What To Do When You Sit Down To Pitch Your Novel In-Person

After attending conferences around North America for the past 6 years I’ve seen an array of pitching techniques. Some good. Some…not so good. I get it. It’s not easy to pitch your book (your creative project that’s been on your mind for months if not years) to someone sitting in front of you, especially when the stakes are so high for you personally.

Agents can sense the determination and fear in the room during pitch sessions. It’s honestly palpable and we can feel your energy.

I find pitch sessions draining and galvanizing at the same time. Having a new project pitched to me every 7-10 minutes is a lot to wrap my head around and sometimes they bleed into one another. And depending on how conference organizers set things up I could be sitting there for up to 2 hours at a time.

When you sit down:

Relax. Then tell me why you’re sitting across from me at this moment. I need to know why you selected me from the 3-20 other agents at this conference. Why do you think we’re a good fit? (No need to flatter us, just be honest.)

Take a deep breath. Then get right to the story. We only have 7-10 minutes so use them wisely! We’re here to help you publish your book not talk about the weather/city.

Read my social cues. Am I engaged in your story? Do I look like I want to cut in to ask a question?

Don’t plan to speak for the entire allotted time. Make sure we have time to have a conversation and let me ask questions. If you’ve memorized enough to fill that entire space it makes me feel awkward because I can’t get a word in.

Questions I ask throughout and afterwards:

  • What made you write about this?
  • How long did it take you to write?
  • What are you working on next?
  • Tell me about the crisis moment/climax/when multi POVs come together. (Writers like to tell me all about the themes and I don’t care about those at this point. In 10 minutes I need to know what the book is ABOUT and what we’re working towards.)
  • What did you write before? Do you have a publishing history?
  • Do you have a critique partner?

What agents are asking themselves:

  • Can I sell this book?
  • Can I work with this person for a long time?
  • Does it seem like they have a handle on the industry?
  • Do they understand what I do and how I work?

What happens at the end?

Agents will offer you an opportunity to send your work OR they’ll tell you it’s not for them. The point of in-person pitching isn’t to get representation on the spot! The point is to pique their interest, much like a query letter, and follow up by sending your work. I’ll usually thank you for pitching me and stand up as you walk away. Then you can relax!

Usually agents will ask to see your work unless they’re very clear it’s not for them. Unlike a query letter, an in-person pitch doesn’t come with a sample. It also depends on where an agent is at in their career. More established agents request less material because their client list is bigger.

However, make sure, if you got an open invitation to send your manuscript, that you ACTUALLY send it. So many times writers don’t send it and I don’t know why. Maybe they want to do edits and then they think too much time has passed or they think the agent didn’t really mean it–believe me, if we say send it then SEND IT!

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Guest Post: 6 Ways To Make Comp Titles Work For You by Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

I’m so thrilled to have another great guest post for you! Comparative titles are a major conundrum for many writers. How recent? How many? How perfect do they have to be?

I get more questions about comp titles than many other topics–believe it or not.

How can you make them work for you? Literary Agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock tells us how.

6 Ways to Make Comp Titles Work for You

Comp titles—other works that are comparable to your own book—can be powerful tools to help an agent understand your project. Though you don’t absolutely have to include comp titles in your query, if you choose the right ones, they can get the agent excited: “Oh, it’s like that book? I love that book! I definitely want to read more.” But selecting the right comp can be tricky, so here are a few tips:

 

  1. Choose a comp title that puts your book on the right shelf…and the right table.

Imagine you’re walking through a bookstore—where would your book be? To begin, you want to choose comp titles that are in the same category and genre. Then take it a step further. Say you’ve written a work of women’s fiction. In a bookstore, that might be jumbled up with all the other adult fiction books. But what if they made a themed table—what other books would go on a table with yours? A table with Jojo Moyes (Women’s Fiction to Make You Cry) is going to be very different than a table with Sophie Kinsella (Lighthearted Women’s Fiction to Take to the Beach). And your book isn’t a classic yet; make sure you’re choosing titles that are relatively recent.

 

  1. Be specific.

Your book could probably be placed on more than one table, which is where the classic X meets Y comp title formula comes in. You can be even more specific, though. What about each title makes it comparable to your book? The powerful romance of X with the fast pace of Y tells me much more.

 

  1. But don’t use wildly different comps.

I recently passed on a query that used comp titles so different I couldn’t see how they were talking about the same book. For instance, if you pitch your book as THE FAULT IN OUR STARS meets GONE GIRL, I’ll think you’re not sure what sort of book you’ve written, since those works couldn’t be more different—in category, genre, tone, themes, everything! Specificity can help here, but at a certain point, it’s too much of a puzzle. Choosing books from the same metaphorical shelf will help a great deal. And remember, it’s fine to use just one comp title.

 

  1. Consider a character comp.

Say you can’t think of a great comp for your book as a whole. What about your main character? Maybe you’ve written a protagonist who’s just like Harriet the Spy—but in space. Even though you’re not describing the entire book, helping an agent understand your protagonist will go a long way to her understanding your book.

 

  1. Movies and TV shows can be comp titles, too.

Books are the obvious comp source, but other media can work as well, especially if it’s big and buzzy. I’ve seen comps used successfully with properties like SCANDAL, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, and SERIAL, just to name a few. Only go this route if it’s a popular, recent show and if it truly is the best comp for your book—don’t tell me it’s like the current Big Thing just because it’s the current Big Thing.

 

  1. Strike the Goldilocks balance: not too famous and not too obscure.

If you set the bar too high, it’s hard for your book to live up to the comparison—no, sadly, your book will probably not be the next HARRY POTTER. On the other hand, if you set the bar too low, you risk the agent a) not having heard of the comp, which makes it unhelpful or b) thinking your book will be too small to pique a publisher’s interest. It’s tough, but you have to find the comp title that’s just right.

 

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.

Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips + GIVEAWAY – Guest Post by Chuck Sambuchino

_ Chuck[September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.]

Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips by Chuck Sambuchino 

If you’re writing a novel or memoir, the most important part of the query letter is the pitch—a brief basic description of your story designed to pique the agent’s interest. This will be the longest and most difficult section to compose. It’s tough to boil down an entire book into a few condensed paragraphs, but here are 7 tips for how to lay out a compelling pitch that draws an agent or editor in.

1. Control your length. Pitches are 3-10 sentences, and most run 6-9. Concise is a very good thing. If you write more than ten sentences, your letter runs the risk of going over one page and also simply rambling.

2. Do not reveal the ending. If, when describing my latest novel, I told you that the good guy wins in the end, but his wife dies when failing to disarm a bomb at the end … would you still want to read the book? Probably not. A query pitch reads like back cover copy from a novel or DVD in that you don’t explain how the story ends, but rather retain intrigue and suspense.

3. On that note, look at DVDs and novels to see sample pitch text all around you. If you’re having trouble putting together a pitch, visit your nearest Barnes & Nobles or Target or any other place that sells both books and movies. Pick up both films and books in your genre (e.g., children’s stories, Christian fiction, thrillers, etc.) and start reading the boxes, back covers, and jackets. Those are all pitch examples for you to study and emulate. See what grabs your attention.

4. Be specific and avoid generalities. Specific elements bring a pitch to life and generalities drag it down. Don’t say, “The couple goes through many highs and lows.” Explain what that means, specifically, even if you’re just touching upon a bigger picture. “Avoid vagueness,” says literary agent Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary. “I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel. If there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no.” Being specific paints pictures in the mind of the reader. If I tell you that my main character “just quit his job,” does that create an image in your mind? Probably not. But how about if I told you, “After making his hundredth Big Mac this weekend, 17-year-old Rodney Morrison makes a spontaneous decision to quit his job in style—by launching a cupful of special sauce out the drive-through window at a rude customer before walking out the front door with his middle fingers high in the air.” Now, does that paint a picture in your mind? Yes.

5. Aim to elicit emotion. The style and voice of the pitch itself should reflect the content of the book. Don’t say, “My novel is a humorous romp with quirky characters.” The agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to make her laugh. Can you do that? Don’t say, “My novel is full of suspenseful twists and turns.” Rather than talk about your novel from a distance, the agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to put a chill down her spine. If you’re writing light, humorous women’s fiction, then there should be some laughs in the query letter. If you’re writing a dark horror novel, then there should be some spooky elements. Imagine you read a line like “But as Candace continues to explore the world of erotic asphyxiation, she becomes addicted to the feeling and even begins to choke herself in bathroom stalls on lunch breaks just to experience the sensation.” Such a line hits you, and can make you feel repulsed, or intrigued, or engaged. It triggers your emotions. If you can appeal to an agent’s emotions, she’s much more inclined to request more material—because you’ve shown her that your writing connects to readers, rather than just told her (anyone can do that).

6. Beware subplots and unnecessary details. Pitches often go too long, because they’re bogged down with superfluous elements. A simple way to avoid this is to cut out the small stuff: leave plot elements, setting description, and proper nouns on the cutting room floor. For example, look at these two potential beginnings of a pitch:

Version 1: Zalisa is a teenage elven princess who lives on a jungle planet. Despite her desire to live a common life welding swords, she is repeatedly told by her parents about her destiny to become queen and bring peace between warring tribes as their supreme leader. (Word count: 46; two sentences.)

Version 2: Zalisa, part of the chosen Y’Ri noble elves, lives with the Sha’NaRee tribe on the jungle planet of Usulurah. Adorned with long hair down to her waist and many tattoos she’s designed herself, all Zalisa wants is a life among the commoners doing what she loves best: sword making. She has quietly developed an amazing knack for intricate blade making, and trained with the highest levels of metalworkers and smiths in her province of Va’Quenay. The only problem is that her parents, E’Leepha and Can-Yur, expect their daughter to refrain from frolicking among the commoners, but instead fulfill the destiny of Tritonalt, a great prophecy widely known to all citizens of Usulurah. According to Tritonalt, Zalisa is the chosen royal descendent who will ascend to the throne as part of a divine prediction foretold by the ancient elven wise men at the 7 Cycles of Wisdom gathering eons ago when all the system’s planets were in line with the sun. Once she has ascended to the throne, it is foretold that Zalisa will quell the constant warfare that has hampered the planet, and finally bring peace to the land. (Word count: 186; six sentences.)

The second intro is chock-full of stuff we don’t need to know right now: the proper names of things (such as the planet name), her exact appearance outside of being an elf (i.e., the tattoos), and the backstory about how the prophecy came to be (the gathering). The second version has already used up most of the query page—six pitch sentences, out of a maximum ten—and there’s no discussion of what happens throughout the meat of the plot, what challenges Zalisa faces, or what she sets off to do to stop said challenges.

7. Practice, and have different versions if need be. Tell your pitch to others or get your query formally critiqued by a professional or peers. If you can’t decide between two versions of a pitch, you can always try out both and keep tabs on which agents get which versions. If one is garnering a better response rate than the other, you have your answer concerning how best to move forward.

GIVEAWAY TIME!

September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.

three covers

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Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.

SiWC pitch reflections

As some of you know, I was at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) last weekend hearing pitches and I even managed to slip into a couple workshops. Here is some feedback for how writers can get the most out of their one-on-one time with agents and editors:

Bring a pen and paper – take notes!

Rarely did I see anyone writing down my instructions for sending me material directly, or writing down how much material I asked them to send.

Take all of the allotted time to pitch and ask questions.

We’re there for the entire time, so take advantage. Use the time to build a memorable connection.

Bring the first page or the first chapter of your work.

I might be alone in this, but our pitch sessions were 10 minutes and in order to get a good idea if we are a fit I’ll need to see writing anyway, so why not bring some? (Granted other conferences have pitch sessions that are much shorter, and might not have time.)

Have your elevator pitch ready.

If it takes you 10 minutes to ramble through your synopsis you’re wasting both of our time. Use the elevator pitch to get my attention then expand on the plot points and get ready to answer my questions about characters, motivations etc. Continue reading SiWC pitch reflections