Date with an Agent: Do’s & Don’ts to get Ahead

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)This year the Dublin Writers’ Festival is offering a chance for you to pitch your novel to a number of agents through Date with an Agent. The event also includes a panel discussion which will cover the status of publishing and what is currently selling.

Only 75 people will be selected to participate so stop dilly-dallying and enter immediately.

A couple of years ago I had a similar opportunity (as a result of winning the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair) and it was a real education. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may find helpful:

DO:

Be prepared.
And also, don’t forget, be prepared. But the most important thing is… BE PREPARED.

This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t deliver your absolute best.

You’ll have ten minutes with each agent (in a speed-dating sort of format) so put together a succinct presentation and own it.

Write out your summary and polish it till it shines. You should include the basics: Title, length, genre, point of view and a brief introduction to your protagonist, what he or she wants, and what obstacles stand in the way. Try to answer the six questions, who, what, where, when, how and why:
Who is your hero? What does he want? Why does he want it? Where and when does the story take place? How will he triumph? Yes, it is possible to answer all those questions in just a couple of sentences.

Once you’ve written something that ticks all your boxes, memorize it. Practice saying it to other people. Get feedback.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you can answer any questions that the agent may ask you:

• What’s the status of the novel – i.e., who is your target readership? For instance, are you presenting a crime story that would appeal to people who like hard-edged work like Michael Connelly, or ‘cosy’ mysteries a la Agatha Christie?
• Is it complete or are you still writing?
• Over what period does the story take place – a couple of hours or several generations?

I’d be inclined not to pitch a novel that isn’t complete, but if you decide to go ahead, make sure you know two important things:

How long is the story likely to run? And how will it end?

One question that tripped me up during my Novel Fair (and it was asked a lot) was: what’s your next book going to be about? In hindsight, it’s a fairly obvious question. Agents want to back a career and they want to know you aren’t a one-trick pony. Even if you’ve only a vague idea, at least have something in mind, preferably in the same genre. Remember, you’re not committing to writing this book, but you are at least demonstrating an ability to look ahead.

Do your research.

Know as much about the agents you’re meeting as possible before the event. Look them up on the internet. Read their blogs, tweets, books and know who else they represent.

It isn’t a ‘date’ but

Although this isn’t a date as you know it, some of the same rules apply. Arrive on time. Be clean and well groomed. Use deodorant. Keep perfume to a minimum. Have a good supply of breath mints in your pocket.

Be polite and interested in what the other person has to say. While you don’t have much time, a little social exchange before you get started isn’t a bad idea. Stand up, shake hands, introduce yourself, be cheerful.

Where this isn’t like a date, though, is it’s OK to talk about yourself or, more accurately, your work. (Oh, and you probably won’t get a snog at the end of it.)

DON’T:

Arrive drunk or high. You wouldn’t, would you?

Humm and haw. Try to eliminate the ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kinda’s from your vocabulary as much as you can. Naturally you’ll be nervous, but you should still try to be as confident and as professional as possible. At a minimum, you should sound knowledgeable about your own work. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, when you’re on the spot it’s amazingly easy to forget the basics. Like your protagonist’s name. Have the basics on an index card to refresh your memory if you are worried you’ll go blank.

Argue or be rude. You only have ten minutes with each individual and you want to be remembered as intelligent, talented and pleasant. Winning flies with honey, and all that.

Forget to ask questions. Again, you have limited time so be sensible. Asking what sort of an advance you’re likely to get is waaay too premature. You could ask what sort of work they’re looking for, though and how long it’ll take them to get back to you.

Fail to keep notes. At the Novel Fair, I kept my notebook at my desk and frantically jotted down comments made by each agent I met. It was helpful, but unnecessarily stressful. If I were to do it again, I’d have a sheet of paper with the agents’ names listed and a series of columns that I could either check or put in a 1 to 5 response. The items would include:
• Likes my title
• Likes my story idea
• Likes my plot
• Wants to see the full manuscript (yes or no)

You may think of other items to include. Once the event is over, it’s likely that much of what was said will blur. If you have some sort of notes you’ll have a more realistic idea of what to expect.

Once you have time to read over your notes or your sheet, try to see if there’s a thread. All the agents I met with said they loved my title. That’s a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale. If they weren’t sure about the plot or the saleability of the novel, that might only score a 1 or a 2. Come up with a system that works for you.

Be intimidated. After all, agents get colds, spill coffee and worry about their children just like you do. From personal experience I can tell you the Dublin-based agents are all pleasant, intelligent professionals. They’re hoping you’ll be their next star just as much as you are, so try not to get too stressed about meeting them.

And I’ll leave you with one last DO: HAVE FUN!

(G.J. Schear)

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