Tag Archive: writing conferences

Pitching 101: The Elevator Pitch

Do a quick search for “elevator pitch” on the Internet, and most of the information will say it is a 60-second pitch of yourself or your product (in the case of writers, your book). But seriously, 60 seconds? What elevator takes that long? Unless you do this:
elevator-Elf-buttons-pushedDo NOT do this. Or this:

elevator threatAfter all, you don’t want the person you’re pitching to to feel like this is happening to them:

elevator scene - Harry Potter

So today in Pitching 101, I’m going to give you some tips on making your elevator pitch as succinct, appealing and not scary – for you or the listener – as possible.

Elevator Pitch tips

Of course, an elevator pitch is not just for that serendipitous moment when you happen to find yourself in an elevator with a top-notch acquisitions editor, it’s handy anywhere and anytime someone asks you what your book is about. Hey, you never know who has connections in the publishing industry! That random dude at a party might be the son of a big shot editor! But dreaming aside, the more likely scenario writers find themselves in is a 5-minute speed pitch with an agent at a writer conference. Which brings us to the first tip…

#1 – Keep it under 30 seconds.

What? But you have five minutes! Is the agent just going to stare at you for the remaining 4 and a half minutes? Hopefully not, but I’ll get to that in the final tip. First, know this: the purpose of an elevator pitch is just to get the listener’s attention, NOT to tell your story from start to finish. That’s good, right? Way less scary to plan – and remember – a short 30 second pitch than a daunting 5 minute presentation!

#2 – Start with the Hook.

Quickly state the book title, genre and audience, then get right to the hook. What is the most intriguing thing about this story? Express that in one sentence. Hint: the Hook is probably not the story world or backstory or plot. More likely, it is a problem that needs to be solved. It is the “if this happened, what would we do?” question. That said, the hook can be the story world if that world has an inherent problem built into it.

#3 – Introduce the MC.

I almost didn’t put this in the list because it’s so obvious! But then I realized I have something to say about it after all, and that is if your MC is not the hook, you must introduce them immediately after that hook sentence. Don’t make the mistake of setting up the story / problem / world without first giving the listener a person to connect to. You need that or you can’t do the next step…   

#4 – Target emotions.

The best way to get someone’s attention is to connect on an emotional level. So pick the emotion you want to convey and get the listener on your protagonist’s side. If your story is a comedy, make them laugh and cringe at the situation the hero finds himself in, but make sure the listener empathizes with the hero too so they care what happens next. If your story is a horror, make sure the pitch sends chills down the listener’s spine as they imagine what it would be like to be the hero in your scary tale.

#5 – Leave them wanting more.

So what happens when your quick elevator pitch is over? Well, hopefully a conversation begins about your book! If your pitch presented an intriguing protagonist with a problem, your audience should want to know what happens to them and how they approach the problem. In short, design your pitch to prompt the listener to ask for more information about your novel. Then relax – you’re no longer pitching, you’re just chatting with someone who’s keen to know all about your book!

Not that scary, right? What about you guys – do you have tips on nailing an elevator pitch?


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Guest Post: SCBWI Conference with Cindy McCraw Dircks

For those of you following the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) events you’ll know they held their big annual New Jersey conference on June 27th – 29th. Since none of the Sisters had the chance to attend we asked Robin’s friend Cindy to guest blog and fill everyone in on the highlights. Here’s what she had to share about her memorable weekend:

Aside from a cloudy vacation in Vegas two years ago, this was the greatest weekend of my life. Why? Because I felt like this conference was all about helping me get published. Not just inspired—published.

The professionals I met gave me the hard truth about my writing. Hard truth that equal parts broke my heart and sent me into a frenzy of revision. It was thirty-six solid hours of feedback and up-close and hands-on advice. I’ve included highlights from only my schedule here, as I didn’t attend the other sixty-four workshops, the other twelve first-page critique sessions, or the myriad of other one-on-one critiques and pitch events offered by some of the publishing industry’s finest talent.

Here’s what I did:

1st Workshop: Editor/Agent panel: Sky Pony Press, Random House, Putnam.

Primary topic, diversity (see–#weneeddiversebooks on Twitter for more on this evolving topic). There’s a desperate need for characters from other nationalities to be fully developed characters, not flat, cardboard cutouts of characters. They should be so well entrenched in the story that their place of origin and appearance is glossed over in lieu of their overall contribution to the plot.

Editors also expressed concern over a book distributor’s tendency, such as Barnes & Noble, in specific parts of the country to place books featuring Hispanic characters in a separate Spanish section rather than placing all MG, YA, and NA books together by genre.

Lastly, in relation to voice, if you are going to incorporate a character from a country that is not your own, make sure you not only understand how teens speak, but how teens from that particular country speak. Said one editor, “No kids from South America speak like Dora the Explorer…”

2nd Workshop: Creating The Teen Voice with Sarah La Polla of Bradford Literary.

Ms. La Polla is currently inundated with “snarky teen girls and depressed teen boys.” She requests…”A little variety, please!” Teens know when an issue book is being thrown at them and can tell when somebody who’s over 40 is trying to sound like they’re 15. Listen to teens! Catch their phrases and sensibilities then simplify them—because your book, no matter how now and trendy, won’t be published for at least another two years once completed. Avoid pop-culture and social media. Try creating your own future-tech/twitter-like communication.

Per YA: Non-gratuitous sex and swearing—fine. Though “first time sex” is completely over done. “Twilight”-style romance is on the way out (Teens know it just doesn’t work that way).
Per Middle Grade: No swearing. Subtle romance, culminating in one kiss or pinkie-touching, okay.

In lieu of a 3rd Workshop I paid an extra $75 for a fifteen-minute, one-on-one critique session with an editor.

This was my most productive hour. The month prior, I loaded the first fifteen pages of my completed YA manuscript to the NJ SCBWI website. Thus, once we met, the editor had already reviewed my manuscript and was ready to discuss my work with me. So beneficial. She asked some tough questions, and suggested edits that made immediate sense. Then, at the end, she requested to see more. Finally—validation.

Next, I had my first-ever four-minute pitch session.

Ouch! So painful. Honestly, I wrote a one-sentence synopsis that I thought reflected the plot of my second novel pretty well. Man—I was wrong. My assigned agent said, after allowing me to elaborate on my story, that I didn’t nail the main conflict. It also didn’t help that although she likes the darker side of teen lit, she’s no longer into paranormal. And four minutes goes by REALLY fast! I stammered all over myself, worried the clock. What I learned: write your pitch, then read it out loud to your friends, critique groups, kids—anyone! Just practice until you’re comfortable or you’ll never succeed.

Sunday keynote:
I attended a “State Of The Market” presentation. Katherine Temean, former Director for NJ/SCBWI, polled attending editors and agents for news on today’s book markets. Tidbits I garnered included:

  • YA paranormal/dystopian is out—whereas Contemporary/Magical realism is in.
  • MG and chapter books are seeing an uptick in sales.
  • Despite the above two points, editors and agents cautioned not to write toward trends—it takes at least two years for your book to come out. Who can predict what will be popular then? If you like paranormal, write paranormal. It might be a tough sale now, but who knows…
  • And, yes, ebooks are thriving and though infinitely cheaper than hardcovers and some paperbacks, are bringing in large profits to all publishing houses.

A full PDF of this presentation is available on Katherine Temean’s blog and I recommend everyone read it for more valuable insight into where the children’s book industry is headed.

4th Workshop: First Pages session.

Given the emphasis placed on the opening line of a book, first-page sessions are crazy helpful. I submitted from a YA novel I just started and got some encouraging comments—but was told not to make the first page too “info heavy” (i.e., don’t include a character description in the first paragraphs unless it’s crucial). Also, if a character is bilingual, don’t say “they’re bilingual.” Let it come out naturally within the story.

One agent leading the session noted that all the first page entries here featured female protagonists. She said this was not only reflective of the sessions, workshops and one-on-ones she attended at this particular conference, but to the market in general. “Where are all the boys?”

5th Workshop: Editor’s Panel. Houses represented: Sky Pony Press, Sterling, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster, Farrar Straus Giroux and Putnam.

High points included:
– Query Letters: Don’t panic about having an“author platform.” Mention your presence on social media no matter how new—your willingness to promote your book is just as important. It’s more essential to write great books than lure people to your Twitter feed.
– Before Writing: KNOW YOUR MARKET. Check Publisher’s Lunch, Publisher’s Marketplace, and PW’s Children’s Bookshelf.
– Cool advice: Don’t overwork your manuscript. Learn when to stop revising and just send it out.
– YA/NA Plug: Check out Bloomsbury Spark—a YA & NA digital imprint from Bloomsbury Publishing. Submission guidelines available on-line.
– Lastly: There are no new stories —just new ways of approaching old topics. We have all heard this, but it’s comforting to hear it from publishing professionals.

Even if I win a Pulitzer before next July (Dream big, right?). I’ll definitely register for 2015. I’m still buzzing from the feedback and fun and can’t wait to open my laptop every morning.



Cindy McCraw Dircks began her publishing and media career as a “go-for” at Playboy Enterprises and peaked as a production coordinator at Sesame Workshop. She left that behind to raise three fantastic children, who are also her biggest story critics. Currently she fills her time writing YA and MG novels. Earlier this year, Cindy was selected to participate in the #publishyoself program with the Children’s Media Association. Her writing will be featured in a collaborative Middle Grade ebook slated for release in January 2015. Connect with Cindy on Twitter at @mcdircks, on Facebook, Linkedin or her website: www.cindymccrawdircks.com.


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The School of Hard Knocks: Learning the Craft

Martillo y clavosMy last post explained how I became an author. I had the inspiration, the enthusiasm, the passion to write; imagination and story-telling my forte. I’m reasonably well-educated so I figured I didn’t have far to go to master the finite skills to get published, right? Well, no.

One of my first lessons came from my son’s girlfriend, a recent graduate of Boston University, whom I talked into reading a few chapters for me. After the initial enthusiasm from my niece and my sister I was overly confident and subsequently rather shocked when she said: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you about show don’t tell?”

Well, duh, I had heard that somewhere but never actually thought about it. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. I’d been through six years of college, two masters degrees, but I never took a creative writing class. So no, I had no idea I was doing way too much telling. I set to work to correct that giant flaw. The flood gates opened. I searched the internet and found tons of help online. How to write dialogue, how to overuse and underuse dialogue tags. The value of an opening sentence, how to avoid tropes other than the ones demanded by the genre you are writing. I didn’t even know what a trope was then!

I made lists. I filled notebooks. I wrote and rewrote.

And then I

  • Joined a writing group. Reading my work in front of total strangers gave me a serious case of nerves, but eventually I began to trust. We were all there for the same reason. To improve, to learn from each other and I can honestly say that some of my best new friends are those in my writing groups.
  • Went to a writing conference. I attended a writers conference out of state. They can be a bit pricey, but the camaraderie and intensity of writing and sharing late into the night and over coffee early in the morning was an experience I’ll never forget.
  • Hired a professional editor. Again, pricey, but it was well worth it and cheaper than earning an MFA. Check out legitimate ones online at Preditors and Editors. Pick several with good ratings and ask for a price quote. They’ll ask for a few sample pages and will forward a proposal defining what level of editing they provide and a price for their services. Feel free to bargain, price is negotiable, especially if you quote a competitor.
  • Learned the value of agent rejection. If you’re lucky and an agent requests your manuscript only to eventually reject it, take the opportunity to ask for feedback. Two wonderful agents gave me valuable insight into ways to improve.
  • Scoured the internet and found more things. There are too many to list here, just put in what you’re looking for, like: dialogue tags, phrases for imagery, famous opening sentences, metaphors… The list is endless. One of my favorites is a grammar check website (Online Text Correction) that is free. You paste in a paragraph and it identifies tons of problems from overuse of words, to clichés, to weak verbs and overuse of adjectives.
  • Checked out books on writing from the library, bought some. My favorites are: THE ART OF FICTION, Gardner, John (Random House), ELEMENTS OF FILM, Bobker, Lee R. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), SELFEDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, Browne/King, (Harper).
  • Dissected my favorite books. I studied how to write dialogue and body language, inner monologue, and setting, as well as opening scenes from some of the best-selling authors I admire. The first time I did this I discovered you don’t put quotation marks at the end of a paragraph of dialogue if the speaker continues in the next paragraph. Something I’d never consciously noted before.
  • Stole stuff. At first I couldn’t believe credible authors would say such a thing, and I had serious doubts. Of course, this is a famous quote from Picasso. And I get it, it’s not plagiarism it’s inspiration. Other’s words can give voice to your own. Now, I can’t stop myself. Thanks to the DVR I can “steal” from TV shows and movies. In one of my books the wedding scene between my lead characters is inspired by the exchange of vows between two scientists that I heard on an episode of NUMBERS. Thanks to my eReader, I highlight phrases and words or expressions I like, then go back and write them in my phrase notebook. woman hacker
  • Read blogs and Writer Websites. I belong to a few online communities: Writing World, Goodreads, Writer Unboxed, Writer’s Digest, Publishers Marketplace, Simon and Schuster, She Writes, Bookbaby blog, Mother.Write, to name a few. I also follow several agent and author websites. You can pick up all kinds of  tips, from writing your novel, to writing a query, to writing life.

There’s no doubt I approached this daunting task with the mind of a scientist. It’s the way I do everything. Something intrigues me and I set my sights on discovering everything I can about it. I develop the skills, I do and redo, I ask others, I read, I make giant mistakes and feel dejected, then pick myself up and do it again. I’ve done this with embroidery (it was big in the 70s and I had the most magnificent embroidered hems on my jeans), I learned how to macramé and worked myself up to a 4’x6’ wall-hanging, I crocheted baby blankets for all my friends, I learned to sculpt, I made silver jewelry which required me to learn how to solder metal with a blow torch.

Only one thing worries me.

One day, many years ago, I mentioned to my astrology teacher that I had a terrible personality flaw. I get excited about something, I learn it, I master it and then… I walk away and never do it again. She laughed at me, “You’re an Aquarian! That’s what you do! The thrill is in charting the unknown, learning a new skill. But once you’ve mastered it to your satisfaction then you’re done. You get bored and you move on to the next adventure.” Hmm. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’m still not. And hopefully, I’ll never master the art of writing. I’m not sure it’s something that can ever be mastered. I think if you asked the masters, they’d agree. I’ve heard authors lament that even after a book is published there are always parts they’d like to rewrite.

Up Next from Caryn… Surviving feedback.

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Strike Three! You’re Out! Throwing the Perfect Pitch

BaseballSometimes I think I’ve hurled more pitches than a major leaguer. And I’ve struck out nearly as much. Only that’s a good thing for a pitcher, not so good when you’re trying to sell a manuscript.

There are two ways to pitch: in a query letter or in person. Of course a query letter is easier but it’s random and you have to understand that agents get thousands of queries each day and the chance of yours making it to the top of the slush pile is remote, especially if you don’t have a great pitch. More on the query letter next week.

The Pitch Conference: I’ve attended my share of pitch conferences over the years and they’re exciting and intense. The first time I was a total newbie and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I can only liken it to pledging a sorority- bonding with people I didn’t know over the common goal to be accepted. We all came with a 250-word pitch, which our workshop leader promptly shredded into confetti. We rewrote during lunch and tried again. He destroyed us all over again. We rewrote that night in our hotel rooms and arrived early the next day, grabbing anyone who would listen. “Is this better?” we cried. “How’s this?”  We presented again. Some of us faired better, some worse. It was brutal.

And that was the easy part! We spent two days honing our pitches until they measured up. Then we got a chance to pitch to real live agents and editors. Our palms sweated, our hearts pounded, our pulses raced…we made way too many trips to the bathroom. Our workshop leader sat alongside the agent /editor as we pitched. I pitched to a senior editor from Penguin group… and I didn’t die, however my workshop leader followed me out afterward and said, “WTF? (He used the real words) You did everything I told you not to do!” “I know,” I whined. “I don’t know what came over me!” (Turns out that editor did request my manuscript after all. Thanks to a great pitch.)

Whether you are sending your pitch in a query letter or delivering it in person, remember these are just people. Use the old “picture them in their underwear” mode of thinking. And they want to find a great manuscript just as much as you want to sell one.

The key to pitching effectively can be summed up in one simple phrase: Be Prepared.

Do your research ahead of time. Know the rules. I got caught short once when I came ready to read my pitch but quickly learned I had to have it memorized. My nerves went into a tailspin and I couldn’t understand why. I’ve spoken extemporaneously in front of 800 people with no problem, but telling an agent what my book was about had me ready to faint. I still recall observing the people around me: knees bobbing up and down, hands shaking, fingers fidgeting. Everyone mumbled aloud, rehearsing their pitches like a mantra…please pick me, please pick me, please pick me. The guy in front of me on line turned to me and said, “This is ridiculous. I’m a lawyer. I speak in front of people all the time and I’m ready to crap my pants here.” Okay, TMI, I thought. But I sure could identify.

Some other thoughts:

  1. Try not to say something stupid like “I’m so nervous. I’m not good at this.” Show confidence.
  2. Practice. Practice. Practice. Anyone can memorize four lines. Most agents will tell you that writers who can’t describe their work in four or five lines don’t have a clear idea of what they’re writing.
  3. Remember lots of agents and editors go to conferences on their own time and don’t get paid. They’re excited about the possibility of finding an amazing new project. Let it be yours.
  4. Approach publishers and agents as co-professionals and take criticism graciously. If you hit it off you’ll be working together, and an agent wants to know you can be cooperative and professional.
  5. Review the agents attending the conference. Know which ones represent your kind of book. Don’t pitch your YA romance to an agent who handles only nonfiction and children’s books. Try to find something about the agent that can serve as your opening. Read their blogs and their agency bios for something in common. One agent and I both happened to be huge fans of Jim Butcher books and I led with that.
  6. Research similar books and why yours will be different. What category does it fall into, who are the readers and how will it fit into the market?
  7. Don’t go if you haven’t written the book! I met several writers who had a great idea but hadn’t written a single word. That might work for a nonfiction book, but for fiction, I don’t think so. Once the agent starts to ask for details of your story you won’t be able to answer.

So what makes a perfect pitch? The simple formula includes: The hook, the setup, and resolution. Limit it to three to five sentences. Some say it’s great if you can end with a cliffhanger. Whether you’re facing them in person or in a query letter, the idea is to have the agent ask for more because he/she is intrigued. The best approach is to hint at the resolution with a cliffhanger. Here are a few examples:

  •   Will Becky find her father and save the farm?
  •   No one is more surprised than Jason when it turns out he’s the one anointed to save the Earth from total   annihilation.
  •   For they know that she is the one who could destroy them, or perhaps worse…rule them all.
  •   I run in 9 days.

One final thought. Agents look for two important aspects to your pitch: your style as a writer and the voice of your character. Don’t pitch your book with a comic voice when your book isn’t a comedy. Stay true to your story. Many agents lament over the number of pitches they receive that sound sensational but the story isn’t aligned with the pitch. If you’re writing in first person, trying writing the pitch that way. It will allow the agent to get inside your character without reading a single page of your novel. That’s a great hook in and of itself.

Up Next from Caryn: The Query Letter


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