Ah, ‘tis that time of year. NaNos are NaNoing, leaves are falling, holidays are approaching. So apropos of nothing, today I thought I’d talk about agent and editor pitch sessions.
In truth, this isn’t really apropos of nothing, since not long ago I had a few pitch sessions with agents at the NJRW conference, and more recently, I was talking with a new writer who soon will embark on her first pitch sessions ever (behold the anticipation! envy the joy! smell the fear!). With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few tips for anyone planning to pitch their book to an agent or editor, via in-person meeting or email submission, now or at some time in the future (READ: anyone who wants to go the traditional publishing route).
Some writers become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety at the thought of pitching their story. (I don’t experience anxiety or fear over pitching. It’s not that I’m a fearless person. I have plenty of fears: snakes, wooden roller coasters, airplane turbulence, did I mention snakes?. I just don’t have this particular fear.) But whether you’re a cool cucumber or a nervous Nellie when it comes to pitching your book, I have a few tips (and accompanying songs*) that might help you Keep Calm and Pitch On.
A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action. In this case, action means preparation. First and foremost, write the book, the whole book. Preferably, revise it, more than once or twice or a hundred times if necessary. Get that puppy spit-shined (or something; insert non-mixed metaphor here). Why, you might ask, besides the obvious answer that nearly every literate person who ever walked the earth has had an idea for a book but having (and pitching) ideas IS NOT the same as having (and pitching) a completed work? Because only after you’ve completed the story and (I would argue) revisited and revised and cut and slashed and torn down and rebuilt the story do you really know what it’s about, inside and out, backward and forward. Agents and editors are going to politely listen to what you have to say, and then they’re going to ask follow-up questions. Some of these will be hard, in-depth, and damn-near impossible to answer if you have not lived and breathed and created and destroyed and recreated your story.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot. So assuming you’ve written, revised, and lived with your story so long you can’t even hold cogent conversations about anything else, it’s time to start thinking about how to sell it to that agent or editor. The opening of your pitch (or query), much like the opening of your book, should have a hook. For this, some writers swear by the logline. This is a fancy screenwriter-y term used to describe a one-sentence summary of the story. For example, here’s a logline for Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind from the storymerchant.com website: “Against the backdrop of the great Civil War, a narcissistic Southern beauty, obsessed with idyllic love, struggles to reconstruct her life and finds her true love is closer than she thinks.” Long book (and movie) summed up in one sentence.
For book manuscript pitches and queries, there is less pressure to open with a logline than there is with screenplays, but it’s still best to include your story’s big picture and protagonist in the first sentence. You want to give the agent or editor a feel for the kind of story you’ve written and the protagonist who stars in it. This is the opening sentence of my pitch for My Girls: “Eileen Parker believes three things: a good man is hard to find, there’s no better car than an American classic, and best friends make life worthwhile.” There’s not a conflict, antagonist, or resolution in that sentence. But there is high-level information about the character I’m asking the reader to like/love/root for throughout the story.
Can’t Get Enough of You Baby. You’ve got the book, you’ve got the hook, now you need to bring it on home. This is where the conflict, antagonist, and (very high-level) resolution come in. Oh, and if you could squeeze all of that into just four or five sentences, that would be totes awesome! That’s right, you’ve spent months or years and tens or hundreds of thousands of words crafting this masterpiece of a story, and now you’re supposed to hack it down to one measly paragraph. The unfairness of it all!
But hold on, you can do this. This is your chance to make the agent or editor love the story and want to see more. You can make them love it by showing them why you love it. What drove you to write this story in the first place? Where is the juice in it for you? This is the stuff that you undoubtedly wove into the fiber of your story, and it’s the stuff you need to put in your pitch or query.
People are People. Armed with your book, your hook, and your juice, you’re ready to meet the agent or editor. If, even with all your preparation, you’re still feeling like a nervous Nellie, it would be a good time to remember that agents and editors are people, too. They’re not your enemy, any more than they’re your new best friend. Unsure of how to approach them, greet them, talk with them? Try just being a person. Say hello. Ask how their conference is going. Let them know you’re ready to give them your pitch or answer their questions, and let the conversation flow from there. Be yourself – the best version of yourself – and they are likely to respond in kind.
There are rare occasions – and you might have heard of some from other writers – when an appointment doesn’t go well. Not just in the sense of your material not being right for the agent or editor, but in the sense of encountering rudeness or discouragement regarding your work. Yes, these things have happened. I cannot guarantee it will never happen to you because, you know, people are people and there are people in every field who are rude or discouraging. But this really is a rare occurrence, and if it does happen to you, you can (and will!) survive (and will laugh about it over wine with other writer friends later. Maybe years later, but still…). And the reason you will survive is because:
This Too Shall Pass. If your pitch session or query effort goes well, you might form a professional relationship that launches or re-launches or catapults your career to a new level. That’s fabulous, It’s the golden snitch. It’s the most you can hope to achieve with that pitch. But what’s the worst that can happen? The worst outcome for most writers would be that a pitch or query doesn’t result in a request for more pages, or a request for more pages doesn’t result in a contract. But no one pitch session is going to make or break your career. At most, it’s a step forward or a step back; no less, no more. When a pitch or query isn’t successful, rant and rave to your writer friends, pout, eat some ice cream or drink some wine or both (but probably not at the same time), and then move on. Do another pitch, send another query, write another book. Because in the end, we are writers. Even when we hate our slow progress, the industry, and the rejection, we love our stories. And we always have another story just waiting to be written.
*The unofficial pitch survival playlist!
A Little Less Conversation (Elvis Presley)
Hit Me With Your Best Shot (Pat Benatar)
Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby (The Colour Field)
People are People (Depeche Mode)
This Too Shall Pass (OK Go)