I’ve pitched my novel to literary agents and editors for the past five years at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference. Over time, these professionals have been gracious, and most asked me to send them something, sometimes only a synopsis and the first ten pages of my novel and other times the first fifty or one hundred pages.
The beauty of pitching the same story again this year to a different set of agents was that for the first time I was pitching a completed novel.
But this year the experience wasn’t beautiful.
First, the setting. Picture a long, narrow windowless hotel conference room. Rectangular tables in the rear, pushed end-to-end, stretch across the length of the room. Two chairs sit behind each. Agents and editors fill these chairs in alphabetical order. In front of them is a row of blue tape, the starting line for the race. At the pitching hour, the doors open, writers storm the room, choose an agent or editor who represents the genre they’re writing, and stand single file behind the blue tape until the bell rings and the announcer says, “Let the pitching begin.”
Each author pitch, including time for questions from the agent, can last no more than four minutes. When time is up, a bell will ring, the agent hands the author a business card and asks him or her to submit something, or the author walks away empty-handed, eyes aimed toward the floor, away from other writers who have pitched successfully.
This year, I found myself in the latter group. I heard, “It’s a great topic, there’s a market for it, but I’m not interested;” “It sounds too complicated;” “It doesn’t sound like anything I’d like to read;” and other variations on these themes. What’s going on this year? I asked myself. I pitched well, didn’t read my notes, didn’t stumble. I’d rehearsed it before other writers, and they had pronounced it and me ready. The subject has been well-received for four years. Why wasn’t it likeable now?
I’ve always had trouble deciding on the genre of my novel. Mainstream fiction? Women’s fiction? Mainstream commercial fiction? Upmarket commercial fiction? (Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.) To cover all bases, I picked agents who specialized in at least one of these and chose whichever genre title they wanted to hear most.
On the second day of pitching, I chose a friendly looking editor whose bio said she was looking for mysteries and women’s fiction.
I introduced myself and my genre — women’s fiction for her — and gave my pitch.
“That was a good pitch,” she said. “I’m looking for Chick Lit. Is your story funny?”
Oh my god, I thought. She wants stories about female airheads looking for rich men. My protagonist is seeking social justice, not a date. How did I end up with this editor? Her bio should have been clearer.
Then I thought about her question. Now that she mentioned it… “Yes,” I told her. “It is funny.”
“What percent is funny? Think, “The Devil Wears Prada.””
I started running through the chapters in my mind. There were obviously funny ones, but percent? “I don’t know. It’s not funny at first, but midway…”
“Here’s my card. You can send it all.”
“But I don’t know if it’s really Chick Lit.”
She shrugged and pulled her card away. “It’s up to you.”
“Wait! I reached for the card and took it, not yet entertaining the idea I might use it.
Later, I shared the experience with a friend who knows my story. She said, “That’s great. It’s perfect.”
“But my character is smart. She’s not chasing after men. She’s saving the world.”
“I know your novel. Without much effort you can make it funnier. If you want, I can help you decide where to insert more humor. It will work. Do it!”
I thought about this for a while. My character was funny. She did get herself in embarrassing scrapes. What did I really know about Chick Lit? Had I written in this genre without even realizing it? I hadn’t ever felt comfortable with whatever genre du jour I’d chosen. None seemed like quite the right fit, but agents always want to know where a novel belongs on a bookstore shelf.
The next morning, my former teacher of Popular Fiction echoed my friend. “Make a few changes. It will work.”
Minutes later, I saw the editor sitting alone drinking coffee. I walked over to her and sat down. “I pitched to you yesterday,” I said. “Later, I realized I have never been confident about whichever genre I tell people I’m writing. Thank you for helping me see my story in a new way. Whatever happens, I appreciate your challenging me about the box I’ve put my story in. It’s a message about other boxes too.”
“It’s always hard to put some books in categories,” she said and smiled. “I look forward to reading your manuscript.” I floated away.
P.S. I found a website that helped me put Chick Lit in perspective. The protagonists are not all airheads. And as one writer friend told me, “It’s stories about bad-ass women.” Not quite my protagonist, but maybe with a little editing…