Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself face to face with an agent. It’s an important meeting, but an odd one. You have only a couple minutes to achieve your goal.
A couple minutes? Aren’t most agent appointments (at conferences) more like 10 minutes? Yes, but the most important part of that interview (by far) is the first few minutes.
The test of a writer
It’s in the first couple of minutes that you’ll demonstrate your grasp of story. If it takes you a little while to get to the point, the agent may well that assume your story suffers from this dithering as well. If you can’t uncover the heart of your story in a sentence or two, your story will look as though it doesn’t have one.
Do you know the key theme and subject matter of your story? Are you crystal clear about its dramatic punch? If you are, then lead with this material.
If you begin with plot, you’re wading into quicksand. It isn’t possible to describe the plot in the time you will have. Not only is it impossible to summarize a novel quickly, even the best crafted summary sounds wooden. Pity the poor agent. He’s already heard twenty of these pitches. He’s starting to glaze over. (“Now who is the person and what are they trying to say?” and “How many more of these do I have before lunch?”)
The first two minutes constitute your writer’s test, one you should plan to pass with flying colors. The good news is that you have plenty of time to study up. And best of all, you know what the test question will be:
What is your story about?
On the surface of it, the question is deceptively simple, but underneath, unconscionably difficult.
With this question, the agent is asking a number of things:
What kind of experience do you deliver with this story?
What is the core of it, the essence?
What handle can I use to sell it?
Who will want to read it?
Suppose you’re pitching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Lucky you.)
You could start by saying how an investigative journalist is desperate to redeem himself after being convicted of libel. In exchange for a promise of proof of his innocence he takes on a cold case that involves the suspected murder of a family member of a rich man. Meanwhile he hooks up with a young woman who is a genius at surveillance and research and who is abused by various men . . .
This is a pretty accurate summary of the first fifty pages but you see the swamp I’m headed into, here.
Or you could say, “My thriller deals with horrific violence against women, by madmen, guardians, and pillars of the community. It’s the story of bringing evil secrets to light where they can’t survive, all the while delivering up a mystery of a disappearance, serial murders, Nazi hold-overs, and the unlikely attraction between a crusading reporter and a much tattooed and pierced young woman of uncommon brilliance.”
Which version would you buy? Can you see how the agent is at last paying attention?
The trick is to go back to your story and open it up in this way. Provide a theme so powerful you wake up at night wanting to write it, describe dramatic elements that zing with tension, and tell what it will feel like to read the story.
Walk in with confidance
Some of you have already had the agent-pitching experience. Remember how nerve-wracked you were? Remember how you worried that your pitch didn’t convey the true excitement and value of your story? That you felt a novel can’t be squeezed into three sentences?
The thing to remember is that the plot cannot be, but the essence can.
Finding the essence, the experience, of your story is difficult, I don’t deny it. I’ve labored over this myself, and know that it takes a bunch of passes before I get it right. But once you have the perfect pitch, it means you can walk into that meeting with confidance. You will look forward to it. Because you have something exciting to tell that agent.
The heart of your story.
You don’t need to pack all the elements in there, like exactly who the protagonist is and who stands against her and how it all ends. You’ll get there, eventually. You have ten minutes. But you only have ten minutes of agent attention if you grab him from the start.
If you do, the agent will sit back, thinking, Whoa. This one is good. Then he’ll ask, Whose story is it? or What starts off the action? or What other books is your story like?
That’s in the second two minutes of your pitch. So you’ll have set the hook and just be reeling him in.