Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pitching to agents: How to throw a fiction fast ball

Ah, it's conference season again.

Writers everywhere are crawling from their winter writing spaces, blinking a few times, and sniffing the air: Time to meet with others of my kind.

I admire these writers, who will plunk their money down to invest in a career that may still be one of their imagination. They will don their best "business casual" (clean and pressed—yes; over-eager—no; professional yet confidently relaxed and "I too could be on Oprah" is the image they seek) and stride through the hotel ballroom doors with a game face on because this is what they've been working for, what they can find nowhere else: the chance to sit down with an agent, editor or publisher, face to face, and advocate for their work.

Are you one of them? If you too are gearing up to pitch to an agent or editor this conference season, and you write fiction or memoir, here are a few tips on how to put together your pitch.

By now your manuscript may have swelled to 100,000 words or more, but your pitch needs to be brief. Succinct. Depending on the conference you'll have somewhere between 5-10 minutes, which will feel like about the same amount of time it takes for a fastball to get from the pitching mound to home plate. The first few times you pitch you'll think this is horribly unfair. Your work is so complex! So intriguing, in every detail!

But truth is, you only need a minute. The rest of the time you can spend answering the agent's questions.

The very brevity of your pitch will speak volumes to an agent. She'll know you have a clear handle on what you've written, how it can best hook a reader, and that you know how to market it in the requisite sound bytes.

Attempting to write a pitch also might reveal that you are still wrestling with what you've written, feel vague about how it might hook a reader, and that you have no clue what market it belongs in—also useful information.

So what is a pitch?

The pitch is a 2-3 sentence summary that includes the “who, what, why, and why not.” Just enough information to intrigue the agent (I want to read that book!) and induce salivation (I think I can sell that book!).

You can structure the pitch any way you want, but you can’t go wrong with the following formula: When [A] happens, [B] wants [C] because [D], but [E] must first be overcome before [F].

A = inciting incident
B = protagonist
C = desire that drives the book
D = motivation of main character
E = obstacle/conflict
F = ending

Using an example referenced repeatedly in Debra Dixon’s valuable book Goal, Motivation & Conflict (available on line from Gryphon Books), a pitch for The Wizard of Oz might read:

When a tornado deposits an adventure-seeking girl in the fantastical Land of Oz [A], Dorothy [B] wants to find the wizard who can help her get back home [C] because her aunt is sick [D]. First she must overcome the witch who wants back her magical shoes, which Dorothy wears [E]. When the wizard can’t help her, she discovers she always had the power to get back home, where she has everything she’s ever wanted [F].

To get the most out of your pitch, layer the A-to-F formula with descriptors that imply the genre—in this case, “adventure-seeking girl” suggests YA, “Land of Oz,” and references to a “wizard” and a “witch” suggest fantasy.

Without this kind of concision, your ten minutes will flit past while you flounder around trying to help the person you are meeting with “get” your book. (I speak from that kind of mortifying experience that emblazons life lessons on our consciousness.) Give the agent or editor a handle on the “who, what, why, and why not” right out of the gate, and he or she will be free to devote the remaining precious minutes to the bottom line of this meeting: discussing the marketability of your project.

If the project is right for that agent or editor, you will leave the pitch session with an invitation to submit. Always ask: submit what and how? Every agent has his or her preferred method, and your attention to this detail will speak well of you. If the agent gives me a card, I usually write on the back, "first 50 pp, e-mail attachment," "first 3 ch., in body of e-mail" or "first 100 pp, snail mail." I wouldn't rely upon memory at a conference: the influx of new information can be staggering.

Remember: whether or not you are asked to submit, and whether or not that submission is met with a form letter or an invitation to send the full manuscript, pitching is a sport that takes practice. The fact that you are willing to step onto the mound for your manuscript—sometimes again and again—shows that you have what it takes to win in the publishing game.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com. She loves any event that brings writers together, so she's attended writers' conferences from New York to Maui. She serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers' Conference, and 2010 marks the second time she has chaired The Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA, at which she has volunteered in one capacity or another over the course of a decade. This year she initiated a blog for the conference, ALL THE WRITE STUFF, featuring interviews with presenters and conferees who used the conference to make successful publishing connections.

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17 comments :

  1. Don't forget the social hour pitches. My best pitch came when I inserted myself into a group around one particular agent at the bar. I said, "Can I pitch a book?" She said, "Sure." So I recited a tagline that I'd spent a lot of time on. It included most of your A-F points. The agent said, "Send it to me." I said, "How much?" She said, "All of it." The other bashful writers were looking at me like I'd just kissed the prom queen.

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  2. I enjoyed your humorous metaphors immensely. They helped make reading about a scary proposition fun. And your formula is brilliant. I wrote a good enough synopsis to sell my book to a small press, but never came up with a pitch. I may do so for my second novel and I'll certainly share your blog with the others in my writer's group.
    And Mark, what an encouraging story.

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  3. Thanks for the awesome post. The color-coded formula is perfect.

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  4. This is the clearest description of an "elevator" pitch I've seen. Thanks so much.
    Karen

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  5. Thanks, everybody. Much credit to Debra Dixon on this one. And Mark, I love your story! As you showed, learning to "work a room"--by enthusiastically joining a critical gathering around a vapid Continental breakfast, strategically choosing your place in a lunch line, or by offering to buy an agent a drink in a barroom--is often the key to success!

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  6. Ggray: If humor helps, you've got to check out this video about pitching. The poor soul evoked could have been me the first time I pitched, so this gets me laughing every time:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeTTCvXz-Zk

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  7. Very helpful post. I love the formula and will save it off in my files. The suggestion to note on the back of the card what the agent or editor wants as a submission is also very helpful. I used to go to conferences and come back with several cards and forget which one wanted a partial and which one wanted a full ms. I think sometimes we get so excited that an editor or agent is interested, our professionalism get overrun by feeling like this little kid who finally got asked to play.

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  8. My advice to writers is Do Not Be Afraid. (Capitalization added for emPHASis.)Pitching will likely be the funnest part of your conference experience, because the agents and editors are such NICE people. You'll come away feeling like you've met someone really special and might even feel like you've made a new friend. Truly.

    Dani

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  9. Your timing is perfect, Kathryn. I have an agent pitch appointment at a conference on the 27th. I've done this before, but I still feel I need all the help I can get.

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  10. Kathryn, thanks so much for this post. It clears up a big issue for me.

    I've been trying to explain my book to people without giving away the ending (there's a big twist), but it doesn't work. Now I can take a different approach.

    Awesome info :)

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  11. Yes that is an excellent formula. Thank you Kathryn.

    Elsa Neal
    HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  12. Another great post, Kathryn!

    Thanks for sharing :)

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  13. wow. this is invaluable. thanks so much.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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