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 remain 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.
In case that’s too subtle for anyone, I shall throw a brick through the nearest window and shout: no matter what kind of prose you write, your storytelling skills are part of what you are selling here.
Which is why, in case you were wondering, we’re going to jump backwards in the series to Building Block of the Pitch #8, the part where I asked you to cram your souped-up elevator speech with simply fascinating details and fresh twists that will hold your hearer in thrall.
At least for two minutes.
Because this is a genuinely tall order, 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. Otherwise, as I mentioned in passing last time, 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-critical (“What do you think of multiple protagonists in general?”), 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. Please love it, or I shall fling myself out the nearest window.”) that he might bring up talking with another writer.
Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art and theory can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with these people.
A great rule of thumb, incidentally, even if you happen to feel an instant personal rapport with the person across the pitching table. However simpatico this person may be, a pitching situation is not primarily about making friends.
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. 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?
See why I suggested earlier in this series that you might want to gain some familiarity with what is being published NOW in your book category? Unless you know what’s out there, how can you draw a vibrant comparison?
I sense a touch of annoyance out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” a disgruntled soul or two protests, “I understand that part of the point here is to present my book concept as FRESH, but I’m going to be talking about my book for two minutes, at best. Do I really want to waste my time on a compare-and-contrast when I could be showing (not telling) that my book is in fact unique?”
Well, I wasn’t precisely envisioning that you embark upon a master’s thesis on the literary merits of the current thriller market; what I had in mind was your becoming aware enough of the current offerings to know what about your project is going to seem MOST unique to someone who has been marinading in the present offerings for the last couple of years.
Regardless of HOW your book is fresh, however, you’re going to want to be as specific as possible about it.
Think back to the elevator speech I developed a few days back 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 kettle of proverbial fish. 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 wacky 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 AND fresh.
Yes, even if the book in question is a memoir — or a NF book about an incident that took place in 512 BC, for that matter. To make any subject interesting to a reader, you’re going to need to introduce an anecdote or two, right? This is a fabulous opportunity to flex your show-don’t-tell strategic muscles.
Which is, if you think about it, why a gripping story draws us in: good storytelling creates the illusion of BEING THERE. By placing the pitch-hearer in the middle of a vividly-realized scene, you make him more than a listener to a summary — you let him feel a PART of the story.
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 operation of the senses. As anyone who has spent even a couple of weeks reading submissions or contest entries can tell you, the vast majority of writing out there sticks to the most obvious senses — sight and sound — probably because these are the two to which TV and movie scripts are limited.
So a uniquely-described scent, taste, skin sensation, or pricking of the sixth sense does tend to be memorable. I just mention.
The best way to find examples of this in your story 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.
Again, I’m serious about this. 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. More on the pitch follows over the weekend, so keep tuning in, prospective pitchers — and everybody, keep up the good work!