Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pitching Advice Part II

Let's continue this series about what to do in a pitch meeting at a writing conference. Again, I'm thinking mostly of the up-coming ACFW Conference that's a little over a month away, but I'd like to think this advice could be used at other times as well.

So you've signed up for a pitch meeting. You wait for your turn in pitch purgatory, having done whatever it is you do to psyche yourself up (personally, I hit the prayer chapel for a quick centering prayer). You are called to enter the room, you sit down across from the editor or agent you're pitching to, and . . . then what?

It may seem obvious. Talk about your book, right? But if you're not ready, you can wander into a verbal quagmire:

"Well, my book is, uh . . . well, it's contemporary romance and it's about this girl who's based on my best friend from college. Anyway, she's got this problem. She's being stalked by this guy who is totally obsessed with her. Oh, and did I mention that the girl has a dead twin? I think that's important . . ."

Okay, so maybe you wouldn't be that bad. But if you're not ready, you can easily lose your way. So what do you do? Introduce yourself, tell the title, genre, and wordcount, and then hit them with your hook.

A hook is a one sentence summary that explains what your book is all about. It should be succinct and easy to grasp, something that tells a person what your book is about in thirty seconds or less.

It's not an easy thing to do. I mean, what if you have a cast of thousands or a plot so filled with twists and turns readers need a map to keep track of it all? How can you condense it all down to a short blurb?

I won't lie to you. It's not easy. I had trouble wrapping my head around it. But then I got help, specifically from Randall Ingermanson and his infamous Snowflake Method. This is a method that I've adopted to help me write my books and it really, really works.

Specifically, you want to pay attention to what Randy says about Step One, writing a one sentence summary about your plot. I won't go into all of it; it's worth your time to read the whole thing and even buy the course from Randy. Believe me, it'll help your writing, no matter where you are on your journey.

I'm also going to give you three examples from my own writing. I'm not saying these are perfect, but I think they'll give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

For NUMB: "A surgically-altered assassin fights his superiors to save the only woman he can love."

For HIVE (my current WIP): "A pregnant teeanger flees her people and those who want to steal her baby."

For FAILSTATE (my soon-to-be-published debut novel): "A fledgling superhero seeks justice for a fallen colleague despite his older brother’s interference."

In all three cases, I don't use names (because those would be meaningless) but descriptors. I tried to describe the conflict and obstacles my main characters face. It's as pure a distillation as I can get of the basic plot. Are there more characters in the story other than the assassin, the pregnant teenager, and the fledgling superhero? Of course. But they are the heart of their stories and they get center stage.

Once you have your hook, you need to know it. Backwards, forwards, upside down. You should be able to rattle it off at the drop of a hat. Last year, my wife and son would try to surprise me in the weeks leading up to the ACFW Conference. They would ask me at random times, "What's your pitch?" And I would have to deliver the hook for Failstate quickly and clearly. If I couldn't do it, my wife would mock me.

So you're back in the pitch session. You've introduced yourself, you've told them your book's hook. Then what? Now you can start giving a more detailed version of the plot. But again, you want this to be clean and concise. You don't have to give intricate details about every subplot or character's backstory. Think back cover copy here. Three or four paragraphs that explains what your character is doing, how they do it, and how the book is resolved. That's right, in a pitch meeting, you give away how your book ends. This isn't the time to be coy and say something like, "And to find out the ending, you'll have to read my manuscript." As a matter of fact, those words should never cross your lips or be written by your hands. Ever.

At this point, the agent or editor might start asking you questions about your book, its characters, and the plot. Be ready for this. Know your book and your story well enough that you can answer the questions without getting flustered.

A few years back, I wound up in an pitch session with my "back-up" agent. To put it bluntly, she wasn't my first choice. I knew she didn't represent speculative fiction (there are precious few who do), but I had to put someone down for my second choice, and I liked her attitude on the ACFW website. Lo and behold, at the Conference, I found myself meeting with her.

So I hit her with my hook and my back cover copy. And then she spent ten minutes grilling me about every single little detail about my book. What motivated my characters? How did this work? Had I considered this or that or the other thing? As I answered, I actually got my hopes up a little. Was she interested?

As it turns out, no. At the end of our meeting, she told me flat out she didn't represent spec fic (which I knew), but she did compliment me on knowing my book.

Truth be told, I think I made up about a third of what I said on the spot. The point is, when you're in a pitch meeting, you'd best either know your book or be really good at improvising.

So that's it for this week. Next week, I'll talk about a few mistakes you'll want to avoid in a pitch meeting.

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