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Interview with Janice Hardy on Pitching & Writing Conferences


I am so excited to welcome Janice Hardy to the blog today! I have known Janice for years now (I had the privilege of meeting her at a signing nearly six years ago), and if you have followed me for any length of time, you will know that I frequently mention both her blog and books. The Healing Wars trilogy is one of my favorites! Despite having met her so long ago, and loving her writing so much, it wasn't until recently that I actually had the courage to reach out to her.

Coincidentally, this Saturday, I will be attending a writing conference in Nashville, so I am particularly thrilled to have her here, discussing how to maximize/pitch at a conference. She will also be sharing part of her publication journey, and revealing an exclusive sneak-peek of her next novel. Let's get started!

Thank you so much for being here, Janice!

How long – from penning the first sentence, until its release – did it take you to publish your first novel, The Shifter?

If I remember right, I started it early 2007, and pitched it that October. It was sold in June 2008, and published October 2009.

Was The Shifter the first manuscript you ever wrote? Was it the first you ever queried?

Oh no, it was the fourth book I'd tried to sell. I'd written more before that, but they were just training novels. I had a stack of rejection letters from previous books, some even from my eventual agent. She'd turned down two other novels of mine over the years.

You found your agent, Kristin Nelson, by attending a writer’s conference in Canada! Did you query other agents via traditional submission (a query letter, sample pages, etc.) as well?

I did. Right when I was about to query, I saw two different agent opportunities online. One was an agent who was opening up her blog to YA queries and letting folks skip the agency process, and the other was a brand-new agent looking for clients. She worked for a major agency, so she was in training, not just some random person trying to be an agent. I submitted, and they both asked for pages right away. I was already registered for the conference and knew I'd be pitching there (this was about a month before that), so I figured I'd better get my queries sent out. I had eight people I wanted to query on my "round one" agents.

Of those eight, four requested manuscripts, one said it wasn't for him but he thought I'd sell it, two sent form rejections, and one never got back to me. Of the four who asked for the full, I received three offers of representation. This includes the pitch I made at the conference.

Let’s talk a little more about that writing conference where you first met your agent… What was the pitch session like?

Nerve-wracking. I'd done it the year before and it was a horrible experience, so I was a little gun shy. But at that point I had agents looking at pages, so I knew I had something decent. That took some of the pressure off.

The pitches are ten minutes. You sit down, introduce yourself and give your one- to two-sentence pitch. I started with the title, which made Kristin actually "sit up and take notice." She later said the title alone intrigued her enough to ask for pages, and the rest of the pitch sold her on asking for the full. After the pitch, she asked me questions and we chatted about the book, then she gave me her card and told me how to submit the manuscript. Ten days later, she signed me as a client.

And for those curious, here's the pitch (This is the original title, which was later changed to ): "The novel is called [agent sits up and looks interested], and it's about a war orphan named Nya, who has the ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person. When her little sister disappears, it turns out to be the only weapon she has to save her."

What would you recommend that a writer bring with them to a conference pitch session? Sample pages? Business cards? A cover sheet?

I brought sample pages but didn't use them. I know other writers who were asked for them after the pitch, though. I'd say have your query, three chapters, a brief synopsis, and business cards just in case you get asked for them. I'd prepared a few submission packets, but didn't use any of them.

Even if a writer is not pitching at a conference, it is good to have an “elevator pitch” prepared, just in case. You never know when you might meet or be introduced to an agent! What are some tips for creating a good, concise verbal pitch?

Absolutely. Besides needing it to pitch, this is what you're going to tell people when they ask what your book is about. I've been giving that same pitch since 2008. I even gave it a few weeks ago at a book festival during the, "tell us a little about you and your novel" introductions.

A good verbal pitch captures what's cool about your novel, but it's not the whole plot. Two sentences, tops. And that's two "I can say this without needing to take a breath" sentences. I've seen a lot of writers craft long, detailed pitches that work fine when read, but they're way too long to say and the writer stumbles over them. You want something that shows the protagonist, the conflict, and the hook that also rolls off the tongue easily. You'll probably be nervous when you say it, so you'll want something easy to remember and recite.

As a whole, what are a few ways that writers can maximize their time at a writer’s conference?

Take a lot of notes, pay attention in the workshops, be open-minded to trying new techniques if they sound interesting. It's a great opportunity to network as well, which is for more than just professional authors. Writers usually work solo, so meeting other writers who know your struggles and the challenges you face can help you build a foundation of support.

Be ready to pitch or talk about your novel when asked, but don't shove it in people's faces. Agents tell horror stories about writers who crossed lines and were flat out rude trying to pitch. Even editors and other authors have been accosted by total strangers. You don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable at an event, so be polite and professional at all times. It's fine to chat with an agent you want to submit to, but don't say anything about your work unless asked.

Conference as also great opportunities to see potential agents in action. My agent gave a query workshop and I got to see her before I pitched her. I got a feel for who she was and I really loved her energy, so I felt I could work with her. A friend of mine had the opposite reaction and felt intimidated by her, so she knew right away this wasn't the right agent for her. Personality matters, and you might meet an agent at the bar you'd never have queried who just clicks with you and turns out to be the perfect agent for you.

Oh, and wear layers. It's common to have one room that's freezing and another that's sweltering. That's just the way of conferences.

Having now published three fantasy novels and several non-fiction writing guides, what would you like to say to writers currently working on a manuscript? What would you say to writers currently querying a manuscript?

Be true to your story and write to the best of your ability, but also don't over think it. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to follow all the "rules" and fit some predefined "right way" a story should be told, when all we really need to do is entertain our readers. Yes, structure and guidelines are good things (I write about them the time), but they can also lure you into thinking following a template to the letter will produce a bestseller--and it won't. All of that advice are just tools to help you tell the best story you can, so take what works and ignore what doesn't.

Querying is rarely fun, and patience is key. It can take a long time, and sometimes you get a rejection letter for a perfectly good novel. The market and the agent's personal taste plays a role as well as the quality of the book, so just because you got a no doesn't mean the book is bad or that you're a failure as a writer. It's a business. If the market is saturated with, say, novels about supernatural flying squirrels, even if you have the very best flying squirrel novel out there it will probably still get a no.

Of course, if you get nothing form rejection letters, that's a red flag that there's something wrong with the query or concept. Either the story isn't clicking, or the writing isn't working, maybe you're making some rookie mistakes and don't realize it. Do some more research on proper query formats, revise, and try again. Queries read like slightly more detailed versions of cover copy--they tease, but they don't give the entire novel away.

Your blog, Fiction University, is a goldmine for writers. You have created an archive with a wealth of information on anything from drafting and editing to querying, publishing, and marketing a manuscript. What are some other great resources you have found beneficial and would like to pass on to fellow writers?

Aw, thanks! Oh goodness, there are so many. Jami Gold's blog, Writers Helping Writers, Mystery Writing is Murder, Wordplay, Anne Allen's blog, Writers in the Storm, Romance University--I could go on and on. I have a list of resources and links on my site with most of my favorites and other helpful sites.

I have personally talked with fellow writing friends who weren’t sure how to connect with authors or agents on social media, without seeming overbearing or unprofessional. You and I have connected via social media over the last few months, and as an unpublished author, I can relate to that end of the relationship. What do you, as a published author, recommend for people wanting to connect with published authors or agents on social media?

I think it depends on what you want--do you want to get to know that professional author and share common interests, or do you want them to help you in some way? I talk to people all the time, I answer questions, I even read the occasional chapter, but it's with fellow writers and book lovers, so we have things in common and can build from that. But I also get folks who contact me and within two exchanges are asking me for things--read my manuscript, introduce me to your agent, buy my book, use my service. They don't care about me, just what I can do for them. It actually has nothing to do with me, I'm just someone farther up the ladder they can use to get ahead. There's a different tone in their emails or correspondence. More salesy.

So if you genuinely want to connect, contact them and be friendly. Remind them or mention that they met you at an event (if you did), or comment on their book or blog, ask a question, comment on their Facebook feed. However they put themselves out there, answer back, but be genuine. Respect that author's time and understand if they don't have much or any to spare.

But also understand that not every author is going to respond, and it's not personal if they don't. Some authors get so inundated with strangers demanding help that they disengage and avoid it completely. The bigger the author, the more likely it is they have a full plate of responsibilities, and getting a lot of emails, tweets, or messages a day. It's a lot to keep up with and still write the books readers want to read. Sometimes it takes me a few weeks to get back to people, even though I try to respond pretty quickly. It all depends on how busy I am and what deadlines I'm facing when someone contacts me.

Bonus Question: From chatting together, I know you have another fiction book in the works. Can you share a favorite line/sneak-peek from that manuscript?

Sure. Here's the first page from my adult urban fantasy (working title is CREATURES):

The child was pure evil, no doubt about it. The twelve-year-old bane of the entire prosthetics ward, so naturally they’d dumped her on me two weeks before my assignment at Andrews Medical Center ended. For the last five days I’d put up with her faux woe-is-me show, but I’d stopped falling for that trembling lip and tear-soaked-eyes act on day two.

“I know it hurts, Daisy, but you can do it,” I said, voice level. One did not cajole the devil child lightly.

“You don’t know anything, Miss Legs.”

Not her best rejoinder, but I admired her skill at avoiding repetition. I knelt beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know if you don’t do your therapy you’ll be stuck in that wheelchair.” I tipped my head at the chair, crammed into the corner next to therapy stairs like it had p----d off its father.

“I hate that thing more than I hate you.” She glared at it, but it didn’t burst into flames. The kid had laser beams in those baby blues for sure.

“So don’t let it win.”

Her glare shifted to the floor in front of her and I mentally crossed my fingers. One, two, if she made it to five—

“It’s not alive, it can’t win anything!” she screeched, yanking off her leg. She swung it at me and I braced for impact. “You’re so stupid! Go away.”

I granted her two hits, then caught the leg in both hands and jerked it away from her. I was all for catharsis, but those things were expensive.

[Janice]: It has one last revision pass to go before the copyedits and whatnot, but it shouldn't change too much. My agent had a few suggestions I agreed with and still need to do (she has a fantastic editorial eye).

[Caitlin]: Thank you again for stopping by, Janice!

A long-time fantasy reader, JANICE HARDY always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011. Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). Her newest craft book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) releases August 14, 2017.

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