Upcoming Agent Spotlight Interviews & Guest Posts

  • Agent/Author Marlo Berliner and Refe Tuma Guest Post With Frances and the Monster and Query Critique Giveaway on 8/15/2022
  • Lynette Novak Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 8/17/2022
  • Sarah Fink Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 9/12/2022
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  • All Agent Spotlights & Interviews have been updated as of 7/15/2020, and many have been reviewed by the agents. Look for them to be fully updated in 2023.

Navigating Online Pitch Contests by Agent/Author Melanie Figueroa and M.T. Khan and Nura and the Immortal Palace and Query Critique Giveaway

Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m excited to have debut author M.T. Khan and her agent Melanie Figueroa here to share a guest post to celebrate the release of M.T. Khan’s MG portal fantasy Nura and the Immortal Palace. It takes us to the world of Jinn and has gotten great reviews. I’m excited to read it this summer.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

Aru Shah and the End of Time meets Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away in this mesmerizing portal fantasy that takes readers into the little-known world of Jinn.

Nura longs for the simple pleasure of many things—to wear a beautiful red dupatta or to bite into a sweet gulab. But with her mom hard at work in a run-down sweatshop and three younger siblings to feed, Nura must spend her days earning money by mica mining. But it’s not just the extra rupees in her pocket Nura is after. Local rumor says there’s buried treasure in the mine, and Nura knows that finding it could change the course of her family’s life forever.

Her plan backfires when the mines collapse and four kids, including her best friend, Faisal, are claimed dead. Nura refuses to believe it and shovels her way through the dirt hoping to find him. Instead, she finds herself at the entrance to a strange world of purple skies and pink seas—a portal to the opulent realm of jinn, inhabited by the trickster creatures from her mother’s cautionary tales. Yet they aren’t nearly as treacherous as her mother made them out to be, because Nura is invited to a luxury jinn hotel, where she’s given everything she could ever imagine and more.

But there’s a dark truth lurking beneath all that glitter and gold, and when Nura crosses the owner’s son and is banished to the working quarters, she realizes she isn’t the only human who’s ended up in the hotel’s clutches. Faisal and the other missing children are there, too, and if Nura can’t find a way to help them all escape, they’ll be bound to work for the hotel forever.
 

Follower News

Before I get to M.T. and Melanie’s guest post, I have Follower News to share. 

Valinora Troy recently released her MG fantasy Revenge of Rose Queen. Here’s a blurb: The Rock of Diamonds has been attacked, and the Diamonds and Yvonne magically sealed inside their homes. When Vicky and Susan also mysteriously disappear, it’s up to twins Cathy and Alan to travel to far-distant Thule for answers. But the twins get more than they bargain for in this action-packed sequel to the middle-grade fantasy The Lucky Diamond. And her are a few links:

Available paperback & ebook in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and any bookstore on request.

Amazon: https://bit.ly/3bLWmIB

Barnes & Noble: https://bit.ly/3OSZnFJ

Website: Valinora Troy – Children's Fantasy Writer

Twitter @ValinoraW

Navigating Online Pitch Contests with M.T. Khan & Melanie Figueroa

MTK: Hello everyone! Today Melanie and I are going to discuss one of publishing’s newer eccentricities: online pitch contests. They can seem daunting, merciless, or a cry in the void, but I actually signed with Melanie through one, and since then, we’ve sold my debut novel, NURA AND THE IMMORTAL PALACE, to Little, Brown. Pitch contests are a tricky, unpredictable phenomenon, but sometimes, with enough preparation and solid effort, they can work.

Melanie, would you like to explain what pitch contests are and how agents play a role in them? 

Mel: Pitch contests aren’t new to the publishing world, but an online event like the one we connected through feels very “of the moment,” for lack of a better phrase. Twitter has only been around for the past 15 years, and since its launch, it’s become one of the primary online spaces where the book community engages with one another and the breeding ground for a lot of these pitch contests. People think of publishing as an industry with many gatekeepers, but Twitter made the playing field feel more even. You can grow a platform from nothing, get craft and querying advice directly from other authors, and engage with others in this industry in a way that feels more conversational and personable—some of those folks being agents.

MTK: I definitely agree with Twitter being a great space for connecting with other writers and industry professionals. A lot of my friends and CPs were found there!

Mel: I think some of this context is helpful in understanding what online pitch contests are and how they came to be so popular. Twitter has started to erode some barriers in publishing and made things about the industry that had always felt a bit mysterious more transparent, and one of those things is something we often refer to at my agency as “pitch speak.” It’s also made agents, at least those with Twitter accounts, more directly accessible to the public than ever before. In an online pitch contest, for instance, authors typically craft an elevator pitch for their book, so within one tweet you’re tasked with distilling the concept and stakes and essence of your book (AKA using pitch speak). Authors post these pitches on the designated day of the contest and include a hashtag that agents and others following along can use to search through entries; there are also tags like #PB, #GN, #MG, and #A along with a whole bunch of others if you want to further catalog your tweet by age category or genre to help with searchability. The idea is that if an agent connects with the pitch and wants to see materials for the project, they like the post. And editors who’d like to eventually see the book when you’ve secured representation or other authors who want to support the creator can retweet the post to help boost its visibility. Ideally, one of the agents you send your work to will offer representation after reading. But even if you don’t land an agent, the good news is there’s always the next contest. And trust me, good old fashioned querying works, too. I’ve signed most of my clients from the slush pile.

MTK: There are quite a few pitch contests out there, and I’ve seen more pop up in the recent years. There’s Pitmad, DVpit, SFFpit, etc. I remember the day I participated in DVpit. I scheduled my pitch the night before because I wouldn’t be able to wake up early for the start of the contest (8am ET), and I woke up with a dizzying number of notifications. My pitch was one of the top tweets of the hashtag that day. I thought it was a great stroke of luck at the time, but when I look back on it now, while I do think luck played a role, there were some other factors that certainly helped. My pitch was a freshly drafted MG novel about a Pakistani girl plunging into the enchanting but treacherous realm of jinn in order to save her best friend. It’s what became NURA AND THE IMMORTAL PALACE! You can read my pitch below:

SPIRITED AWAY X ARU SHAH

Pakistani 12-yo Nura works as a mica miner to help her sweatshop worker mother. But when the mines collapse and her bff is ruled dead, Nura digs deeper to find a portal world of jinns, and that the kids aren’t dead—they’ve been stolen.

Melanie, when you first saw this tweet, what did you think?

Mel: When I saw your tweet, I immediately knew this was the kind of story I wanted on my list and that you, as the author who could dream a world like this up, was someone I wanted to work with. It felt big and meaty and important in all those ways I think so many of us hope our work will be, but there were keywords that, to me, spoke to the depth and breadth of this world: mica miner, sweatshop worker, mother, bff, world of jinns, dead, stolen. This was a story with high stakes but also a ton of heart. Because in the span of a few words I was already connecting with and worried for these characters. I had a sense of who they were—a mother who’d do anything for her children, a daughter who’d dig her way to another world to get her best friend back, and a dark mystery (where was this portal taking Nura? what did the beings that stole these children want with them?) at its core. Plus, you comped Spirited Away, and I’m a sucker for anything that makes me feel the way a Ghibli film does.

MTK: High praise! I’m really happy it snagged your attention. And I think what you mentioned here is exactly what brought us together—Ghibli films in the form of books! From a writer’s perspective, pitch contests can either be a nerve-wracking, last-ditch effort, or a random decision made on a whim. But they require two things from a writer: an interesting, hooky pitch, and a clean online presence. That means you have 280 characters to explain 1) who your MC is, 2) what they desire, and 3) what’s stopping them from getting it. Well-written pitches are at the core of what’s going to get your tweet at the top of the hashtag search. Often, other writers will boost pitches that catch their eye, which ultimately means it’ll land in front of more agents. I’ll let Melanie speak to more about what she thinks makes a good pitch and what about them snatches her attention.

Mel: I think your pitch for NURA is such a good example of the components of a great pitch. You had it all: setting, character, conflict, stakes. But even in that initial tweet, Nura didn’t feel two dimensional, which is a hard feat in 280 characters. Here’s a girl who wants to take care of her family, who fights for her best friend even when all hope is seemingly lost. Those things were true when you wrote this tweet and they remain true two years later, even after multiple rounds of revision. You had such a solid grasp on these characters and the heart of this story, and I think that sort of confidence comes through in the pitch itself.

MTK: Mel, I’m blushing.

Mel: To some extent the way that agents review these pitches is subjective, so what sparks for another agent or grabs their attention will be different than me. But I struggle with pitches that rely mainly on vibes. The kind that gives you a bullet point list of the overall tone, a short description of the protagonist that’s generally more surface level, and some tropes the author plays around with. I care more about what a character wants and what’s at stake in a story, so if your pitch doesn’t speak to those things but sounds more like a shopping list of interesting story elements I’m less likely to request material (even if the reality is I might very much love your work if I knew more about it). Comps are good, too, because they demonstrate an author’s awareness of the market they’re hoping to be published in and what’s working in those spaces, but they’re also just a good indicator that we gravitate toward similar stories.

MTK: I agree! Comp titles are a crucial component. A lot of writers dislike directly comparing their manuscripts to novels—and for good reason too—but comp titles are a quick and easy way for people to get an understanding of the genre, themes, plot, aesthetics, and vibe of your novel. But you don’t have to comp books. You can comp movies, songs, shows; really any form of media. I think comp titles played a key role in my pitch becoming one of the most popular tweets of the hashtag that day.

MTK: Now, the second requirement is more like a job screening. Are you retweeting strange things, irrelevant topics, or discriminatory takes? That might turn off an agent who would’ve liked your pitch otherwise. Before establishing my social medias as an author platform, I had a relatively unknown presence online. I would retweet and boost other writers, or share random thoughts or struggles I encountered while writing. All normal and clean stuff, but with a clear inclination towards the writing and publishing side of twitter. This might be a different conversation if you’re an established writer or personality. If your online presence shows that you already have an audience/fanbase, a background in the things you’re writing about, and other opportunities lined up, that can also influence an agent’s decision. What do you think about a writer’s online presence, Melanie?

Mel: I’ve signed clients who had little to no online presence, but I do always check out potential clients online before chatting about representation. Mainly for all the reasons you’ve already mentioned. I don’t want to work with bullies, or people who disrespect and demean communities I want to uplift and support. So how a person uses their platforms is almost more important to me than whether or not they have one to begin with. But assuming you do have an online presence, I like to see that you’re willing to put yourself out there (because your career will be a series of moments when you do just that), experiment with new ways to engage with your followers and find new ones, and perhaps above all, that you’re just a kind human that I could see myself working with for hopefully years to come. Nonfiction agents, people whose business model really thrives on platform and expertise, will have a totally different answer for you I’m sure. But for me it’s really that simple.

MTK: I’ve always wondered this as someone on the writer side, but do agents go into a pitch contest looking for something specific, or do they just like whatever catches their eye? And if a pitch is in a genre or topic they usually don’t represent, will a strong pitch still interest them?

Mel: I often go into pitch contests knowing I’m, say, more hungry or excited to find middle grade projects than anything else and so prioritize those entries, but I also work in other categories and very much keep an eye on those pitches, too, in case anything intrigues me. I’ve long since given up the idea that I have any control over timing in this industry—it’s the thing that’s both deeply fun and deeply frustrating about the job. You never know when you’ll find the next story that keeps you up until 3AM because you can’t put it down or what opportunities are right around the corner. You just have to be ready for them when it happens. So yes, I have a vague plan of attack but also just like whatever catches my eye because the thing about pitches is that you just never really know how you’ll spark to something until you see how that concept is executed on the page, so I cast a wide net. I can also say from personal experience and that of other agents at Root Literary that, yes, a strong pitch can cause even an agent who doesn’t primarily work in that category/genre to throw their hat in the ring. Though, as always, I think it’s important that authors vet those agents and make sure they have the resources and support to guide you. In more tangible terms, that means someone else at their agency should probably have experience in that space even if that agent doesn’t yet, someone they can turn to when they come up against something they may not have seen before. Agents pivot all the time, at different points in their career; you just want to make sure you’ll be taken care of when they do.

MTK: That’s super interesting to hear! Which leads us into stage two: what comes after. If an agent likes your pitch—great! That means they’re interested in seeing more material from you. But pause. Like Melanie mentioned above, take a moment to research the agents that are interested. There have been a few horror stories of fake agents who steal unsuspecting writers’ manuscripts. Make sure the agent you’re following up with is from a trusted agency, with their own client list and sales. Now, for each agent that likes your pitch, they may request different things—some just a query, some want the query and first 50 pages, while others will ask for the full straight away. Make sure to check an agent’s twitter or their submission guidelines. You want to eliminate any possible obstacle that might get in the way of an interested agent—and the easiest one to subvert is improper submissions. The good thing, and may I say great thing about pitch contests, are that they’re a way to skip the line. You’re no longer just another number in an agent’s slush pile. You’re wanted. Melanie, when agents get emails from a writer whose pitch they liked, are they ready to drop everything and read them first? What’s the agent side look like?

Mel: For me it really just depends on what my reading load currently looks like and how excited I am about a concept. If I have a lot of client reading, that’s always going to be the priority, so it might take me a minute to turn to the manuscripts I requested during a pitch contest. With that said, being an agent means you are constantly battling between the need to focus on existing clients and projects with the need to build out your pipeline for future sales so that you make sure you’re able to support yourself, too. I do try to read full manuscripts I’ve requested in order of arrival, but sometimes a story just calls to you and you find yourself wishing you could drop everything to read it. And with Nura and the Immortal Palace, I remember that being the case. So that’s what I did. I read it almost immediately, within a couple days of you sending it to me. It was month two of the pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I was anxious and scared and probably a little bored (we all were) and in my personal life I was going through a divorce and I guess what I’m saying is, I needed an escape. And when I picked up Nura, all I wanted to do was fall further and further into those pages. I wanted to dance with the jinn and eat syrupy sweet Gulab jamun and I wanted to give that girl the biggest hug because that’s what the book felt like for me—an embrace, a respite, a moment of catharsis. Because the thing about Nura is that we can all see a parts of ourselves in her. She wants so much for herself and the people she loves, and really, isn’t that all any of us want?

MTK: Hearing that NURA was like an embrace is one of the biggest compliments! And what’s fascinating is that while my book reached you at an anxious time of your life, your offer also arrived during a rough period for me—I was almost about to give up on writing. I’m glad we were able to find each other! I guess that’s the magic of pitch contests.

MTK: All right, last question. If there’s a book out there you wish you could read right now, what would its comp titles be? I’d love to read a book in the vein of Princess Mononoke with the flair of the Jasmine Throne, or Pixar’s Encanto weaved with the historical finesse of the Gilded Wolves.

Mel: I can’t even express how excited I would be about a book that I can comp to Encanto or Turning Red. I’m a kid at heart in many ways—I love Pixar films and Studio Ghibli and am obsessed with the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Anything that brings me back to that childlike sense of wonder and hope and possibility. The longer I agent, the makeup of my list looks like it’s about 50% children’s literature with an emphasis on middle grade projects and 50% adult fiction. I’m definitely hungry for more middle grade, though. I’d love something that I can comp to Tae Keller’s Jennifer Chan is Not Alone, which is a beautiful lightly speculative novel that tackles the aftermath of a bully incident. That’s a story that’s stuck with me ever since I read it last year. I’d also like to see a book I can comp to Sara Pennypacker’s Pax, so something that center animals and nature and the future of our planet, and historical fiction that highlights non-western cultures like Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary. And, of course, I’m always excited to see more fantasy in the vein of Nura and the Immortal Palace or the upcoming Caris Avendaño Cruz’s (another client of mine!) Marikit and the Ocean of Stars.

MTK: Thanks so much for having us Natalie! You can find me at mtkhan.com and @maeedakhan on both twitter and Instagram, and for Melanie you can catch her at melanienfigueroa.com, and @wellmelsbells on both twitter and Instagram.

Giveaway Details

M.T. has generously offered a hardback of Nura and the Immortal Palace and Melanie has offered a query critique for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by July 30th. If you do not want to be included in the critique giveaway, please let me know in the comments. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The book giveaway is U.S. and Canada and the query critique giveaways is International.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattridge. You can find the participating blogs on his blog.

Upcoming Interviews and Guest Posts

Wednesday, July 20th, I have an agent spotlight interview with Alex Slater and a query critique giveaway

Monday, July 25th, I have an interview with debut author Derrick Chow and a giveaway of his MG retelling Ravenous Things

Monday, August 1st, I'm participating in the Apple a Day Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, August 3rd, I have an agent/author guest post with Kari Sutherland and debut author Rimma Onoseta and a giveaway of Rimma's contemporary YA How You Grow Wings and a query critique by Kari and my IWSG post

Monday, August 8th, I have an agent spotlight interview with Monica Rodriguez and a query critique giveaway

Hope to see you on Wednesday!

25 comments:

Greg Pattridge said...

I enjoyed the back and forth exchange about pitch contests. The advice was spot on. Good luck with this new title. It sounds fantastic.

Test said...

I've seen pitch contests around but haven't paid them much attention. How interesting would it be to have actual middle grade aged readers involved in this instead of adults? I don't need to be included in the critique giveaway, but did enjoy Nura and the Immortal Palace.

DMS said...

What a great post. I enjoyed the info about Pitch Contests. Nura and the Immortal Place sounds like a fascinating read. Best of luck to MT!

Also congrats to Valinora!

Danielle H. said...

I think this author's pitch is one of the best I've ever read. I watched an author panel last week and after listening to this author discuss her book and more, I can't wait to read it. Please do not include me in the query critique chance. I follow Natalie on Twitter and shared on tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/view/yesreaderwriterpoetmusician/690129912399560704?source=share

Brenda said...

Wonderful information here and I would enjoy the opportunity to read Nura and the Immortal Palace, but no need to include me in the query critique. I follow via Twitter also. Congratulations also to Valinora on her release.

Kate Larkindale said...

I'm a firm believer in pitch contests too. I got my agent through one, so they do work.

Patricia T. said...

Your book sounds intriguing in so many ways. Great plot and characters. I really enjoyed your conversation about pitch contests on Twitter. I wasn't aware of them. But I have found I get much more publicity for authors I review on Twitter than I do on other social media. And, congratulations Valinora on your new release.

Liz A. said...

I've never considered the Twitter pitch things before. Now I'm rethinking joining in. Someday.

Valinora Troy said...

Thanks for the shout-out for my new release, Natalie! I'd love to win a copy of Nura and the Immortal Palace, as I have heard great things about it, but unfortunately I am not eligible! I've seen lots of Pitmad events on Twitter, so it's lovely to hear the success stories. :)

Jacqui Murray said...

Lots in this Q&A grabbed my attention, but I particularly liked this: "I struggle with pitches that rely mainly on vibes."

feecaro said...

What a fantastic Q&A. I learned so much and not just about pitch contests. Thank you so much. I would love to be entered in both giveaways. I'm looking forward to reading Nura.

Samantha Bryant said...

Interesting insight into pitch contests. Thanks for the post!

Judith L. Roth said...

Great hearing what one agent looks for in twitter pitch contests. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Nura sounds intriguing. Great info on twitter pitches.
'Lo, Natalie.

Anonymous said...

Sandra sandracox.blogspot.com

Shamaila J said...

great interview. I would love to enter the critique giveaway - shamaila.siddique@gmail.com

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction said...

Love this pitch! I can see why it got so much attention. Looking forward to reading the book!

Kiley said...

Thanks for the interview! I'd love a query critique. I've also mentioned this contest on Twitter. orchardka@gmail.com

Ella said...

Amazing interview! I've mentioned this contest on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ElaMishne/status/1550134114103267328
I would love a query critique. Email: ela.mishne@gmail.com

Kerry Hansen (she/her) said...

Another great interview! I mentioned this contest on Twitter and would love a query critique. kerryhansen@outlook.com

Lauri Meyers said...

Dang, that was a great pitch! I agree with Melanie; after those few words my heart was racing and I was invested in Nura's outcome.

Nancy P said...

Sounds terrific. Amazing covers. Following. Book only. positive.ideas.4youATgmail.com

Leela said...

I'm an email subscriber.

Rachel said...

This was really helpful. I've never done a Twitter pitch, but am considering it now!

AnneHY said...

Thank you very much for the information about pitch parties and how they can bring rewards.