One of the main reasons for submitting to contests prior to publication is to attract the attention of an editor or agent. Sure, the awards are nice to receive, and the credits look great in a cover letter, but bottom line, writers want to sell their stories. To do that, manuscripts need to be requested and read. So if a particular submission doesn’t make the final round in a contest, what’s Plan B? Pitch the story at a writing conference!
With the RWA National Conference approaching in July and the ACFW in September, I thought it might be interesting to throw out some ideas about how to pitch. My advice? Keep is simple.
First impressions are important. Start with a firm handshake and warm smile as you introduce yourself. Thank the editor for taking time to meet with you and/or for coming to the conference. A minute spent exchanging pleasantries -- perhaps ask about her flight or if she’s had a chance to see the sights in the local area -- can put you both at ease. Yes, believe it or not, the editors and agents are sometimes as nervous about meeting you as you are of meeting them.
Now sell yourself. The clock is ticking so pick and choose a few facts that will give the editor/agent an idea about your professionalism, your commitment and your expertise.
Be sure to mention your writing credits, such as any magazine or newspaper articles you’ve had published. Don’t forget web publications or chapter newsletters, especially if you’ve done a series of articles or how-to pieces. Have you presented workshops at writing conferences? That would be of interest to the editor as well.
The editor/agent wants to know if you’re new to writing or established. Give her some sense of how long you’ve been working on your craft either in years or the number of manuscripts you’ve completed. (Remember a manuscript is an unpublished story. The story becomes a book once it’s in print.)
Are you a member of professional writing organizations? Don’t forget to mention any offices you hold.
Contest wins? If you’ve won a number of them, summarize: “I’ve won ten national writing awards, including . . .” Then mention some of the more prestigious wins. Or you could say, “I’ve finaled in a number of contests, and the story I want to talk to you about today won the Maggie Award of Excellence and the Jasmine.”
If you have expertise or training in an area that plays a part in your story, be sure to include that information, such as if you have a law degree and your story is a legal thriller. But expertise doesn’t have to be limited to higher education. If you ran a dude ranch in Colorado and that’s the role you’ve given your heroine, the editor will enjoy hearing that you’re writing what you know.
Now sell the story. Word count, genre and whether the manuscript is completed are important. If you’ve targeted a specific line the editor publishes, be sure to mention that as well.
Just as stories should start with a riveting opening, so should the pitch. Can you come up with a high concept, hook or one-liner she’ll remember?
What’s high concept? In his book, WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL, Michael Hauge says, “If that single sentence describing your story idea(s) is enough all by itself to get people to line up or tune in to see the movie, then it has a high concept.” He goes on to provide the following high concept for WAR GAMES, “A teenager computer genius breaks into the Pentagon computer system and has to prevent World War III.” Sure Hauge is talking about movies and screenplays, but high concepts work for manuscripts as well.
Another possible opening is to throw out a question pertaining to your book that catches the editor/agent by surprise. “What would you do if TSA found a bomb ready to detonate in your carry-on luggage?” You’ve got her attention, now tell her about how your sassy heroine caused a national stir when she grabbed someone else’s luggage off the airport shuttle.
Remember less is sometimes better. Donald Maass, in his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, says, “All I need to get hooked on a story is to know its category, the setting, the protagonist, and the main problem. Add to that one unusual detail that makes this story different from any other like it, and you’ve probably got me.”
For my first novel, NOWHERE TO HIDE, my one-liner was, “When the men who killed Lydia Sloan’s husband try to kidnap her five-year-old son, she and Tyler flee to an island community off the coast of Georgia and run headlong into the trouble they were trying to escape.” I added that, unbeknownst to Lydia, her husband freelanced as the Web master for a gentleman’s club porn site.
For SCARED TO DEATH, my second Love Inspired Suspense, I started my pitch by saying, “Kate Murphy never expects a quick trip to Mercy, Georgia, to retrieve her grandfather’s missing gold cross will land her in the middle of a transplant tourist racket.”
After you’ve thrown out your hook, reel the editor in with a few comments about the story, especially plot points that drive the protagonist to the climax. You could mention the hero’s greatest fear or greatest need or how the characters change, what they learn, what they overcome, who they save, etc. Again, keep it brief.
For my current release, I used the following: In MIA: MISSING IN ATLANTA, a returning war hero’s search for a missing girlfriend leads him through the dark side of inner-city exploitation to a woman of faith who teaches him that memories of the past are not always as they seem and authentic love is grounded in truth.
Be prepared to provide information on another manuscript if the editor asks what else you’ve written.
Pitching to an agent? She’ll want to know if an editor’s shown interest in the story or requested a submission so include that as well.
The ending is as important as the beginning. Know when to stop so the editor/agent can ask questions. Once you’ve satisfied her curiosity, ask if she would like to see three chapters and a synopsis or the full manuscript.
Nothing else you need to discuss? Then thank her, shake hands and leave the room, even if you haven’t used up your allotted time. The editor or agent will appreciate having a minute to relax. Hopefully, she’ll make a note on her tablet about the polite and professional writer with whom she just spoke.
One sheet: Some Christian houses request a one sheet when you pitch. Compile some of the personal information mentioned above and add a short blurb about the manuscript you want to discuss. Place your address, phone and email at the top of the page along with a downloaded photo of yourself. Even though you hand the one sheet to the editor or agent, be sure to mention a few of your professional accomplishments and credits at the beginning of the pitch.
Practice makes perfect so start working on your pitch now! Good luck!
Wishing you abundant blessings!
PS: Anyone have a pitch horror story? Mine was when I got so involved explaining the plot of a single title story I wrote years ago -- before I knew the Keep It Simple Rule -- that I finally stopped mid-sentence and said, “Sounds confusing, doesn’t it?” Lucky for me, she smiled sweetly, then requested the full!