Conference Tidbits: Pitching Advice

I am, by no means, an expert on pitching.  I can’t write a good query letter to save my life.  (Although I think that also ties back to the novels I’ve tried to query and the fact that they were lacking that core idea that would work well in a pitch, but I digress.)

What I can do is see the flaws in others’ approaches.  So, this is a do as I say not as I do sort of post.

At the conference I attended recently they had pitch sessions with some great agents and editors.  I found myself talking to a few authors about their pitches before the sessions.  Some had it dialed in.  Some…didn’t.

What was the difference between the two?  The strength of their idea?  The level of their experience?  Their physical appearance?

No.  No. And no.  (Although treating it a bit like a job interview and showing up looking polished doesn’t hurt your chances.)

The difference was in specificity and brevity.

One woman told me her pitch in one line.  It was “XYZ’s story told from the perspective of the women in his life.”  Sounded intriguing and the agent in question did request pages.

Another, and I don’t know how it turned out, had about four paragraphs written for the pitch and those paragraphs included things like “the main character had a very traumatic childhood” and “a serial killer takes a special interest in them.”

Anyone who reads those kinds of books can tell you that those kinds of books sell.  But, you aren’t going to sell anyone on “it’s just another run of the mill thriller/mystery where the main character is overcoming a dark past and the killer they’re pursuing decides to toy with them.”

Agents and editors want unique enough to be new and interesting, but enough like things they’ve seen before to be able to pull in readers.  (That came from another session where they were discussing what readers want.  And agents and editors want what they think readers want.  Think familiar, but different.)

A pitch like the above isn’t specific enough to show that it’s different from everything else already out there.

So, how to fix that second pitch?  Be specific.  Don’t talk about a traumatic childhood in general.  If it’s central to the story line say, “John was tortured by his foster-brother, Bob.”  Better yet, “When John was six years old, his foster-brother Bob set him on fire.”

Don’t talk about some nameless/faceless serial killer that does bad things, talk about a specific killer who does specific things.  “When John starts investigating a series of murders where the victims were set on fire, he starts to suspect that Bob didn’t die in that fire ten years ago, but may be still alive.”

(I can assure you there’s a better, snappier way to rewrite that second line, but ya know.  Not an actual book and I do have novel writing to do today.)

I’ve learned this in the professional world and it’s just as true in the writing world:  Often those who say the least are the ones with the best handle on the situation.  So, if you’re going to pitch, be that person who knows exactly what they wrote and can summarize it easily.

Other thoughts:

– Know your genre and target audience.  Just like in a query letter you don’t want to say that your book will appeal to audiences of all ages and anyone who reads.  No, you wrote a book that will appeal to a subset of readers.  What is that subset?

– Know the length of your book.  If it isn’t quite done or you think it will need revisions after the conference, give a guesstimate.  (And then hit within 5-10K words of that guesstimate.)

– If they request pages, it’s okay to leave before the end of the pitch session.  Both times I’ve pitched and had pages requested I ended up with about five extra minutes.  It’s a bit awkward to have “made the sale” and then continue to sit there.

– Both times, the agent didn’t really want to know anything about me.  They just wanted to hear the pitch.  Obviously I’m sitting there in front of them so they know approximate age (although with me are probably off by 5-10 years), gender, country or region of origin, some mixture of education/social class, ethnicity (at least what’s visible), and general appearance.  (They also have Google and your name if they’re so inclined.)

One other thought.

It’s okay to pitch something that isn’t final yet.  I spoke to more than one author that did so.  One pitched, told the editor it would be about six months before the novel was done, and the editor said to send the pages when they were done.  So, you can still get a request for pages.

BUT.  Realize that the industry is moving.  Books come out every day.  Agents and editors get queries every day.  Your novel that sounds intriguing today may be old hat tomorrow.  Most ideas are not unique.  If you had it, ten other people had it, too.  It’s just a question of who is going to sit down in that chair and turn that idea into a novel or story first and then pound the pavement until they find someone to buy it.

Best to be prepared to send pages right away.  If that’s not possible, do it as soon as possible.  A request for pages is an opportunity, don’t squander it.

And if you don’t get a request for pages…

Sometimes it’s nothing to do with you.  Sometimes the person just doesn’t rep what you pitched.  Sometimes they have too many books like that or don’t feel they could sell it.  Don’t take it personal.  Don’t get upset with them.  Don’t try to convince them they’re wrong.

(You do that, they’ll probably say “sure, find, send them” and then you’ll get a form reject in two months.  What good does that do you?  Move on to the next one.)

And if they do request pages, keep querying and keep reaching out to other agents/editors.  A request for pages is just the beginning of a very long process and there’s no guarantee it’s going to go anywhere.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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