A blog about writing and all things story…
Several of you asked me to share what specifically I learned about pitching to the pros while moderating the Pitch With The Pros night at Willamette Writers Conference last weekend. So, now I’ve had some time to think, here you go…
We know that as an unpublished author attending a writers’ conference can be the first step to launching your professional writing career. But it can also be an daunting, frustrating experience if you approach it without preparation. Sadly, a lot of writers think all they need do is find an agent then everything else falls magically into place. Not so. While chatting with agents, what I’ve long believed was confirmed; agents are looking for talent, yes, but also partners, not a Hemmingway who needs to be coddled, edited and hand-delivered to book stores. Those days are over. Today’s writers need to understand that the agent/author relationship is a partnership and it may start with a first impression at a conference.
MY IMPRESSIONS from monitoring Pitching with the pros;
What agents want: It’s simple; agents are looking for good stories and good storytellers. Stories with humanity, that peaked their interest or spoke to their heart or their curiosity – stories that transcend, with character arcs, stakes and a fresh voice or new perspective. The panel of agents often said, ‘We’ve heard that story so many times, what makes yours fresh and new?” Seldom did an author have an answer. THINK ABOUT YOUR STORY; what makes it stand apart from all the others?
The agents made it clear they are also looking for the right person to tell that story and the possibility of a good, professional and rewarding relationship. It’s that simple; it’s that complex.
First Impressions: Agents commented on how writers don’t seem to understand that when thy pitch, it’s a job interview and they should dress the part. Not to say they should dress formal, but not in sloppy t-shirts and worn our sweat pants or sloppy shorts. For men, consider instead, a nice shirt and slacks or jeans. There was one writer who got up to pitch his history book, which was an interesting idea, and he dressed like a history teacher; jeans, white shirt, tie, tweed jacket. It worked on him. For women, anything that presents you in a positive light. Remember that old cliché; you only get one chance to make a first impression. It’s true.
Some came to pitch dressed VERY casual, one women even wore sweat pants with worn out knees and a baggy butt – I would not wear them to work in my yard for fear someone may see me – and when she got up to pitch I noticed the huge diamond ring on her hand, so, not homeless, no excuse for those clothes. There was also a woman who wore a clown suit. Girls, when you wear such things, unless you’ve written a clown book, it only scares people away. I know you want to show that you’re unique or quirky, but best to save that for the second date, don’t you think?
Preparedness: Many writers practiced their pitches and knew their projects inside out. KUDOS to them. Their pitches went very well and they impressed the panel of agents. Some told their stories as if they were actors, or telling a group of children a bedtime story – nicely done for the lady who wrote a children’s book. I easily could see her at a Barnes & Noble Children’s hour. Though it’s not necessary to know your pitch by heart, or act it out like the story-time lady, you can certainly read it from your notes, but at least try to make eye contact occasionally, speak clearly, and as if you have some familiarity with the words you’re reading. You did write them, right?.
Some told why they wrote their story (non-fiction), and in some cases it was a compelling premise; tragic car accident survivor, ex-prostitute, abused wife escapes husband, etc.. In some cases it was boring; not because of their actual story, but because they had no presentation style or voice which I’d imagine would make an agent wonder if they could write at all. They “um” and “Ah’d” through their entire 3 minutes. More than once an agent asked, “How were you transformed by this story? Is it episodic, or is there a story, like a love story, or a true crime story at the core? Why will readers want to read yours?” PONDER these questions, they’re good ones.
And then, there were some writers who got up, seemingly on a whim and pitched a (not well formed) idea, rambling, wasting everyone’s time just so they could have an audience to their brilliance. One even said, “If you like the idea, I’ll write it.” To whit most of the agents just smiled (or not) and turned away. PEOPLE, know your stuff before you show up at pitch with the PROS – they’re pros, they don’t care about your brainstorming. Pitch With The Pros is not the time for winging it, it’s the time to impress an agent. You want the job, right?
Think about, as Lit-agent Ken Sherman said, (I paraphrase) he needs to know that he can send you into a room with editors, publishers or to a large book event, without him, and that you will represent in a professional manner. That includes your overall appearance and ability to interact with people. Finding an agent is finding a partner in your project.
Do you want to worry that your partner will show up looking like a schmata (rag or doormat for you non-Yiddish speakers) or that they’ll ramble and never get to the point? I don’t.
Timing: Many people missed the part where they would have only 3 minutes to pitch. These people looked at me like I just stole their favorite toy when I said, “Times up.” Often they hadn’t even arrived at their pitch yet, they’d wasted their precious 3 minutes explaining something other than their story. So, take this advice from a Toastmaster; get straight to the point, make it clear, make it entertaining and know where to start and when to stop. And stop on a powerful note that makes them want to hear more. Practice in the mirror.
Keep your cool: Don’t argue with the agents if they are not as amazed by your brilliance as your mother said they’d be. Maybe it just really isn’t for them. Be gracious and sit down so the next pitcher can get up to the microphone. If you can write, you’ll find an agent elsewhere. It’s not the end of the world, but if it is the end of your 3 minutes, go with grace, or at least good sportsmanship. And for goodness sakes, do not cry.
To summarize, Hone your craft; become a good storyteller. Ask why your story is different. Think of yourself as business partner. Dress well, practice your pitch, practice your timing, know where to start and when to stop. Brainstorm your idea with your writing friends, your
mother, your dog, but not at Pitch With The Pros. And finally, there’s no crying in pitching – talk about making an agent uncomfortable.
Some conferences, like Willamette Writers, offer a pre-conference pitch class. I strongly urge people to attend one of these when they can. Pitching is a game, an art, and an opportunity. Like another of my favorite cliches suggest, Practice makes perfect.
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