Excuse me if any of this gets incoherent. I’m still a bit giddy.
Let me back up. Last weekend, I attended the annual Pennwriters conference. Pennwriters is a multi-genre organization to support writers, specifically writers in the Pennsylvania (duh) area. The conference alternates location between Pittsburgh and Lancaster. I went two years ago in Pittsburgh and learned a metric ton of stuff. The organization also invites agents and acquiring editors to conduct sessions, do critiques and do pitch sessions.
This year, I was tapped to be the basket auction chair person. So I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have for attending panels. But I did want to do one thing. Something I hadn’t had a manuscript (or the guts) to do two years ago.
I wanted to pitch to at least one of the attending agents. Every Other Monday is Murder is done, whereas two years ago it was still in a very shaky draft stage. But it was time to see if this thing had “legs” – if there was any interest whatsoever in the story.
Right before the conference, I took a two-week class called Necessary Parts, the class being sponsored by the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. Over the duration, we worked on all those things necessary to talk intelligently about your work to an agent or editor (or market your work if you decided to self-publish):
- the log-line
- the query paragraph and back-cover copy
- the query letter
- the synopsis (we concentrated on the three-page synopsis)
At the end of two weeks, I felt pretty confident. The class instructor, the wonderful Ramona DeFelice-Long, had approved all my parts. I thought I had several great log lines, including one on theme. My synopsis was solid, my query letter ready. In the intervening time, I sent some blind queries and got a few rejections, but the face-to-face pitch sessions were going to be my true test.
I had zero expectations for this. It was my first at-bat. This was warm-up. Practice. If someone bit, fantastic. If not, I’d be ready for the next time.
My first pitch was scheduled for Friday morning, with Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman agency. I was so busy assembling baskets, that I didn’t have time to think much about the pitch. In fact, my friends had to tell me, “Shoo. You have a pitch to give.”
Rachel showed up and we went into the room. She was so friendly and assured me that she was “not there to pronounce judgment on my immortal soul.” This was just a conversation about my work. “So, tell me about your book,” was the first question. I launched confidently into my theme-based log-line and how to me, crime-fiction was all about restoration of the natural order. I was so proud I didn’t stutter. She nodded, studying the business card I’d put in front of her.
Then she asked more questions. “Tell me about your protagonist. What kind of person is he?”
Okay, I thought. Questions are good. She’s interested in something. So I told her about Jim Duncan, about the back-story high school episode I keep in my head to remind me exactly who he is. When I mentioned the setting, she said, “Oh, I know the Laurel Highlands. I ski at Seven Springs all the time. What drew you to that area?” More questions. This is good. She’s engaged. So I talked some more. Mentioned about Fayette-nam and the high crime rate. Finally, she looks at my card, then reaches into her bag for an orange piece of cardstock.
“This sounds like it’s right in my wheelhouse and I’d love to see it. Send twenty pages using the information on this card and we’ll go from there.”
My friends had to pry me off the ceiling. An agent wanted pages! She hadn’t told me “thanks, but no thanks.” She sounded excited and interested. Woo-hoo! I was not going to jump right on the email, wanting the time to get it right. And I had another pitch on Saturday.
Saturday’s pitch was with Dr. Uwe Stender of TriadaUS. My friend Annette warned me, “Don’t expect the same results. Dr. Stender only asks for pages if he’s really interested in your pitch. That’s rare.” But that was okay. Going one for two was more than I had hoped for before the conference started, so if Stender passed, I’d still feel awesome.
I moderated a panel he was on right before the pitch, so I was able to introduce myself. “I think I’m your first pitch after the panel,” I said. “I promise not to stalk you on the elevator ride up.” He was charming and funny. After the panel, I headed up. Turns out there was one person ahead of me. Again, I’d been too busy to get nervous, plus I’d talked to the guy. However, the writer scheduled after me was a basket case. I reassured him, told him to take a couple deep breaths. It would be okay.
They sent me in. Dr. Stender joked, saying he thought I’d be waiting for him. I responded, put down the business card, and we started. “Tell me about your book,” he said. The theme-based log-line had worked well with Rachel, so I used it again. He was also interested in the setting. Then he asked, “What sets your book apart from the competition?”
This was not a question I had practiced an answer to, but I had one. Rural police procedural. Most procedurals are urban. Dr. Stender had worked at CMU and Pitt, so I knew he was familiar to the area. I trotted out the Fayette-nam line again. “Why do you think there’s so much crime?” he asked. Again, more questions is good. I talked about the economics of the area and the poverty.
Finally he said, “Mystery is a tough market, always has been. A lot of bestsellers come out of that genre.” And I thought here it comes. The “thanks, but no thanks.” But we’d had a good conversation, so I was okay, if a bit disappointed. “I just hired an assistant who has an excellent eye for mystery. Send her ten pages. Here’s her email.”
Holy. Double. Crap.
I floated back to the Hospitality room. “He requested pages,” I told Annette. She squealed and gave me a hug. I came for practice. I was going home with two requests for material, at least first pages.
Believe you me, I spent an hour making sure everything in those emails was exactly as it was supposed to be (although when I checked the Word doc I sent to Dr. Stender, there is one stinking line on an eleventh page where it was exactly ten pages on my Mac – hopefully he will forgive one line).
Here’s the thing. I went for practice, fully prepared to hear “no.” But I heard “yes” from not one, but two highly regarded industry professionals. Now, it’s down to “can they sell me” and “is the writing good enough.” I can control the latter. I cannot control the former. But even if they both pass on more material, I’ve learned the story does have legs. I can talk confidently about my work. I’ll be ready for the next time. I accomplished what I wanted for the conference.
Dreams really do come true.
Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73