Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Writer's Education: Luring an Agent and The Not-So-Secret Handshake

Happy Thanksgiving week, U.S. readers! No new blogs this week as I'll be focused on family and co-creating a killer T-day menu. Instead, I'm re-posting some of the most popular TLCG blogshops and whatever else I feel might supplement your week as a helpful side dish.

Today, I repost a prior blogshop featuring the absolutely wonderful literary agent, Kristin Nelson.

Here's to your agent luring success!

Despite the many resources available online and on the shelves, I'm still asked "Ok, so how do I find an agent? Really, what's the secret?" When I was an agent, I contributed to two books on the subject, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye by Katharine Sands and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents by Rick Frishman and Robyn Spizman. There are several books like these out there with equally great advice and most of what you read from all those agents is accurate: there is a certain formula to pitching an agent and you must stick to the formula. Knowing the right people certainly helps get you in the door, but successfully landing the right agent boils down you possessing or exhibiting three things:

1) Great Writing!

2) Strong Author Platform!

3) Emotional and Professional Accountability!

We've talked about great writing and strong author platform in previous blogshops. We're going to tackle emotional and professional accountability later this month. Today we're talking about how to approach and attract an agent.

I realize when you've got someone there with you giving you all the seemingly secret ins and outs of finding an agent and anything else pub world (books not beer) related, something clicks and you get it. That's why I invited Kristin Nelson into this blogshop on how to approach an agent...the right way as we kick off Author Education month on The Lit Coach's Guide.

Kristin is one of the most successful agents in the country. A shining example that literary life does indeed exist (and thrive!) west of the Hudson River, Nelson started her own agency in Denver, Colorado in 2002. Her client roster boasts many bestselling and notable authors and she's a regular fixture at several renown writers' conferences.

We're here with you right now to help you approach an agent successfully. Kristin's word is gospel, so look no farther, take notes and take heed, my dears.

I approached Kristin at least a month ago about coming on the blog to share a little expertise with you all, but she contributed well above and beyond what I asked. She's that way.

I asked Kristin, "What's the secret to attracting an agent? How can an author lure an agent to request their manuscript?"

Kristin: Most new writers think that landing an agent is about a secret handshake. If they only knew how to do it, they could get their foot in the door. Book deals and fame and fortune would follow. Or, they mistakenly assume that the only way to get an agent is via a referral.

In actuality, all a new writer needs is a terrific query letter (although if you have a referral, that never hurts). Wait! Before you say you don’t believe me, I checked out Nelson Literary Agency’s roster of authors. With about four or five exceptions, the majority of our clients came to us via a query letter—including New York Times bestselling author Jamie Ford, who has graced the NYT’s regular and extended bestseller list for almost a year now. His career began with a simple query letter in our inbox and so can yours.

Ah, now you are thinking, “So there is a magic way to write a query letter and if I just knew that, then I could land the agent and the fabulous book deal.”

I wouldn’t call it magic, but I’m certainly happy to share the secret of how to write a good one.
You have to nail the pitch paragraph in the query letter. If you do that, I guarantee an agent will request sample pages. [Insider secret: When agents read query letters, we automatically skip down to the pitch paragraph. If that grabs our attention, then we go back and read the rest of the letter. If it doesn’t, we might glance at the author creds but most often, we just hit the button to send our standard rejection. Here at NLA, we get 150 query letters a day. We don’t have time to do anything else but read the pitch first.]

So you can see how important that one paragraph can be! I’ll teach you how to nail that but when you submit the sample pages, whether you get a request for a full is up to you and the quality of your writing.

Most writers stumble over the pitch because it’s such a daunting task to take 300+ pages of a novel and try to boil that down to one or two pithy paragraphs. On top of this task, that little paragraph has to leave the agent dying to read more. A herculean undertaking, right?
It would be if that was what you actually had to do but here’s the secret. You don’t have to take 300 pages and cram it into one paragraph. All you really need is the first 30 or 40 pages of your manuscript. The core of your pitch paragraph is right there in the beginning of your story. And another secret to writing the pitch? Make it read like the jacket flap or back cover copy you see on an already published book.

In other words, another title for this blog entry could be: Writing Jacket Copy 101.
See, your pitch paragraph is the jacket or back cover copy of your unpublished novel. If you want to master your pitch, start at your local bookstore or library or go online and grab copy from similar books in your genre. Analyze those paragraphs. You’ll get the rhythm and a sense of how many sentences it actually takes. For the record, most cover copy is anywhere from 8 to 10 sentences long. That’s it. Don’t believe me? Grab the nearest book and check it out for yourself.

But back to the core of your pitch paragraph. You only need the first 30 pages of your novel because all cover copy is shaped around the main event (also called the inciting incident or in my terminology, the plot catalyst) that begins the novel and without it, the story could not move forward. In other words, the event must happen or you have no story to tell.

Two key things to keep in mind:

1. Plot catalysts are always events. It’s not an introduction to a character or a theme. It’s a plot element.

2. If you can’t find it easily in the first 30 pages, you know your manuscript is in trouble and a revision is in your future. The biggest beginning writer mistake I see is that the writer will often incorporate a ton of back story or related information that’s crucial for the writer to know (but the reader doesn’t need it) in the first 50 to 100 pages of a work. The plot catalyst ends up on page 80—way too far into the novel to do the writer any good.

So let’s give an example. Since I mentioned Jamie Ford, let’s look at his novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

The opening plot catalyst is that our main character, 56-year old Henry Lee, stumbles into a press conference being held on the steps of the Panama Hotel in Seattle. The owner of the hotel has discovered in the basement the belongings of 33 Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during WWII. In front of the journalists, she unfurls a Japanese parasol that she has found. Henry instantly recognizes it as belonging to Keiko, a Japanese girl he knew and loved back in the day. That discovery propels him on a journey to find her and in doing so, he must confront the choices he did or did not make all those years ago during the war.
That’s it. If you look at the back cover copy for this novel, it will highlight this event. Without it, Henry Lee wouldn’t be forced to confront his past and there would be no story to tell. That parasol has to be discovered first.

Now, go back and read the first 30 pages of your own work. The plot catalyst has to be there. Once you find it, you craft your pitch paragraph for your query letter around it. And if it’s not there, you’d better start looking for it. If that key element doesn’t come until page 50, page 80, or page 100, then you know you have a problem and your novel more than likely needs a major revision to bring that plot catalyst forward.

For more discussion and examples, check out my blog Pubrants. I did a whole online workshop called Agent Kristin’s Query Pitch Workshop (see right side bar of blog).

Happy writing!

TLC: Ok, so not only did Kristin give you great advice on how to pitch...but pointed out if you're having trouble nailing down your main plot catalyst, it's time to take another look at your work to decide if it's truly ready for prime time.

The exercise of writing your own book jacket copy is a favorite of mine. What better way to gain clarity about HOW you want to pitch it to an agent...not to mention this is a great visualization tool to help keep you motivated on the big dream - your published book! Remember a few weeks ago how you dreamed big and worked backward uncovering all the steps you took to land your book deal? Pitching your book is no doubt near the beginning. Follow Kristin's advice and see where it takes you. And let us know!!!

Good luck, writers!

Your Exercise This Week: Stuck on how to pitch your novel or nonfiction proposal? Write your book jacket! Head to your local bookseller (I'm big on field trips) and check out like genre work. Find some really juicy book jacket writing you gravitate toward and take notes. What's the tone? Are you drawn to the promise of action, romance, suspense or a slice of life story? Why? If it's nonfiction, what tips and info is the author promising? Why is this THE book that will solve your problem or be the definitive book on a particular subject matter? What makes you connect? How will you make readers connect with your book? Try on the voice of those book jacket writers...then find your own. Make an agent want your manuscript!

About Kristin Nelson

Kristin established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002. In such a short time, she has sold over a 100 books to all the major publishers. She has landed several film deals and has contracted foreign rights on behalf of her clients in many territories. She specializes in representing commercial fiction (mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult & middle grade) and literary fiction with a commercial bent. In general, she does not handle nonfiction projects with the exception of an occasional memoir.

Clients include New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal bestselling author Ally Carter (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You and Heist Society), New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jamie Ford (Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet), New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger (Changeless), New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Simone Elkeles (Rules Of Attraction), USA Today bestselling author Courtney Milan (This Wicked Gift), and RITA-award winners Sherry Thomas (Not Quite A Husband) and Linnea Sinclair (Gabriel’s Ghost). Member: AAR, RWA, SFWA, SCBWI.

Please visit our website before submitting and also check out Kristin’s popular blog


  1. Excellent. I've seen disappointed writers responding to rejections by condemning the agent when it is the substance of the query itself that is the problem.

    Rejects sting like hell, but I look for the fault in my inability to communicate the story rather than the agent's doggone stubborness. Er, uh....usually.:)

  2. Yep. Rejection is no fun, but burning your bridges will get you nowhere fast. And while there is a certain formula to pitching an agent, some will pass on a perfectly great query letter for myriad reasons...all of which are out of the writer's control. Don't lose faith. Keep moving forward with your mission! Never quit!

  3. Thanks so much, Kristin and Erin. This is incredibly helpful, the stuff I sort of knew but didn't know how to approach.

    I'll definitely look back at my query and novel with fresh eyes!

  4. Pleased to find your blog. Lovely advice and a great way to see if my novel is going where it should be going. And Erin, I loved that you used 'myriad' without an article in front. ;)

  5. Great post and I'm excited I found your blog. It looks like a ton of fun. I'm pitching to Kristin this weekend at the RMFW workshop - Reading this now really helped.

    I'll check back often :)

  6. Excellent timing on this post. I've just finished draft 3 of my novel and am about to start writing my query.
    Very helpful info here. Thanks, Kristin and Erin.

  7. Good luck, Dustin! Pitching on paper is different than pitching in person, so practice your mini-presentation. Go in there with confidence!

  8. Thanks Erin - I'm dedicating today to just that. :)


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