Nancy: Pitch Survival Guide

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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)

12 thoughts on “Nancy: Pitch Survival Guide

  1. Such great advice, Nancy! One of your points I think is especially true—that most editors and agents, while they want to hear that the book is the genre they represent, understand that pitches are perilous and usually ask for pages because they want to see what you write, not hear how you stutter from nerves. So there’s no reason to work yourself into a state. How did your pitches at NJRW go?

    • My pitches at NJRW went great! I had fun, got to ask important (to me) questions about how their agencies work, each of the agents I met talked about specific aspects from my pitch that really resonated with them, and they requested submissions (including full mss). So that’s a positive step! But as you said, it’s the pages that will make or break their interest in the project.

    • I hope the advice will come in handy for you :-). And I’m so glad to hear the story has clicked and the writing is going so well. Love the new title, btw!

  2. Love the pitch playlist, Nancy. I might have to create one of those for reals 🙂

    The only thing I’d add is – if you can – tell the agent why you’re querying them in particular. I think this is as important in person as it is in a letter or email. It says you’ve given some thought about why they might be right for you – you didn’t just stick a pin in the list, or take the last available appointment after the ones you really wanted were gone.

    • That’s a good point, Jilly! And there should be a reason to query or meet with a specific agent or editor. It’s important to research ahead of time and know whether it’s even a possibility that an agent or editor will be a good fit for your story and your career.

  3. These are excellent suggestions, Nancy.

    I had a bad experience with an agent this summer at RWA. Rather than sit there and listen to her ding me for writing historical fiction (which is “just not selling”), I cut my losses, thanked her, and got out of there before our 8 minutes was up. You (meaning the collective “you,” not necessarily “you, Nancy”) shouldn’t be afraid to bail. Tell them politely that this perhaps isn’t a good fit, thank them for their time, and vamanos!

    • I attended the agents’ and editors’ panels at NJRW, and the topic of historical romance came up in one of the sessions. One of the women on the panel said as far as she and many others in the industry are concerned, while popularity and sales of historicals are cyclical (like all things!), there will always be a place and an audience for them in romance. The agent speaking to you might have been right about her ability to sell historicals right now, or even about the market share historicals are getting (maybe the sales numbers aren’t what she wants for her projects), but I see new titles coming out all the time, so some publishers and readers are buying them!

        • LOL, and what guarantee do we have about what will be selling one year later when the book finally comes out? NONE. How do you politely disagree with an agent/editor during a pitch session, and continue pitching? I’m afraid I would be completely nonplussed if my pitchmaster told me my entire genre wasn’t selling. “Oh, well, it’s not THAT funny; it’s more about power class struggles at the turn of the century.” That would go over great . . . if I was pitching to a vanity press (sounds like something with lots of pages, doesn’t it? We can hope.).

      • If I wrote what was selling, it would suck. I’m doing what every other writer suggests — write what you like and what you know. If you do it well enough, someone will buy it (even if it’s just my mother and my sister!).

  4. I’m so glad you had good pitching sessions, and shared this with us, Nancy! Also, love the playlist. Not only was it a wonderful, nostalgic blast of melody in my brain, it makes your points easy to remember. (-: I’m sure Pat Benetar will be going through my head during my first pitch session.

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