Milestones & Category Wars

I just finished day 2 of the conference put on by the Writers’ League of Texas. This was my first writers’ conference and what an experience. I felt a real connection with all of these people, as is often the case when large groups who share common goals are brought together.

As a rookie, there was a lot to be confused about. We were told there would be “pitch sessions” and the conference was great about providing us with podcasts addressing how pitches are done. It wasn’t until I got there that it actually dawned on me that we would be pitching actual literary agents in a giant cocktail party setting. My sister (who does children’s picture books) was with me. That was a cool experience, being in the shit with her.

So we got to the conference a little early to get the lay of the land and immediately began pitching each other to get our acts down pat. Practice is key because a good pitch gets you page requests from agents.

I pitched all nine agents at the conference that worked in my category (turns out it’s middle grade and not young adult as I had believed). I got 8 requests for either a full manuscript or pages (usually 3-5 chapters worth). One of the requests was from my absolute top-choice agent. This was a great feeling, and its the first of hopefully many milestones.

My one rejection was perhaps my favorite interaction since he stopped me the second the words “science fiction” came out of my mouth and said this:

“Let me stop you right there. I don’t do science fiction. Don’t understand it. I mean, what are they doing? Oh look I’m in space! What’s happening?”

If ever there was a great way to be rejected, that’s it. And it wasn’t really merit based. I just mistakenly thought his bio included sci-fi. It didn’t. lol

So. Eight requests. That’s amazing, wonderful, heart swelling news. The other side of all of this, is that I found a flaw in the story I’m pitching. And I suppose that is **good** news as well, because if you want to get published, better to figure out flaws earlier than later.

The flaw is that I have always thought of my book as YA despite my main character’s age: twelve. The subject matter is adventure sci-fi, but it’s heavy. There are some pretty serious issues addressed and the tone is pretty mature. The main character is ahead of her years in terms of understanding the world and how it works. So as a neophyte, I always thought of this book as “older” than middle grade (ages 9-12).

By the first session of the conference it was clear that my book was middle grade, or at best “upper middle grade,” and not young adult. Period. There were two factors, I learned, that placed my book here. First is the age of the protagonist, which is the most important factor. The second is the perspective from which the book is told: from the perspective of the protagonist as the action is occurring and not as adult protagonist looking back and describing her earlier life.

A category decision isn’t a big problem. I don’t especially care what the category is. The problem comes when you move a book from YA to MG and your manuscript is 98,000 words. That isn’t only outside the typical word count for MG, it’s in the stratosphere for MG which is normally about 55,000 words tops. Yow.

The good news is twofold: 1. I came right out and explained my newly discovered issue as I was pitching the last three agents I spoke with. Each one of them was very straightforward that my word count is ultra long for MG. Accepting this, I said I would plan to do some cutting and go from there, but all three basically said, “No, no, go ahead and send it as-is.” Why would they do that?

Here’s what I think, and hopefully my work backs me up. I think that I had a very strong pitch. Almost every agent I spoke with interrupted me mid-pitch to say as much. I believe that the level of refinement in the pitch suggested that the novel is probably well written and very polished (we’ll see if the expectations meet with the reality). So my guess is they didn’t want me hacking away at something that might actually be good. Haha.

So my plan is to send the requested pages to two of these agents that said don’t change it. If they like it great. If they say revise and resend, great. If they say pass because it’s too long, great. I’ll revise and send the materials to the others.

If I had any advice to give to others looking to get their foot in the door with an agent it would be this: have an ultra polished piece that you can distill into a compelling pitch. And then practice the shit out of that pitch. It will get you page requests.

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