The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part IX: Finally, the pitch!

Hello, readers –

Understandably, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from nervous readers about my continuing series on the building blocks of the pitch. Several of you pointed out, for instance, that my elevator speech examples varied rather wildly in length — my PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example was 190 words (which I know not because I counted it myself, but because two different readers did), while the example that followed was 83. A differential, I must confess, due in large part to the fact that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is an actual book, one that I know well enough to quote at length, while the examples that followed were not. I mean, really –would YOU want to be the person who couldn’t pitch PRIDE AND PREJUDICE successfully?

While I must confess that I myself have seldom had enough free time to sit down and count all of the words in other people’s pitches, the implied question here is a good one: is briefer always better in an elevator speech or pitch?

In a word, NO.

So, please, those of you out there who are so attuned to following directions that you are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: take a deep breath. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly. No agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words. They may, however, begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of periods, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Let me recast that in graphic terms: the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor. Get it?

Remember, too, that AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. As I mentioned yesterday, the elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them, so if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words. Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch (see yesterday’s post) to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so.

While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say the elevator speech I wrote for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: one minute two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance. That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper (and really, as soon as I finish addressing these issues, I am going to get around to defining it), I might add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I were planning to walk around the halls of PNWA, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I might try to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is mainstream fiction and the title. Oh, and to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you. As I was explaining yesterday, it’s really the proponents of the three-sentence pitch that have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches.

I consider this a mistake, because if you’re pitching a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (I spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you from experience: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

So, to be as clear as possible: if you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it. Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

Okay, all that being said, let’s move on to the pitch proper, the one you will make in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor. (And for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I misspoke before: the PNWA meetings with agents will be 10 minutes, not 15.)

For the benefit of those of you who have never done it before, in an agent meeting, you will be led to a tiny cubicle, where you will be expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent. You will introduce yourself, and then spend approximately two minutes talking about your book. After that, the agent may ask you a few questions; you may feel free to ask a few as well. At the end of the meeting, the agent will tell you whether your book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. If so, the agent will hand you her card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for NF, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Note: this should not be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot, even if you have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet. Manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed rather than to carry them onto a plane. At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, in which case you should pull out 5 pages or so. (If you are unclear on why you should carry a 5-page writing sample with you at all times at a writers’ conference, please see my post for May 29th.) In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about cities being farther apart on the West Coast than on the East, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail on Monday.

And that’s it. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.) If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work.

Those two minutes when you are describing your book, of course, are the pitch proper. It is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by visiting the Pitch Practicing Palace at the conference, manned by yours truly and other valiant souls who have fought successfully in pitching wars past. Otherwise, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes doesn’t allow any rambling time.

Sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book is quite a different experience from giving a hallway pitch. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum. If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you (a) regard this as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length, (b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” (c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project, or (d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the whole series again. In fact, go back to last August’s blogs and read the whole 1000+ pages I have posted here. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) In a ten-minute meeting, there is actually time for them to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now. (If you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right?) So in a perverse way, a formal pitch is significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

Fear not, my friends: if you have been following this series and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a formal pitch constructed.

And I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: IT IS A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand that — and once you accept that in this context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch can be seen not as an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but as a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed premise.

What the formal pitch is, in fact, is a spoken query letter, and it should contain the same information.

This may seem obvious, but allow me to remind you: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it. A flubbed pitch is actually NOT a reflection of your writing talent; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences. I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore.”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing. But it isn’t; it can’t be.

Does that make you feel any better?

What a formal pitch can and should be is you taking the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would, the terms in which I have been encouraging you to define it throughout this series: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6).

Really, you’re almost there. In fact, if it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional pitch from these elements alone.

First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words: ”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).”

Then, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech.

Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right? You could easily flesh out your elevator speech with interesting and memorable plot points, without going overlong. One great way to be memorable is to include a telling detail, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else.

Think back to the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example: do you think someone else at the conference is likely to pitch a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met? Probably not.

Here is the icing to put on the cake, the element that you have not yet constructed that elevates your pitch from just a good story to a memorable one: take fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. This is an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief. Do be specific, and don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger – scenarios that leave the hearer wondering “how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation?” work very, very well here.

Include as many sensual words as you can — not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the senses. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some frosting.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and long to read the book.

There is a terrific example of a pitch with this kind of detail in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is a film executive, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell the film in 25 words.

Before launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting. He spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

”That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free!

One last thing, then I shall let you run off to dig through your manuscript for the killer image or scene that will wow the agent: once you have gone through all of the steps above, given your two-minute speech, SHUT UP. Allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic. Most writers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material.

Don’t; it won’t help your case. If you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is only charitable to leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!” A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.

And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Between now and the conference, I shall of course post a few more helpful tidbits, but I’m going to keep it light, so you can focus your energies on crafting your pitch. As always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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