You don’t know COMP! – Part 2

So you’ve assembled your Comparable Title list, and you’ve started plowing through each title. Once you’ve narrowed the list down to your top few titles (2-3 recommended) it is time to get really cozy with them. What makes these books the best comparisons to your book? How are they really similar, and how are they critically different?

You should take some notes about each of your Comps. Treat it like a book report, but this isn’t like any report you wrote in the tenth grade. You are doing research that is both technical and literary with a goal to understand how these Comps work and how they were published.

Let’s handle the easy stuff first. Are your Comps longer or shorter than your book? (Word counts, not page counts please). Do they use the same point of view? (first person, third person) Are there critical similarities of setting or character? Do they take place at the same time? Read these books and see how they stand up against what you have written.

Next let’s get to the publishing history on your Comps. When was the book first published? By whom? How did it sell? Ideally you’d like to use a Comp that sold well and has had a long publishing life.

*Important note. At least one of your Comps should have been published in the last 10 years. Using two Comps that are both considered to be ‘classics’ will not help you to position your book in today’s market. Find something recent even if it isn’t as well known as the classic you are using as a model.

It is important to know what publishing house handled the book, as you may want to target Editors from that Imprint.

Now, you have read the book, right? Did you read the acknowledgements? If you didn’t, go back and read them. You will likely find the name of the agent who represented this author in their acknowledgement section. If not look up the author online. Most likely they will have some information about their representation on their webpage or social media. Take note of both the Agent and the Agency as you may want to pitch or query them directly if given the opportunity.

Finally, once you have tracked down the nuts and bolts of your Comps ask the hard questions:

How is this book the same as your manuscript?

How are they different?

What makes your manuscript unique?

What makes your manuscript fit in?

By now you should have a few pages of notes on your Comps. Put them aside and do something else for a day or more, but not more than a week. After you’ve let things germinate do your Comps still make sense? Did you pick the right ones?

When I finally settled in to examine my Comps in detail I found two books which rose above the rest as novels that were appropriate comparisons; NEVER LET ME GO by Katsu Ishiguro and THE BODY ELECTRIC by Beth Revis. Now I am not saying by any means that I am as skilled a writer as either of these novelists, but the stories they crafted are models that I am using in the development of my own work. Their books help me to provide a shorthand to Agents and Editors about what I am trying  to achieve in my own writing and where my book might someday end up on the shelf. Fingers crossed, maybe someday I’ll get there.

Keep writing!

PS You might have noticed I included WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT by Jo Walton in my Comp stack photo. (Go back and look). That is my personal cheat on Comps. Great Critics like Jo Walton can help you to sort out a pile of excellent books. When you are reading in your genre take a little time to read the criticisms and you might find out a little more about your own writing in the process. If you are writing speculative fiction, like I am check this book out. It is worth the time.



Pitch Opportunities still available with Scott Eagan at SWWC Sept. 12

Hi All! I just received an update from the SWWC that there are STILL pitch opportunities available! See below and sign up soon.

The Second Annual Southwest Washington Writers Conference takes place Sept. 12 at Centralia College. We have an opportunity for romance and women’s fiction writers to pitch to agent Scott Eagan of Greyhaus Literary in Puyallup, Washington.

Here are the details:
Southwest Washington Writers Conference
Centralia College in Centralia, Washington
Saturday, Sept. 12

The conference offers two keynotes–one by New York Times bestselling author Jane Kirkpatrick and the other by Scott Eagan of Greyhaus Literary Agency–and a dozen workshops on topics such as story structure, self-editing, poetry, writing for young adults, incorporating romance into almost any genre, choosing words carefully, and marketing for writers.

Literary agent Scott Eagan, who represents authors of romance and women’s fiction, will take individual appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. Openings remain on his schedule at this point.

For more information on other Pitch Opportunities throughout the year click here.

You don’t know COMP! – Part 1

What was the last bestseller in your genre that hasn’t been made into a movie?

What books have the same or similar titles as your manuscript’s title?

What other books share the same story structure, even if they don’t share the same genre?

You don’t know! You are running to Google, Amazon, or Wikipedia for help. Well, like most aspiring authors, you don’t know comp!

Comp = Comparable titles. Other books that are similar to your story in structure, genre, situation, title or any number of other ways. Let me be clear, Comps are BOOKS. Not movies, not TV shows, not websites or art installations or lyrics from your favorite band. BOOKS.

Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know Comp either. I am still learning too, but let me share a few tips about how to get to know your Comps. I’ll also share a little bit of how I arrived at my Comps for Rebirth Interrupted in Italics below.

Starting out we all fall into a few camps when we are looking for a Comparable Title. We gravitate towards books that are familiar to everyone because they were huge bestsellers, usually made into a movie. Everyone starts with The Hunger Games, or Game or Thrones or 50 Shades of Gray, everyone. Stop and rewind. If you want to stand out to Editors and Agents get to know books beyond that didn’t make the pinnacle of commercial success. No one believes you are the next Stephen King pitching a Harry Potter series even if you give the most perfect pitch. (read that perfect pitch here)

So where do I look? Good question young bibliophile. Start in your genre, and better yet your subgenre. Are you writing a Historical Romance set on a pirate ship? How about a cozy mystery featuring a pet as a detective? Try typing those categories into Amazon books to see what comes up. (Seriously try the ‘cozy mystery cat as detective’ search, it is a robust category. Who knew!). You should start to build a list of titles that have similar features.

My first list of Comps was made up of Science Fiction books about mining asteroids. C.J. Cherryh’ Heavy Time was the first solid title I landed on, but it was decades old and not well known.

Once you have a list of 5-10 titles based on your subgenre do a second search. This time search based on title. Use each of the titles that you have considered for your manuscript and see what you get. Chances are you will find books that are outside of your genre that deal in similar subjects.

When I was preparing for my first writer’s conference I did a search on my old working title, Husk. I found a slew of dystopian novels, a bunch of zombie books a few odd comics and three nonfiction titles on corn. In the end the title changed, but I learned a lot about what my book might sit next to on the shelf.

Ok. Now you should have a list of 10+ books that may or may not be appropriate comparisons. Finally you should reach out to people who know about your manuscript and ask them what their book reminds you of.

As I’ve been working on my own Comp list I was surprised, and frankly delighted, by some of the responses I got to that question. Friends in publishing have compared my Adult Science Fiction novel to everything from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series to Sophie’s Choice, neither of which are in my genre but both of which are excellent Comps. Another writer friend pointed me to The Body Electric by Beth Revis, which was so spot on it was scary.

With the long list in hand from your research you might feel like you are still missing something. There isn’t a bestseller on this list. You forgot your genre’s blockbuster title! Oh and wait. There was that movie that came out that is similar too. Put these back on your list, not as Comps that you will use in a pitch, but as books and movies that you need to be familiar with. Make sure they are at the bottom of the list.

I had the movie The Island on my Comp list from the beginning. When I searched IMDB to find out if it was based on a book I came across a few reviews. One article I came across had a reference to Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which I hadn’t read yet. That research set my reading list off in a totally new direction.

At the end of my initial research my short list of comps looked like this:

My 'short' stack of Comparable Titles
My ‘short’ stack of Comparable Titles

Now you should have your list of potential Comps. Before we narrow anything down you have a job to do – GO READ THEM. (for real, read them all)

You don’t know COMP! – Part 2  Coming Soon.

The 4 people who MUST hear your pitch…

…before you know you are ready.

OK, so you’ve signed up for a great conference, and there are going to be a bunch of publishing folks there! You’ll be rubbing elbows with Agents, Editors and perhaps a few Bestselling Authors. There is even a rumor on Twitter that Oprah herself likes to stop by this Conference. (don’t get your hopes up). You are pumped, but are you ready?

Over the last few weeks you’ve put your nose to the grindstone, crafting and polishing your pitch. It is short and punchy and memorable, you think. Now it is time to test. There are four people who MUST hear your pitch before you will really know you are ready.

The Confidant – Everyone has that person who has heard this story you’ve been working on since somewhere near the start. Sometimes it is spouse or a partner. More often, you have a close friend who hears about your story. They might be a Beta reader for your manuscript. In any case this is a person who knows the story you have been trying to tell, and perhaps knows too much about it.  A Confident knows your goals as a writer and can be both supportive and honest.

When you pitch your Confidant listen for questions about how the story matches up with the pitch. If your confidant says ‘Wait, I thought character X was in love with character Y’ or ‘Isn’t so and so actually the Antagonist?’ then your pitch and your manuscript probably don’t match up. As you are writing a pitch you will likely find holes in your story that need attention. That is totally normal and should be addressed, but for now focus on your pitch. Make some notes about potential edits or rewrites and move on. Your pitch needs to reflect the story you are trying to tell.

The Stranger – Do you have a friend who doesn’t know anything about what you are writing? Perhaps they don’t even know that you write at all. Even better! Imagine that this person just wandered into your local bookstore and picked your book off the shelf for the first time. They are looking at the cover (your appearance) reading the title and back cover (hearing your pitch) and deciding if they want to carry it to the register (get you published). Find someone who you can trust to give you honest feedback, but who knows little or nothing about your manuscript. Explain what your goal is and pitch them.

When you pitch The Stranger you are looking for a first impression. They haven’t read your work, and know nothing about you as an author. With that in mind, did the pitch make sense? Does the book sound interesting? Would you want to hear / read more? Pitch them once as you would with an Agent and ask for initial reactions. Take notes on what they heard and liked and what they didn’t understand. Don’t try to address the issues on the spot, but just listen.

After they have shared their first impression you may want to fill in a hole or two and try again. Once you’ve talked a little bit, try to pitch them a second time and ask if the pitch still holds together. They may like it better the second time, once they know more, but the first impression is what you need to see and hear.

The Critic – Find another writer, ideally one working in your genre. Share your pitch, or better yet trade pitches with each other. This is the one person who should see your pitch in written form AND hear your pitch in the way you intend to give it. Your critic should be someone well versed in both craft and publishing issues, or at least as well versed as you. If you don’t have someone like that in your life currently make sure you find someone on the first day of your conference. Other writers will probably also be looking for a good critic in the same venue.

When you pitch to your critic, you are looking for reactions related to how ready you are for the publishing industry. Does your main character’s age match up with your target audience? Are your stakes high enough? Should you include your background as an English major? (probably not). Have you explained your platform? Where can you cut, to make your pitch shorter? Ask your critic all of the questions you have been asking yourself. Don’t hold anything back and make sure if you both don’t know the answer when you rehearse, that you find out the answer before your pitch day.

The Mirror – Have you heard your own pitch yet? Have you really listened? It is hard to hear yourself when you are pitching something so personal as a manuscript. After you have heard reactions from the other three, pitch yourself. The best way to do it is to videotape or at least record yourself. After you’ve made the recording walk away, get a cup of coffee or do something else to clear your mind and calm your nerves for a few minutes. Now come right back. With a pencil and notepad in hand watch the video. Take notes about what you hear, and what you see. You might want to watch it a few times.

Did you deliver the pitch that you wanted? Did you sound the way you hoped? Did you look wooden, nervous, or fidgety? Watching yourself pitch can be a painful experience, but you will learn a lot. Delivering your pitch to the mirror is also a final gut check. You know your story better than anyone else. You’ve sweated and bled over those words. You’ve loved those characters. You’ve created an amazing world on the page. Your passion for writing and love of what you have written should come across in your pitch. Only you can judge that. Look in the mirror and try it again.

Finding and pitching these four people before you are in a high stakes pitch situation is a must. You will learn something different from each one of them.

Pitch Opportunity Update – Colorado Gold!

Looking for an excuse to go to Colorado? Check out this update from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Conference September 11-13.

Direct from the Conference Organizers:

There are a few spots left to register for Colorado Gold !!

All attendees have the option to pitch to one of the visiting agents/editors/publishers. We usually have between 12-16 acquiring A/E/P. The attendees select their 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice when they register and we do our best to get them the pitch they want.

Pitches are one-on-one appointments for 10 minutes (however it is one big room with individual tables – not a quiet room with just the two of you. *Next year will be different at different location). You get one formal pitch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pitch them over dinner, or a drink, or after their workshop if they are teaching.

We also have critiques available (these are roundtable critiques but also a great chance to impress the A/E/P!

For more information about the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Conference click here.

What is the big deal about Age Group??

Lately it seems like I’ve been talking about age group more and more, both with other writers and readers alike. Trying to place a book by age group is harder than you think. We have all read books that slide between Young Adult and Adult (isn’t that now called New Adult). Every adult I know with small children has a favorite children’s book, that they have bought to share with their kids. And why isn’t Adult broken down further too? Shouldn’t there be more Age categories for people over 18? What about these new categories:

  • ABI – Adult But Immature
  • MBD – Mature But Distracted
  • MP – Menopausal
  • RTB – Retired and Bored

Seriously though, the age categories seem arbitrary and confusing. So what is the big deal? Why even worry about it?

Simply put, discoverability.

For authors at all stages we are writing books that we hope will be read and loved. For that to happen we need to build an audience. Some authors, I’m looking at you Stephen King, understand that to build their audience they have to go out and find them, but many of us don’t have the time and resources to effectively build that audience without some help (more on that in future posts). We are going to rely on bookstore placement, promotion and word of mouth. Of course first we have to get our books into a bookstore.

So what does this mean for my pitch?

Agents and Editors care deeply about age categories. Many publishing professionals only work in one or two age categories and once a book is categorized it will almost never move categories without an author rewrite. Now that doesn’t mean that an adult novel can’t be bought or read by a twelve year old, nor that a children’s book isn’t purchased or enjoyed by a forty one year old. What it does mean is that the adult book with be shelved with other adult books and middle grade books will be shelved with other middle grade books. Placement in a bookstore or an age category online will really determine who sees it first.

So lets cover the categories briefly so we are all clear:

C – Children’s : Age’s 0-8 Within this category there are a number of subcategories: Board Books, Picture Books, Early Readers etc. I am not going to dive into the target ages for each of those developmental stages, but if you are writing Children’s books you should learn them.

MG – Middle Grade:  Age’s 8-12 This is the stage of reading where children have typically transitioned from picture books to chapter books. It is also the age where reading is a primary focus in school. In this category kids are typically given books by a teacher, librarian or parent rather than self-selecting. Book length typically ranges from 20,000-60,000 words.

YA – Young Adult: Age 13-18+ In this category readers are now typically self selecting books. They are looking for books about discovering who they are in the world. Often they are struggling against authority of some sort (parent, government, etc) and finding themselves in the process. More often than not you will find a teenaged protagonist within this category. Book length typically ranges from 50,000-80,000 words.

NA – New Adult: Age 18-21+ This is a relatively new category in publishing. These books take on more adult, often introspective, themes. Book length in this category ranges from 50,000-100,000 words.

The distinctions between MG, YA and NA can get confusing, so rather than expanding further, and potentially getting it wrong let me point you to a really good post on these definitions here.

A – Adult: Age 21+ The great everything else. Adult books range far and wide and are broken down more by genre than age distinction. Similarly themes, protagonists and even word counts can range as well. Once you start writing adult fiction it is very important to study your genre and subgenre to better understand how the categories work.

Now, back to the pitch. Why does it matter if I am pitching YA, NA or Adult? When you are pitching to an Agent or Editor they want to make sure everything fits. If your protagonist is 12 is it really a YA book? Teenagers like to read about characters they can relate to, and typically they are looking for older, not younger heroes and heroines. (Did you ever try to guess the ages of superheroes?). Similarly if you are pitching a MG chapter book you might think twice about a title like ‘The Scoundrel’s Bloody Dagger’ knowing that kids in that age category are typically given books by adults.

Make sure when you are assembling your pitch (and frankly when writing your novel) that word counts, main character age, level of violence and sex and other adult issues are handled in a manner that is consistent with your target age group.  If you pitch something that isn’t consistent with publishing standards it is an easy path to a pass.

Getting it right in a pitch can be as simple as checking your numbers. Make sure you know the age of your main character, total word count and target age category when you start assembling your pitch. If one of these things is inconsistent with the others consider making a change. After my first set of pitches I changed my main character from 16 years old to 19 years old and focused on writing an Adult book rather than trying to water down some racier scenes. It was a hell of a rewrite, but when I pitched the next time as Adult rather than YA, I had much more success.

September 2015 Pitching Opportunities

September is a busy time for writers conferences across the country. Are you hoping to take the next step and pitch to an agent or editor? Check out some of these opportunities.

Sept. 10, 2015 – Twitter #PitchMad online pitching event.

Sept. 11-15, 2015 – Colorado Gold Writers Conference, hosted by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Sept. 12, 2015 – Michigan Writing Workshop, Detroit, MI.

Sept. 17-20, 2015 – The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) annual conference, Dallas, TX.

Sept. 25-27, 2015 – Southern California Writers’ Conference, A Weekend for Words, Newport Beach, Calif.

Sept. 25-27, 2015 – Chicago Writers Conference, Chicago.

For a list of conferences and pitching opportunities throughout the year see my Pitching Opportunities page. It is regularly updated as new information becomes available about upcoming conferences, pitch slams and other events. Please reach out if you hear of a pitching opportunity that I haven’t listed and I will add it to the page.

“Should I pitch in costume?” and other serious questions.

Sasquan is coming up, fast. I really wish I was going, but (insert excuse here) so I am (insert lamenting phrase here). Lame, I know. It promises to be a very special event with the high lords of Science Fiction all descending on one place together. 2016 will be my year. Moving on.

If you are going to Sasquan or a future WorldCon, ComicCon or other similar Genre focused convention there is certainly an opportunity to pitch your novel. Many agents and editors attend these conventions often to promote a new release, do some research, or just to be fans. A few will participate in organized panels about publishing and there is often a pitch session or pitch slam contained within the event.

Of course these conventions are also awesome opportunities to show off your costume skills and totally geek out with other fans. So if the opportunity comes up, should you pitch your novel in costume? This is a serious question. I wouldn’t want to run back to my hotel room to change out of my Speed Racer, Optimus Prime, or C3PO gear to put on a clean shirt and wash my face, but I also wouldn’t want to make the wrong impression on someone who could change my career.

My friend, Victor and I had a serious conversation about pitching in costume one night.

“I think you should get a replica of the sword from your manuscript ‘The Traveler’s Blade’, make a set of dragon wings and a man dragon cowl and do your pitch in costume!” I was really excited about this idea. “You could come into the pitch slam, raise your sword over your head and point it at the agent of your choosing, saying in a loud voice ‘You are deemed worthy!’.”

“And then I’ll be tackled to the floor and arrested.” he replied.

“It will be memorable. You can open all your queries with ‘I was the man dragon who was taken out of the pitch slam in handcuffs’.” I quipped.

“That isn’t the kind of impression I want to make.”  He replied soberly.

I still love the idea of pitching in costume, especially if your writing speculative fiction, but Victor is right, this isn’t the impression you want to make. (For the record he pitched in a very dapper button down and flat front pants, no sword, no wings, no cowl). If you want an agent or editor to look at you like a professional writer, act like one, and dress like one.

What is more important than how you dress, is how you feel. When you are pitching to an Agent or Editor you want to feel comfortable and confident. That might mean you are cool and confident in jeans and a T-Shirt, or it maybe you need a three piece suit to feel right. Either way is fine.

That said, WorldCon may be the exception to the rule. If you are pitching a new book about AstroBoy and you are dressed in a costume from that world you would probably earn some street cred. What do you think? Post your comments below.

Here are a few other tips when pitching at these types of conventions:

  • Sign up for pitch sessions early. They will fill up fast, and if you don’t want to miss a seat at the table.
  • Check to see if the agents or editors you hope to query / pitch will be attending. Some agents will post or tweet about the conventions that they attend each year. Others may not give any information out until the convention itself. Twitter is a great place to look for that information, or their websites / blogs. Important insider note, some Agents or Editors will hold private pitch sessions not posted in conference schedules. You may have to Twitter-stalk them to find out.
  • Find out more about who/what the Agent or Editor is promoting at the conference. If they are there to support another author, go check them out. Even if you don’t meet the person you were hoping to you will probably learn something about their tastes and expectations.
  • Look for opportunities to come up and say hello. Agents are people too. That doesn’t mean you should open with ‘I have an amazing book that you are going to love to represent’. Just introduce yourself and start an honest conversation. Let them know that you are an aspiring writer and you’d like an opportunity to talk with them about your book. The Agent or Editor will let you know if there is an appropriate time to connect. If you are lucky, them might invite you to pitch them over a cup of  coffee or on line to the next session.

What I have learned from #pitch

Have you ever done a search on Google or Twitter about pitching? Try typing in #pitch in your search engine or social media engine of choice and see what you get. Some of these words keep coming up:

  • entrepreneur
  • investor
  • venture
  • business proposition
  • unique selling platform
  • original idea
  • startup
  • shark tank

Do these ideas sound familiar? Is this what you prepared for when you signed up to go to the pitch slam? These are words you would expect to come from an MBA or some blow hard sales guy. Why would they show up in a search for #pitch? What does this have to do with me?

Wait a minute! I am a writer! I am a painter of words, a creative savant, a literary genius waiting to be discovered!

[voice of reason] And you must also be a business person, proposing (pitching) an albeit creative business venture, if you ever want to be paid for your literary genius.

Here is the thing, when we writers pitch an agent or an editor we are looking for an investment. We are making a pitch for an investment of time, capital and talent based on an idea that we have committed to paper (your manuscript), and the power of our platform.  That pitch is a business proposition, just like a query letter is a business letter.

When we start to look at pitching through the lens of a business proposition those words don’t seem so unfamiliar anymore.

  • entrepreneur (writer)
  • investor (publisher)
  • venture (novel)
  • business proposition (book proposal)
  • unique selling platform (genre / niche / platform)
  • original idea (unique take on a trope)
  • startup (debut)
  • shark tank (pitch slam)

Try a search of your own, or watch an episode of Shark Tank. I bet you’ll find that when you substitute a few words about their pitch it sounds eerily familiar to the process of pitching a novel.

Pitch Opportunity – New York Writers Workshop

New York Writers Workshop hosts three-day Pitch Conferences in New York City for writers of non-fiction and fiction. Each type of conference is offered twice a year, in the spring and fall. The Fiction Conference includes sections for those writing for adults as well as for children and young adults.

Participants polish their pitches with the help of conference leaders who are members of the New York Writers Workshop faculty, then present them to three different editors from major publishing houses. Editors provide feedback and may request proposals and manuscripts after the conference.

Each conference also includes a panel discussion of literary agents.

See Conference Leadership for a list of some of the agents, editors and publishing houses we work with.

Upcoming Conference Dates are:

New York Writers Workshop Non-Fiction Pitch Conference:
November 13-15, 2015

New York Writers Workshop Fiction Pitch Conference:
October 16-18, 2015