joy of hanging out at the One Year Adventure Novel conference in Olathe, Kansas. (If you're a homeschool student or parent, this curriculum is amazing. Definitely check it out.)

I got to do some fun/scary things like talk to parents about how to prepare their aspiring novelist for the world of publishing (I wanted to title my talk "Preparing to feed your babies to the wolves" but that didn't go over so well), and I sat on a panel with publisher Jeff Gerke (Marcher Lord Press) and literary agent Amanda Luedeke (MacGregor Literary) where I attempted to semi-intelligently answer questions about being a writer.

I also got to do some things that were fun-and-not-at-all-scary, like meet some Go Teen Writers people in real life - MacKenzie Pauline, Rachelle Ferguson, Abigail Walsh, and Madison Taylor.

Madison Taylor and me at OYAN

Then for two afternoons, I took 15 minute appointments where I did one-on-one mentoring. Amanda was in the room too, taking her own appointments. She, of course, is used to it, but I'm usually the writer who's being led into the room ... not the one waiting at the table.

Holding appointments of my own - though I wasn't really there to be pitched to, just to offer advice - helped me see the process through a whole new lens. Here are some things I learned that will hopefully help you have successful appointments with agents and editors:

It's not a big deal

A lot of the teens who came into chat with me seemed pretty nervous. Which I understood, because I'm always nervous for the first couple minutes of my appointments. But the editor or agent you're walking in to meet has likely already seen 10 people before you, and they maybe have another 10 lined up after you. Hearing writers nervously pitch their story is a routine for them.

It's like when I'm going to the doctor for a yearly poke-and-prod session. I only do it once a year, so it's nerve-wracking. But they spend all-day, every-day poking and prodding people, so it's no big thing to them.

I'm sure I'll still have some butterflies in my stomach next time I walk into a meeting with an editor, but I do intend to remind myself that it's not a big deal to the person on the other side of the desk.

You can tell a lot in the first minute

There were definitely writers who I connected with better ... and I could usually tell within the first minute if that was going to be the case.

Smile when you walk in, shake hands, introduce yourself, and say how nice it is to meet them before you sit down.

Come ready to talk...

This was a unique type of appointment - they weren't exactly pitching their books to me and for some of them writing is just a hobby - but it was nice when people came ready to talk. Some came with lists of questions about publishing or life as a writer, some wanted to talk about book ideas. Those were easy, fun appointments that really flew by.

...but don't spend 10 minutes detailing your book

I had a couple people who launched into very long descriptions of their book. I didn't mind since the 15 minutes were intended to be whatever they wanted, but in an editor or agent appointment, it won't serve you well. For one thing, as you're acting out chapter two, they might already know this project won't work for them, but they can't get a word in to tell you that. Meanwhile you'll spend 7 more minutes detailing the journey of your main character.

That's why the one sentence pitch ("My book is set in colonial America about a lady quillmaker who makes the very quills used to sign the declaration of independence.") is an ideal place to start. Then the agent or editor can either say, "Intriguing - tell me more" or, "I love colonials, but we already have two authors who write them. Do you have any historicals set in other time periods?" and you'll still have time to pitch that fabulous regency of yours.

It's not just about the book

Agents and editors care about the writing and the marketability of the idea and all that jazz, but they also care about you. And I don't mean just how many blog followers you have, I mean they're assessing if you're a person they want to spend much time with. This is especially true for agents, I would guess, who work very closely with their clients. They want to work with people they like

Be teachable

If an agent or editor says something to you like, "I think your stakes need to be bigger" or, "I've been seeing a lot of this kind of plot twist, I think this could use some freshening," I wouldn't waste precious appointment time arguing with them. You don't have to lie and say it's brilliant, but a simple, "Interesting, thank you for your perspective," or a follow-up question will work well.

Again, agents and editors want to work with people they like. And who wants to work with someone who instantly gets defensive over criticism?

Leave Mom outside

Not only do agents and editors want to work with enjoyable, teachable people ... they want to work with mature people. And having Mom along ... well ... it doesn't exactly say, "I'm a professional."

I know that a lot of adult conferences have a rule about minors needing to have a guardian with them .. but they don't mean in your agent/editor appointments.

You can leave early if you want

The agent or editor is bound to that desk for however long he/she is booked for appointments. If the conversation is going nowhere, they can't excuse themselves. They must stay there in that appointment until the timekeeper brings in the next person.

As a writer meeting with an editor, I've been in some stinkers of appointments. Where they're clearly not interested in me or my books or in talking about their publishing house. Next time I'm in that situation, I plan on shaking their hand, telling them thank you for their time, and giving them an unexpected 10 minute break. Before now, I didn't realize it was me who had the power to politely end things.

Hopefully that's helpful for you guys! If you have questions regarding my brief time on the other side of the desk, I'd be happy to answer them.

Tomorrow Jill will be back with the rest of the Crowl saga, so be sure to check that out. If you missed her post last week on the publishing process, you can find it here.


  1. Great post, Stephanie! Lots of helpful advice to teen writers. The only thing I disagree with, though, is the "mom" section. All the editors, vps, and marketing staff at Zondervan have been very insistent that my mom be present at every meeting, phone call, and luncheon I have with them. (The same goes with my agent, Bill) Because I am a minor, they realize that they aren't just working with me, but they are working with my family. I have suggested meeting alone before, and they are all very quick to let me know that they feel uncomfortable talking to me without a parent around. It may seem awkward at first, but I think that most professionals (at Zondervan at least!) would feel safer talking to teens with the parents present. But that's just my two cents' worth! ;)

    1. Rachel, I'm really glad to hear that Zondervan has included your mom in everything. That's a really smart decision, I think, and benefits everyone.

      What I'm talking about is at that initial meeting, like the 15 minute appointments at conferences. Those are the publishing world's equivalent to speed-dating, and just like you wouldn't bring your mom on a first date, I still think their presence in that particular meeting might send a message the author wouldn't want sent. Same as if they received a query letter written by a mother on behalf of her teen writer.

      Now, if you're a minor and you've been having conversations with this editor already, then it might not be premature to bring a parent with you. But if you have 15 minutes to pitch your book and see if it might be worth a second conversation, having a parent with you isn't beneficial. (I say as someone who is neither an agent or editor, so...)

    2. You're totally right, Stephanie. Of course. ;) And I do agree that pitching a book is different than phone calls and luncheons. I've never pitched a book, though, so I might actually be useless on that topic! I really hope that this is something all teen writers think about seriously, though. It's a big leap into the professional world, but teens shouldn't be afraid to make the jump! :)

    3. I think you brought up a REALLY good point though, which is that you won't have to hide Mom and Dad in a closet or anything for fear of looking unprofessional with your publishing house.

      You're also right that it's a big leap. I felt that way too, and I was a 24-year-old mom when I signed my first contract. Aspiring writer to writer-with-deadlines is a tricky jump to make.

  2. It's so different from the other side of the desk! I know it shed a far different light on appointments for me too. Took away a lot of the nerves when I then went to talk to editors as an author a month later.

    And what a brilliant pitch about the lady quill-maker. ;-) Although I think it begs for a hunky Mohawk brave... and maybe a hobby-inventor who'd been in love with said quill-maker for a decade...

  3. It's such a small world - Stephanie, I didn't know you were involved with OYAN, too!

    I must find a way to get myself to Kansas next year...

    Great post, though. :)

  4. Cool, cool.
    that quill maker pitch was awesome! I wanted to read it:)

    1. Hopefully the editors I'm pitching it to agree with you, MaddieJ. ;-)

    2. I hope they do too, because I want to read it when it's published!

  5. I love learning about what an Editor/Publisher/Agent does. It sounds like fun, even if you get the occasional bummer. Hehe . . . I know, who would think sitting around, talking to people all day is FUN? Well, that would be me. :D #confessionsofanextrovert

    1. Lol, Becki. The one-on-one stuff was super fun, and even this introvert enjoyed it :) Being on stage makes my knees knock, though...

  6. Thank you for such a great post! Very insightful.

    It sounds like your conference went very well. I am sure that you answered the questions wonderfully and were extremely helpful and everyone was glad you were there to impart your wisdom.

  7. I loved meeting you! I hope my questions weren't too silly. ;)

    1. They weren't at all! Actually, I don't think I had any silly questions during my appointments. You guys were a smart, creative bunch!

  8. Lol, I'm reading along about nerves & editors doing this all the time & I'm thinking "like going to the dr's" & then you talked about it.

    I have a couple questions abour meetings:
    1. When they say they've been seeing a lot of this plot or whatever is it ok to ask if they have any ideas on how to freshen it? I'm not sure if that'd offend them or look unprofessional,

    2. How loud should you talk?

    3. Is it smart for everyone to do the Mr,/Mrs/Miss thing? That's hard for me because even though I'm in my 20s, no one believes I'm in my 20's, so if you a stickler about that kind of respect you will think I'm unrespectful. However, if I do call you mr or mrs you may have another reason to think im younger than I am! It's one of those things that always confuses me,

    1. Those are great questions, Tonya!

      1. What might be a more productive/helpful question to ask is, "Is there anything you WISH you were seeing come across your desk?" Of course sometimes we don't know what we're looking for until we see it. (I didn't know I wanted to watch a show like Lost until Lost came along, you know?) But they might say something like, "I'd love to see a romantic comedy that featured a real kick-butt heroine." Also, if they say something in your blurb looks cliche, there's nothing wrong with asking clarifying questions.

      2. I guess ... as loud as you need to be :) Often you're in a room with several others in appointments, so there's usually a decent amount of noise. Sometimes there isn't ... I remember one appointment I had with an editor from Thomas Nelson. It was just she and I chatting; the other 3 editors in the room were waiting for their appointments to come in.

      3. One of the conference staff mistook me for a student last week, so I feel your pain :) You know ... usually I kind of avoid calling them anything. I'll stick out my hand and say, "I'm Stephanie Morrill, nice to meet you." Sometimes they'll offer their name.

      In written queries, it should always be Mr./Ms., but in person I think I just avoid the issue by not calling them anything :)

  9. I tried doing OYAN a while back... I must get back into that... :( It had such helpful things in it! maybe I'll just watch all the videos lol.

    1. And then come to the conference, Jazmine! :) The text book looked really helpful. I kinda want one for myself...

  10. Stephanie,
    It was great to meet you at the OYAN conference last weekend. Thank you for your helpful insight for moms of young writers. I keep referring back to the bell curve as I recall the weekend! Mr. S also referred to that in a conversation with me, so I know he appreciated the visual and information.

    I encouraged my boys to check out your site. I think they would appreciate this post as well. Thank you for being so approachable and kind. Many blessings to you!


    1. Maris, thanks so much for coming by Go Teen Writers! It was so fun meeting you and hearing about your aspiring writers.

      I originally saw that bell chart applied to something else, but when I saw it the writing angle of it clicked, and I knew I had to share it with you wonderful, supportive parents. I'm not a math person, but that thing sure clarified the journey for me.

      Hope to see you next year at OYAN!

    2. Visuals are always helpful. (Especially for us non-math types!) I look forward to seeing you next year as well. Thanks for all you do to help young writers.

  11. Oh, wow, this post really opened the door for me. I remember my own knees knocking when I went into a consultation during my first conference last year--and Anne Mateer was an author looking over what I had brought, not an editor or an agent! :) Thanks, Stephanie!

  12. Love this post! There is so much helpful information! Especially the part about leaving mom outside:) lol.

  13. Hi! I have a question concerning when I should query. I've already written three drafts of my story and I feel pretty confident. But I'm not sure if I should query because I'm still pretty young. Do you know an age that would be acceptable for a query? Thanks for your help.

    1. Veena, I don't know that there's a particular age. There's really no need to mention your age in your query letter, to be honest. I know when you're a teen it can feel like you should, like that's part of what you bring to the table, but I would leave it out.

      You can't lose anything by querying (unless you query the way these people do: so if you feel confident, then I say go for it. Try sending out a handful - five or ten - and see what happens.