Monday, August 9, 2010

Pitching beyond plot

Been listening to a lot of pitches lately! And I have a couple suggestions if you're heading for a conference or a meeting with an editor/agent soon.

First, read Theresa's seminal series on Tweeting your pitch. This works for log-lines in query letters or synopses too!

Then my thoughts:

1) Don't be nervous. Or don't be nervous about being nervous. Almost everyone is nervous in this kind of situation. The editor or agent won't hold that against you! And if you need to read the pitch, go ahead and read. A couple pitchers made a nice little apology, no big deal, that worked as a good lead-in for the pitch. "I'm sorry. I have to read this."

2) Pitching in person might require a bit different a log-line than a written query does. You have to speak it aloud. Say it several times to several people to trim it and make sure it's not an unspeakable mouthful. The editor/agent should not be the first person to hear you say this out loud! A friend can listen and tell you what word could be trimmed and what can be emphasized.

3) What do you do after the pitch log-line? That might take just a moment. What if you have 7 more minutes to fill? Prepare for that. Think about what the editor or agent needs to know. For example, how long is the book? Is it complete (tell if it is complete-- wait to be asked if not :)? Do you have other publications, and who is your agent if you have one?

4) Do not, please, fill the time with a retelling of your plot. The editor or agent is unlikely to be able to follow this, and to tell you the truth, Gone with the Wind would sound dull recited in summary like that. Find a way to talk about your story that is not a recitation of events.

5) How, you ask? Well, first, keep in mind that this is a STORY, not just a plot. What are the major elements of story? Plot, yes, but character too. Setting. Conflict. Action. Emotion. Think about concentrating (at least to start) on any one of these. That is, instead of presenting your story as a series of events, consider starting with one of the other elements (whichever is more intriguing or prominent). You might, for example, talk about "Hagerton, the quaint little southern town with the dangerous big secrets," and sketch out the setting contrasts (the placid county square where the lynching had taken place, the graceful steeple of the church where the young men had sought sanctuary only to be betrayed by the saintly minister) or the characters and their contradictions (the charming old man who had led the dawn raid, the bored teenagers at the high school today who discover a hideous photograph in the school archives....). That is, tell the story through another approach than "this happened, then this happened." This is something you'd probably have to figure out ahead of time.

6)Think of talking not about what happens, but what changes. You can bring in what happened, but the focus would be on "what changed." Danny and his girlfriend Kelsey love their little town, and why not? They are both the youngest of prominent founding families of Hagerton, and they're proud of their heritage. Not that they'd boast about it. They don't need to. Everyone in school already looks up to them. They're the golden couple, homecoming court, prom king and queen. And their future looks just as bright. Kelsey's up for a big scholarship at the state university, and to flesh out her application with community service, she decides to write a history of the town. Danny agrees to help her go through the old photos in the school archives. And what they find shakes their complacent sense of their place in the town and their trust in their neighbors. You can tell what happens as a way to explain what changes. But start with how things are going to change-- an overview, not a summary.

7) Keep focused on, "What is my story about?" Whenever you find yourself veering into plot summary, slow down. Talk about some other aspect of the story. "The theme is--" "The main character--" "The conflict is--" Really, any of those will be more interesting than "And then this happened." But this is something you might plan out beforehand. Most pitchers practice their logline, but the pitch is more than that. Before you go into the session, sit down with a friend and try to get through at least five minutes of talking coherently and intriguingly about your story. You don't have to memorize that, but do have several "overview" approaches worked out in your mind. Figure out what your theme is, what your conflict is, what the character journey is, how the world of the book changes. Then you'll have those aspects available to talk about.

8) If you finish early, don't feel you have to talk more. Ask the editor/agent questions about the market, about the publisher or agency, about what she/he really likes in a book, about what sort of proposal is desired and whether to send a submission electronically or snail mail. If you don't have any more to say, just quiet down. Let the editor/agent take the lead there at the end (because you do want to hear, "Send this to me"). If the editor doesn't say that, and you're feeling bold, you could ask, "Does this sound like something you'd want to see?"

9) If the editor/agent doesn't ask to see the story, stay cool. Just smile and shake hands and leave. (Or if you have another book, and there's still time, pitch that.) It's painful to be rejected right there, and it's going to feel like it's YOU being rejected, not the book. But if you present your story well, the editor/agent can decide then if it's right for the publisher or agency. There are all sorts of reasons why it might not be right, and there's really no arguing with that. If this is an angel book and they are no longer looking for those, the best pitch in the world probably won't make a difference. You want to present your book in the clearest and most intriguing way, but it is what it is. You just don't want the pitch to be rejected because the editor thinks it sounds convoluted or boring (when it isn't!). Do your best to represent what the book is about and why it's good, and if that's not what the editor/agent is looking for, say thanks and don't take it personally.

10) There's nothing wrong with asking something like, "If I write something that's more up your alley, can I send it to you?" But put it better. "Now I've really got a good sense of what you are interested in. I'm going to start a new book, now that this one is done, and I'll be incorporating some of those elements. Can I send it to you when I'm done?" The editor/agent will probably say yes, and then you kind of have an open invitation to submit in the future and put "requested manuscript" on the envelope or subject heading.

11) And the editor/agent does understand that you are an author, not a TV informercial host. You won't be graded on whether your voice quavers or your hands shake. Sure, those who are experienced at pitching business tend to do better in these appointments, but it's not so much their confident manner as their understanding of how to present the "product". They know what to focus on and what to leave out. You can't instantly acquire the sort of confidence that lets you fearlessly recite a memorized speech and make it sound spontaneous. But you can have prepared a comprehensive sense of your story and several ways to explain it. You can be ready with a few intelligent questions that can show you know what's important and make the editor say, "Go ahead and send me this book (or your next book)." So if you've represented your story well, no beating up on yourself! Don't think you were rejected because your voice wasn't strong enough or your gaze wavered. The editor is going to try to figure out from whatever you say if this is a book that might work for the publisher. And your job is not wowing her/him with your zowie personality and great public-speaking skills, but rather explaining your book well and cogently.

The point of this pitch isn't to sell the book. (That probably won't happen right there.) It's to vault over the query stage and get the editor to look at your actual story. That's quite valuable. But it's not your only option, so don't ever assume a "Sorry, I don't want it" is a rejection of you as an author. You can always send an email afterwards thanking the editor/agent for listening to your pitch or meeting with you. And then, when you have another project, you might already have a bit of a relationship with the editor/agent to build on.

And it really is true: "Not right for us" doesn't mean any more than that. It doesn't mean, "Burn that manuscript!" or "Give up your dreams of being an author!" Send the book elsewhere. Pitch it to someone else. The pitch-taker hasn't read a word of your story, so he/she isn't rejecting it, and can't (and won't) comment on your skill as a writer. Do listen, but understand that, "This sounds really convoluted," might mean that your story is convoluted, or alternatively, that you have presented it in a way that's hard to understand (as is very likely if you try to recite the plot). If the pitch isn't successful, take a few moments afterwards to review what happened. Do you think that you didn't present the story well? That the story wasn't right for this place? A couple things you can't assume from a rejection: 1) the editor/agent hates you, and 2) there's necessarily something wrong with your book. Either might be true (well, the first is unlikely), but a pitch-rejection doesn't mean either of those. Don't change yourself or your book solely on the rejection of a pitch. :)

So do prepare, but prepare your explanation of the story. You can't transform your personality in an hour ahead of time (and you shouldn't want to), but you can make sure that you have the understanding of your book-- of what it's about, of what changes-- that will help you present it in the clearest and most intriguing way.



Sylvia said...

Either might be true

WAAAAAAH I knew it!

Wes said...

Great advice.

Jason Black said...

At last month's PNWA Summer Writers Conference in Seattle, I had the good fortune to be invited to work as a "pitch doctor" helping people refine their pitches before going up in front of the agents.

This is great advice, and echoes much of what I was telling people at the conference.

I wanted to add a perspective on point #3, though: what do you do with the other seven minutes?

That's a great question because I think it gets at the heart of what a good pitch does. To my way of thinking, a great pitch is does these things:

1) conveys to the agent the book's likely place in the market. It helps the agent know how to sell the book to a publisher. That means the pitch either states or telegraphs the intended audience, genre, et cetera.

2) The pitch engages at least one visceral or emotional response in the agent. That is, the pitch has something about it--the language, a captivating turn of phrase, the suggestion of a deeply compelling situation, whatever--that makes the agent say "Ooh!" to themselves.

3) The pitch engages the agent's curiosity by raises multiple questions in the agent's mind as to the details which have been intentionally left out of the pitch.

Read that last one again, in context of the other two. If you pull that off, you have the agent thinking "Ok, I know where I can probably sell this book and it sounds like something with a unique twist, and I want to know more!"

The pitch's job, then, is to make the agent very eager to ask you questions about your book. That's what you do with the other seven minutes. You use the pitch to raise a bunch of questions about the protagonist, the central conflict, et cetera, then you spend the next seven minutes having a conversation in which you answer all those questions.

In doing so, you give the agent a much clearer picture of your book, and by the end of it, chances are you've delivered to them a plot synopsis anyway.

That, to my mind, is the recipe for a successful pitch. Let them know how to sell it, make them go "Ooh!", then have a great time answering the myriad questions they hit you with.

Happy pitching, everyone!

virtualDavis said...

Extremely helpful pointers, Alicia, thank you. This jumped out at me: "their understanding of how to present the 'product'" and pushed my thinking toward a couple of the thoughts that Jason includes in his (also smart and helpful) comments. Although he rightly packs his suggestions into the 7 minute lull dilemma, the bottom line is that we writers must transition from the author/book framework to the experience provider framework. Throughout the pitch we need to tap into the agent's curiosity, intrigue, wonder. Rattling on about our amazing plots *might* interest other reader and writers, but the agent is thinking of our book as a product, a saleable commodity. So we need to quickly and effectively demonstrate where and how our product fits into the existing marketplace. Rather than trotting out some pedantic assessment that we're probably not truly qualified to make, know what needs/intrigues/trends the book taps and offer just enough to engage the agent's curiosity. Once they start to ask questions it will be easier to escape the nerves and tailor a pitch to their interests, etc. Or so it would seem to this optimistic newbie... ;-) Soon enough I'll be trying my theories on for size! Smack down time? Or time to fly?

Alicia Rasley said...

Yeah, you know, I hate the idea of a book as a product! But it is to be "sold," so I guess it is.
Good thoughts, Jason! I love your idea that what you don't say is what might intrigue the agent. Hmm. So what do we leave OUT?