Pitching a novel to agent Michael Carr couldn’t be easier, especially if you know what to avoid. “The Number 1 thing is don’t brag and say ‘I can make you millions,’” said Carr, an agent with Veritas Literary Agency.
Carr doesn’t care if you’re a rookie. Can you tell a story? “If I can’t put your book down, I’m going to think that editors and readers can’t put it down either.”
An agent who receives 20 to 30 pitches a day, Michael Carr spoke at the Pima Writers’ Workshop in Tucson on May 26-29, 2016. His frank talk about pitching offered insight into how our carefully crafted query letters sound on the receiving end.
“Skip the intro and your credits,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of time. Just give your elevator pitch. A character. A situation. A problem.”
What does he mean? “Tell me a story. XX grew up on an estate in Ireland. She met XX. But, then, XX happened (the problem).” That’s it. Stop there.
“The goal of the query is to get me to start reading your pages,” Carr said. “Give me a reason to keep reading, and if I read right to the end of the book, I’ll make an offer. The goal of the first sentence is to make me read the second sentence, and so on, all the way to the end.”
Mistakes He Hates
Carr cautioned writers to avoid cliched openings. He pointed to three.
- A character waking up or a description of the weather
- Amnesiac characters
- Cliffhanger openings, such as a woman running through the woods and people shooting at her
Carr said that readers don’t have any reason to care about the character, and so having her exposed to danger won’t draw them in.
He likened openings to a three-legged stool. Using his “character, situation, problem” analogy, he said you never want to have one really tall leg.
“Start with a concrete problem with a limited scope,” he said. “Try to intrigue the reader, but don’t explain.”
A woman’s husband is going to be home shortly, and she’s burning his dinner. She’s trying to ruin the meal, but why? Keep the suspense up. “Get readers wound up and agitated,” he said.
How to Fix Plot Issues
“The first chapter is the most important,” he said. “The first chapter sells this book, and the last chapter sells the next book.”
If the first chapter is weak, take a look at the first scene, he suggested. “Does your character have a goal for this scene? Is there opposition for that character? What are the stakes? Is there a way to escalate them?”
By the end of the first chapter the stakes should be higher than they were when the book began. If the scene feels weak, is there an extra character you could add? Is there too much complication? Too many names in the first chapter?
In terms of the plot as a whole, when your character is trying to resolve something, either he or she fails and the problem gets worse, or a whole new complication arises, and that makes things worse.
Advice on Pitching to Agents
Carr said that as far as he’s concerned, it’s not necessary for a fiction author to have a platform, meaning to have a presence on social media. “I like to discover good books.” He dislikes authors using comparisons, such as “Macbeth meets Star Wars.” The agent might not get the comparison, so there’s no point in making them.
Unlike many agents, he hates synopses and skips right over them. “As far as publishing credits, just include your two or three most impressive ones.”
Like most agents today, Carr wants to see pitches sent by e-mail. In the subject line put “Query: Story Title.” That way the message goes into his Query inbox.
Carr also likes to see the word count and category, such as literary fiction, romance novel, etc.
He advises authors to paste the first five pages into the body of the e-mail. That way, if your query falls flat, you have a second chance. “An agent is always looking for reasons to reject you,” Carr said. Of the 1,000 to 2,000 queries he receives a year, he will take on one or two clients.
“You can’t take a year querying your project. If your query fails, then you can self-publish.” But, Carr cautioned against pitching manuscripts that have been self-published or shopped around.
He advised writers not to get hung up on one particular agent. “It’s a numbers game,” he said, and suggested using QueryTracker to find and keep track of agents looking for new work. “And if an agent says they want an exclusive, forget it. If someone says they need thirty days, they’re a slow responder.” Carr said that if he takes on a manuscript, “I don’t mess around.”
When asked if there were a better or worse time to try to find an agent, he suggested that authors query at the end of November. “The whole industry is off from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” he said. “Agents have a chance to get caught up on queries.”
If you want to hear Michael Carr in person, he will be on the faculty of the Cape Cod Writers Center Conference, August 4-7, 2016.