How Pitching a Novel is Like Being in the Secret Service


by J.J. Hensley


For seven years, I had the pleasure of being a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. During that time, I conducted a variety of criminal investigations involving counterfeiting, check fraud, wire fraud, and even cell phone cloning.

However, much of what I did included the duties that most people associate with the agency–protection. For more than four of my seven years with the USSS, I was based in Washington D.C., which is not only our nation’s capital, but the protection capital of the world.

I learned many lessons while working assignments protecting the President, Vice President, and visiting heads of state. One of those lessons was that most protection assignments involve common factors. Those factors are:

  • Standing
  • Waiting
  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Being Ready to React
  • Periods of Discomfort
  • Relief When it’s Over

Currently, I’m a crime fiction writer and I was lucky enough to have found some success, particularly with my first novel, Resolve, which was a Thriller Awards finalist in 2014. The Thriller Awards are hosted by the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization, a group to which I happen to belong.

Each year, they host a wonderful conference called Thrillerfest and a component of that event is called Pitchfest. Pitchfest is an opportunity for writers to make a verbal pitch to literary agents in the hopes that the agent will request to see your latest manuscript and subsequently wish to represent you. As my previous agent closed up shop, I decided to take my latest work to Pitchfest in an effort to land an agent.

Approximately 50 literary agents and some publishers were set up among several rooms at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan. Writers flooded the rooms, lined up, and pitched to whatever agents were partial to their particular genre or writing style. As the event went on, I discovered several things were involved in working my way through Pitchfest.  Such as:

  • Standing
  • Waiting
  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Being Ready to React
  • Periods of Discomfort
  • Relief When It’s Over

Sound familiar?

ITW does an outstanding job of organizing the event, but by its nature, one will be standing for long periods of time. The event is over two hours long, and it would be impossible to get the opportunity to speak to every agent (nor would you want to since some would not represent your type of manuscript). So, a great deal of time is spent standing and waiting.

I’m fairly certain none of the literary agents had plans to put a bullet in my chest, but I discovered there was a certain amount of risk involved.

Knowing you will only get to speak to eight or nine agents, you have to have a strategy and do a risk assessment to determine how to get to your high-priority representatives. While there is an inherent amount of uncertainty in the process, you can better your odds by having a solid plan and avoiding going down the wrong path.

For instance, if you write paranormal and you make a poor decision by standing in line for an agent who is not looking for paranormal manuscripts, then you have wasted a huge amount of time that could have been used to approach someone who loves paranormal novels.

You have to be able to react on a moment’s notice. Perhaps you are in a long line and you suddenly notice an agent on your priority list has a much shorter line. You may have to jump ship and bolt across the room. Additionally, some agents will ask you questions about your book. One would be wise to be able to answer questions about something he or she wrote. This is why, just as in law enforcement, preparation and training are the keys to success. Hopefully, you have spent weeks preparing for multiple contingencies and have trained yourself to answer questions about yourself and your writing.

Hey, dozens–if not hundreds–of people are stuffed into these rooms. Air conditioning can only do so much and there will be some discomfort. Nervous writers are sometimes shoulder to shoulder with each other and everyone is talking. It’s hot and nobody wants to take a break, out of fear of missing out on talking to a great agent. Many writers (like me) dress up a little for the occasion, which means a sport coat or suit jacket. If I would have added a ballistic vest under the dress shirt, it would have been déjà vu all over again.

Few things felt better than when I watched Air Force One take off. Someone on the radio would say the words, “Wheels Up” and I knew I did all I could have, and now I could let my guard down a little. I had the same feeling at the end of Pitchfest. I performed as well as I could and nobody died (I think).

Assuming some of the agents asked for samples of your work, it could still be weeks or months before you find out if one wants to represent you and take your manuscript to various publishers. But, you have to allow yourself a moment of relief. You can’t put the gas pedal to the floor all of the time. Maybe that’s why ITW gives you tickets for two free drinks to use at a reception the evening after Pitchfest.

Writers of all levels–from first-time novelists to madly famous authors–mingle about and enjoy the company. For a couple of hours, hundreds of people with incredibly creative minds come together to talk about anything and everything.

If you look carefully, you will notice that those who took part in Pitchfest all have cloud bubbles above their heads. In that comic strip thought bubble, you’ll likely see two words: “Wheels Up.”



Guest post contributed by J.J. Hensley. J.J. Hensley is a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service who has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement to write stories full of suspense and insight. Check out his website for more articles.

7 thoughts on “How Pitching a Novel is Like Being in the Secret Service

  1. I am a former British Special Forces operator who was fortunate to have had the opportunity to operate with every UK SF unit during troubled times.
    After my military career had ended, I immigrated to Canada and started my own International security consulting company and was fortunate to have operated in the private sector in every war zone around the world during the past 20 years and continue to do so. The majority of my former contemporaries wrote books that primarily focused on their time in SF, so instead of following everybody else I decided to write something different, my life through all the various stages of my long and varied life. In other words I decided to write my memoir. I am currently co-writing my memoir with an English author and ardent feminist who has turned my story into much more than a collection of ‘war stories’. Spanning a career of more than five decades, it asks compelling questions: why some men risk everything and continue to remain hungry for a rush of adrenaline when they should already be dead. It also exposes a series of hitherto untold catastrophic leadership mistakes and reveals the devastating personal impact of a high-octane career.

    During this journey it became very apparent that the majority of agents and publishers appear to be disinterested in a story of a lifetime SF operator and the trials and tribulations of living such a life and prefer to focus on the blood and guts of SF operations because that’s what the majority of people want to read about.

    We certainly live in a funny old world, so I can fully equate with this story.


    Liked by 1 person

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