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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?