Pitching a Homer – Or How to Pitch Your Novel
Okay, I’m lousy at baseball-speak, but the basis for this article is how to pitch to an editor or agent – in a conference scenario.
We are in the peak conference season – at least for romance writers. RWAmerica hold their annual conference in late July, RWAustralia hold their conference mid-August, and RWNew Zealand hold their annual conference mid-late August.
And at each conference there is the opportunity for brave souls to present their treasured work to an agent or editor, in the hopes that said agent/editor will recognise the gem for what it is, and whip out a chequebook and a fill-in-the-blanks contract.
Well, okay, maybe that’s more my fantasy than fact, but that’s what we writers hope for, yes? That the agent/editor love the pitch enough to ask for a partial manuscript – or a full (!) – and then read it and love it and want it.
When I first heard of pitching at conferences, it reminded me of a party where some kid (still so traumatised can’t remember his name) walked in on me in the bathroom at the grand old age of 5, and then called all the kids attending the party to come and gawk. And laugh. Ex-crooooootiating humiliation. And that’s how I viewed pitching. Present your treasure and hope they won’t laugh you out of the ballpark.
I did realise the benefit in pitching, though. If the agent/editor does request your work, your submission is slightly fast-tracked. While it’s not like having a police escort, with flashing lights and sirens heralding the arrival of your manuscript on to the agent/editor’s lap – it’s more the overtaking lane approach. Your work will be read, more than likely sooner rather than later, and if you phrase your cover letter properly, you’ll have a frame of reference – they’ve met you, and might remember you. Maybe. But this isn’t about the submission. This is about what happens BEFORE the submission.
When I decided to pitch my first novel, I researched, well, how to pitch a novel. And couldn’t really find that much practical, useful information. What am I supposed to do or say? Present them with a box of chocolates and tell the editor/agent how much I LOVE their work and how I want to work with them? Answer: No. Not even close.
Think of pitching like a job interview – yes, another ex-crooooootiating experience. You are approaching an industry professional, and you’re talking about your business, which you hope to make their business.
Some job interview tips work well for the pitch situation:
Yes, all us writers are charmingly eccentric in our own special, creative way, but we do want to be taken as a serious business proposition, so make that good first impression. There is truth to the point that it’s the material that counts, but you really want the editor to be focused on the story you’re sharing with them, and not be distracted by the tufts of hair you forgot to brush, or the jewellery that flashes and jingles with each movement you make, or that the crystal you use for deodorant has… failed.
Know your book. Most editors and agents request only pitches on works that are completed. This is to show that you can actually finish the work, and that it’s not just one of fifteen partial manuscripts you have tucked in your drawer. So, if it’s not finished, then at least know how it’s going to end up. Focus on the Four W’s: Who, What, Why and Why not?
Who are your characters? What does s/he want? Why does s/he want THAT? Why doesn’t s/he have it/get it?
Don’t lose the plot.
Not only will you need to know the bare bones of your story, but you’ll need to tell them some of the key turning points of the plot, the black moment, the climax and the resolution. What is the conflict? Particularly, can this conflict be sustained throughout the book? You need to know your plot inside out and upside down, so that you can explain it to the editor/agent – nobody else knows it better than you. If you’re looking for a novel pitching template, you can find a rough outline of one here.
Sometimes editors and agents might ask – ‘what is the theme of your novel’. Obviously it pays to have this answer ready. The theme of your story is the moral lesson that underpins your plot. It might be revenge, forgiveness, good vs evil, coming of age, etc. It’s like a smelting process for your book, boiling it down, reducing the elements until you have the pure essence of your book.
Have a backup.
We all have an attack of the nerves. Even though you’ve rehearsed it until your friends/family/partner/children/pet dog have learned to hide from you on sight, sometimes the reassurance of having your notes on cards can be all the backup you need to deliver a home run. Even if you never refer to them, it’s handy to have them with you. Just in case – but list it in point form. Don’t read your entire pitch from the card to the editor/agent.
Present with confidence.
For most of us, this will be our first meeting with our preferred editor/agent, so it’s important to make that good impression. Smile and greet your ‘pitchee’, and shake his/her hand. Either clasp your hands in your lap, or on the table (or around your little stack of reminder notecards), so that you don’t fidget. Sit on your hands, if you have to. Make eye contact – this is essential to form a connection and a memory of the event for the pitchee. Conduct yourself with confidence – even if it’s just an act and you’re shaking and feel like you’re going to throw up, present yourself with confidence. You’re looking good, you’re a professional meeting another industry professional. You know your story inside at out. You’ll be fine. There’s plenty of time to collapse and puke after the pitch.
And whatever you do, don’t imagine him/her naked.