A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about my experience at the James River Writers Conference and all the great takeaways writers should plan to benefit from at writers’ conferences in general. Probably the most important, for me, was the chance to sit with a literary agent for eight minutes and pitch my completed novel.
Repeat after me: completed, completed, completed. Lots of writers have great novel ideas but it takes something different to actually sit down and write one. So make sure, first of all, before you pitch your novel, that you finish the darn thing. After my eight minutes with April Eberhardt was up, she finished by asking: “And it’s done, right?”
I had intentionally used the word “completed” twice during my pitch. Yet, you can see what agents consider essential. The fact that she wished to clarify it likely demonstrates the number of times agents have been pitched by would-be novelists on an idea rather than by a completed manuscript.
So okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at the seven things you should know before pitching your novel in person. And by the way, my pitch was successful. Meaning, I intrigued Ms. Eberhardt sufficiently during those eight minutes that she asked to receive the first several chapters of my manuscript to review. That’s what success is during a pitch session: rather than hearing “no, thanks”, hearing “I’m interested and want to read more.”
1. Break down your novel into a one-sentence pitch.
Anyone who’s worked in business has heard of an elevator speech, right? You step into an elevator and someone asks: What do you do? You need to tell them and engage their interest sufficiently before the elevator door opens and either you or they leave. Typically, an elevator speech should last no more than 30 seconds. Similarly, when someone asks–What is your novel about?–you’d better be able to tell them quickly. This is one good reason attending writers’ conferences is a good idea. You end up networking with tons of writers and will face that question time and time again.
During my pitch session with April Eberhardt, I started off my eight-minute pitch with one quick sentence and then built on the idea throughout the rest of our conversation:
Raised by a dominating rancher, Billy Maddox seems prepared for a job as a cold Border Patrol agent until he finds kindness is the key to salvation in his marriage.
Here, Nathan Bransford discusses the three critical elements of a successful one-sentence pitch: opening conflict, obstacle and quest.
My one-sentence pitch above implies the conflict more than states it: Billy’s upbringing by a “dominating” rancher suggests, as is the case, that he’s been bullied throughout his young life and molded into a kind of tough character, whether he likes it or not. Throughout the novel, the reader learns about the sensitive nature under that hardened exterior. That toughness also is an obstacle to happiness in Billy’s marriage, as the reader learns in the very first pages of the story. Finally, saving his marriage is, ultimately, detailed as the protagonist’s quest.
Right before my pitch session in Richmond, I spoke with Christopher Tilghman, director of the creative writing program at the University of Virginia, fiction finalist for the Library of Virginia Annual Literary Awards and author of The Right-Hand Shore.
I told him I was about to meet with April Eberhardt, and he said okay: let’s hear your one-sentence speech.
Which leads me to the next important point about pitching in person.
2. Don’t give a canned pitch. Be natural and colloquial.
Christopher listened to my pitch, suggested it was a decent one but then said: it sounds a little canned. Meaning, it sounded as though I’d memorized the pitch so I could recite it back when asked. I was glad I spoke with him before going into the pitch session. You’re likely nervous about giving your in-person pitch but, keep in mind, the agent likely wants to hear that you’re excited about your idea too.
Yes, you have to sell the idea of your story. But if an agent doesn’t feel you’re passionate about what you’re writing, no matter how good the idea may seem to them, it’s likely going to be a drawback. So when you give your pitch, sound natural. Be colloquial. Don’t be afraid of using natural discourse markers such as “so”, the occasional “um” and “well”. Sound excited!
When I finally met with Ms. Eberhardt, I not only coached myself moments beforehand by telling myself to relax. I gave my entire pitch in a natural manner. I thought less about the words I was saying and more about the story idea behind it. That did get me excited. I’d written my novel because I enjoyed the story I told. And something else happened as a result: I started to smile! I made sure that, no matter what happened, I was going to have fun giving my pitch.
3. Be personable. Say hello!
The agent is a human, not a fire-breathing dragon. This point is similar to the one above about not giving a canned speech. Pitching a novel can be challenging and difficult. It can be disappointing if you make your pitch and the agent indicates no interest.
But that has nothing to do with you. Both you and the agent are in the middle of a process–an emotional one for a writer that has dedicated months if not years to the project-that is all about a book idea and the likelihood that, if brought to market, the story will intrigue readers enough to sell. It’s a business. And agents attend writers’ conferences because they, too, want to find writers who have great ideas to sell.
As a former colleague used to remind me when I got upset with someone: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
So when you meet an agent, say hello. Be friendly. Yes, smile. Likely, the agent has met a lot of nervous writers already so your ability to have a conversation with a human being, to show self-confidence during the pitch and welcome the agent’s role in the process will likely be appreciated and set you apart from many other would-be novelists.
In my next post, I’ll review points four through seven for successfully pitching your novel. You might also check out Tips for Pitching an Editor or Agent at a Conference and Ten Minutes To Glory: Your Editor/Agent Pitch.
Do you have experience strategizing for your novel pitch using the points above? Please comment below with any thoughts or feedback.