Pub Rants

Category: requesting material

New Year, New #MSWL

Oh, what a year. In the spirit of taking a (small) step forward, I’m not going to summarize the ways in which we’ve all been impacted by everything that happened in 2020, but as we approach the anniversary of, what I’ll kindly call, the big shut down, I’ve been re-thinking what types of projects I’d like to see in my inbox and what types of books I think editors will be looking to acquire in 2021. While thrillers will continue to be in demand, I do think both agents and editors will be on the lookout for diverse stories that build and fuel community as well as those that really dissect identity, family, and our place in the world.

The Dark Side of Homecoming. And the secrets it reveals.  I’m not talking about a big city corporate lawyer who inherits her great aunt’s estate and finds love along the way (although I have a soft spot for those stories, too). I’m interested in the tension that arises from being forced to confront your decisions to leave the place you were born and the desperate acts that come from being forced to return. I’m fascinated by the dark side and tension of identity building. What does it look like when you have to come back to a place to lay something to rest – especially if that place has a hold over you? What about when you have to confront the darker side of your cultural identity – be it myths or legends that turn out, somehow, to be real or the xenophobia you were raised with that you now have to confront?

Epic Sister/Friendship Stories.  I devoured Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and have been hiding from my family binging Firefly Lane.  There’s something about the bond of friendship and sisterhood that continues to fascinate me.  Friends have been a lifeline during these quarantine months and since I don’t have a sister, I’m always intrigued by what that would be like.  I am drawn to the extremes of these relationships – the dark corners that break our hearts and the love that mends them. Female friendships are one of the most important and often overlooked relationships out there, so I’m particularly interested in what happens when they end. The loss of a dear friend is a kind of orphaning and it is an area that again drives people to interesting extremes.  I’d love to find a Reconstructing Amelia among friends or sisters.

Food as a road to identity and community.  2020 had me thinking about food a lot. As I tried to control my reality by preparing heartening food for my family, I was also conscious that many didn’t have that same privilege. So much about food is tied to one’s sense of identity, feeling of home and sense of community. I would love to find a story about a community brought together by a local chef or restaurant – be it the community at large or the community a place like that creates for its patrons and staff. I’m also interested in stories about how food creates a home for someone. Whether it’s someone coming back to their roots, learning traditional recipes to reconnect to or learn about their history, or a kitchen of women who find solace and escape in the food they prepare and the restaurant they run, I’m interested in how people come to connect to food and how food connects us to who we are.

Thrillers. I am still in search of twisty stories where secrets are revealed and relationships are tested.  If it happens to be set on a creepy island or in a closed community a la The Guest List, all the better.  Stories where all things buried finally bubble over are deeply engrossing – especially when they involve giving a big middle finger to systems of oppression along the way. I’m thinking of The Other Black Girl or The Other Me as examples.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dan Zen

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception but with one big surprise in the data. And it’s all about queries and the possible impact of Covid.

4 : Number of agents at NLA (same as in 2019)

1 : Number of agents who made the Publishers Weekly Star Watch Finalists List. Congrats Quressa!

13,561 : Queries read and responded to. QueryManager gives us an exact number now. As a team, agents were closed to queries for 27% of the year, including for 8 months for Kristin, but we also think it’s because fewer writers queried in the time of Covid, so this is down from 14,000+ in 2019.

430 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 354 in 2019, as we had more time stuck at home to read): 71 requests for Kristin, 173 requests for Danielle, 77 requests for Quressa, 109 requests for Joanna.

106 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (down from 127 in 2019, which might mean fewer folks have work out there on submission).

13 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (1 for Kristin, 4 for Danielle, 4 for Quressa, 4 for Joanna). Four was the magic number for everyone except me, and this is down by only 1 from 2019, so go NLA team!

39 : Number of book deals done (16 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle with 1 debut, 11 for Quressa with 2 debuts, 7 for Joanna with 4 debuts). Way up from 26 in 2019.

2 : Number of debut New York Times bestsellers (1 for Quressa and 1 for Joanna, whose client debuted in the #1 position on the list!).

48 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 45 in 2019).

8 : TV and major motion picture deals (6 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa, 1 for Joanna). Down from 11 in 2019.

41 : Books released in 2020 (down from 45 in 2019).

70 : Foreign-rights deals done (54 for Kristin, 7 for Danielle, 9 for Quressa). Down from 106 in 2019. Thanks, Covid.

0 : Physical Conferences attended. Thanks, Covid. 

2 : Virtual Conferences attended by Kristin (both Denver-based: Lighthouse Writers LitFest and the inaugural Margins Conference). 

102 : Physical holiday cards sent (down from 180 in 2019 as we only sent to clients during this Covid year).

837 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down by one from 838 in 2019).

Not telling it’s so embarrassing : homemade eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because I wasn’t popping out to Starbucks.

Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise and missing my dear, dear Chutney. Reading full manuscripts is just not the same without her.  

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Clint Budd

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

A referral to an agent is like the holy grail of introductions for a writer. It lets you skip ahead to the front of the line. It’s a get-out-of-query-jail free card. What writer wouldn’t want that? As an agent, I do give priority to referrals, but I think there might be some confusion among writers concerning what actually constitutes a referral. So let’s break it down:

What is a referral?

Basically, a referral is when one of my current clients or an established publishing-industry professional whom I know personally reaches out to me directly and asks if they can send an author my way. The referral comes in directly from that client or industry professional—not from the author. Occasionally, one of my clients will give me a heads-up that a certain writer they know and feel is ready for agent representation will be reaching out to me with a query. That is, they will be submitting a query to me through our regular query process. When that happens, I alert my team to watch for it and forward it to me when it comes in. That’s it.

But I think referrals are worth talking about a little more because some writers (hopefully unwittingly) use the term “referral” a little too freely, or in a broader context that might not be recognized by agents and editors. In QueryManager, our online query-submission tool, there’s a field where writers can submit the name of someone who referred them. If you don’t have an official referral, it’s OK to leave that field blank.

What isn’t a referral?

• If a writer meets an agent at a conference, and that agent has requested the material, there’s no need to call it a referral. In the industry, we call it a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer hears the agent speak at a conference, and the agent says to the audience at large that they are free to query the agency, that is not a referral, nor is your query a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer follows the client of a particular agent on Twitter or some other social-media platform, and the writer mentions they plan to query that client’s agent, and the client wishes the writer luck, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral when the client reaches out directly to the agent on the the writer’s behalf before the submission happens.

• If a writer knows other industry professionals, but that professional does not know the agent personally, that is not a referral. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see that reference in a query letter. It leaves me scratching my head because the name being used as the referral is not familiar to me at all.

• If a speaker or panelist at a convention or writers’ conference mentions an agent’s name during their talk, that is not a referral. That is simply a recommendation, but not one given to you directly. It’s just a broad mention to a wide audience. We actually receive a lot of query letters that cite this situation as a referral, and it’s not.

• If a writer works with an established author or a professional editor, and that person simply recommends querying me, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral if that editor or established author is reaching out to me directly to request my review.

• If a writer finds the agent’s name in the acknowledgments of a current client’s published work and then references it in the query letter, this is not a referral—although this does show you are savvy and you’ve done your legwork!

• This one might cause a chuckle, but finding me, or any other agent, on Google is also not a referral.

When in doubt, if you have to fill out that field in QueryManager (or some other submission tool), just leave it blank. Feel free to mention names in the context of your query letter—such as in your bio or why you choose that particular agent for your submission. And if you do know someone willing to give you a legitimate referral, definitely thank them and use that referral to your advantage!

Creative Commons Credit: amenclinicsphotos ac

Back in 2004, NLA was one of the first agencies to go entirely electronic by accepting query letters solely by email. I remember chatting with some agent friends about it, and you would have thought the sky was falling. They were passionately certain they would never go that route because sending an email was way too easy. Agents would be inundated. Only aspiring writers who took the time to compose a letter, print it out, put in in an envelope, address it, affix postage, and then walk or drive it to a post office could be considered serious enough about the biz.

Well, my agent friends weren’t wrong. Email definitely allowed far more query letters—many less than professional—to make it to my desk. But my reasoning at the time was that email was faster and easier, and it would allow me as an agent to get a jump on hot projects. As a new, unknown agent, any edge I could create was worth the risk.

As an agency, we accepted email queries for 13 years, and in January 2019, we decided to shift to a rather amazing service called QueryManager.

If the number of emails we’ve received from outraged writers is any indication, then once again, you’d think the sky was falling. How dare we create even more hoops for a writer to jump through?

For the record, I understand the frustration. The query process is not easy, and sending emails is a lot simpler than filling out and submitting an online form. The good news is, QueryTracker exists! Developed by the same folks who gave us QueryManager, QueryTracker can be used by writers to greatly simplify their submissions process, so give it a look.

For us at NLA, it came down to this: QueryManager is not meant to be a hoop for writers to jump through; it’s meant to be a simplification, for agents and for writers. We are an agency that responds to each and every query letter we receive. That is the kind of agent I want to be because responding is respectful, and I will never post on our site that “no response means we’re not interested,” which feels cold. But with four agents at the agency, it quickly became clear that we needed a better system for handling the sheer volume of queries we were receiving. Not to mention, we were getting a lot of emails from writers saying they never received a response from us, even though a response had been sent, and a lot of phone calls from writers whose queries had bounced back to them. It was taking our office staff a lot of time to troubleshoot with these authors.

Enter QueryManager—a robust tool that has hugely simplified the lives of our office staff and agents. Sorting and filtering queries—by genre, by word count, by several other parameters—is a breeze. Responding promptly is a snap. Our screeners are more efficient. In the end, that means our turn-around time is pretty darn good—something writers greatly appreciate. I personally like logging in and checking my response stats. This actually encourages me to stay on top of my query inbox and feels like personal goals achieved, and who doesn’t like a visual representation of a job well done?

By switching, I truly believe we are providing better service to writers. If a writer’s project doesn’t fit what we’re currently accepting, then there’s no need to send the query. Just diminishing the volume of non-fits has simplified the query influx for us as well.

(Now, if I can just get queriers to stop trying to circumvent the system by selecting a genre that their work clearly doesn’t fit but that is on the list of what we accept, then system would be perfect!)

Good luck out there! Feel free to check out our guidelines and read more about what we’re looking for. Even if NLA ends up passing on your query, hopefully we sent that response in a timely fashion and you are moving on to other great agent possibilities.

Creative Commons Credit: Christoph Scholz

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri

1. Agents get rejected, too. We understand the pain. We often offer on projects that we are deeply passionate about, feel we’ve made a strong connection with the author, and end up being passed over for another agent. It is heartbreaking for us. There is day drinking! Like exes who just can’t let go, we follow these authors’ careers, hoping one day they might come back to us. We grieve. But we dust ourselves off and try again. This is one of the most difficult but necessary parts of working in this industry: the ability to keep moving forward in the face of often relentless rejection.

2. Day-to-day and week-to-week, not linear. I typically set goals for what I want to get done in a day or week, like catching up on my queries or reading a few submissions. Those goals are often derailed. Maybe an author just received an offer of representation from another agent. Now that author’s manuscript has to be read within a week or two so I can determine if I, too, want to offer rep; I have to prepare to chat with them to see if we are a good fit, and then, if we are, I have to sell myself to them. Now my week has gone to a potential new client and their manuscript. Or maybe a client who is out on submission might get an offer from an editor. Now, I’m spending my time reaching out to all the others editors who are considering the manuscript to let them know there’s an offer on the table. If I can’t reach them by phone, I email them. I then have to prepare a deal memo so I have a solid idea of how the negotiation is going to proceed based on the publisher’s offer and what would be ideal for my client.

3. Our Clients Come First. This is good. It is our intention to build and maintain our client lists that primarily makes an agent great—without clients we have nothing to sell, and we make no money! So when our clients send in their manuscripts for edits or when they have a crisis, they become our focus. This means reading and full manuscripts that we’ve requested gets put on the back burner.

4. If We Live In NYC, then part of our time is spent networking. We have coffee, lunch, and drink dates with editors so we can learn what they are looking for and how their imprints work, and so we can make new contacts. We go to mixers or maybe even stop by a publisher’s office to meet all the editors at a specific imprint.

5. Agenting isn’t a 9-to-5 Job. I try to have as much work/life balance as I can, but sometimes a 40-hour week isn’t enough. This can mean working seven days a week and pulling in 60-, 70-, or even 80-hour weeks. All unpaid. It is often necessary, but it’s exhausting. It does mean that as much as we want to tackle our overflowing inbox, we often need random mental health days or time to just read for fun, or take a walk, or lie in the park, or see a movie. The point is, we aren’t ignoring queries or submissions.

6. Publishing is a Small World. You never know where the agent you go on a rant about or who you unfollow on Twitter because they rejected you will end up in their career. They might move to the agency that you ultimately sign with. They could become an editor whom your future agent might query. Your agent could part ways with you or leave the industry, and now you need a new agent. Don’t burn bridges. Rejection is hard. No one likes it. But you should still remain a professional when faced with it. Keep rants to yourself or your friends. Don’t take it to your blog or social media.

7. The Most Important Fact: We do this job because we love it and are passionate about books!

Creative Commons Credit: Skyler King

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio

It’s my first PitchWars as a featured agent and I did everything I could to get ready. I cleared the decks as much as possible, caught up on queries and submitted manuscripts and was waiting, coffee in hand, at 5 pm last Tuesday when the first requested manuscripts were set to drop in my inbox. An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. There were over 70 agents participating in this year’s ‘Wars, and we were battling it out over 50 Adult projects, 42 Middle-Grade offering, and 83 YA submissions. It was about as close as any of us would get to a IRL version of The Hunger Games.

For those unfamiliar with PitchWars, it an ingenious program that matches unpublished authors with published author mentors who work to hone a manuscript over the course of a few months and then present those projects to a group of invited agents for a first look. Why do agents love it? Simple—if editors are willing to spend more money on manuscripts that have been edited by agents (and we know they do), it stands to reason that manuscript that have been shepherd by published authors and agents will garner ever more attention in the market. As an added bonus, PitchWars classes create amazing groups of cheerleaders and readers for authors, which is a priceless asset on the journey to publication.

That first night of reading was like an agent slumber party over at NLA—we read, we iMessaged, we read some more. I called it quits around 11:30 pm and by the time I hit my desk the next morning, there were already projects with offers of representation out there. I know, right? How did those manuscripts do that, you may be wondering? And how realistic an experience is getting an offer of rep so quickly for a first-time author?

There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept. PitchWars mentees know to be prepared for anything, from immediate offers to waiting. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:

Positioning – The PitchWars madness begins during the agent showcase, where authors present a short pitch and excerpt for featured agents to respond to. The projects that got my attention were the ones that possessed compelling positioning sentences. This can be a mash-up (“Tarzan meets Six of Crows”) or a comp (“Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn”).

Hook/High Concept – As we’ve previously defined it, a high concept is a new twist on an established narrative trope; something that flips a known idea or story on its ear. The manuscripts that received the most requests contained the “It’s {familiar story line}…but {with a twist}” that got us thinking.

Killer Opening – One chapter. That’s what you have to get our attention. Agents are going to try to feel out as many projects as possible in a short amount of time in a situation like PitchWars. I can’t speak for everyone at NLA, but I was jumping in and out of manuscripts to get a sense of how they measured up. If it wasn’t holding my attention after one chapter, I’d move on. Check out Angie and Kristin’s advice here for opening scenes.

Voice – It’s that elusive thing that’s hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” The projects that really grabbed me—from contemporary romance to contemporary YA—were the ones that displayed a confident, consistent voice. Not surprisingly, a number of these were by long-time authors, which just goes to show that voice, like anything else, takes time to evolve.

As the adrenaline rush of running headfirst into PitchWars subsides, I found myself thinking about how strange this process must seem, especially for authors watching from the sidelines. PitchWars offers no guarantees, but it can be a game changer if you approach it with the right mindset. Of course, if you didn’t get into PitchWars, does everything I just said matter at all? Absolutely. I’m jumping back into my query inbox today and I’ll be taking all of these lessons with me.

Agents and editors are always saying they want a high-concept story, but what does that mean? And if you don’t have one, can you still land an agent and sell your book?

The definition of high concept is difficult to pin down because it involves a certain level of the X-factor—that specialness that defies definition. In other words, conversations about high concept often end with I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it. So instead of searching for a definition of high concept, let’s look at some of its features:

High concept is built on a unique idea/hook that makes the agent sit up and say, “Whoa! I’ve never read any stories like that before!” or “A story like that has never occurred to me!”

High concept is easy to explain/pitch in one or two sentences. What makes a high concept so appealing is that it immediately gives the listener a very clear idea of what to expect from the story. Some examples:

  • Teen girl at a secret spy school meets a normal boy and hides her identity while falling in love. (Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You, the first book in the Gallagher Girls series)
  • Woman witnesses something shocking from the window of her train and may be the only person who can tell the police the truth. (Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train)
  • After a spin-class head injury, Alice forgets the last ten years of her life, including the births of her children and divorce from the love of her life. (Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot)
  • A female med student auctions off her virginity online. (Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price)

High concept is appealing to a wide audience. This is a big reason agents and editors want high-concept projects. They are easier to sell! The commercial value of the story is immediately apparent in that brief, one- or two-sentence description, which makes it easy for agents to pitch to editors, for editors to pitch to the sales team, for the sales team to pitch to booksellers, and for booksellers to pitch to readers. High-concept stories are easy to market. Essentially, a high-concept book sells itself.

High concept involves high stakes. Not every story is high concept, and that’s okay. But if the feedback you consistently get on your work is that it is “quiet” or that the agent just didn’t fall in love, it’s possible that a high concept is the thing you need to pull ahead of the pack.

High concept values action and plot over introspection and backstory. Think movie adaptation here. What are your novel’s “movie trailer moments”—periods of high conflict or tension? If you can’t identify a handful of them right off the bat, and if your novel is more about your characters’ inner lives (thoughts, emotions), then you’re probably not writing a high-concept story. And that’s OK, but now you know the difference!

Here’s one (but not the only) recipe to help you play with generating a high-concept premise: “It’s [trope or familiar story or storyline]…but [with a twist].” A favorite example is “It’s a Western…but set in space” (Firefly). Or “It’s Emma…but set in an over-the-top 1990s high school” (Clueless).

Once you have your high concept, the story is what you make of it! If you are an author who wants to write big, commercial, action-packed plots, you can do that with a high concept. If you’re an author who would prefer to write deeper stories that tackle issues, you can do that, too. The high concept is about getting people through the door. Your unique, individual, execution is what will make readers continue to turn the page