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3 Elements of the Successful Pitch

I’ve attended numerous writer’s conferences over the years and was never fortunate enough to be granted an agent/editor pitch until last month. And then, when I arrived at the conference, I learned I’d not only been scheduled 10 minutes with my #1 choice, but I’d also been scheduled another 10 minutes with my #2 choice (1 agent, 1 editor). How lucky can a girl get?

Then I started thinking, Holy S–t! What the hell am I going to do? I’d been conducting nonstop research on the essential elements of the pitch, as if someone, somewhere had written a list of explicit instructions I could follow. I hadn’t really expected to be granted a pitch, but still, I’d been amassing huge amounts of advice. So, I knew what I had to do. Sorta.

Since then, I’ve been wondering why both my pitches were successful when, unfortunately, so many other people at the conference did not walk away with a similar outcome. I felt really bad for the people who ended their agent/editor appointments within the first 2-3 minutes (some rushing away with tears in their eyes) and didn’t want to be one of them. There is a lot of info on the Internet, much of it vague and nebulous.

So, here’s my list. It contains 3 elements, and I’ll explain them in detail. I hope I provide some clarity for you.

 (1) Write a book you know inside out, and love, and could talk about endlessly

The book has to be complete. Let me repeat: THE BOOK HAS TO BE COMPLETE! Because if it isn’t, how do you know what will happen, how your characters will develop and what they’ll think/feel, or any of the other things the agent/editor is going to ask you about the book? I don’t care how detailed your outline is, it isn’t going to supply you with all the answers the agent/editor will ask. How do I know this? Because both the agent and editor asked me questions I hadn’t counted on being asked. But I knew the answers. (Thank God.)

If you don’t love your book and characters, why would anyone else do so? If you can’t talk about them with enthusiasm and awareness, why would anyone else even want to learn about them? Imagine this, you’re trying to convince your best friend to go on a blind date with someone you say is terrific and perfect for her. If you can’t answer your friend’s questions about why you think she and the guy are ideally suited, do you really think she’s going to risk an hour of her time on him?

(2) Be a professional; know and provide exactly what the agent/editor wants

I’ve been a business owner for 40+ years and have learned that professionalism isn’t something you automatically acquire when you establish a business, get a promotion, or don a business suit. It isn’t denoted by a college degree or letters after your name. It’s an attitude, the ability to listen and speak respectfully, knowing your business industry, fulfilling promises you make, and knowing how to behave in the setting you find yourself in.

One of the biggest reasons I see for writers not being asked to submit their work is because they don’t give the agent/editor what they want. Chuck Sambuchino’s article in Writer’s Digest has the best GENERAL description about what publishers are looking for, by genre, with respect to word count. Of course, agents and editors state their personal preferences for this, and other requirements, in their submission guidelines.

I don’t care how terrific your novel is; if agents/editors are looking for submissions between 65,000 and 80,000 words, they’re not going to ask to see your 50,000-word book. Why? Because you’re not professional. You haven’t done your research–which means you don’t know your craft (aka business industry) well enough–and you don’t care enough about a potential business partner to conduct your due diligence. This same thought process applies to anything else the agent/editor wants and has specified, and that you ignore or overlook.

Examples of how to be professional:

Spend more time listening than speaking. If you do speak, make sure it’s respectfully and pertinent.

Be punctual. Tardiness communicates you’re either unprepared or inconsiderate.

Dress appropriately. What did I wear for my pitches? Ankle pants with a blouse and cardigan (and flats). Why? Because the agent and editor were wearing business casual at the panel they sat on the day before I pitched. Yes, I checked. It’s considered professional to be dressed similarly to the person you hope to be working with rather than much more casually or formally. If you’re not sure, dress up–not down.

Visit the agent/editor’s website BEFORE the pitch. It will contain specific information about the kinds of books he or she seeking. Google the individual, as well, and read all the agent/editor interviews you can find. That’s how you know the agent has 3 German Shepherds or the editor has a personal fondness for kick-ass heroines. Agents and editors are real people; they can be anxious at pitch sessions, too. Just because they have more experience conducting them than you do, it doesn’t mean they like them any more than you do. They can be just as nervous talking to strangers as you are.

You can obtain information online about agents/editors on websites like Query Tracker, AgentQuery.com, and Manuscript Wishlist, which are free. Or you can purchase a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace for $25 or subscribe to Writer’s Market for $5.99 per month (or less if you buy an annual subscription). Jane Friedman is a well-respected source in the publishing industry and you can’t go wrong reading articles on her website or blog.

(3) Be confident enough to learn an elevator pitch and how to sell yourself

Please don’t cringe. Seriously. I’ve been in sales for 40+ years and I know what I’m talking about. Here are some facts–not personal opinion–that will help you master this essential element.

You need to be aware of, and interested in, other people. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in the 1930s and I recommend you read it. I’ve purchased and/or read hundreds of sales books, and this is my #1 go-to. The most important part of selling yourself is building rapport with your potential buyer. Did you know that people prefer to be persuaded to buy rather than sold to? And they’ll NEVER buy from someone they don’t trust, someone with whom they have no rapport.

Your internal thought process communicates itself. You must BELIEVE in yourself. If you’re terrified of dogs, don’t they sense it? Well, people can sense when you’re timid, afraid, desperate, or believe you can’t accomplish a goal. You MUST talk yourself into being positive or, at the very least, surrendering the outcome to fate, destiny, God, or some higher power. You can’t appear confident if you’re tense–you need to be at peace with yourself.

You need to be unique and different from everyone else. This is what is meant when people ask, “What sets you apart from other writers?” How are you, the person, special? What is it about you, and your perspective, that allows you to use words in a way no one else does? I’ve been told my voice comes through in my writing. Now that you’ve read my overlong blog post, do you think my writing is different from that of others? If so, how? If not, why not? Look at your writing and ask yourself the same questions until you come up with the answer.

You need to master the “elevator pitch”. An elevator pitch is the equivalent of a blurb. Like the back copy on your book once it’s published. When I used to sell insurance, I had 30-second and 60-second elevator pitches about me and my insurance agency. Now, I have 30- and 60-second pitches for each of my books. Google “how to create an elevator pitch” and read at least 10 of the how-tos. Then write one based on what feels comfortable to you.

The most important thing about the elevator pitch is to practice it, over and over again, until you can say it in your sleep. Practice it when you’re driving and when you’re in the shower. That way, when you’re called on to answer the question, “So what’s your book about?” your response will roll off your tongue naturally. The more you practice, the more authority you’ll have and the more professional you’ll sound.

That’s it: the end. Feel free to ask questions, volunteer suggestions, or simply comment.

Freedom of Expression

As a writer, I have always embraced the right to express myself freely, without censorship. That’s one of the best things about being an American and living in this country: each of us has so many freedoms.

When I write–regardless of whether my creation is a textbook, workshop handout, short story, novel, or blog post–neither you nor anyone else is forced to read it. You can skim it, read it from beginning to end, or skip it entirely because you have the same rights I do. Although I consider your response when I write, I don’t tailor my words to it.

When speaking, I do try to consider how other people will respond.  I’m not nearly good enough at thinking before I speak,  but I try. I know I have the right to say whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I choose.  I also understand that saying something hurtful or nasty actually impedes the goal of communication.

We all want people to agree with us,  like us, and understand how we think and feel. Finding the right words, proper tone, and best method of delivery is the most effective way to accomplish that goal.

I believe today’s society would be more agreeable, and less angry and critical, if we thought before we spoke. I wonder what would happen if, for just one day:

Each of us wrote down what we planned to say before we spoke the words…

Each of us considered the impact of our opinions before they left our lips…

We restructured  verbal assaults, replacing them with constructive comments…

The vituperation and anger I see in the world today is scary. I believe it is propelling us backward rather than forward.

Why have we forgotten that while we all have the right to express ourselves freely, our rights should not infringe on the rights of others? No wonder so many of us choose the solitary pursuits of reading and writing.

What are your thoughts about the subject of freedom of expression?

Do you know your slang?

We all know you don’t say certain words in public. Or, God forbid, when your mother is in the same room.

Slang is defined as informal speech that’s used in a particular setting or environment, or by people in a particular group. When I was in high school, our slang included the terms groovy, batshit, and way out.

In my current novel, two of the present-day characters have ancestors who lived during Prohibition in the 1920s. Did you know the following terms were coined back then?

Skid row was originally “skid road,” a place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these logging roads became meeting places for boodleggers. (Skidding is a logging term for pulling cut trees out of a forest.)

Hooch is an abbreviated form of “hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. This idiom was used for low-quality liquor, usually whiskey.

If you had a beef, you had a big problem. If you were given the bum’s rush, you were ejected by force from a drinking establishment. If you had to see a man about a dog, you were explaining in code that you had to leave to go buy bootlegged whiskey. If you were a piker, you were a cheapskate (my father used this term all the time–he was born in 1929).

Here are some other terms coined during Prohibition that we still use today: babe, beat it, carry a torch, tighten the screws, and on the up and up.

One other thing I learned about Prohibition is the huge number of synonyms for drunk that were coined nearly 100 years ago, including:

bleary-eyed, bent, blind, blotto, boiled, boiled as an owl, canned, corked, crocked, four sheets in (or to) the wind, fried, fried to the hat, ginned, half-cocked, half-shot, high, jazzed, lit, loaded, on a toot, ossified, out on the roof, owled, pie-eyed, pickled, plastered, polluted, potted, stinko, soused, stewed, tanked, primed, scrooched, zozzled

What are some of YOUR favorite slang terms?

Why you THINK you’re so much better in the morning … or at night

Circadian rhythm: It’s the reason you find yourself full of energy at a particular time of day (or night) and really dragging at another time.

Biological clock: Your internal timing device; usually a 24-hour clock. Your biological clock produces your circadian rhythm.

So, what does this have to do with your productivity and whether you’re a morning person or a night owl?

Well, your circadian rhythm is based partly on DNA and partly on external factors, such as daylight. “Larks” wake up and go to bed early; they tend to find themselves more productive in the morning. “Owls”  rise and hit the sack later, preferring to get their stuff done in the evening or at night.

But researchers have found that most people hit their peak, creatively speaking, at precisely opposite the time they’re most productive. I, for one, agree with them.

I’m a morning person. When it comes to balancing my checkbook, editing my writing, or having to use my left brain, I perform much better between 6 a.m. and noon. However, the best ideas I’ve ever had for my writing–and ways to solve plot and character defects–always come in the middle of the night when I wake up to go potty or just after I slip into bed at night.

How does your circadian rhythm work with respect to your creativity?

Yes, You Really Can Have a Broken Heart

I read an article recently about a 61-year-old woman who went to the ER thinking she had a heart attack. Doctors learned she suffered a broken heart after her dog died.

Yes, there really is such a thing; it’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome.

Doesn’t this make a great premise for inclusion in a book?!

To read what Harvard Medical School has to say about it, click here.