Thursday, September 11, 2014

Preparing Your Pitch

Today, I'm pulling one of my favorite posts from the archives as many of us get ready for conference season! I first wrote this post several years ago... little did I know the adventurous, challenging, dream-filled journey that would come ahead. With the ACFW Conference and others just around the corner, I hope this post helps you feel more prepared for what to expect when you go into those meetings with agents and editors, whether this is your first conference or your twelfth. We all get nervous, but it's how you channel those nerves that makes a difference. Let the agent or editor see the passion in your eyes for your story, and be on the lookout for other writers who may be even more terrified than you are. There's always an opportunity to encourage others if you look for it! -- Ashley


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. I always give my students the same advice before their presentations. The more you say your pitch aloud, even if it's only to yourself, the more normal this process will feel.
  • 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. Don't have a temper tantrum or start arguing with an agent or editor. Not a good idea. And chances are, though it may sting at the time, they are right about what they're saying. Show them respect.
  • 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, after they've just sat through hours of other pitches.
  • 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.

I repeat, the pitch does not need to tell your whole story. That's what a synopsis, and even a chapter-by-chapter summary is for. The goal here is just to generate interest and questions.

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!

Ashley Clark writes romance 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 blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Anonymous said...

thank you! thank you! thank you! not sure when I'll be able to attend my first conference but this is good stuff to know, practical information.
~ Robin E. Mason

Jeanne Takenaka said...

I've read this post before, but it's still just as relevant as the last time I read it. Thanks for the fabulous advice, Ashley!

Ashley Clark said...

Robin, I'm so glad you found it helpful! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you can attend a conference soon because they are so rewarding!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Jeanne! I thought about writing a whole new post on the same topic, but I liked this older one better. :) Glad you found it useful!

Sarah Forgrave said...

What an awesome crash course on pitching, Ashley! And let me just say, you are the queen of being enthusiastic, genuine, and bold (in a good way!) when it comes to pitching to editors.

I won't lie -- I've got flutters in my stomach at the thought that I'll be pitching in two weeks. TWO WEEKS! Gahhhh!!! But that also means I'll get to see your smiling face in two weeks! :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

So so good, Ash!!!

Susan Anne Mason said...

This is great advice! I'm just glad I don't have to pitch this year!! But I'll be praying for all of those who do!


Laurie Tomlinson said...

I want to read this once a day before conference! Thanks! And I'm definitely going to be re-reading my manuscript. So hard when there are so many stories swimming around in our heads at once!

Natalie Walters said...

This is great information and I can't wait to share it with my writer friends. And like Laurie Tomlinson said, reading this once a day before conference will be helpful for calming those nerves. Thanks for sharing this!!

Ashley Clark said...

Sarah, I can't WAIT to see you either! :D And thank you! <3 The same applies to you!

Thanks, Ames!

Ashley Clark said...

So sweet of you, Sue! We all appreciate that! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Laurie, I'm with you! It can be hard to remember which plot goes where! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Natalie! I'm so glad you found it helpful! I know that pitching can be SO nerve-wrecking, so hopefully this helps dispel some of the stress! :)