On novel pitching: an insight and an epiphany

The recent Conflux Science Fiction convention in Canberra was the first conference I’ve attended where formal pitching sessions were available to authors. It’s probably not surprising therefore that the art of pitching was the subject of much general conversation.

I attended a panel about pitching on the second day of the con, featuring panellists Tara Wynn, literary agent with Curtis Brown; Alex Adsett, literary agent and publishing industry consultant; and Marc Gascoigne, publisher at Angry Robot. They discussed the following pitching scenarios:

  • “elevator pitching” — the art of describing your novel in one or two sentences to any interested party (and, let’s face it, the question “what’s your novel about?” comes up quite often in a room full of authors). It’s also useful for describing your novel to friends, family and work colleagues…
  • formal pitching to agents or publishers — the art of convincing said industry professional that your novel is something they really need to read for consideration, usually in five or ten minutes (or thereabouts).

From the title of the panel, I thought it was going to focus more on the former — which is what I desperately need help with — but it actually focused more on the latter. No matter — that proved most interesting and informative too.

I’ll quickly summarise a few of the insights provided by the three panellists:

  • The elevator pitch is essential. Even once your book is requested, the one-sentence pitch is used to describe your book quickly to sales and marketing teams and all manner of other people involved in the publishing process.
  • In the pitch, you need to be able to describe what your story is about, PLUS what it’s “like” (ie a recent similar genre novel). This can sometimes be considered the second half of the elevator pitch.
  • In the pitch, you need to highlight the kernel that makes it original, the hook that’s going to make your book stand out from all the others. Especially if it’s a fantastical world. (AA)
  • MG said several times that he considers a formal pitch like a job interview. He wants to see a professional individual who can potentially deliver a manuscript every 8 months (yikes) for a few years. He wants a clear indication that you have more books in you.
  • TW said she also wants to gain insight into the person behind the pitch — she wants to see evidence of passion and another well of ideas.

The most interesting insight I gained from this panel, however, is that every one of these agents/publishers want to hear about your story.

Yep. That’s right. Despite all the horror stories about drunken pitches in bars and manuscripts being shoved under toilet doors, these guys will still listen to you and/or take a look at that first page if it’s put before them.

They’re so eager to find something great, they won’t rule anything out without at least a glance. In fact, it’s highly likely they’ll request at least a partial after a pitch, simply because there’s still a chance the writing will be fantastic. (Of course, it could get scrapped very quickly after that!)

The moral of this story is: Make sure you’re ready for that moment when opportunity strikes.

NOTE: I am not advocating acting unprofessionally, ever… But if you do happen to be chatting in the bar, and the question comes up… BE READY and at all times professional.

The importance of this was borne upon me during the convention as I actively avoided one-on-one situations that could get sticky if the “what’s your novel about?” question was asked… And when I found myself getting tangled and defensive when trying to tell one or two others about it.

You see, I haven’t really practised the best way of describing my current novel WIP, and it matters. Because there’s nothing worse than launching into a description and making it sound dreadfully dull, so much less interesting than it really is. (You hope.) I certainly don’t want to come across all glib and rehearsed, but I’d rather like to sound coherent, and as though I have some idea about what it is I’m doing.

I learnt I definitely need to lift my game in this department. I need to practise telling people about my work, discussing it, not being defensive when they ask perfectly natural questions with the best possible intentions. It’s something for me to work on — and is probably my major take-away from this convention.

Does anyone else have any pitching (or not pitching) horror stories they’d care to share? Or success stories? Any tips for developing pitches and becoming comfortable talking about our work? I’d love to hear from you.

***

ADDENDUM 4 May: As luck would have it, Marcy Kennedy has a guest post on Kristen Lamb’s blog about how to develop the perfect pitch. It breaks it down wonderfully well. Go and check it out!

21 comments

  1. Sometimes I think teasing out your log-line, or one-sentence description of a project, is the hardest part of writing a book. For what it’s worth (and I’m not nearly an expert) I usually try to pull it from the main character’s main goal. So, like, for “Hell…The Story”, the log-line is “Mother is crazy, Dear Daddy’s a demon, and all Ophelia wants is to be normal.”

    I start with the log-line, then I summarize the action leading up to the first big plot turn, which will give the listener a sense of the major conflict, and add a few words about WHY I care about this story (and why the agent/editor should care).

    Now…I haven’t actually put this into practice, so I don’t know for sure that I’m doing it right, but it helps to have a strategy, just in case.
    😉

    Like

    1. A strategy is definitely good!
      Yeah, log lines are hard. I came up with one for my WIP in Jan for the next big thing post, but I don’t like it… Definitely needs work. Which I will do!

      Thanks for all your tips. 🙂

      Like

  2. Oh, and I also put in a one-liner about genre & word count. I’ve been told to finish with that, but think starting with it – or putting it near the front – helps because it gives the agent/editor a box to put your pitch in.

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  3. I use the Snowflake method (at least the first few steps) to develop a one-liner and then a one-paragraph summary. This might change in the writing/revising, but at least it gives me something to work with. Translating that to elevator pitches in the real world, though, is another matter altogether — you’re not alone in needing to work on this!

    Like

    1. Thanks for reminding me about the Snowflake method — the first few steps could indeed be useful, although the whole thing goes into way too much pre-planning for me. I’ll have to go back and look at that. And then, as we are agreed, it’s a matter of practising so when the opportunity comes, we’re ready!

      Like

      1. Yes, it’s way too much pre-planning for me, too! Though I’ve adapted one of the later steps, the one about keeping an Excel sheet of your scenes — I don’t plan all that out *before* writing, but I find it’s invaluable for keeping track *during* writing, and for revision.

        [/tangent]

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  4. Oh, I’m terrible when it comes to telling people about my books. I stutter and splutter, choke out a few key phrases, and end up with something totally deprecating that puts down my own work.

    Having elevator pitch handy would be useful for those kinds of moments.

    I think the hardest part, for me, is talking about my work to people who don’t get the SFF genre. They’re all kind and well-meaning, but there’s no connection there.

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    1. Rabia, you have totally described my own experience… I wish had some more self confidence and could avoid self-sabotage! Well, I am resolved to get better at talking about my work. In some ways, I find SF people harder, because I’m convinced they’ll be more discerning (and critical).

      Like

  5. I know this wasn’t the focus of your post, but I am a little stuck on the guy who said he wants to know you can write a whole novel every 8 months. Yikes! Seriously? Are they talking about someone who is able to write full time? I barely managed a crappy first draft in 6 1/2 months. I’m a little freaked out now.

    Log lines are so difficult, aren’t they? Before I start writing my stories, I push myself to create the log line, even if they’re clunky and awkward and will get changed a million times along the way. That way, I have at least something to say when someone asks what I’m working on. There are some great tips in your post and in the comments here that I’ll be coming back to whenever I need to revise my log lines.

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    1. I know! That 8 months thing freaked me out as well, and I kind of hope he was exaggerating. But even if not, I don’t think ALL publishers would take this view — even if they are focused on the business of publishing, rather than the art of writing… I think the main point they were trying to make is they want to make sure you have more than one novel in you, that there’s more to come before they invest time and effort in an author.

      On developing log lines — I just went back and added the link to Kristen Lamb’s post today, which is a guest post from Marcy Kennedy on how to write pitches. Really good (and timely) “how-to” advice there…

      I’m impressed you force yourself to write one before you start. I think that’s a fantastic practice and one I might need to adopt henceforth. All part of my epiphany.

      Like

    2. Tami, hear, hear! I still don’t have a good process that will take me from planning to polished draft, let alone one that’s efficient and predictable in length! Another reason to have more novels under your belt before starting to submit, I guess….

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  6. I, like you, have been shying away from talking about my novel because I’m unprepared. This is a great reminder to get my butt in gear and prep, even if my story isn’t complete yet, especially since I get flustered easily when put on the spot. Yikes!

    I just read a guest post on Kristen’s blog by Marcy Kennedy about pitches and she has some good info too, if you’re interested. http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/the-secret-recipe-for-writing-a-perfect-pitch/

    Thanks for your post! Most helpful 🙂

    Like

    1. Yeah, I get flustered too, which is why I’m going to pay close attention to Marcy’s excellent post and work on a pitch. Then practise delivering it to everyone! (In fact I’ll probably post it here too – heh.)

      Like

  7. You need a pitch for non-fiction as well, so these suggestions are helpful And eight months for a book? Holy Moses. How about eight years and counting? I haven’t heard about the snowflake method. I’ll have to look it up. Give devilcat a pat for me. PS I love the imagination quote on your sidebar. It gives me hope.

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    1. I suspect there is a whole different set of rules for non fic, although I’m sure it would also be useful to practise your pitch. I’m not sure how the snowflake method would work, although since it’s an outlining methodology it could actually work quite well.

      The devilcat thanks you for remembering her presence. 🙂

      (I too have spent at least 8 years on the one book… Though I’m working on something different right now.)

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