We’ve been talking lately about what it’s like to meet at a writing conference with a real live editor or agent. This may be the most terrifying 15 minutes of a writer’s life, but you either face down your fears and do it or you don’t.
I asked my friend, uber-agent Chip MacGregor, recently to do a role-playing interview with me. I’d play the part of Tom Clancy pitching his first novel at a writing conference. As I understand it, Tom was a life-insurance salesman at the time and spent years writing his novel THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. So I’ll pretend I’m him (but I’m keeping my own name in this interview for clarity) and Chip will play the role of an agent.
This will be a “cold interview.” The author has signed up for 15 minutes with the agent, but they haven’t met until now. The agent has no information about the author and knows nothing about the book. This is probably the scariest kind of interview you can have.
Here’s the transcript of the interview we did.
Randy: Hi, Chip.
Chip: Hello Randy. Nice to meet you.
Randy: To be honest, I’ve never pitched a novel before so I’m a little green right now.
Chip: That’s okay. Why don’t you just tell me what it is you’ve written.
Randy: OK, it’s a military thriller about a Soviet sub captain who decides to hand over the latest Russian sub to the Americans.
Chip: So this is a novel?
Chip: Okay. And you have a background with subs or the US Navy?
Randy: Well, no. I’m an insurance salesman. But I have a lot of friends in the Navy. We do a lot of role-playing military war games.
Chip: Okay. That’s fine. Tell me a bit more about your story.
Randy: I guess I should start with motive, right? Because it’s a little implausible unless you understand why a Russian sub commander would do this.
Chip: This is your 15 minutes, Randy. You can start wherever you feel comfortable.
Randy: OK, good. Here’s the thing: The Russian commander is actually a Lithuanian. So right there, you have an outsider. Secondly he was married to a great woman who got appendicitis. She went to a Soviet hospital and an idiot surgeon took out her appendix and gave her an infection. Then they gave her Soviet made antibiotics which were useless. So she died. So our sub commander hates the Soviet system. That’s his motivation.
Chip: Um… wait a minute. Too many details. Pretend you’re a helicopter, flying over the big picture. You’ve got a Lithuanian guy who is captaining a Russian sub, right? And, as I understand, he wants to get back at them — exact some revenge. That it so far?
Chip: Okay. What’s the wife got to do with the story?
Randy: Well, she’s now dead, and the sub commander blames the Soviet system. So he wants revenge the only way he can get it–by handing over a prize intelligence plum to the Americans.
Chip: Okay. That’s an interesting premise.
Randy: But the catch here is that he wants to hand it over to the Americans without the Russians knowing it.
Chip: All right. I think I’ve got your basic premise. How does your story start?
Randy: The sub commander kills the political officer in his office just after the sub has left on its maiden voyage. The political officer is a useless guy who isn’t in on the plot. The rest of the officers on the ship ARE in on the plot. They’re all disaffected and want out of the Soviet system too.
Chip: All right. So the sub captain is a dissident, and he’s gathered around him a bunch of other dissidents to help him defect?
Randy: Right. But they also have a large number of young enlisted men onboard who know nothing about the plot.
Chip: Okay, so they’ve got to do this in secret somehow.
Randy: Right. They have to find a way to hand over the sub, defect to the Americans, get the enlisted boys back home to Russia, and keep the Soviet military from knowing that the Americans have the boat.
Chip: You’ve got a military thriller planned. So the audience is basically male.
Randy: Right. There are of course some women who like this kind of story, but the target reader is a guy who believes in the military and isn’t ashamed to have America flex its muscles. It’s not for the politically correct crowd, Chip. This is for middle America.
Chip: Okay. Just so you know, right now it’s a tough time to be selling men’s fiction.
Randy: Hmmm, why’s that?
Chip: Just the market at play. How many words is the book?
Randy: About 100,000.
Chip: Is it completed?
Randy: Yes, and I’ve edited it a couple of times. It’s about as polished as I can make it.
Chip: Good. Has anyone else read it? I mean, have you had an editor take a look at it, or run it by your critique group?
Randy: I don’t have a critique group or an editor. My wife worked over the grammar. But I did have five of my Navy friends read it and they helped me fix a TON of little details. It’s about as accurate as I can make it.
Chip: Okay. May I take a look at the first couple of pages?
Randy: Right here.
Chip: (Reading) Great. As I’m looking this over, tell me something… what are your expectations of this meeting? I mean, we have a few minutes together. Are you expecting to find a publishing deal? to have me respond to your words? to talk about the market? what?
Randy: Well, I don’t have an agent yet and I’d like to know if you’re interested in working with me on this project to find a publisher.
Chip: All right. I just want to be clear as to what you were expecting. (Continues reading the first two pages.)
Chip: Hey — that’s good work. A good opening. I liked it.
Randy: Really? Wow, that’s great to hear. I’ve never done this before, so I’m a little nervous right now.
Chip: That’s okay, we’re just talking here, Randy. May I share a few thoughts about this with you?
Chip: All right. I like your basic premise. It sounds like it has the makings of a good story. I just had a couple minutes to read your words, so this isn’t exactly a detailed response but I thought your opening was strong. To do it justice, I’d need to read more. Let me talk about your expectation for a moment…
Chip: Here’s the thing: we’ve just met. I think this has some merit, and I’d be willing to look at more of it. But you’re probably not going to walk into a 15 minute appointment and sign with an agent…
Chip: in fact, an agent who would sign you up with nothing more than a cursory look at your work probably is a bit too eager anyway.
Randy: You’d be surprised how many people buy life insurance after a 15 minute talk.
Chip: So let me suggest a couple things to you… First, we’re about out of time. I thought this was a good start. I’d be willing to see more… If you’d like, I’ll invite you to send me the entire thing and I’ll read over it. Second, while we’re here at the conference, I’m going to ask you to do a couple things…
Chip: I’m going to suggest you attend the workshops that deal with thrillers, characterization, and dialogue. Take a look at the listings and you’ll find them… Next, I’ll ask you to go over this with a couple things in mind — ACTION and DIALOGUE. A novel like this is built on those two pillars. I just want you to go over this…
Randy: (writing) Action and Dialogue.
Chip: …and make sure your book focuses on ACTION and DIALOGUE. This is the sort of story that will need to keep people turning the pages. So you’ve got to make sure there is genuine movement…
Chip: …from one paragraph to the next. No stopping to catch your breath. No waiting while you offer a bunch of cool description. It’s got to be move – move – move. Always pushing me forward.
Randy: OK, I’ll work on that.
Chip: You might also want to think about how you start and end chapters. Does the first sentence grab me? Does the end of the chapter make me have to turn the page and go to the NEXT chapter?
Randy: Yeah, that’s one thing my wife hammered on me about.
Chip: Okay. Look, we’re about out of time. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Randy: Just one thing: what should I do next? Revise it? Send it to you? I’m a little clueless here.
Chip: That’s okay. Like I said, attend some of the workshops here at the conference, and see if there’s good information you can take and use. Then go home and look over your work — especially the first two or three chapters. Does is start strong? End strong? Action and dialogue? Keep me turning pages? Do some evaluation. Then, if you think it’s as strong as it can be, email it to me. Here’s my card. Just reference the conference in the subject line, so I know it’s not a cold submission.
Randy: OK, I’ll do that and get it to you within the next few weeks. Thanks a lot! I really enjoyed this, even though I was scared to death coming in.
Chip: Well, you did great. Tell you what — today is the 14th. Why don’t you plan to have it to me by the end of the month? That gives you two weeks to do any last revisions, then get it to me.
Randy: OK, I’ll get it done.
Chip: Great. Nice to meet you. Appreciated seeing your work.
[End of interview.]
Randy sez: This interview went about the way I expected. I played a novice writer with a strong storyline. Let’s look at some of the main features of the interview:
1) I gave Chip a good one-sentence summary of my novel, but I forgot to start off telling Chip that this IS a novel. I just assumed he knew. But in a cold interview, the editor/agent knows NOTHING about the author. So I had him a little confused. Chip represents both fiction and nonfiction, and he sees all sorts of both. I’ll bet he also sees a lot of stuff that is unclassifiable. So he asked me to clarify. A good agent will ask for clarifications quickly.
2) As soon as he knew the genre, Chip asked about my qualifications–am I a Navy guy? Normally in fiction, qualifications aren’t that important, but in a military novel, it might be important. So he asked. Tom Clancy, if I remember correctly from an article I read by him many years ago, had never been on a sub before he wrote THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. But he had talked to plenty of people who had. And he’d done a lot of war gaming. That was his strong suit.
3) Once I started explaining the story, I started rambling. This is common, even for experienced novelists. We want to get into details. The agent just wants the big picture. Chip let me go on for a bit, then asked me for clarification. Notice that he synthesized the story and fed it back to me to make sure he had it right.
4) Chip quickly saw that this is a good story premise. So he asked me a bit about the target audience. This is a book aimed at men who like exploding helicopters. Then he made sure that I had a realistic understanding about the marketability of the book. It won’t be as easy to sell as certain other kinds of fiction. He wanted to set my expectations.
5) Next, Chip wanted to know where I am in the process. (Freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.) Was the book done or just a pipe dream? How long is it? Who’s seen it? The answers to these questions will tell him a lot more than if I’d told him, “Chip, I’m a senior.”
6) Chip also asked about my expectations for the meeting. The reason is that writers come into these meetings with all sorts of expectations, some realistic, some not. Some writers want validation or a critique. Some want a contract RIGHT NOW. Some don’t know what they want. In my case, the book was done and I believed it was ready to publish. So I didn’t put on false humility and just say I wanted a critique. I didn’t. I wanted an agent to help me sell it. But a meeting like this is of course just the first step of several. It would be very rare to get an offer of representation from an agent after one 15 minute meeting. Most agents would want to read more of the manuscript, probably all of it, before taking on a client. Especially an unpublished client.
7) Notice that Chip gave me some valuable advice that I could use, even if he never takes me on as a client. He knew that for this genre, the author needs to hone his craft in Action and Dialogue. So he advised me to take any workshops at the conference that focus on those. And he also told me to read through my manuscript and revise it as needed.
8) Finally, Chip invited me to send him the manuscript–but only after I think it’s as strong as it could be. He also gave me a deadline to do it. You’d be amazed how many writers get a request for a manuscript from an editor or an agent at a conference and then NEVER send them anything. It happens all the time.
Of course, there might have been other endings to this story:
* Chip might have told me, “Sorry, there’s no market for this kind of thing right now.” Notice that a response like that says NOTHING about the quality of the writing. It says only that (in his opinion, which might well be wrong), he can’t sell a book like this right now.
* He might have said, “I like the premise, but I think you need to work on your craft a bit. You’re not there yet.” This is a very painful answer to hear. How can an agent make that kind of decision based on only 2 pages of manuscript? Easy. 2 pages is more than enough to tell whether a writer has decent craft. One paragraph is usually enough to tell whether the writer has brilliant craft.
* A very rare response could have been, “Tell you what… this is REALLY good. I’d be interested in this. Um… I’d appreciate it if you didn’t show this around.” You shouldn’t count on hearing this, but if you do, either the agent is taking some drugs he shouldn’t be taking, or . . . you have a great career ahead of you.
The actual ending of the interview is the most plausible one for this particular manuscript. It’s a strong story premise, but the writing is not luminous literary artistry. The agent would really need to read a couple of hundred pages to know that this book is going to be a blockbuster.
OK, any questions on these appointments with editors/agents? Leave a comment and I’ll answer them as I can.