Pitch Sessions 101, Part Two: what should be in the pitch?

What should your pitch contain?

Here’s some of what I look/listen for:

1) the story! I’m plot-driven as an editor. When I hear or read a synopsis (or a full manuscript), I’m building a plot-house in my mind. And I know where the floors aren’t even or there’s a missing wall or window–where the house needs repairs or re-design. For me, if story’s not strong or doesn’t seem to hang together, I’m not going to be interested in the book.

However, I don’t need a huge amount of detail at pitch stage, just enough to let me know that your novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That last bit’s important because some writers don’t want to reveal the end. They leave it out of a written synopsis or don’t include it in a verbal pitch. I suspect this is because there’s advice floating around that says if you don’t include the end, editors and agents will be curious enough to ask you for it. That is wrong. We need to see that there’s an end because we want to know that you can end the book. Some people can’t–they’re all set up, no pay off.

2) the main characters. Note the plural here: I am assuming there is more than one important character in your book. If there isn’t you may not have a novel yet. I want to know about the villain(s), too, not just the good guys.

If you only tell me about male characters, I’m going to ask if your book has any women in it. If you only tell me about female characters, I’m going to ask if there are any men in the book.

It’s a good idea to tell me about diversity in your cast as well. You don’t need to justify diversity, btw, and don’t let anyone convince you that you should. A character doesn’t a “reason” to be a POC, to have a disability, to be LGBTQ, to not be Christian, to not be American. They just are who and what they are.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve said, “I’m going to ask” more than once. That’s because a pitch session is a conversation as much as it is a presentation. Probably more.

Getting to the heart of your project within the allotted time is important. I frequently interrupt a writer’s prepared presentation to try to dig deeper into the material, both because I’m aware that time is passing (I usually have a timer running on my phone) and because writers often get stuck during a pitch and I’m trying to move them along.

I might ask:

  • What inspired you to write this book?
  • What interests you about this time period? This part of the world?
  • How did you settle on this myth or legend or monster for your story?
  • Why has your main character decided to make this major change in their life? What do they want to achieve?
  • Have you written other books–published or not?
  • Are you published at novel-length? (self-published counts)

I might say:

  • Tell me about the research you’ve done on: a plot point, a character’s background, a culture you explore in the book, the food people eat, the science behind your thriller elements, the religion displayed by your main character.
  • Tell me about the relationship between your two main characters: how long have they known each other?
  • Tell me about other publishing credentials you have or awards you’ve won, and forgive me for not knowing–I just can’t keep up!

I may ask you the same question more than once, or I may ask you for information you already gave me. This isn’t because I’m not listening; it’s because I focus on different things at different points in our conversation.

I’m going to try to engage you, to draw you out. This is both to give me a better sense of your book and to give me a better sense of you. If I take you on, it’s likely that we’re going to work together for at least two years (I’m talking about traditional publishing here, and there are a lot of steps between manuscript and books-on-the-shelf). During the pitch, I am looking for indications that we’ll work well together, that you understand that traditional publishing is a business.

It’s not possible for you to predict exactly what I’m going to ask, so don’t make yourself crazy trying to. One of the reasons your book should be finished is that it’s more likely that you’ll be able to answer my out-of-left-field questions if you know the whole story yourself.

Part One: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/pitch-sessions-101-part-one/

Part Three: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/pitch-sessions-101-part-three-some-thoughts-on-preparation/

Part Four: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/pitch-sessions-101-part-four-mechanics-practical-matters/

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Pitch Sessions 101 (Part One)

I’m doing this in sections because otherwise it will be a very long post.

It used to be that summers were the busiest time of year in terms of editors (and agents) going out into the world to meet authors. Nowadays, there are conferences, conventions, and other events all year round, so writers have many opportunities to try to get their work in front of a publishing professional.

One of the ways events put writers and editors (or agents) together is with pitch sessions. (In case you don’t know what a pitch session is, it’s when a writer signs up for a brief, one-on-one, face-to-face meeting, with an agent or editor.) Most of the time, pitch sessions take place in a large room, with editors and agents spread around enough that they don’t overhear each other (not because anyone is going to steal anything but because it’s distracting to agents/editors and writers).

I know that pitching can make a writer very nervous. I totally understand that! And it’s pointless for me to say, “don’t be nervous.” But, please, try to think of us as people. As readers. That’s what we are, at bottom: we are readers. We want to find good stuff to read.

Here’s the thing: you improve your odds of having someone ask for your manuscript if you know what you’re doing when it comes to pitching. Happily, it’s not too difficult to be prepared. Yes, it takes some time and some work–but if you want to be published by some kind of traditional publisher, this work is part of your job as a writer.

First: have a finished novel. No, seriously, that’s the first thing, before you do any research or start working on your pitch. Nine times out of ten, whoever you are talking to only wants to see things that are finished; if yours isn’t done (or damn near close to done, like you’re writing the last chapter or two), please don’t pitch.

Why is that important? Because when I come back from a pitch event, the majority of the things I’ve asked to see are going to hit my inbox within two weeks. You want to be in that group–you want to strike while the iron is hot, while I remember talking to you and remember something about your book. The submission email (as well as the act of loading the file onto my reader) reinforces the face-to-face interaction, increasing the chance that I’ll remember you when I read the manuscript itself, even if that’s weeks later. If you don’t send the manuscript until many months–or even a year–later, then it’s likely that I won’t remember what intrigued me when you pitched (I might not even remember meeting you).

(And yes, it’s happened that I’ve gotten mss. a year later, even mss. that were supposedly finished when the writer pitched to me. Sometimes the writer has had personal problems–and I totally cut someone slack for that because I’ve been there–but sometimes, the book wasn’t actually finished….)

Second: research. Know your targets: who is pitching at the event you’re attending and who, of those people, is looking for what you write? Don’t waste your time pitching to people who aren’t editing or representing what you’re pitching. Most of the time, information about attending editors and agents (and what they’re looking for) is available on the event’s website…and you can often find more about them online.

Please note that I’m talking about researching a person’s professional side. I once had the daylights scared out of me when someone sat down to pitch, told me they had researched me, commented on schools I’d attended, and tried to make chit-chat about my daughter (who was pretty young at the time)! No one likes to feel stalked…plus significant amounts of small talk means you have less time to talk about your book.

Points one and two make life easier for everyone. Writers pitching finished books makes editors and agents happy. Pitching only to the right editors and agents keeps us from wasting our time (and yours) and means that other writers have a chance to be seen (hey, they’re leaving room for you, too).

Third: If you have more than one finished book, decide which one you’re pitching. If you write in more than one genre, it’s fine to prepare a pitch for more than one book. But you likely won’t have enough time to fully pitch more than one book to each agent or editor, so you need to know which book you’re going to pitch to each person you speak to.

More than once I’ve had people come in with a list of book titles and ask me which book I’d like to hear about. Now, I literally can’t tell a thing about a project from its title, so this is not a terrific idea. Or they’ll say, “I have three finished novels in these subgenres, which are you interested in?” No matter what comes out of my mouth at that point (which hopefully is polite), what’s in my mind is, “Really? I wrote a #MSWL for this event and you didn’t look at it? Not cool.”

Fourth: Find out how much time you’ll have for your pitch. Pitch appointments can be as brief as 5 minutes or as long as 15, and you need to know what you’re dealing with before you get there. Usually this is on the event’s website when you sign up; if it’s not, you should ask. (Sometimes I don’t know how long appointments will be until I’m in the room and I definitely prefer to know ahead of time.)

Fifth: Start working on the pitch itself. Now, this is a bit tricky, because to an extent this depends on how much time you have to work with. If you have a short pitch session, like 5 or 7 minutes, I suggest that you plan to talk for 2 minutes less than your allotted time. If you have a longer appointment, or 10 minutes or more, I still suggest that you prepare a pitch that runs no longer than 8 minutes.

btw, one sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, typed double-spaced, takes approximately 1 minute to read aloud. I’m not recommending that you read your pitch, but it can help you prep to know that if you want to talk for 4 minutes, you need 4 pages of material.

Part Two: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/pitch-sessions-101-part-two-what-should-be-in-the-pitch/

Part Three: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/pitch-sessions-101-part-three-some-thoughts-on-preparation/

Part Four: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/pitch-sessions-101-part-four-mechanics-practical-matters/

When is my book ready to submit?

When I talk to aspiring writers who have never published a novel, I often hear, “how do I know when my book is done?”

The true answer is that to an extent, a book is never “done.” Sometimes I look at a published book and think, “we should have done this one last thing to it.” Or a writer looks at a published book and thinks, “I could have written this scene better.”

But there is a point where a writer has done the work to the best of their ability, when there’s nothing left to do but pick nits. The manuscript is finished. What next?

The first thing I recommend is that you set the manuscript aside for at least a couple of months. If you can’t resist looking/picking at it, copy it to an external drive and delete it from your computer, to reduce temptation. Then, write something else, start researching something else, read something for pleasure, work on your social media engagement, research agents and publishers, whatever appeals to you. But leave the finished manuscript alone.

After the book has been out of sight for a while and you’ve focused your creative energy elsewhere, it’s time to go back and take a fresh look. Read the manuscript while trying to stay in the mindset of a reader, not a writer.

If you can’t get through the book without feeling like you have to fix something major, the manuscript isn’t ready. Go ahead and edit or rewrite. Then repeat the cooling-off period.

But if you can read through the whole book without having problems shriek at you, it’s done. It’s ready to submit.

I know that many unpublished writers feel that a book must be perfect before it’s submitted. That’s just not true. It has to be the best a writer can make it. Striving for perfection can hamstring a writer, can make a writer labor over a manuscript until it’s been worked to death and the original spark has vanished.

I know it can be scary to submit, and most of the time, submission leads to rejection. But if you really want to be published, at some point, you have to do it!

“American Crime” and what it can teach writers about supporting characters

American Crime was the most riveting television series I watched this year. The diverse cast all seemed to be working at the top of their game, and the storylines and characters were multi-layered, revealing new details each week. In only lasted eleven episodes, but told viewers so much in that time.

The writers had the ability to make me care about almost all the characters, except for a few who were clearly there just to serve a single purpose. The writers showed that even the minor characters were important to someone. A minor character may have passed in and out of the main story briefly, but in that character’s own life, that interaction with the main storyline continued to echo, changing them and the families and communities.

Even characters who were difficult to like were shown to mean something to someone. Some of the side stories were as fascinating and emotionally rich as the main story.

Why is this important to novelists?

Because too many times, supporting characters in a novel exist only in terms of their service to the main character. They have no independent reality; the reader has no sense that they have a life beyond the scenes in which they interact with the main character.

I’m not saying that every minor character needs a strongly developed background, nor am I saying that the reader needs to see every element of that background. But it’s a good exercise for the writer to think about the larger frame of the character’s background and personality…because that will have an impact on the way they interact with the main character. And when a writer knows more about a character, they write the character in a more realistic way, creating a more three-dimensional person.

Shallow supporting characters can undermine the work a writer has done in creating the story by making the book feel thin, by making the main character’s conversations feel stilted, unnatural, or fake.

Fleshing out supporting characters can also impact a book’s main characters. One writer I worked with some years ago created terrific protagonists but their secondary characters were always less well-developed. I remember that in one novel, there were three decent supporting characters, two of whom appeared only in the first half of the book; one appeared only in the second half. There were no connections between any of them. They each related only to the main characters.

I suggested that two of these characters be merged, creating a subplot that crossed from one half of the book to the other. We also introduced the two supporting characters to each other. Inspired, the writer built more scenes involving these characters, which led to the main characters displaying greater emotional range. Plus, the writer was able to use the supporting characters to help advance the plot since they now existed for more than a couple of isolated scenes.

So pay attention to the supporting cast and remember, everyone may not necessarily be “the hero of their own story,” but everyone definitely has a story of their own.