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


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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