Finding Potential Clients at ACFW

I spent the last several days at the ACFW conference in Minneapolis (along with about 600 of my closest friends) and once again my overriding feeling is… I’m tired. I’m sure everyone who went is feeling the same thing. It was terrific meeting lots of my blog readers and I’m glad many of you made the effort to say hi!

I had 32 one-on-one meetings with writers, and countless opportunities to meet and briefly hear pitches from many more. I was impressed with how prepared everyone was, with a brief verbal pitch, one-sheets and first pages for me to read. Wow! I’m so proud of everyone for taking advantage of all the information available and really stepping up to the plate in these meetings. More importantly, I was struck by how many writers are presenting good stories with high-quality writing… making the job of editors and agents that much harder. But it’s a GOOD problem to have.

I think I saw potential for immediate representation in about 15% of the authors I heard pitches from, which is (to my mind) fairly high. So, what made the difference between those I thought I might want to represent, and those I didn’t?

→ The story itself. This was by far the biggest factor separating the projects that interested me from those that didn’t. My personal impression is that many people are writing about everyday characters, in everyday situations, with everyday results. Unfortunately those kind of stories tend to make readers’ eyes glaze over. Something about the characters, situation, setting, or result has to be different, bigger than life, surprising. Something about it has to be intriguing. Those of you who attended John Olson’s workshop on “high concept” learned all you ever wanted to know about making your stories intriguing. Not every book has to qualify as high concept, but it does have to be intriguing.

For example, several people pitched me stories about a couple in marriage crisis, with the story being about their journey through struggles and back to reconciliation. I wasn’t particularly drawn in by most of them. However, one writer took a couple in marriage crisis, dropped them down into a fascinating setting and situation that involved adventure and danger, threw in a mystery to be solved… and immediately all my synapses were firing and I was dying to read the book.

→ Taking too long to get the story started. As we’ve discussed before, the first pages of your novel are crucial and they tell an agent or editor a lot about where your writing is, in terms of readiness for publication. I saw several projects that sounded interesting, but when I began to skim through the first few pages, found myself mired in detail, backstory, interior monologue, and other things besides an actual start to the story, something intriguing to get the ball rolling, whether it’s an unusual character or an immediate plot development. There’s got to be some hint of conflict right away, some suggestion of a big story question that the reader wants the answer to.

→ An uninteresting or cliché opening. Related to the above, this is often when the book opens with a character doing some unimportant task while thinking about or mentally reviewing their current situation. Some characters spoke to themselves out loud, a device which rarely works unless your protagonist is schizophrenic (in the literal sense). Cliché openings can also be a character waking up in the morning, a character driving somewhere, a phone call, long descriptions of the setting or the weather, a prologue that is a thinly veiled excuse to get some backstory in at the beginning… you get the picture. HOWEVER, any kind of opening, even if using a cliché device, can be written in such a compelling way that readers don’t think of it as cliché.

→ Weak fiction technique. This usually includes things like: immediately obvious cases of giving the reader too much information; telling details that could more effectively be shown; unclear or mixed-up POVs; ineffective proportion of narrative and dialogue; unsophisticated prose. This also could be the lack of a distictive authorial voice.

→ Unpolished dialogue mechanics. It’s evident fairly quickly if your characters don’t sound realistic; if attributions are clunky; or if dialogue isn’t pointed and fails to move the story forward.

The projects that most interested me avoided these readily apparent pitfalls, and made me want to see more. To those of you whose projects I didn’t find to be right for me, I applaud you for being at ACFW where you can learn so much, and I encourage you to keep writing, keep learning, be persistent. If you were amongst those to whom I expressed interest in seeing more, congratulations and I can’t wait to hear from you!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Anita Mae on September 23, 2008 at 2:06 PM

    >I was delighted to be able to attend the ACFW conference and meet ‘friends’ I’d only communicated with on-line before.

    I can’t believe the enormity of writing techniques I tried to absorb. The 3 CD set of the conference can’t get to me soon enough.

    I started crying Friday night at the Harp and Bowl worship session and I don’t think I stopped until Sunday night.

    Yes, I had an editor and agent appt with red eyes from tears. (sigh)

    Rachelle, it was nice/fun/exciting to meet you.

    Have a God day!

  2. Cecelia Dowdy on September 23, 2008 at 11:55 AM

    >Rachelle, it was great sitting at your table during lunch on Saturday. One thing you mentioned, which I found very interesting, is that you’d been hearing a lot of pitches about stories involving a special needs/autistic child. It seems to be a popular subject among novelists nowadays.

  3. Tiffany Stuart on September 23, 2008 at 11:02 AM

    >As always, great tips! Your posts keep me coming back for more. Appreciate you.

  4. Kim Kasch on September 22, 2008 at 8:43 PM

    >Airfare to ACFW: $495.00
    Hotel at ACFW (3 nights): $360.00
    Registration to attend ACFW: $695.00
    Rachelle’s Tips: Priceless


  5. One More Writer on September 22, 2008 at 5:58 PM

    >It was so nice to meet you face-to-face after so many years of knowing you in cyberspace!

    D’Ann Mateer

  6. Gwen Stewart on September 22, 2008 at 5:48 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    So glad you had a productive time at ACFW. Wish I could have met you and writer friends there.

    Thanks for the above list of fiction pluses and pitfalls. Very concise and helpful as I dream of new ideas.

    What if the writer, not the writer’s characters, mutters to herself while hitting the delete key? A hypothetical question, naturally. A friend wants to know.

  7. The Bossy Church Lady on September 22, 2008 at 3:31 PM

    >This blunt look at how the wheels turn in an agent’s mind is very much appreciated as your insights are always invaluable. Again, thank you for sharing!

  8. Lisa Jordan on September 22, 2008 at 1:17 PM

    >Meeting you at lunch, and then pitching to you the next day were among my conference highlights. You were so gracious and made me feel comfortable when my insides were churning and my feet wanted to run. Thank you. I appreciate your willingness to be a part of the conference. I’ve been telling others to subscribe to your blog because you’re the real deal. 🙂

  9. Kristi Holl on September 22, 2008 at 12:10 PM

    >I hope you’re able to turn off your phone and get a good long nap now. You held a LOT of one-on-one conferences! Your points about what caught your eye as an agent (and what stopped you cold) are well put. Thanks for all the insider information you give.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  10. Timothy Fish on September 22, 2008 at 11:06 AM

    >“…several people pitched me stories about a couple in marriage crisis…”

    The more I read you blog, the more I think I’m making the right decision to self-publish my WIP. Who else is going to publish just another story about a marriage in crisis involving a prostitute? On the other hand, I look at this post and it seems fulfill all bullets. An English teacher living out the life of Hosea in modern times seems to meet the High Concept rule. The story starts on page one where it quickly becomes clear that the protagonist is having a hard time putting up with his wife’s shenanigans. I see the opening as interesting. I don’t believe it fails in technique and I don’t think the dialogue is corny. But then, don’t we all think our work is great?

    It is interesting to see your perspective on the ACFW Conference. I read another blog in which an author in attendance seemed to think there were less then 500 people and mentioned people falling asleep while listening to some of the speakers.

  11. lynnrush on September 22, 2008 at 10:01 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. It’s interesting to hear about your impressions of the authors you met with at the conference. You are fast, indeed.

    I was sad that I couldn’t go to ACFW this year, but next year it’s in Denver, so I’ll be there, for sure. I watched the “progress” on ACFW loop and authors blogs over the last four days.

    Looks and sounds like it was a lot of fun. I’m very glad you found authors to represent. I wish you and the authors much success.

  12. Jessica on September 22, 2008 at 9:36 AM

    >Wow, you’re fast!
    Thanks for posting all those things. They’re really making me think about my manuscripts and how I can make them better.
    Hope you have a great day, with lots of caffeine!