Thursday, July 26, 2012

Preparing the Perfect Pitch


Be honest. In the middle of the night, during conference season, you've had nightmares of Chip MacGregor telling you he thinks your concept is totally dull and an impossible sell. Nooooo....

Face-to-face rejection. It's every writer's worst nightmare.

I vividly remember my first pitch. It was the 2010 ACFW conference, and I had an appointment with Ami McConnell. Yes, I've always had lofty aspirations. My appointment was the first one after lunch, and I made a point to leave lunch early to join the line of other panic-striken writers. Suddenly the ability to even remember your name had become an asset. "What do you write?" One of us would ask each other. "Who are you pitching to?" The answers were different, but the look in the eyes was (and is) always the same. I like to describe it as that feeling you got waiting outside the principal's office. Even if you knew you had done nothing wrong, he would find something. The assumption was, these people are waiting for us to fail.

That's problem #1.

Editors and agents do not want to see you mentally and socially flailing. Well, at least most of them don't. Just kidding! Remember that these people are in the book business. And the book business doesn't work too well without authors. There's no reason to be afraid. You're looking to enter into a partnership. That's all there is to it. I know it feels like they have your every dream in the palm of their hands, but really, those are in God's. And He has a much better idea who your book will best fit with anyway.

With that in mind, I've created three lists of three things that should help you get your pitch prepared for conference season. I hope you find them helpful!

3 Things to Do Before You Leave Home:

  • Research. Nothing is more embarrassing than pitching your YA manuscript to a publishing house that is currently only buying Amish historicals. And believe me, editors don't like this. If you were them, would you? Do research on your target editors and agents before you leave so that your pitch comes across as intentional. Even just browsing through a publishing house's website and reading a couple of their books can go a long way.
  • Practice in front of a mirror. Yes, I know this makes you feel silly. You will feel even more ridiculous if the first time you pitch is in front of your dream editor.
  • Reread your book. If the appointment goes well, an editor or agent is likely to ask you more about the story, but there's no way to really predict what they will ask. In order to keep your answers as natural and eloquent-sounding as possible, before you leave, take note of your major plot points. If someone were to ask you about the major conflicts in the novel, the dark moment, or the character arc, would you be able to answer? What if they asked you what you ultimately hope readers will get out of your book? Why you are a good fit for their publishing house? If you are prepared, your answers to these questions can make you seem golden. 
3 Things to Do During Your Appointment:
  • Be professional. Oh my goodness, I am always amazed by how many people ignore this one. You should treat your appointments as if they are a job interview, because--let's face it, they are. That means even if the appointment does not go as you'd hoped, you still have an opportunity to leave a good impression. Next year's conference might seem like a long time away now, but next year, you'll wish you hadn't burned a bridge.
  • Take a deep breath and introduce yourself. Jumping into your pitch and rattling it off like a 10th grade oral book report project is not a good strategy. You want your appointment to be a conversation, a chance to get to know an editor or agent. Slow down, introduce yourself and maybe even tell them what you write or offer a one sheet before you jump into your longer pitch. Otherwise it's too much for them to process.
  • Take cues from the editor or agent with whom you are speaking. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and politely tried to end it with nonverbal cues, only to have that person continue talking about themselves with no end in sight? Don't be that person in your appointments. Give the editor or agent a chance to think and ask you questions. Remember that your book idea is new to them. They need at least a few seconds to process it.
3 Things Your Pitch Should Include:
  • Goals/forward motion. This can be anything from a new job to a heroic quest to save a princess, but it should be clear what your main character is working toward.
  • Conflict. Conflict is usually the most interesting part of the story, so this is your chance to really "pack a punch" so to speak, with your pitch. Be sure you are very clear what your character has working against her, and don't shy away from using external conflict. "She feels hesitant about dating him," is not a strong enough conflict to sustain a book-long project. "He put a restraining order against her because he thinks she's stalking his children" is a different story. Got your attention, didn't it? (Side note: if any of you have written stalker romances, my apologies.)
  • A compelling hook, using your writing voice. You need a wham! moment to stand out amongst the hundreds of other pitches these people have to hear throughout the day. Sometimes using a question works well. Other times it's just in the phrasing. I would recommend having someone you trust, like your critique partner, work with you on this. Ideally, you want your wham! moment to correspond with your biggest source of conflict. And even beyond that, be sure it reflects your voice. This is the first chance you get to showcase your writing voice, so make it memorable.
You also want to remember to keep these short. It's a good idea to develop both a short pitch and a longer pitch. And when I say "short pitch," I mean short. We're talking, 7 words, ideally. Your longer pitch should be around 3 or 4 sentences. The short pitch should be just long enough to really catch their attention, and then the longer pitch develops the main conflict a bit more. But even the long pitch should not tell your whole story.

What you want to happen in an ideal situation is for your short pitch to lead to your long pitch, which then leads to a one sheet or even a proposal request, and then to your book.

A note on pitching etiquette: Sometimes it can be hard to determine when it is and is not socially acceptable to pitch. Generally, most people tend toward one side or the other. If you're an introvert, you might have to get a little out of your comfort zone. If you are an extravert, you may need to tone it down a little. Remember that editors and agents are human, which means they all have different preferences and moods. If someone is on their cell phone engrossed in what looks like a very serious conversation, or an agent is having a one-on-one with one of their authors, please do not interrupt them. It's considered rude and will really work against you in the end.

That said, on the other hand, agents and editors know you have come to the conference to pitch to them, and some will deliberately hang out in public areas so they can get to know potential authors and clients. In some cases, it can bode well if you recognize your dream editor or agent because it shows you have done your research. You've paid a lot of money and put a lot of effort to come to this conference, so if a good opportunity presents itself and seems like it may even be a God-thing (i.e. you end up on the elevator at the same time), it may be best to seize the chance while you have it.

Here's a normal way to have that conversation: "Hi, I'm Delilah Dopplerfritz. Aren't you _______?" "Yes, I am. Are you enjoying the conference?" "Yes. I'm glad to run into you because I was hoping to have a chance to pitch to you this weekend. Do you have a minute to hear about my book, or are you in a hurry?" "Sure, tell me about it. But make it quick." (Insert pitch.)

It's always a good idea to ask if they have time to hear your pitch if you're not in a formal setting like an appointment or their appointed lunch table. And if they say they don't have time, don't be offended. It's not you. They are busy people!

Above all else, be yourself. You are selling yourself as an author just as much as you are selling your book. Remember that, and it will be easier. 


Your turn! Do you have any pitching advice or funny stories to share? Do you have a pitch you would like input on? Feel free to share it and get the group's feedback!




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Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook,Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


16 comments:

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, this post is g-o-l-d! I haven't been to ACFW before, but I 'm going in September. I'm nervous about pitching, but you've given some great suggestions and advice here. Thanks so much for sharing!

I've got my short pitch, but I'm not sure how to develop that 3-4 sentence one. Tips? :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

I agree with Jeanne -- lots of good tips here, Ashley!
Call me crazy, but I love pitching story ideas. Developing the perfect pitch sheet and the perfect verbal pitch is fun. Brainstorming with other writers helps a lot -- and attending the My Book Therapy Scrimmage workshop is an ideal way to make sure you're ready to pitch at ACFW! It's held on the Wednesday before the conference starts.

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, I'm so glad you found it useful! Do you feel comfortable posting your pitch? If not, feel free to message it to me on FB or e-mail it me, and I'd be happy to look at it! With the longer pitch, you want to flesh out the conflict more, so it gives you a little more space to up the stakes, if that makes sense. Good question!

Ashley Clark said...

Beth, I am so glad you brought up the MBT workshop! I attended that last year, and it was invaluable! I'm glad they are doing it again. The teaching is wonderful, but I think the most helpful part is probably just getting the experience to pitch to one another and fine tune what you really want to say. Great suggestion!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Yay! Thanks for this post, Ash. In my mind, I know what my book is about, but I really want to map it out so I can get to the nitty gritty for these pitch sessions.

And Beth, I'm totally attending the Scrimmage on that Wednesday. I need all the help I can get!! :P

One question...when do you talk about your qualifications? Or do you? Do you wait for the editor/agent to ask about you, or do you do it when you introduce yourself?

Heather Day Gilbert said...

So cool--I wish I could go to a conference and pitch someone! In the meantime, I'll have to settle for vlogging about my book/my life. I'm with Beth--I'm so excited about my book, I'd love to stand behind it and sell the idea to someone. I'm just hoping my proposal is going to do it for me--out on submission right now. Thanks for the informative post!

Jeanne T said...

Okay, Ashley, here's my short pitch (more than 7 words...): Can a woman fall in love with her husband while dancing with another man?

When crafting a longer pitch, do I do with with both POV's, or just one?

I'm registered for MBT's Scrimmage, and I know I'll learn a lot there. I'm just trying to figure out how to get my head around the specifics of that 3-4 sentence pitch. :) Haven't even attempted it yet.

Any tips you have are welcome.

Melissa Tagg said...

Ashley, your tips are sooo good. Love it all! I think your tip about taking cues from the editor/agent is so good, too. I've pitched six times total and every single one was different. It's so important to go into it prepared, to have your pitch nailed down, to know your story inside and out...but it's also important to be a good people-reader. To realize this is a two-person exchange! :) And ask intelligent questions, too, if the opportunity presents itself.

And I have to echo others in plugging the Scrimmage. It's awesome and just the motivation/preparation/encouragement a person needs the day before ACFW. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Lindsay, your question about pitching qualifications is a good one! What I have done in the past is just put that on my one sheet, and usually the editor or agent will scan the one sheet while I'm talking. Last year I had a couple people mention my M.A., but I never said it out loud--they just saw it on my one sheet and then asked me more questions about it. In the past, I have always used those appointments to focus more on the book itself than on my own qualifications, but I guess it would probably depend on the particular appointment, and also if your qualifications are relevant to your book. If your book is about a woman who travels to Ireland on missions work and you've spent a year in Ireland yourself, I would definitely include that. Does that help a little? I know I just sort of complicated your question, but it really does depend on the particular situation. When in doubt, I'd say focus more on the book and allow them to ask questions about your qualifications on their own.

Ashley Clark said...

Lindsay, your question about pitching qualifications is a good one! What I have done in the past is just put that on my one sheet, and usually the editor or agent will scan the one sheet while I'm talking. Last year I had a couple people mention my M.A., but I never said it out loud--they just saw it on my one sheet and then asked me more questions about it. In the past, I have always used those appointments to focus more on the book itself than on my own qualifications, but I guess it would probably depend on the particular appointment, and also if your qualifications are relevant to your book. If your book is about a woman who travels to Ireland on missions work and you've spent a year in Ireland yourself, I would definitely include that. Does that help a little? I know I just sort of complicated your question, but it really does depend on the particular situation. When in doubt, I'd say focus more on the book and allow them to ask questions about your qualifications on their own.

Ashley Clark said...

Lindsay, your question about pitching qualifications is a good one! What I have done in the past is just put that on my one sheet, and usually the editor or agent will scan the one sheet while I'm talking. Last year I had a couple people mention my M.A., but I never said it out loud--they just saw it on my one sheet and then asked me more questions about it. In the past, I have always used those appointments to focus more on the book itself than on my own qualifications, but I guess it would probably depend on the particular appointment, and also if your qualifications are relevant to your book. If your book is about a woman who travels to Ireland on missions work and you've spent a year in Ireland yourself, I would definitely include that. Does that help a little? I know I just sort of complicated your question, but it really does depend on the particular situation. When in doubt, I'd say focus more on the book and allow them to ask questions about your qualifications on their own.

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Heather! I love your profile picture! And many of these tips can also apply to written pitches... you just have more time to really think about your responses if you're writing them over e-mail. Best of luck to you with that proposal!

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, you've definitely piqued my interest! But I think you could make your short pitch even stronger by giving us a better feel for what she has to lose and making it a bit more specific. Right now, all we know is 1) she is married 2) she knows another man 3) she is dancing with him 4) there is some kind of tension in her marriage, possibly because of this other guy.

I would ask yourself what the absolute height of the conflict is in your book, and then see if you can allude to that in the long pitch. If you can do it in the short pitch too, that's even better! In my pitch last year, I did incorporate two POVs into the long pitch, so that can be done. I did it that way so I could briefly show what both the main characters wanted, and also what they had to lose.

I would ask yourself what the most fundamental elements of your story are. If you had to whittle away at your book, then whittle it away some more, and then more, and then more, what are the pillars you would be left with? THAT is what you want to put in your larger pitch.

So to get you started, I would ask... why is she dancing? What is going on with her marriage? Is her husband having an affair? Why is it implied that she didn't love her husband before? What is her goal in the story? What is his goal?

Feel free to write back with a rough draft of your longer pitch if you like! I'm happy to look at it for you!

Ashley Clark said...

Let me take this opportunity to say Melissa Tagg helped me with my pitch at last year's conference scrimmage, and she is pretty much fabulous at working on pitches!

Yes, Melissa, so true about asking intelligent questions! This is something I need to work on. Sometimes I get so focused on my side of the pitch that I forget to engage the editor or agent to hear their perspective as well, but I think that can really help!

Casey said...

Golden. Absolutely golden. I am going to pitch this year, where as last year, I was merely looking for help and advice on my story, which I received! I'm saving this post. Seriously helpful.

And yes, I have had nightmares. Last night actually I had an ACFW nightmare and it wasn't pretty. I was standing in the waiting room and could not remember my pitch. All I could hear where my gums flapping in a nonsensical display of dunderheadness. Gulp. Time to memorize that pitch! ;)

Ashley Clark said...

Casey! You poor thing! We can definitely practice together before the big event. You have no need to worry... you're so good at communicating and are going to dazzle them immediately. :)