Friday, April 15, 2011

How to Pitch Your Story

I’m a firm believer in taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. And what could be better than an opportunity to sit down across the table from someone who has the potential to make your dreams come true and take your shot?

That’s exactly what I did last weekend at the Madison Writer’s Institute

Part of this conference, like many writing conferences out there, were optional “pitch” sessions with a half-dozen literary agents. These sessions cost extra ($15 each) for the 8-minute session you got to spend with each respective agent. During registration you were limited to only two such sessions—which from the sounds of it filled up early.

Prep Work

Before the conference I had done my best to have some materials ready for the agents I was going to talk with. I spent hours trying to whittle down my synopsis to only a couple pages (epic fail), tried to have a page that explained my book’s concept, my bio and next project, and also brought a sample chapter along. I think all of this was good prep work, and it was nice to have something for me to refer to during the pitch sessions, but for the purposes of the agents I could have left it all behind. The agents didn’t want it—their preference was to receive everything by e-mail.

When is a Manuscript Done?

I heard the story recently of American writer, David Guterson, sitting around his house doing edits on his printed/published book Snow Falling on Cedars—just toying with it, seeing if there was anything that could be improved—for his own purposes. I just completed my 3rd edition of my novel BLACKHEART, and immediately I’m ready to do revision 4. Before ever signing up for this conference I asked myself if my book was ready to be seen by agents. I decided “yes.” That doesn’t mean that revision 4 still won’t happen…

A Sleepless Night

I had signed up for the pitch sessions months before when I signed up for the conference—and I hadn’t felt nervous about them at all consciously—until the night before they were scheduled. At about 3:30AM I woke up, realizing that I was going over specific plot points of my novel BLACKHEART in my head, preparing, preparing, preparing. My mind kept going over each great part of my book that I wanted to share—and also the parts I did not want to bring up (multiple POV, a couple chapters that still need tightening, etc). I would have preferred a good night’s sleep.

Important advice: Know your agent(s).

When I signed up for these agent pitch sessions I had done my best to pick the couple that seemed most likely to handle the type of work that I want to sell. My novel is “horror” so I definitely wanted to talk with agents who handled genre fiction. Imagine my disappointment during the conferences opening introductions when I heard one of the agents I was scheduled to meet later that day say, “I sell everything but horror.” L

Batter up…

There were two rooms dedicated to “pitching.” When I arrived a young woman with a timer and a checklist stood between the two rooms acting as gatekeeper. “They’re running a couple minutes behind,” I was informed. I gave her my name and waited with the other half-dozen or so authors all milling around nervously, waiting for their turns. We compared notes: What is your book about? Who are you meeting with? Is this your first pitch session? And so on and so on. As we waited other authors came out of the rooms, showing a variety of emotions: relief, disappointment, elation.

“You can go in,” I was told.

Eight Minutes in Heaven

Agent A was very upfront when I asked him to clarify if he carried horror. “No. And I’ll tell you the reason why. I only have two or three places I can try to sell it—then I’m out of options.” I asked if he minded me trying my pitch on him. “Go for it,” he said, but clarified, arms crossed, “But no matter how good it is I won’t be able to represent you.” I gave it my best shot.

What I learned about the opening to my novel BLACKHEART is that it is awesome to adapt for a dramatic pitch. When the book opens my main character Clay is seated at a bloody table between two corpses—across from him, peering out of the darkness is the hulking and horribly scarred badass Blackheart. As I gave my pitch I lay my head on the table, explained how Clay wakes up, how he’s handcuffed to the chair, how his gun sits on the table just out of reach, how the SWAT team is beating on the doors and windows that won’t be broken down on this creepy little home, how Clay has to kill Blackheart or watch his friend get gunned down. In many ways I was able to act the part of Clay to the agent’s Blackheart, each of us across the pitching table from each other. It was fun, and no pressure. After all, the guy had already told me he couldn’t represent me.

“So, what do you think?” I asked Agent A.

“It sounds like a great story—but I can’t sell it,” he said.

“Do you know anyone who can?” I asked.

“Get out a pen,” Agent A said. He gave me the name of one of his associates who he thinks might like a story like mine. He said I should use his name. Awesome.

Eight (no make that ten) Minutes in Hell

About an hour later I was back at the pitching room door, loitering outside with the other authors, comparing notes on previous sessions. The timer sounded, gatekeeper girl told me to go inside.

Agent B and I shook hands. She said she enjoyed meeting writers—most of her 20+ clients she has right now from all over the world she has never met. Agent B was also kind enough to clarify for me that she did agent horror. Woo hoo! This pitch session was off to a much better start.

I one again acted out the opening scene and the shootout between Clay and Blackheart. I realized this time I was a bit more nervous, that I was omitting some subtle details I’d done a better job telling in pitch session 1. No matter… time was ticking away. Agent B listened intently, leaning across the table, wide eyed, nodding her head. Occasionally she’d ask a question. “What happens next?” “How does it end?” “We’re actually out of time… but go on.” I went through each turning point as best I could, grossly over-simplifying my 450 page book. When it was over I asked her, “So do you want to see more?” “Yes,” said Agent B. “E-mail me your first three chapters.” J

So did I get my $30 worth of agent time? Hell yeah. I got to explain my book to two literary agents who are in the business of selling fiction—with positive feedback. I also had a request to see more of my manuscript from one agent, and a lead I can pursue in the future from the other. Will these meetings ultimately help me sell my manuscript? That remains to be seen. But I definitely enjoyed the experience and the whole process definitely put me in a mind frame to understand my story better, from the perspective of someone who might want to buy it.

Advice for Pitching Your Story?

From my experience all I can say is have your manuscript as complete as it can be, know your story as well as you can, rehearse if you have the time, and try to meet with agents who sell your genre of material. After that I like to just think it’s either meant to be or it’s not.

Happy Writing.


Anonymous said...

Sounds kind of like a job interview. I guess I hadn't thought of it like that before we went to Madison or we could have had you practice "pitching" to help prepare. Putting yourself out there for others to judge is always hard - putting youself out there, along with your personal creation and artistic expression for judgement and critique has got to be one of the hardest things someone can do.

Cheers to all of you creative types who strive to have your work out for public consumption. We are all entertained, enlightened and challenged because of you.

Your biggest fan :)

Jon said...

Way to go, Mark! It sounds like it went pretty well. What was the rest of the conference like?

Mark Teats said...

Hi Jon,
The rest of the conference was good. Some great workshops on character and plot development, lots of other writers (a surprising number of them published) from MN, WI and IL. Some of the workshops had us doing lots of sharing with other writers--it was fun to hear about their projects, and get feedback on mine from people I didn't know. I also neglected to talk about "Agent C"--during lunch one of the agents sat next to me (she handled women's lit and was doing a lot with self-publishing/e-publishing). She had lots of opinions about e-publishing, most of them positive.

Qlaudie said...

Really terrific posting, Mark...super informative...every unpublished writer should read this!

Shawn Enderlin said...

Sounds like you had a good time. :-)

Keep us posted!

Lisa said...

I love the idea of a dramatic synopsis of your novel. Now I'll have to practice at being potato-like, eh?

Mark Teats said...

Thanks again for the comments, all.

Lisa: in portraying One Potato you have so many delicious options: loaded potato, french-fried, scalloped and so on ;-)