Perfect Pitch

I had lunch today with a group of my writer friends. The topic of conversation for our monthly Pennwriters’ gathering was pitching. I’m not talking baseball. Or music. No, we were discussing book proposals. You see, our annual conference (complete with agent and editor appointments) is fast approaching.

I have a special fondness for both the organization as a whole and for the conference in particular. Last year at this time, I had a completed manuscript and was in the midst of my agent search. It was at the conference that I met the woman who would eventually sign on to represent me.

So everyone pitching this year seems to assume that I’m a great authority on the subject. I’ve been asked to participate on a panel titled “Finding an Agent.” The group at lunch today took notes when I talked.

The truth is I was darned lucky. My timing was perfect. I really don’t think I can say the same about my pitch. But it happened to strike a cord with this agent. I met the right person on the right day and gave her story that she liked. Earlier that day, I’d pitched to another agent who didn’t like it at all. Like so many things in life, finding an agent comes down to one person’s opinion on one particular day.

But there are things you can do to give yourself a leg up. That’s what I shared today at lunch, to the best of my ability.

A fiction pitch consists of one or two sentences that tell what your story is about. It doesn’t matter if the book is 60,000, 90,000 or 180,000 words long, you need to be able to sum it up in one or two sentences. I’ve found that preferably you should come up with these one or two sentences BEFORE you write the book. If you have it then, you can use that sentence to keep you on track as you write.

You also need to be able to fire off that sentence (or two) in your sleep. It needs to be well rehearsed without necessarily sounding rehearsed. Yeah, that’s a tough one, too. But you’re going to be nervous when you meet an agent or editor. Trust me. When you suffer brain-freeze, it helps to know your pitch forward and backward.

My favorite tidbit of advice on how to manage this is the creation of key words. (OK, I learned this from Nancy Martin—let’s give credit where credit is due). A few of my key words to describe my protagonist are: workaholic veterinarian at a second rate Thoroughbred racetrack. Not that she’s thirty-five years old with brown hair and green eyes. Workaholic. Veterinarian. Second-rate. Thoroughbred. Racetrack. From those few words, I can still launch into a reasonable version of my pitch even though I haven’t practiced it in almost a year. The rest of it, in case you’re interested, is that she comes to suspect that the TRAGIC DEATH (more key words) of her MENTOR and PREDECESSOR wasn’t quite the accident everyone is trying to lead her to believe.

So we have a character, a world (setting) and a conflict. And since it’s a mystery, we have a dead body.

I also recommend beginning the pitch with “I have a completed (fill in the word count and genre) manuscript about…” That completed manuscript thing will get their attention and let them know that you’re not just practicing; you’re not just excited about an idea that may or may not ever see fruition. You have done the hard work of FINISHING the story. You have something to sell NOW. That is huge.

After you give your one or two sentence pitch, the agent will most likely ask you questions. Stay focused. Don’t ramble in your answers. If you do, they will assume you ramble when you write, too. Not a good first impression. One big question you should be ready to answer is “why are you the person to write this book?” Why can you deal with this material better than anyone else? If you’re a cop writing about cops, hey, you’ve got it nailed. Same with lawyers writing legal thrillers. They can certainly do it better than I could (even though I spent two days sitting on a jury.)

So why can I write about a vet at a racetrack when I’m not a vet? Believe me, I cringe when that comes up. But I hold up my head and with great authority explain that I owned horses for twenty-five years and did a lot of my own vetting. Several friends have told me I should have been a vet. But I do hold a groom’s license at Mountaineer Racetrack and I have a retired veterinarian as a technical advisor. (Thanks, Mac!!!)

This is getting rather long, so I’ll end here for now. Come back next Monday for Perfect Pitch: Part Two


Joyce said…
Good advice, Annette! I'm looking forward to being on the panel with you.
Judy Schneider said…
Thanks for sharing such great advice, Annette! You are so right about mentioning the words "completed manuscript." I've talked with agents who said they met with people all day and only saw one or two writers who had actually finished their projects.

Looking forward to seeing you at the conference!

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