The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VI: The Magic First Hundred Words

Hello, readers –

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Remember, it’s very, very helpful for a writer to have all of her fingers in working order — try not to linger too close to lit fireworks.

Okay, if you’ve been following the blog for the past few days, you will have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. By now, you should have determined your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identified your target market (July 1), come up with a few strong selling points (July 2), and developed a snappy keynote statement (yesterday).

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of these elements together into the first hundred words you will say to ANYONE you meet at a writer’s conference, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, a writer who is sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum. With these first hundred words, even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

Nifty trick, eh?

Once again, I must add a disclaimer: this strategy is an invention of my own, the fruit of watching hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country, because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books. Which left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues. Half the time, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

Frankly, I think it’s rather mean to put well-meaning people in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, about which I will tell you tomorrow — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned BEFORE those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows what you are talking about. And in the many, many different social situations where a writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context.

There are social graces to be observed.

My goal here is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with these magic words, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Ready to learn what they are? Here goes:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world.

More importantly, if you learn this little speech by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance meeting at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — with ease. These magic words — which, you will note, are not generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

This is crucial, as agents and editors are (as I believe I have mentioned before) MAGNIFICENTLY busy people; they honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication. (That’s my job.) By the time many first-time pitchers get around to mentioning their books, after they have shilly-shallied for a few minutes, the agent in front of them has usually already mentally stamped their foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters. By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, they will appreciate it.

One caveat about using these words to introduce yourself to other writers at a conference: it is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what HE writes before you start going on at great length about your own work. If you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer, without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what the other writer writes. In this context, the very brevity of the first 100 words will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, he will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this, because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard; it’s one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage. And let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re DOING for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So, finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. (Get out of the habit NOW of promising these people free copies of your future books, by the way: nowadays, authors get very few free copies, and you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of copies for your kith and kin, do you?)

So at a writers’ conference, or even at a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually WANTS to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!”…well, it’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to practice your first hundred words — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers in your area. Most writers are genuinely nice people – and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you knew a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends. Tomorrow, I shall move on to the elevator speech (that’s those pesky three sentences), and after that, pulling it all together for the pitch! So fasten your seatbelts, everybody – the fireworks of the 4th aside, it’s going to be a bumpy week. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: if you’re just tuning in, and you are still considering whether or not to attend this summer’s PNWA conference, would it be helpful to know a bit about the professional likes and dislikes of the agents and editors who will be available there for pitching? Check out my archived blogs for the skinny on what they’ve been buying and selling lately: April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

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