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.