If you’ve followed the blog for any amount of time, I’m sure you’ve heard me whine about how ridiculously hard the query writing part of the process is. And. It. Is.
But if it’s really true that more people would rather die than speak in public, then a truly terrifying part of this writing process comes in the combination of public speaking your query.
Only you don’t have a nice page to explain your book. You have about a paragraph + answers for questions, some you might have expected, many you haven’t.
WHY DO A LIVE PITCH IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Seriously? Why wouldn’t you? Okay, I know it can be very intimidating if not terrifying, but realize this: a live-pitch is like moving your query from the slush pile to the front of the line. You are guaranteed that agent’s full attention for a few minutes. Your story gets the best possible consideration amidst the hundreds if not thousands of queries they get on a regular basis.
And most agents tend to prefer it. Why do you think they’re attending conferences? It’s not that your story isn’t worthwhile if it came in query form, but there are so, so, so many that aren’t, sometimes it’s hard to spot the good ones—especially if the bad ones have worn out their patience.
If there is an agent coming to a conference near you that has an interest in stories like yours, get a pitch together and give it to them. Yes, they may still say no, but wouldn’t you prefer knowing they actually heard the pitch rather than get back a form rejection in the email later? Plus, there’s another silver lining to rejected pitches we’ll touch on in a moment.
MAKING THE PITCH
You: Okay Jae, you’ve convinced me. I want to do a live pitch, but I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. What do I do?
I didn’t really know what to do either in the beginning. But if you’ve attempted a query letter, that’s the best place to start. In fact, I took my query letter as a starting point and worked from there. It’s a lot the same structure. The important elements are:
Who is your character?
What is their goal?
What happens if they fail (the stakes)?
This pattern probably sounds familiar. Frodo is a hobbit who must throw a ring into a volcano or his entire world will be destroyed. Dorothy is a farm girl from Kansas who must defeat the wicked witch or she’ll never be able to return home.
You must whittle down your story to its simplest form. Now is this one sentence what you’ll be pitching to your agent? Probably not. But it’s your foundation and you need to know it in order to build on it. Another way to look at it is:
(Blank) is a (boy/girl/teen/nurse/etc) who more than anything wants (blank) but can’t because of (blank).
Fill in the blanks, put it on a sticky note or a note card and look to it whenever you feel you’re straying too far from the foundation.
MAKE IT UNIQUE
What sets your book apart from every other book out there? Even if you’ve got something overdone like a vampire romance, what about your vampire romance would make it stand above other vampire romances? Is one of the vampires half-unicorn and shoots rainbows out of his eyes? Maybe vampires are actually aliens doing a slow invasion of earth in your story. You get what I mean though. Pick out those unique elements and make sure you tout them in your pitch.
The unique elements I chose from my novel were bone swords, a magic demon dog, and dangerous shadow powers. I also have the mother of the protagonist as the villain.
It doesn’t have to be fantastical elements either. Take The Help for instance. What drew me to that book was learning that it was partly told from the perspective of black maids working in Mississippi in the ’60s. Or perhaps Mockingbird, told from the perspective of a young girl with Asperger’s trying to deal with the death of her brother. There are plenty of stories dealing with the death of loved ones. But this protagonist has Asperger’s?
Find your unique elements and work them into your pitch.
Have you seen this acronym before? Keep It Simple, Stupid. Let’s change it to Keep It Simple. Seriously. We overcomplicate things because simplicity is not so easily achieved. Remember how Mark Twain would say: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
It’s hard to simplify. But it’s important. What is the main point or the main conflict of your story? The meat of it? We don’t need to know about side villains and side characters and so on—at least not in the initial pitch.
For me there were just 3 characters in my initial pitch. My protagonist Logan, his mother, and his father. Are there a bunch more characters and a bunch more stuff that happens? Yep. But did I tell the agent about those things? Not until they asked me, and even then it wasn’t everything.
For my book, this was more or less my initial pitch:
In my novel, we follow a teenage prince who is afraid of shadows. Forget that he calls a menacing demon dog his pet. And forget that he can pull bone swords from his body. It’s the shadows he fears. They creep and crawl and pool together, summoning dark demons from the depths of Hell. These shadow demons can obliterate his home and family—and that’s exactly what the Queen wants.
He thought the power was his to control, but she’s been pulling the strings the whole time. Now, unless he learns to master his power and takes back control, he’ll lose everything and everyone he loves, and forever live as his mother’s puppet prince.
But don’t be deceived. I didn’t give it word for word, reading it like nervous kids read book reports. Since you’re live pitching, you’ve got to bring the words alive, which means practicing pausing in the right places, intonation, the whole kit and kaboodle.
And I’m gonna give you a huge piece of advice right now. KNOW your pitch, but DON’T MEMORIZE IT WORD FOR WORD. What’s the difference? In the beginning I worked on ‘memorizing’ it and once I was comfortable with it, I played around with the way I delivered it. Try it in reverse order, in the middle, the beginning to the end to the middle, but don’t have it only known in one order or if/when the agent interrupts to ask a question your mind will go blank.
In fact, have a friend of yours purposely interrupt you at some point to ask you a question that comes to mind, just so you’re used to that happening. And since we’re talking about questions…
MAKE A LIST OF Qs AND ANSWER THEM
There are some questions agents will likely ask either during your pitch or just after. Some of them depend on your story, but most can be applied to any book. Here’s some for instances:
What is/are the major theme(s) of your book?
What is your target market? (YA/Adult/SciFi/etc)
What sets your book apart from every other book out there?
Who is the villain of your book?
What are the stakes?
Why do you believe this story will appeal to (your target market)?
They may even throw some other questions in there to get to know a little more about you:
What inspired you to write this?
Have you written any other kinds of books?
Do you see this as a trilogy/series?
Keep your explanations short. I recorded a few questions on my phone and set it into a playlist so I could hear the question being asked and then answer. It’s okay if you write out the answer first just to organize your thoughts. But try to give unmemorized answers. Make your reply sound more human, more spontaneous/real.
I heard one agent say they really enjoyed a pitch where the author told them about a character, but through a cool scene. Essentially they gave the agent an image to carry with them. You’re giving them a little flavor of what’s to come if they take a look at your full manuscript (or even part of it). If you only take one thing from this whole post, it’s this idea of conveying imagery—either by unique details, unique scenes, or unique characters.
And hard as it may be, remember that part of this pitch is you assessing whether or not this is an agent you want to work with yourself. At the end of the day, they want the books they sell to succeed just as much if not more so than the authors that wrote them. You don’t want an agent who makes you feel horrible as a writer or who doesn’t share your same vision for your story. Come prepared to ask them questions, too. Ask them why they wanted to be an agent, or what they love about the genres they represent. I usually ask for advice, like what they hate/love in queries or first pages. You have their attention. Take advantage of that.
THE SILVER LINING IN REJECTIONS
Okay, so it can happen. You may have the best pitch ever, but not the right agent in front of you. I had the misfortune of signing up for the wrong agent (they wouldn’t change agents or refund me). And by wrong I mean, she wasn’t one bit interested in my genre. Well, I figured it was still worth practicing the pitch and went ahead and did it. I could tell it was a ‘no’ after 30 seconds.
So I instead used the time to ask her questions. What was one of the best pitches she’d ever had and why (that’s actually where the recommendations for pulling out unique details and scenes came from)? I also asked her about a different project of mine and what she’d recommend categorizing it as. We both knew she wasn’t interested in my writing, but she still gave me great advice.
And at the end of the day, you did something that terrifies most people. You got out there and pitched an idea to someone. You should be proud of that despite the results.
TO SUM UP
I know, this has been a long post and thanks for sticking through it. Live pitches are tough, but certainly possible no matter how shy you think you are.
Remember, every pitch needs the protagonist, the goal, and the stakes. Put in details unique to your story. Focus on imagery. And keep it SIMPLE.