So pitch sessions, if you don’t know what they are, are brief spots of time (almost always paid for) where you (the writer) get to sit face to face with a literary agent, editor or some other publishing representative and try and convince them that you are a) a pleasure to work with, b) some kind of J.K. Rowling/Stephen King/Nicholas Sparks wonder of bestselling literature and c) oh yeah, a good writer.
I’ve never bothered with pitch sessions before, primarily because I’ve never had a finished project I felt good enough about to unabashedly promote. Also, I’m very poor.
But, on the brink of the annual Life, the Universe and Everything science fiction and fantasy writing symposium, I girded my loins and stepped into the fray, because now I did have a finished manuscript I was semi-proud of and it was time to tell the world. (I’m still poor, but a week of ramen noodles is a small sacrifice to pay.)
So, in order as I experienced my first pitch session, here’s my subsequent advice:
Take some moral support.
It helps, honestly. The first thing that mattered to me was one of my best friends, and a fabulous writer herself, was standing next to me. I was really nervous. The next time I pitch my book, I’m hoping it will be slightly less horrendous, but for this first time, I was one rambling string of omgomgomgi’mtheworstthefreakingworstomgomgomg. And for some reason, when I’m nervous, I do this spazzy thing where I have to punch people. Or things. I’m not sure if my friend could use her arm much the rest of the day, but if I caused any severe damage, she had the grace not to say anything before the actual pitch.
And how should you look?
Okay–I’m not saying these are the most important things, just the order in which they became prevalent. I actually took a card from Brandon Sanderson on this one. He said, “Guys, look nice, but come on . . . this is the writing business. No one wears suits.” So true. Writers are a casual bunch anyway–but especially science fiction and fantasy writers. We’re like a big cluster of childlike imagination and geeky fandoms. Ties freak us out.
So, anyway, I fretted for an entire day in front of my closet trying to decide what would make me look cool and relaxed but also professional, to be taken seriously. I, not kidding, considered wearing a pair of hippy glasses with non-prescription plastic lenses to give myself the right vibe.
I chickened out, though, because I kept imagining the agent going: “I like your glasses” (they are really cool) and “Are they your glasses or do you just wear them?” And then me debating: do I lie? I do wear glasses. But what if she asks to see them?
In the end, the risk of poser scenarios left the glasses on my dresser.
Your initial start.
So, when I stepped into the room for first time (in heels, dark wash jeans and a cool l’amour striped shirt under a business jacket), I shook Michelle’s hand (that was her name) and said hello, all the while repeating this mantra in my head: agents are human, agents are human, agents are human.
In my research of how to give good pitch, this little nugget of wisdom popped up again and again.
Irritatingly, the assistant lady led me to the door with a chirpy, This is McKelle George, so it was redundant to introduce myself again. But I did anyway.
I asked how her morning was, she said okay, and then I half-laughed, pointing to the dessert plate between us and said, “It’s nice that they’re feeding you.”
My glorious effort at pointing out her humanity?
I don’t know.
Anyway, a tad awkward, but not that bad (I have a vast range of awkward and this was really low-end problematic). But she answered shortly–not rude, at all, just with minimal words. Then there was a pause and she said, “So, go ahead.”
All right, I concede that I am the worst at general people-interaction. I’m not especially charismatic, so this isn’t my strong suit. But still–if I could do it again, I’d dismiss with the chit-chatty human stuff and get right to the brass tax.
I wouldn’t bombard her with a memorized opening before we’d even sat down, but after I said hello and how are you, I would have said first what I said next, which was:
I’m so excited to pitch to you.
To her, personally. I’d done my research, baby, and it was just lucky for me that this particular agent was looking for a lot of what I had in my book. This is advice I’m very glad I took. Know the agent you’re pitching to. Even if you’re brilliant (I’m sure you are), it just won’t matter if the agent is looking for a specific type of book and that’s not what you write.
So I started by quoting things listed on her website she said she was looking for, and why they matched my book:
“On your website, under “I’d love to find,” were the tags “quirky or somewhat bizarre” and “dark and creepy.” My book is definitely quirky, more than a little bizarre, though it’s more gothic humor than dark and creepy—in the same vein as The Addams Family or Beetlejuice.”
Her eyebrows lifted. Ah yes, her face said. I did say I was looking for something quirky.
Then I went straight for the concept of my book–the thing that makes it different. Michelle was a YA literary agent, so I didn’t waste time on saying my character was a teenage girl. I gave her the twist, the thing that made it quirky, bizarre, dark and creepy.
“In my book—titled Once Upon a Nightmare—Nightmares and Dreams are actual creatures that invade human minds. Nightmares are the embodiment of fears—so, the fear of death, the fear of drowning, the fear of darkness. Their physical attributes match their given fear and they have specifically related powers. Likewise, Dreams are the embodiment of joys and love—so the love of chocolate, or the love of good weather—whatever.”
This isn’t verbatim–I made a point to know what I wanted to say, but not to memorize anything. This is basically what I said.
At some point, you will have to explain what your book is actually about. What I read, and what I now agree with having experienced it, is to actually keep this part relatively short. Don’t waste your ten minutes (or however long you have) on the tantalizing storyline of your book. But still–you can’t say nothing.
“My main character is this strange, socially inept girl who loves gothic literature, from the Castle of Otranto to Carrie, and a Nightmare gets stuck inside her mind. This causes some problems, for both of them, and in a reckless, misguided attempt to get him home, she gets dragged into the city of Nightmares—which is like Halloweentown on steroids. Once there, it becomes apparent the Dreams and Nightmares hate each other and rest on the brink of civil war.”
“That’s good,” she interrupted.
“Hmm?” I wasn’t rattling off a rote memorization, but I was still a little thrown because I wasn’t sure what was good. And yeah, in retrospect, I would liked to have not blinked at her, a little confused, and made a witty reply that both expounded on what she was saying and then tied it back to what I was talking about. But I didn’t.
“Sorry, I just mean your comment about Halloweentown on steroids It’s really smart to pitch things that stand out in an agent’s mind, images to hold on to. I like that. Anyway, didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
See, I wish she didn’t feel like it bothered me to have her interrupt, but again–oh well.
“No, it’s fine.” I smiled a flushed sort of smile. “I mean, that’s good to hear, obviously.”
So yes: proven good advice. Provide the agent/editor person with frames of references, definitive sentences they can latch onto and remember.
Then I said something like, “so anyway” and launched into my next part. A bit of a bumpy transition brought on by my nerves, but I’m secretly hoping she was like, How sweet she’s so nervous, it must be because she cares so darn much.
Cater to the agent (even more):
Maybe there’s not that much to learn about the agent you’re pitching to, but in my case there was. This agent wrote, to potential pitchers: I’m over paranormal romance.
Now, my book is not a paranormal romance, but it has both elements of the paranormal and elements of romance. So I wanted to emphasize how my book didn’t fall into that typical category. Also, with a little digging, I found a rant blog post she’d written against the bad-boy love interest.
My main Nightmare guy is arrogant, mean and in the wrong hands, could be construed as a bad boy. But he wasn’t a love interest, and I would fight tooth and nail ensuring he didn’t get roped into the likes of Edward Cullen.
So, I offered this next:
“Although my two main characters are a boy and a girl—it’s not a romance. Their relationship is akin to Peter Pan and Wendy—if Tim Burton did a version of Peter Pan—in that she’s initially infatuated with him in an immature, girlish way, but quickly becomes disillusioned because he’s selfish, cocky, and generally only interested in the small effect she has on his world. The story doesn’t conclude with their happily ever after, nor are they ever “together” in the first place.
For one thing, I love my main character. She’s weird, and funny, and socially clumsy—and I wanted her to be strong in a way that didn’t involve a bow and arrow or a vampire stake. She makes a lot of mistakes that stem from insecurity and inexperience. She’s very similar to the people reading about her and I think they’ll relate to her growth and triumphs. And the Nightmare is not her bad boy love interest. He isn’t charmingly menacing, but in the end has a secret heart of gold. Sometimes he is genuinely unlikeable, and if our girl tolerated him in those moments, we would question her self respect.
The primary conflicts involve her progression into wanting to live a real life, outside of her books, and how she has to navigate this amid festering grudges and revenge between Dreams and Nightmares that eventually explode and resolve.”
“I agree,” Michelle said, “especially about strong female characters not needing to kick butt in order to become strong.”
Mental fist pump. Nailed it.
“Lately it’s becoming more prevalent,” she continued, “to veer away from that and I think in the future we’ll see a lot more strong female characters who aren’t necessarily physically strong.”
“I hope so,” I said, thinking, you’ll love Violet. You will. You have to.
Obviously you may not need to expound on the romantic mechanics in your book. I did because I knew it was an important issue to the agent I was pitching to, and I think it paid off.
Some kind of marketing something.
Just like in a query letter, the agent needs to know certain things about your book. Things that will matter on the business end of things. How long it is, who will read it, its genre, marketing potential, etc. etc.
I wrapped up with these details:
“Right now, my book is roughly 82,000 words. It’s, as I stated, part supernatural, part light, quirky horror. It stands alone, but leaves open the possibility for both sequels and prequels. I think it’s just different enough to not be a watered down version of what’s already on the market, but similar enough to hold appeal to lovers of the YA supernatural genre. I posted an earlier draft of it online, and it had almost 500 favorites. People like the characters, the world, I honestly think it would do well.”
Because, like any interview, it’s probably bad news if you’re doing all the talking. After I’d said everything I wanted to say, I first asked, “Is there anything else you want to know about my book?”
There wasn’t much–which I don’t know if that was due to lack of interest or my stellar summarizing skills.
“I’d like to know more about the setting,” she said. The Halloweenteen on steroids thing was a real winner for her. So I painted a quick picture of the Isle of Morpheus, the city of Nightmares and the city of Dreams and how one was dark, spooky, but fun, and the other was gaudy, bright and overly-sparkly.
The assistant knocked on the door which meant I had one more minute. I was grateful, because another silence had lapsed. So I asked one final question: “Is there anything you look for in a manuscript particularly, that mine might have, but I didn’t think to include?”
“Ummm. . .” (It made me feel really good she was saying ‘um’ too). “Not really. The love interest thing–the angle of a strong female protagonist matters to me.”
I was so, so glad I’d already addressed it, but we chatted for a bit about the market in general and how we both liked clever, normal characters, etc. etc.
Then she said the magic words: Well, go ahead and send me the full manuscript.
I mean, she wasn’t like, “OMG! Let me read this wonderful book right this instant and I am so so so excited about it!” But she wanted to read it and that at least means, for the most part, the pitch was successful. My awkward, tumbling personality did not get in the way of her thinking it sounded like an interesting book.
Then (if she had no other questions–she didn’t), I excused myself, shook her hand and thanked her for taking the time to listen to me. I was trying hard not to be too giddy. For all I know, agents say yes to everyone. Maybe it’s bad form to forbid writers from submitting, so they accept everything, prepared to use their notes later to dismiss the ones they didn’t like.
I think I laughed, too, at the end and said I was nervous to do this, but it wasn’t so bad, she was so nice to talk to, then I made it to the door right as the assistant was coming in to kick me out.
A lot of writers come into pitches with high hopes and unrealistic expectations. Pitch sessions don’t get your book signed. They simply move you to the top of the pile and put a face (hopefully memorable in a good way) to your submitted manuscript. I know from experience it can take agents weeks and weeks to respond to queries (even with interns and assistants like me helping them), so now I’m in that jittery place of waiting . . . but in the meantime, I’m also sending out queries to dozens of other agents as well.
Even if she ultimately ends up rejecting my book, I’m glad to have done my first pitch. Unfortunately, I am a trial by error learner, and taking the first, scary, actual step is always the hardest part for me–and the most instructive, even though it is most always some kind of failure.