This Pitch is a Bitch!

At the Ozark Writers conference a couple weeks ago I had another writer ask me about my book during the closing banquet. Imagine that, being asked about your book, at a writer’s conference no less. You would think I had the answer well-rehearsed and ready to roll off my tongue like the lyrics to the national anthem. Nope. I hemmed…I hawed…I stumbled…I stuttered…I repeated myself…I used words I made up on the spot…I jammed bread rolls in my mouth (probably in an unconscious effort to shut myself up)…in summary, I bombed! It was so bad I started wondering if I was having some sort of brain aneurism, thus my barely comprehensible speech. It was truly embarrassing! And even worse, my wife was sitting there witnessing my melt-down. If the cheese cake hadn’t been so good I’m sure she would have feigned not knowing who I was and high-tailed it for the hotel room. And the woman who originally asked the question? I heard she’s already seeking restraining order against me for next year’s conference.

The whole episode got me thinking (and wondering if therapy was needed). I have serious plans to attend future writer’s conferences where agent pitch sessions are offered and I’ve never even really sat down and thought about what I would say. In case you’re unfamiliar with pitch sessions, they are 5-10 minute segments of time spent in front of an agent or editor trying to convince them to take a look at your book. Universally recognized as a nerve-wracking experience for both parties, none-the-less it has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal utilized to land a book deal.

Now that I realized just how unprepared I was, I sat down to correct the problem. I wrote my five minute pitch, highlighting all of the key plot points and character motivations, with the intention of committing it to memory once I was satisfied with it. And I thought the query letter was hard! But when I read it aloud it sounded stiff, not like a real conversation would sound. I could imagine myself sitting in front of an agent sounding like the robot from LOST IN SPACE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

But it turns out that was all WRONG! After doing some research I discovered a pitch session usually revolves around explaining your story in one to three sentences, whether it is at the pitch session or at the evening mixer. No one wants to hear a 20-minute monologue detailing every twist and turn in your plot. You need to succinctly tell the person on the other side of the table what your book is about. What makes it stand out from every other book that's on the market? Who are the characters? What's the conflict? What are the major themes? What other writers/books would you compare yourselves to as far as style? Why is it a topic that I should read about now? The agent needs to walk away remembering your book.

How do you go about doing that? After you introduce yourself, there is no need to jump in with your pitch the second you sit down. You can make a little small talk before you begin, to help calm your nerves. Then start pitching. The intent is to entice the agent to ask you questions about different elements of your book and begin a conversation. This is totally opposite of the understanding I had of the process before I started examining it, and now my apprehension has doubled. Small talk and conversations, things I’m not so good at.

My resolve is still intact, however! Together with my wife and a few writer friends, we’ll conquer this. It’ll probably be the toughest challenge I’ve faced so far, but this pitch is going down!

18 comments

  1. LOL. I'm sure it wasn't that bad. I know what you mean though, despite everyone telling me to come up with a pitch, I still haven't. This means I sound like a strangled cat whenever I try to explain my book. Sigh. I actually think I like the conversation idea better though ... Am I weird?

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  2. Hehehe! Yes, it can be hard. I remember when my editor was talking about my book with someone else and asked me to give the pitch. I kind of stared with my mouth hanging open and my eyes rolled up (like I was physically searching for that lost relic of a memory). After the first few words came to me, I ummed my way through the rest of it and couldn't even look at the person.

    LOL! Needless to say, I was embarrassed.

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  3. Oh yes, I've had a few experiences like that myself. I cringe now to think of them.

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  4. If that was your worst experience, just think how much better you will be next time!

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  5. I'm sure it wasn't THAT bad. I've only had one appointment face-to-face with an editor from Harlequin where I pitched for their YA line. My other pitch experiences were online. During the face-to-face pitch, I think I was prepared for the summary but not prepared for the questions she asked me. One question really caught me off-guard and I gave a horrible answer (no bread rolls in sight to save me). We should practice together at the local coffee house. Without bread rolls.

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  6. Lol, I love the title of your post!

    You're so right about the importance of having a pitch for your book. I haven't attended any conferences, but I hope to get to one next year so I can have one of those pitch sessions. By the way, I'm horrible at making small talk, so I'm super nervous even thinking about it!

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  7. Good luck!! This is an exciting part of the process though! One hurdle at a time!! It will get better as you go along. Try to sum it up in a sentence if you can.

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  8. Don't worry, we all have been there. And that picture of the pitch room looks very familiar to me :-D

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  9. Had the same thing happen to me the other day. Someone asked me what my book was about and I just couldn't think of anything to say, so I said, (are you ready for this)

    "It's a Regency romance but there's no sex in it."

    Can you imagine if I said that to an editor/agent/publisher?

    So don't feel bad about what happened to you. I think I win the 'booby' prize this week.

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  10. At least you're not going to be totally confused when you get there! I have no problem writing pitches for my books, but it's one thing to write one and another to say it out loud without sounding a bit dramatic...

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  11. Oh, have you seen those logline exercises? You know that Nate B. and Rachelle G. are always talking about? Hang on, I think I've saved the formula...

    argh. My computer's acting funny and I can't find it. Search "logline" or "one sentence pitch" on their blogs~

    Good luck!!! :o)

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  12. LOL...I'm sure you did OK for someone who wasn't prepared. All the best.

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  13. It only goes up from here, my friend! :D

    Imagine if you hadn't realized your trouble(!). At least now you've identified your weaknesses and can come ready to rumble the next time.

    Sounds like recipe for success to me!

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  14. I've done like 1 or 2 pitch sessions. They are what you make them, so for me the first one was frightening, exciting, nerve-wracking and freaked me out. I'm glad the agent was calm enough to let me get everything I had to say out before politely letting me know she wasn't interested.

    The second time around, I attended a pre-conference panel where an agent helped us with forming a pitch. This time, I sat down, made small talk, grinned and laughed and almost forgot to do my pitch. The agent asked for a sample. Although she rejected it, she sent a nice one with details and suggestions.

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  15. I really need this advice right now DL. I've tried to come up with a pitch, and all those formulas just don't seem to work for me. Even after I write them down.

    I'm going to save your write up about what it should entail; it sounds like it might work.

    thanks.

    Maybe I'll have a better experience the next time someone asks me that question.

    ......dhole

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  16. Ugh! I do the same thing - total freeze when I try to give a short answer to the question "So what's your new story about?" I think it's helpful to ask someone who's familiar w/ the story what things about it stick out most in their mind that differentiate it from other things they've read.

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  17. Sounds like you've turned it into a great learning experience and will do awesome the next time something like that comes up.

    Thank you for sharing this story and getting me thinking about my own pitch. Right now I'm doomed!

    I really like your plan. Good luck to you, DL! You can do it! :)

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  18. I am sure you didn't do that bad. I have been working on mine, because I am finally going to attend a writer's conference in New York. It is not until next year. That sounds so far off, but I know it really isn't. I have been searching blogs and the internet and reading books,trying to take in as much information as I can about the so called elevator pitch. I think the reason I keep searching for more on the topic is that I am dreadfully afraid of just sitting down and writing it.

    I liked this post. I always like a little humor injected into an area that terrifies me.

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