Last time, I went over the basic format of a 2-minute pitch, the kind a writer is expected to give within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting. Unlike the shorter elevator speech or hallway pitch (and if you’re unclear on those, please see the appropriate categories at right), the formal pitch is intended not just to pique the hearer’s interest in the book, but to convey that the writer is one heck of a storyteller, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.
And your storytelling skills, lest we forget, are part of what you are selling here.
For that reason, it is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by buttonholing like-minded writers at the conference for mutual practice. (Just so those of you attending PNWA know, the Pitch Practicing Palace will not be there this year, so as far as I know, there will not be pros on hand to help you refine your pitch. I know: sad.)
Otherwise, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes — a fairly standard length for such an appointment — doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association.
This can dangerous, and not just because you may run out of time before you finish your story. Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of artistic (“What do you think of multiple protagonists?”), literary-philosophical (“I wanted to experiment with a double identity in my romance novel, because I feel that Descartian dualism forms the underpinnings of the modern Western love relationship.”), and autobiographical points (“I spent 17 years writing this novel.”) that he might bring up talking with another writer.
Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with these people.
Even if you feel an instant personal rapport with the person across the pitching table, don’t forget that that the formal pitch is, in fact, is an extended, spoken query letter, and it should contain, at minimum, the same information.
And, like any good promotional speech, it needs to present the book as both unique and memorable.
One great way to increase the probability of its seeming both is to include beautifully-phrased telling details from the book, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else. To put it another way, what specifics can you use to describe your protagonist’s personality, the challenges he faces, the environment in which he functions, that render each different from any other book currently on the market?
Think back to the elevator speech I developed last week for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: how likely is it that anybody else at the conference will be pitching 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?
Not very — which means that including these details in the pitch is going to surprise the hearer a little. And that, in turn, will render the pitch more memorable.
In a hallway pitch, of course, you don’t have the luxury of including more than a couple of rich details, but the 2-minute pitch is another matter. You can afford the time to flesh out the skeleton of your premise and story arc. You can, in fact, include a small scene.
So here’s a suggestion: take fifteen or twenty seconds of those two minutes to tell the story of one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail.
I’m quite serious about this. It’s 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.
Another technique that helps elevate memorability is to include as many sensual words as you can. Not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the senses.
The best way to find these is to comb the text itself. 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 fois gras.
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 ask 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 an executive at a motion picture studio, 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 him the film in 25 words or less.
Rather than 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! Give some thought to where your book might offer up the scene, sensual detail, or magnificently evocative sentence that will make ’em do a double-take.
Or a spit-take, if your book is a comedy. A good pitch for a funny book makes it seem entertaining; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer.
Which leads me to ask those of you whose works are still in the writing phase: are there places in your manuscript where you could beef up the comic elements, sensual details, elegant environmental descriptions, etc., to strengthen the narrative and to render the book easier to pitch when its day comes?
Just something to ponder. Keep up the good work!