Agents and Editors Share–Pitches We’re Sick Of!

What do agents want? What are publishers sick of? At Balticon52, I got the opportunity to hear a few of the industry leaders voice their opinions.

The panel was entitled “Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of), but since that’s not enough to fill an hour, it turned into a Question and Answer session.

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Whose Opinions Were Shared And Why Should You Care?

Joshua Bilmes is the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he founded in 1994. His clients include NY Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Charlaine Harris, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon and Simon R. Green.

Neil Clarke is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld. He is a six-time and current finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Avery. Sarah’s first book, Tales from Rugosa Coven, won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll, Great Jones Street, and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she was a regular contributor on series fantasy and teaching fantasy literature. With David Sklar, she coedited the Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology.

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Skull and bones, half buried in a forest.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Pitches They’re Sick Of*

  • The Paranormal Boom is DEAD.
  • Superhero piles are getting supersaturated.
  • Zombies are rotting.
  • Some urban fantasy subgenres are being overplayed.
  • Oz.

Note: Even if stories are still being published in a genre, that’s often because publishing contracts and schedules are arranged years in advance. Even when a genre is dead, it can take 2-3 years for a publishing agency to get rid of their backlog.

***

Pitches They’d Like To See More Of*

  • ‘HopePunk’ (even if the term stinks)
    • I *think* it’s a dystopian future, where we actually solve current crisis. Like climate change or evolve into a more accepting species.
  • Diversified stories
    • It’s what the publishers are looking for
    • As the book reviewers themselves become more diverse, a wider variety of stories resonates with the reviewers.
  • Vampires seem to be coming back
  • Steampunk can’t be counted out for the next 3-5 years, but it’s on a downswing.
  • Short Sci-Fi sells better than short Fantasy.
  • But really? Whatever you’re passionate about! Agents can tell if you’re just chasing trends, and earnestness shows through. THAT’S the spark they want.

***

When To Approach Agents or Editors

  • NOT when they’re going into the bathroom – that’s their safe place
  • If they’re attending a convention and are on panels, they typically want to be found.
  • If they’re in a restaurant?
    • Is it next to the convention?
    • Are they at the bar, chatting away? Or off at a table in the back with one of their writers? Pay attention to context clues.

***

Rejections!

As any querying writer can tell you, a personalized rejection is worth its weight in gold!

What does it mean when an agent/publisher says, “It’s too similar to something I just bought/sold”?

It depends.

  • For some, it’s a polite brush-off.
  • For others, they only say it when it’s true.
  • For anthologies? Very likely true.
  • For magazine publishers? They can stagger release dates if needed…

*** Now, we pause for a brief interlude and the story of…***

Rejectomancy!

Once upon a time, Joshua submitted a story he was excited about from one of his writers to an editor. And this is what he heard back.

“I had to get a second read…”

“… because I couldn’t believe you’d sent me something so bad.”

Even agents get rejected.

***

Player 20 winding up to throw a pitch.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Pitching Your Story

The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing Your Pitch

  • Don’t use an adjective to describe your book itself
  • Don’t go over a page!
  • Don’t be cute or suck up
    • Your query letter is somewhere between a job interview and a cover letter for a resume.
  • Don’t write it from the main character’s point of view
  • Don’t summarize your story, especially when querying a short story
  • Don’t have a query longer than the story itself
  • Do include wordcount
  • Do follow the guidelines
  • Do pick a genre
    • Decide where your book goes on the library shelves and pick one.

Is it ever appropriate to respond to a rejection letter?

  • If they personalized the rejection, you can send a very brief ‘Thank You’ note.
  • NEVER respond negatively. If you can’t say anything nice, this is when you really shouldn’t say anything at all.

Is ManuscriptWishList.Com useful?

Joshua doesn’t use it, but at least one of his other agents does. Lack of inclusion doesn’t mean the agent isn’t skilled, inclusion doesn’t mean they are skilled. You still need to do your research.

Comp Titles

Comp titles (comparison titles) are often included in a query letter. Typically either two authors with similar writing styles and markets, or mash-ups where you can specify what aspect of that story you’re using. They have to be under 5 years, (preferably under 3), in your genre, and not run-away successes.

As I’ve said before, what sold 50 years ago isn’t what appeals to most modern audiences. Pacing, themes, POV preferences change.

So, what did our panelists have to say?

By using current novels, you’re showing that the trend you’re writing for isn’t dead.

Verdict? Useful for novels, but only if it’s a good match. If you’re trying too hard, it’s obvious and you should skip it.

Joshua noted here that no one can use Game of Thrones as a comp, (even if it wasn’t too popular) because there hasn’t been a new one published in over 5 years.

Not useful for magazines, but can be useful for anthologies.

***

Writing Contests Tips

  • NEVER pay to enter a contest or pay a “reader’s fee”
    • EXCEPT – Tenure-track professors often pay the entrance fee for college magazines…
    • EXCEPT – Some contests offer critiques/other services as a matter of course for having entered (RWA)
      • Fees currently should be <$50, preferably under $30
      • Verify their validity first, though.
  • Look at the contest’s readers
    • Who are you writing for?
      • Is that the path you want to go down?
  • Look at the past winners’ work
    • Did they write just for the contest, or are they writing like they want to be published?
      • Often, these will read very differently
  • Pay attention to how much time it takes away from your writing
    • Do you have to campaign for votes?
    • What other obligations does it create for you?

***

And finally:

When Is My Story Ready To Query?

As long as you feel that each round of edits is significantly improving your story, keep at it!

Storytime!

Brandon (Sanderson) submitted several manuscripts to Joshua. And Brandon kept getting rejected despite his wonderful (and steadily improving writing) because he couldn’t plot. Finally, when he submitted Elantris, Joshua looked at it and saw that the plotting could be fixed. That’s when he made the offer.

Submitting different stories to the same agent can pay off. But only if you keep working at your craft.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

***

Make sure to reread these dos, don’ts, and preferences! And best of luck as you work towards perfecting your craft.

* Yep. I ended those with prepositions. Whatcha gonna do? Throw red ink at me? Besides, it was the title of the panel!

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Balticon 52

No query corner this week: instead here’s a quick review of Balticon 52. I’ll be going into more depth on some of the panels later.

After a long week away from home learning about Aeronautics, my bed got me for one night before I hit Balticon 52. I saw old friends, made new ones, and–as always–brought home loads of notes to share with you!

Balticon 52

For those of you who don’t know, Balticon is an annual Science Fiction and Fantasy convention hosted in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s not a for-profit convention like the Comic-cons and the AwesomeCon’s of the world, this one is a labor a love, run by fans, for fans.

Balticon is a bit smaller and more mellow than DragonCon, though chock-full of activities and panels. There are writers and agents, scientists and publishers galore. But, unlike some of the writer-targeted conventions, there are no ‘pitching sessions’, etc. At least outside of BarCon* (the habit of some agents/etc to hang out at the bar. ‘Can I buy you a drink’ is often a good conversation starter…)

In years past, I’ve attended up to 21 different writing panels and workshops in the 4 days of the convention. This year was a bit lighter. Partially because some panels repeat, and partially due to me pacing myself a bit better.

I would have liked to get to the convention before the traffic picked up on Friday afternoon, but it was not to be.

gray plane wing

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I mentioned earlier, I spent last week learning about aeronautics and my flight home wasn’t until after 4pm on Thursday.

If I had to list the biggest misconception I had corrected, it would be the concept of the ‘sonic boom.’ I’d thought it was a boom that emitted from the aircraft as it passed the speed of sound, radiating out from that point in space.

Nope! Instead, it’s the sound of the air leaving the speed of the aircraft and returning to standard pressure. It follows the vehicle like a dude water-skiing follows the boat.

But anyway, I’d made the decision to schedule an evening flight home to DC, aiming for the latest flight possible as to not miss any of the class. As it was, I had to miss the final review and the certificate ceremony.

I was pleased because flying back the next day would have me landing at Dulles, during rush hour, on a Friday–OF A HOLIDAY WEEKEND. Basically, a nightmare for getting to Baltimore.

However, that decision set me up for a 90-second layover in Detroit.

woman walking on pathway while strolling luggage

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

WHAT? Do airlines even allow that?

Well, it started out as a 42-minute layover, with the same airline, so it seemed reasonable.

Until you realize that planes start boarding 30 minutes before takeoff, and typically have to close the doors at least 20 minutes before taxiing.

So, that leaves me with a bare 22 minutes before they stop boarding.

Plus, that doesn’t include disembarking time. And did I mention it was a smaller plane so my rolling luggage wouldn’t fit in the sloped overhead compartment, so I had to wait for my luggage to be brought to me?

There I am, watching the clock, a map of the Detroit terminal on my phone, ready to run. And run I did, because my plane arrived at gate C15 and my next flight was at gate A73. The FAR end.

There were several people-movers (moving sidewalks) and I scurried. And in 12 minutes, I made it to my gate. With about a minute to spare before they belatedly began to board my flight.

*whew*

After I got home, I made the intelligent decision to assemble a new nightstand that had arrived while I was gone. I finished around 1:15am. What can I say? I haven’t assembled the 2 bookcases that also arrived! Because I couldn’t assemble just one. And after assembling them, I would’ve needed to finish unpacking from my move! (not my trip)

But back to the convention. By the time I got up, got moving, and got on the road, it was 1:30pm. And my radiator needs to go into the shop.

Blue car on the side of the road, hood up, person in blue shirt and khakhis looking in.

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Fun Facts About Morgan’s Radiator Issues:

  • It was 90+ degrees on Friday
  • If I went over 65 mi/hr, I could have my AC on
  • If I was under 40 mi/hr, I could have the AC off, but the temperature still cool
  • If I was under 30 mi/hr, I had to have the heat on
  • If I was in stop and go traffic, I had to blast the heat

If I didn’t? My radiator overheat warning would come on! I only had to pull over twice before I got my levels properly calibrated.

I arrived, splurged on valet parking, and the line for Registration was done in under 15 minutes, my dad handed off my room key, and I was ready to convention!


Panels I Managed to Attend At Balticon

  1. Writing Characters with Agency
  2. Sustaining Tension In Your Writing
  3. Keeping Your Topic Interested (ended up being a lot about how to interview people)
  4. Reading Your Own Work (workshop)
  5. Pitching Your Own Work (workshop)
  6. What Makes An Idea Worth Exploring
  7. Ask Me Anything – Editors & Publishers
  8. Sassafras – (Concert! Including a Loki/Thor duet)
  9. Class Structures in SF/F
  10. [Nap Attack — missed some panels and was late to the next one]
  11. Useful Rabbit Holes For Writers
  12. What Good Is An Agent (I thought it would be preaching to the choir, but got useful stuff!)
  13. Making Fantasy Feel Realistic
  14. This Kaiju Life  (live podcast)
  15. Writing Compelling Villains
  16. Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of) (mostly boils down to writing what you’re passionate about, don’t chase trends, Zombies, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance are currently out, Steampunk may make a resurgence in the next 3-5 years. And vampires are coming back)

Cosplay!

 

 

I like to wear silly shirts, play dress up, and–I like bad puns. I kicked off my weekend with a ‘My Weekend is all Booked!’ T-shirt, and then followed it up with my Book-shaped bookbag wearing copper and red dragon, otherwise known as my ‘BookWyrm’. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of my button-eyed Other-Morgan, as inspired by Coraline, but I did manage to creep out a few people and get several double-takes. Maybe next time?

I lost the hall costume votes by 2 votes TO A MUPPET!! A guy dressed as a Jurassic Park scientist, with a giant egg and a baby velociraptor muppet who visited the kids’ room during their ‘Dinosaur Dig’ hour, but STILL. I lost to a muppet. I blame the lack of costume title/explanation on the vote sheet.

 


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I also helped hostess the DC 2021 bid party!

Confession: I’m a second generation geek and when I decided to hit Balticon, I emailed my dad and asked, “Hey, can I room with you?” To which his reply was, “Only if you’re okay helping Bill with the Bid Party. Cause I’m signed up, as usual, to work the midnight-3am shift in the ConSuite (food and relaxation space open to all Con attendees).

Hostessing is something I’m usually pretty comfortable with, so he didn’t really need to talk me into it.

Anyway–at SF/F conventions like this, room parties are usually on the ‘party floor’, and put on by other cons that want you to attend them as well, committees bidding for the next WorldCon to be scheduled, or other groups. You wander down the hall, check out their snack and drink offerings, and chat with people.

We got a fair number of sign-ups of people buying supporting memberships for the DC bid (currently unopposed…) I gave out tiny stickers as long as people promised not to vote against DC, and the last people wandered out at 2:52am–the last party to shut down on the hall by quite a bit.

Good chats and I hit the chips&dip pretty hard.

I cleaned up, changed into my pajamas, and the alarm went off. 3:03am. So, I tromped down 5 flights of stairs and waited for the all clear. It took about 10 minutes. Then, back up to the room, helped carry all the left-overs to the ConSuite.

I’m sure I was asleep before 4am, but barely.


Between panels, I managed to fit in meals with friends, a few walk-throughs of the dealers’ room and art show, and, of course, SUNDAY night’s ‘return of the fire alarm’ at a more respectable 12:48am.

I met a lot of lovely people everywhere I went, dropped into a round of CodeWords for a bit, and overall had a pleasant visit.

Now, I’ve got to wait til next year.

Iceland, Finland, and WorldCon 75

I’m back.

I’ve had three full days in Iceland, four flights, and five days of WorldCon in Helsinki, Finland.

I tasted whale, puffin, and reindeer.

I saw two hot springs, three waterfalls, about 8 geysers. (I fell in love with Iceland’s Gullfoss waterfall. It’s now my favorite place on earth.)

I saw where the North American tectonic plate is pulling away from the Eurasian plate at the site of the Thingvellir. I saw artifacts from 1000 BC, archeological sites, and churches. I climbed a mountain.

I took 73 pages of notes over four workshops and seventeen panels. I spent 21 hours in panels and workshops and very likely 20 hours in queues. I dubbed 478 pictures ‘worth keeping’ and 7 videos (see my facebook and Instagram for most of these).

On the four planes, I read three-and-a-half books, took two one-hour naps, and watched one movie.

My biggest takeaways

  • Iceland was amazing, primitive, and beautiful.
  • Helsinki was welcoming, clean, and easy to navigate.
  • WorldCon was popular, had excellent speakers, and was full of new friends.

Over the next month or so, I’ll be sharing my notes from most of the panels. Some were presentations or workshops that I consider proprietary to the speaker and those I’ll limit my remark on.

My 3 Favorite Writing Epiphanies/Quotes:

  1. If you remember all the things that make listening to a book-reading enjoyable and apply it to your writing? It becomes lyrical! I always thought lyrical just wasn’t a type of writing I could do, but when you consider rhythm, repetition, and pace? Evocative lyrical writing can happen, even to me.
  2. I’m a lay person, but I know a decent amount about weaponry and injuries. One of the panels had an excellent break down of weapons and the injuries that sort of weapon creates that just organized it perfectly for my writer-brain with an ‘if X, then Y’ sort of connection.
  3. When Connie Willis was quoted for killing characters that are too uppity (by not cooperating with her plot), George RR Martin gasped, “Killing your characters? How Horrible!