Friday, January 21, 2011


I'm slated to attend the Writers Digest Conference tomorrow, Saturday, 1/22/11 here in NYC.  I'll be on the agents panel in the morning (and trying to keep a civil tongue in my head since I'm sure someone will be live-tweeting!)

In the afternoon I'm leading a workshop on Effective Query Letters.  Here's what I'm going to say:

1. Electronic queries are the norm.  Pay attention to the DIFFERENCE in format required in e-queries:

a. Address NOT at top
b. Importance of a subject line
c. No cc; no bcc; no "Dear Agent"

2.  Single biggest problem in queries is they do not convey what the book is about.

How to fix: Circle EVERY verb in your query letter.  Strike out all forms of AM, BE, WAS.  What's left?  Are they words that convey choice? Conflict? Stakes? If NOT, you'll want to revise

3. Don't waste words or space. Focus on the book. Everything else is secondary.

4. Never apologize for being new. Never apologize for sending me a query. Never apologize for not knowing something.  You are not a beggar.  Treat yourself and your work with the respect you deserve.

I'm also going to talk about how to pitch when you meet agents face to face, as conference attendees will on Saturday afternoon.

How to Pitch:

1. Don't be afraid.  The only agent who will actually eat you is chaperoned, and been warned to behave herself.

2. Tell me three things up front:

a. The novel is finished.
b. the word count is X
c. What category you think it best fits (TWO words at the most here)

3. Tell me the main characters name (if you have a sweeping family saga, or a high fantasy with a gazillion characters pick the main character who appears FIRST in the book), and what choice or decision s/he must make.  This takes no more than 25 words.

Then stop talking.

The agent will ask you questions.
You answer them.  Keep your answer brief.


1. say "let me give you the backstory" or "you need to know this" Focus on the choice the character makes and what happens on page one.

2. Memorize and recite your pitch

3. close your eyes and recite your pitch

4. Don't ramble. Keep your answers short.  This is a conversation, not a lecture.

5. Panic.  All agents except that sharkly one who is being chaperoned for your protection are very nice people who are glad to see you.  Smile and say hello.

I promise, it's just that easy.

I'll have a bottle of bourbon in my briefcase if you need a quick restorative belt after this.  Bring your own glass.


Meredith Barnes said...

Does the chaperone get bourbon?

Janet Reid said...

I'll be lucky if I can pry the bourbon out of the chaperone's claw.

Anonymous said...

So I'm sitting here with a beer, trying to write a blurb, and I hear you have bourbon. I'm definitely in the wrong location.

Simon Hay said...

Janet, I've been following your blogs for 3 years now and I've not noticed this, or have been unable to work this out by myself: "How to fix: Circle EVERY verb in your query letter. Strike out all forms of AM, BE, WAS ... " Thank you. I had 2 was'. It's non-fiction and past tense, but I see now how it could've been better. Have fun tomorrow.

Simon Hay said...

Oh. I drink bourbon ;) I'd love to be there.

Lisa Wells said...

Thanks for the pointers. Especially the byoglass.

Ron at CM said...

How big a bottle?

Michael G-G said...

What would it take, bourbon briefcase and all, to pry out out of NYC to come to Oregon?

Jill Thomas said...

This is the most direct and useful information I have read in a long time. Do this. Don't do that. Perfect. I'm tweeting and cross-posting. Thanks!

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I am definitely saving this post. Then, when any of my novels are actually worth querying, I'll have your advice to help me through it.

Josin L. McQuein said...

This was an amazing post. I usually hate saying that on a blog because it's just... meh. But this was an amazing post.

Thank you for the quick points for those of us who won't be able to be in NYC.

The idea of a live pitch makes me cross-eyed. I'm not sure I wouldn't have the words down, then open my mouth and mention bourbon instead of my book.


Julie Hedlund said...

Awesome! I'm so bummed I won't be there to get that bourbon...

Joel Brown said...

You're pretty great.

Are you accepting resumes?

All I need is a 2 bedroom apartment for less than $750/month. And I don't like subways. Or bridges. Or crowds. And can I have an office with a window? I like to see water. And do you have vegan restaurants nearby? At least something without bleached flour or tons of carbs.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Don't call in the morning. I sleep late.


I look forward to working with you, Janice!!!

Shannon Heather said...

Okay, I don't have my big girl pants yet, so I'm going to have to ask a newbie question.

I do have some Depends I borrowed from my 92-yr-old Grams. I have them situated firmly in place and my butt is correctly puckered. I'm ready for the bite.

Newbie question:
Why focus on the first page? If the tension and the story are building to a decision in or near the climax why start with page one?

Sorry, wait no I'm effing not ...

Anne R. Allen said...

Wow. How to pitch and how to query in a few hundred words. One of your more brilliant posts. Thanks. I'm bookmarking this one.

Scooter Carlyle said...

Great. The shark is chaperoned by someone with claws AND bourbon. I feel safer already.

Liana Brooks said...

I hope the chaperon is well paid.

Or then again, perhaps not. As I recall one past chaperon earned a full request while chatting with a snarky agent. I bet she had her pitch memorized.

Janet Reid said...

Shannon, because the book needs to entice us, interest us, make us want to read more from the very start. Very few people I know read the climax first.

PS very nice bloomers

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I'll always have a special place in my heart for the Pitch Slam since this is where I met you. I hope you have a ton of fun, meet some potentially wonderful clients, and drink a fair amount of bourbon. Cheers!

ryan field said...

I usually have my own vodka, but it's nice to know there's a back up plan just in case.

Shannon Heather said...

Well, therein lies my problem. I always read the end first. I don't want hear how friggin' wacked I am for doing it, I get enough crap from my book nerd friends.

I am not getting this pitch thingy at all and it's making my anal retentive side really irritated.

Well, I still have my Depends on, guess I could hop in the car and drive from the midwest to the east coast without stopping...wait, that's already been done.

Oh, and thanks Janet, my bloomers are new (blushes). :-)

jjdebenedictis said...

Here's a technique for dealing with anxiety:

When you're anxious, that emotion actually competes with your ability to retrieve memories and think logically, i.e. your brain doesn't assign all its available resources to the tasks you want to concentrate on.

Researchers have found anxious students generally get lower exam scores than calm students. However, they've also discovered anxious students can improve their test scores--and erase that gap in achievement--by spending ten minutes before an exam writing about their anxiety.

So, if you're nervous about a pitch, take a pad of paper and spend the ten minutes immediately before it expressing how you feel. The act of writing about your fears will help your brain set them aside.

When you go to actually do the pitch, you'll be less anxious, and that means you'll be able to concentrate and remember things (like your spiel) better.

arbraun said...

BYOG, that's a good deal!

Anonymous said...

What do I do when the first character is introduced in a prologue that takes place 150 years before the main story? Do I just ignore her and push on with the first character introduced in the main story?

Thanks for this helpful blog -- best I ever read. I'm passing it on to friends.

Pat Browning

A Funny Daddy. said...

So there I am, walking through this conference (pitch honed to perfection, and manuscript clutched in my hot, sweaty hands) when I spy a likely tame type agent. Do I, on accosting said agent with my blurb, accept their offer of a drink of Bourbon?

Personally (heresy alert, folks) I do not like Bourbon. Single malt for me, but not Islay; too peaty and full of Iodine.

Seriously, how would you compare US writers’ conferences with UK ones?

Are the agents at the UK conferences “very nice people who are glad to see you”?

Are they as approachable as US agents or do they have this battle scarred, war weary look in their eye as they spot you closing in on them with your dog eared manuscript?

Final question, how do you spot the chaperone?

Anonymous said...

I just reviewed my query letter per this post. I've also been following the Query Shark blog instructions, including letting the letter sit for a week and then looking back at it. After obsessing over the dang letter for about a week, I then ignored it completely for the last 6 days. After reading this post, I decided to go ahead and grab it out and see what I want to revise.

Happily, I have have only "is" in the whole query. I think by jove I've dunnit. I think I like my query the way it is.

Now, I feel more than prepared to get my rejection letters. Hahaha...
A Barrel Horse Learns to Jump

Brigetta Schwaiger said...

Thanks for the advice about verbs in the query. Doing it now.

jenny'skids said...

I'm pitching a New York agent this weekend (Feb. 26) at the DFW Writers' conference? If she didn't bring her own bourbon, do you think I could bribe her wit a brand new bottle?