Pitch and Spin

This past week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) Writer’s Conference in Seattle, Washington. This was my second time attending the well-organized conference. It’s been going on for 60 years, and I clearly see why it is so popular. As a PNWA member, I’m proud of the fact that we have one of the best conferences going. According to the PNWA President, the conference is one of the longest running of its kind in the nation and the world. That’s pretty amazing if you ask me.

One of the best things about the conference is the opportunity to meet agents and pitch your book to them. These “Pitch Blocks,” as they’re called usually have about 10-15 agents lined up on one side of a long string of tables, and you have four minutes to pitch (or sell) your book to them before you have to get up and move onto the next agent (or get in line for the next agent) and do it again.

Pitch sessions are a great way to meet potential agents. It’s way more effective to meet someone in person and convince them to consider your book than it is to send an anonymous email to an agent and get them to respond. They are very busy people, and they receive hundreds of book queries through which they must sift trying to find the next great novel. You have a much better chance of getting noticed if you can begin your query letter with “It was nice to meet you at the PNWA Writer’s Conference. Thank you for asking for more details on my book…”

That being said, there’s no guarantee that a request for more information will get you in the door with that agent. During my first PNWA conference, I pitched eight different agents and received eight requests for more material (e.g. first 3 chapters, 50 pages, etc.), and no one requested the full manuscript. This year, I pitched to eight agents again and received five requests for more information. I’ll be sending my responses out over the next week or so. Only time will tell if I break through. After talking with other writers, I don’t think my experience is unique.

Despite the low success rate, I like pitching much better than I do anonymous querying. For starters, you get feedback in pitch sessions. It’s very rare that you get feedback from query letters. Often query letters receive silence or a simple “No.” It’s unreasonable to expect much feedback from query letters because agents, like you and me, have to make a living, and they only want to spend time on books that they think they can sell. Every moment spent on books that aren’t really for them is lost income. Unless you are in a position to do your job for free (if so, congratulations), you shouldn’t expect agents to give you free feedback. It takes a lot of time to read a full manuscript and provide useful feedback. They’re only going to do it for books they want to sell.

Nevertheless, with pitches, you get feedback. A good agent gives you something that you can take back to your work. They will tell you whether the story has legs, in their opinion, or if your plot is too complicated or over-the-top. They may even give you insight into the market you’re targeting that will help you understand whether or not you are on the money. This feedback is invaluable even if it’s not what you want to hear. At the very least, the body language will give you more than enough to go on during your pitch. If the agent looks disinterested or bored, you know you have work to do.

As every writer knows, the act of writing is a lonely activity. Most people don’t understand why someone would spend hours on end writing a novel that may have little chance of getting published. Unless you have a writing group or an active group of beta readers, it’s hard to get feedback from the outside world and even harder to get objective feedback (good or otherwise). Pitch sessions give you that feedback even if its just a small nugget of insight. That insight alone is worth the effort even if the pitch itself fails to land an agent.

To Write Is Human, To Edit, Divine

Recently, at the Seattle Writing Workshop, I met an agent during a pitch session and pitched a novel that I had written over a year ago. When I was finished with my pitch, which went okay but not as beautifully as I had imagined in my head, we still had some time left, so he asked me what else I was working on. I talked about the novel that I had finished after the one I had pitched, and he perked up. He seemed more interested in that one than my original pitch idea. He asked to see that one, too, and I readily agreed.

While both manuscripts were technically “done,” (no book is truly done until it hits bookstores) and had gone through a few revisions, I had wanted to read through the second one at least one more time before I sent any part of it out. Nevertheless, I was determined to get both manuscripts to the agent. Agents rarely request full manuscripts on the first meeting (at least that’s been my experience). They typically want a synopsis and the first ten or so pages. If they like what they see, then they request the full manuscript. I knew I had to deliver these manuscripts as soon as possible while my meeting was still fresh in the agent’s mind.

The day after the workshop, I began re-reading and editing the second manuscript in earnest – all 400 pages of it. It had been at least six months since I had read the book, and my eyes were fresh to the material despite living and breathing every word on the page for so long, I found things I didn’t like, small errors that drove me mad, and opportunities to clean up the dialogue. Fresh eyes really helped. I bet I could go through it again in six months and find more things. Maybe manuscripts are like wine; they get better with age because you have fresh eyes on the material. In the end, I was able to get the manuscripts out to the agent in a few days (huge sigh of relief).

Editing is not my favorite writing activity, but it’s a skill that is required. I typically write a first draft and do an immediate reading and editing session with the material before I hand it over to my beta readers. Then, I let the manuscript sit for a few months and work on something else. Working on something else takes my mind off of the material and refreshes my perspective on it. The more I edit my own material, the more I realize how I’d like to have a professional editor helping me. Such a person would have a cold-blooded instinct that would really make my work shine.

In my nonfiction work, I have had the opportunity to work with a wonderful editor who is sharp-eyed and very skillful. I love working with her when I submit articles to this trade magazine. She can take good work and make it great just through her suggestions and edits. I’ve compared my articles side-by-side, and her edits have clearly improved the material. I only wish she was available to edit my fiction work. I believe we’d make a great tandem because her editing skills are beyond reproach.

While I haven’t made it through the entire publishing process yet, I know the value of a good editor, but not just any editor will do. I need one who understands my style and approach and does not attempt to overwhelm that with over-editing. A bad match could change the whole tenor of the work and kill the project in its infancy, but a great match would take the project to a whole new level and increase the chances of success. That would be heaven indeed.

Things I’ve Learned

It’s been two and a half years since I really got serious about writing. I started this journey on July 1, 2012 with the goal of “becoming a writer,” and I’ve been at it ever since. To date, I’ve written four novels, but none of them have been published yet. To be honest, I’ve focused more on writing and revising than I have on pitching my books to agents. I’ve talked to agents and sent numerous queries out, but nothing has come of it yet. I have received some good feedback from agents, editors, and a book coach, and I believe that has me on the right track.

Despite not having a published book yet, I have learned a few things along the way in this journey, and I’m happy that I took the steps necessary to make this happen. For many years I sat on the sidelines dreaming about becoming a writer. Now, at least, I’m putting myself out there to make it a reality. No matter what happens, I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before I see my words in print. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.

Be Consistent

Being a writer requires consistency in approach. I write for at least an hour every weekday sometimes more, but my routine is essentially the same. I get up very early and I park my bum in my favorite chair and type away either on a novel, short story, or a blog post. Just like an athlete, writers need to practice consistently to get better. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years, and I can tell the difference in my writing thanks to this consistent approach.


Musicians listen to the masters to improve. Athletes watch the greats in their sport to learn. Writers have to read broadly to get better. I’m a voracious reader. I love a great book, and I have many favorite authors. I love an author who is a virtuoso with words, and when I find one, I study him or her to absorb the beauty of the art so that I can improve. I don’t copy other authors, but each thing I learn from them is internalized and expressed in my own way. No author worth his salt will ever say they don’t read. I consider reading to be part of my training as a writer.

Get Feedback

For many years, I was a closet writer. I’d spend hours writing something and then it would sit on a hard drive somewhere hidden from the world. No one other than myself would read it. That approach got me nowhere. A writer’s work is like his or her baby, and I didn’t want to hear my baby was ugly, but the truth is that feedback is critical if you’re going to develop as a writer, and like it or not, feedback is not always, nor should it be, laudatory. Even the greatest writers produce sub-par work sometimes, but the difference between them and the rest of us is that they have strong feedback mechanisms in place to help them improve upon their initial work. Not every idea is a best seller from the moment it is in first draft form. That’s why they call it a first draft.

I have been published in trade magazines for work that I do in my regular job, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very good editors. I’ve really clicked with one editor in particular, and it was my first experience working with her that I realized how valuable a great editor is. She improved everything I wrote, and her feedback was priceless. I’m still looking for a similar editor for my fiction work. When I find him or her, I’m going to hold on for dear life because feedback is that important.

Keep Going

Writing query letters and sending them into the ether to be evaluated and judged along with excerpts of my work is not a lot of fun. I’ve done quite a few over the past two years, but not as many as I should have. I typically do them in batches of five or six and then wait. And wait. I don’t get responses from all of them, and all of the responses I’ve gotten have been typically standard rejection forms or letters. It’s disheartening, but with each one, I take it as a learning experience and improve in the next round. Nevertheless, I don’t let this discourage me. There are plenty of stories of great authors who faced hundreds of rejections before they found the right agent and publisher for their work. It requires a certain level of obstinacy to be a writer, and I plan to keep going regardless. Eventually, I will break through, but until then, I’ll keep sending out query letters, talking to agents, and writing. It’s an adventure that never ends.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned in the past couple of years. What’s your writing experience been? Any good tips you’ve learned that you’d like to share. Share them in the comments section for this post.

What I’ve Done

It’s been almost two years since I’ve committed myself to realizing my dream of writing and publishing a novel.  In that span of time, I’ve written a lot, which isn’t that much different than what I was doing before, but I’ve also learned a ton in my pursuit of publication.  When I first decided to write a novel, that’s all I did for a few months.  Every morning, I’d write 1,000 words or more and they’d add up.  In three months I had my first 80,000-word novel in draft form.  The moment I wrote the last sentence of my first novel remains one of the most satisfying experiences in my writing career.  Finally, I had finished a novel.  I printed the 300 pages for my wife to read (she’s always my beta reader), and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a stack of paper as I was at that moment.

Actually finishing a novel is only half of the process.  Next, comes the seemingly endless edits.  I like to let a story sit for a while and come back to it later for edits.  I usually move onto the next project before I do any serious editing on a just-finished novel.  This forces me to detach myself from the characters and the story and helps me edit more keenly.  Characters become like best friends after you spend several months with them, and the story is your baby.  No one wants to hurt their baby.  The distance of time helps.

In the time since I’ve started this process, I’ve completed three novels, and I’m almost done with a fourth.  I’m using the verb “completed” rather liberally because until they actually get published they’re not really complete.  Maybe I should redefine complete to mean they’re in a state of wholeness in the sense that the story is there, but it may need to be redefined to get to the publication stage.

One thing that has helped me get closer to publication is that I’ve been engaged with the writing community.  I’ve joined the local writer’s association, Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) and I’ve subscribed to Writer’s Digest along with many other websites that offer resources as well as communities for writers.  I’m learning as much as I can about the trade from professional resources as well as other writers.  This engagement has encouraged me to submit my writing for critiques and enter writing contests, both of which have provided invaluable feedback on my work.

I’ve also engaged agents.  I’ve reached out to them and received feedback on my work from them as well.  This has helped me determine what I need to do to better prepare my stories for publication.  It’s definitely a work in progress.  I’m not necessarily in a hurry, but I have my goals in mind.  I’d love to have a long career as a writer.  I don’t want it to become my day job, but I want to thrive in this creative outlet, which really is a sharp contrast to my day job.

The result is that I have four novels that are at various stops along the road to publication.  Below is a brief description of each novel as well as where I’m at with it.  As I progress on each of these, I continue to work on new things and push forward with new ideas.  It’s important to keep working and focusing on the craft while keeping an eye on the things I’ve “finished.”

The Vanishing – Ella Warfield is no stranger to personal tragedy, but when her husband of over thirty years slips into the void of a rare form of dementia at a relatively young age, she finds herself struggling to survive. Alone, depressed, and fearing that she has failed her husband yet again, Ella concocts a murder-suicide plan to put an end to their misery, but her courage and unexpected occurrences threaten to thwart her plan as she comes face-to-face with her own motivations. The Vanishing is a story of survival and finding hope and strength when the odds are against you.  This is my first novel.  I’ve received several critiques on this book and I’m currently going through significant revisions based on the feedback I’ve received.

All Things Certain – Matt and Brad were the best of friends growing up but had fallen out of touch once Brad moved away for college.  Now that Brad has returned to his hometown and reconnected with his old friend, Matt is eager to resume the great friendship they once shared a decade ago, but Brad has changed in ways that are unfathomable to him.  Nothing embodies who Brad really is more than his friend Trevor, whom Matt summarily dismisses based on his own biased view of the world.  The resulting conflict severs their friendship until a tragic event forces Matt to reconsider all that he once thought was certain.  The topic of this novel is decidedly controversial but timely.  I’ve received some feedback on it, and I need to make some adjustments.  I’m getting additional critiques on this one before I send it out to more agents.

That Which Binds Us – By all accounts, Susan Baker’s youngest son, Tommy, has never been an easy child.  Temperamental and under-developed mentally, he often withdrew from the world around him save for his mother, who became his best friend and confidante as he grew into a young man, but nothing prepared her for the violent crime that leaves him convicted of murder and facing life in prison.  Believing he was wrongfully accused and convicted by a community hell-bent on blaming someone for the heinous crime, Susan puts her faith in a pedantic lawyer to get her son a new trial and overturn his conviction.  Despite being estranged from her family for her support of her youngest son, Susan attempts to enlist them to support Tommy at his sentencing hearing, but the family dynamic proves too volatile resulting in a desperate act that changes all of their lives forever.  I’ve entered this novel into the annual PNWA writing competition.  The value of entering competitions is not just the potential to get recognition but also the critiques that you receive.  I’ve also submitted this novel to a few agents and I’m awaiting their feedback.

The Weight of Regret – John Lambert left behind an unfortunate legacy when he surreptitiously abandoned his family over thirty years ago, but a near-fatal crash in a remote canyon in northern Arizona leaves him with a few precious moments to give his wife and three children some answers for his unsolved disappearance on a bitterly cold day in January 1980.  As he scribbles out letters to each of them, he reflects on what he left behind and the reasons for his selfish behavior.  Unbeknownst to him, the lives of his loved ones have played out differently in the intervening years, sometimes tragically, but the impact of his abandonment is never far-removed their thoughts even after three decades.  As John clings to life, he resolves to make things right if given the chance to see his family again.  This is the current novel I’m working on and it’s still in the rough draft phase.  I hope to have the draft complete by the end of April and begin editing it after my beta readers take a look at it.  Once I feel it’s in reasonable shape, I’ll submit for critiques.


The Road Ahead

A few friends have asked why I’ve decided to start a writer’s blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed now when I haven’t published anything and there’s nothing to “sell”.  That’s a very good question and I realize that all of this may seem presumptuous, but there are actually some good reasons for doing this now versus later.

First and foremost, every author today needs a platform.  Typically, that platform involves a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed at the very least.  Your platform provides an avenue to communicate with your audience and establish that connection with your readers.  This connection is critical if you hope to market your work at some point in the future.  There are millions of books and authors out there and they are all vying for the attention of readers.  A platform helps you get that attention.  If a reader likes your work, they’ll likely follow you in some way and they’ll be the first to get your new book when it comes out.  In fact, most agents today want to sign authors who have already established a platform, so it becomes the proverbial chicken of the egg question.  Do you need a platform before or after you have your first book in publication?  The answer depends on who you ask, but the safe bet is that the sooner you have a platform, the better.

The reality is that a platform doesn’t just appear overnight.  You can put all the pieces in place and still be stuck in an empty room with crickets chirping.  You have to build content that attracts people to your sites and then you have to promote the sites.  It takes time and effort, and if you want to have any momentum by the time your work gets published, you have to get a running start.  That, in a nutshell, is the key reason I’ve started building my platform at this point.  The road to publication is long and arduous.  It may be years before I get to that point, but I will be ready when I get there with a platform that has a strong history of content and engagement.

The other reason I’ve started my platform now is more subtle and psychological.  For years I’ve been writing in the shadows.  I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but I’ve always told myself that I’d get around to publishing some day.  I’ve been writing a blog for over ten years, but beyond that none of my writing has seen the light of day.  I always seemed to put it off to another day “when I had time.”  A couple of years ago, I committed myself to getting published.  There’s something liberating about making a personal declaration to do something, but there’s something even more motivating in telling the world what you plan to do.  No one wants to fail in plain sight of friends and family, but exposing yourself and your dreams to others helps keep you accountable and certainly motivates you beyond those inevitable down moments when everything seems impossible and difficult.

The road ahead certainly seems exciting, but it’s equally frightening, and I’m putting it out there for everyone to see.  I can’t think of anything more motivating than succeeding in the face of daunting odds.  These are the challenges that make life all the more enjoyable.  I can’t help but believe that my passion and enthusiasm for writing will ultimately lead me to great personal satisfaction.  Anything worth achieving takes a lot of work, and this platform is just the beginning.