I was at a writer’s conference last weekend, where we had tons of fun, talked to a lot of talented writers, and heard a lot of fabulous stories. One thing that stood out at me is varied approaches authors took for the one-on-one pitch sessions. Some were shaking so badly that I wanted to give them a big hug. The idea that I, or any of my colleagues, are worthy of a fit of the shakes is ludicrous. There are times when I should be feared, but this isn’t one of them.
Conferences are fabulous things that allow agents, editors, and authors to collide in cosmically-perfect deliciousness. We are there for the authors – on call 24-3 (most conferences are about 3 days long). Additionally, authors can pitch their ideas and books to us in a more formal setting. The downside is that they’re timed and range from 10 down to 3 minutes. THREE MINUTES. Gah.
So how do you cram your fabulosity into 3 steenkin’ minutes? Clarity and brevity are your best friends. Most conferences send out advice to those who are doing pitches, but I thought I’d pass along some of my observations that may enhance authors’ Slobbery Factor. And keep in mind, this doesn’t pertain strictly to conferences, but anywhere you find yourself talking/pitching your book.
Rarely are authors trained actors, so it’s impossible to sound natural while reciting your pitch. Because you’re reciting, you’re not engaging with me, and I want to get a feel for you and your story. Instead, I can almost see your brain kicking into high gear in order not to miss a single point. Your focus is on not screwing up, not on engaging me.
Whether it’s at a writer’s conference, a bar, or hanging out in your backyard, the idea is to connect with the person you’re talking to, and memorizing your pitch creates a barrier that’s hard to penetrate. I found this when I stopped authors in mid-pitch to get clarification on a point. My interruption threw them off, and I felt terrible for causing them to stumble around while mentally trying to remember where they’d left off. It was all very unnatural.
Hook – That One-Sentence Piece of Loveliness
A little tool that may help you is relying on your hook to do the enticing. I found myself asking many times over the weekend, “What’s your hook?”…meaning, what is the main pulling feature to the story? Puzzled as to what I was asking, authors gave their full pitch, and neglected to include the compelling elements that would pull me into their story.
In the world of publishing, less is better. If you’re taking five, ten, fifteen minutes to explain your story (which happens a lot), then I’m searching my purse for a rope and checking out the ceiling rafters.The idea is to get people asking for more, not looking for a way to check out on a permanent basis.
If you keep your hook to one sentence, then you’re inviting people to lean and and ask for more.
Example of a miss:
Janie works in a science lab and sees firsthand how hilarious and poignant her experiences are when working with patients.
The problem is those hilarious and poignant stories are the hook, and that is what’s missing here. The author has reduced her character to a one-dimensional chess piece who is simply moving around those stories. Nothing compelling here. It’s a pass.
Example of a hit:
A reluctant romance publisher works overtime to protect the identity of her newest author, an internationally known legal thriller, from a nosy book reviewer desperate for a juicy story in order to save his own career.
It’s a very quick overview. If you spice it up with adjectives, then you have the building blocks for the other guy to ask for more.
- What made the publisher reluctant?
- Why does she have a famous legal thriller author as one of her romance writers? Ooo…a book reviewer is desperate to save his own job and is looking for a juicy story…yes, yes, tell me more.
“My book is a movie just waiting to happen”
I winced when several authors said this before I had any inkling of what their story was about. All authors believe their books would make a great movie…tell me something I don’t know. This isn’t a selling point. Your story is, so focus on that. If at some point there is an offer for movie rights on your book, I’ll toast to your awesomeness and pray you remember us little people.
Character-driven stories – lead with that
Seconds before the dinger rang, I concluded an author’s story was character-driven instead of plot-driven. I suggested she lead with that because her characters are the hook. If she can convey the deliciousness of her characters, then I’ll likely follow her into the gates of hell.
Is your story character-driven? If so, think about focusing on the personal characteristics that will naturally draw us in.
Twist McPherson’s public recommendation that her ex business partner go screw himself intersected nicely with her desire to enjoy her permanent hiatus from the rat race, free-flowing Harvey Wallbangers, and basking in the sun. Navigating the helm of Dirty Little Secrets Publishing while herding five saucy writers and one reluctant internationally famous legal thriller was never a part of the plan.
Keeping the focus on the main character keeps us engaged in her adventure. It keeps it personal. If the character is interesting, an agent or editor will do the logical thing and beg for more information.
Focus on your main plot – not subplots and twists
Many authors have a hard time keeping their focus on the main plot. Because they know their story inside and out, they get caught up in all the connected subplots and twists. As a result, the other guy is checking to see how sharp those butter knives are and whether they’d cut through jugular veins without too much resistance. In a word, it’s boring.
If you’re tempted to spend fifteen minutes explaining every nuance of your book, be prepared to see people’s eyes glaze over. These subplots and twists often lack context when describing them, so they make the story sound mushy and disorganized in a pitch. We don’t need all the ancillary stuff. Those are the sweet little gifts that enhance the plot…but it isn’t the plot. Remember, less is better.
I bleat about this all the time, but it still remains a tough issue for many writers. You need to understand who your intended audience is so we know how to promote and market your book. Obviously, genre writers have an easier time with this, but it never hurts to have a healthy respect on how to nab your readers. I use this example quite often, but my Two Surfer Dudes post illustrates the importance of knowing your intended audience and being able to promote to them.
Mr. Two Surfer Dudes’ initial audience was other surfers, so we suggested a promo plan that got him in front of that audience in such a way that it exploited his platform (being a well-known surfer at that particular beach) in order to sell a very strange book.
Too often, authors don’t consider their audience and tend to say, “My book is for everyone.” Cool; do you know how to find “everyone”? I sure don’t. Is there something you can pull from your book that will appeal to a specific audience? Nothing is worse than asking the question and hearing, “Um, I don’t really know.”
“How do you plan on promoting your book?” is a common question that I ask every author. That question is cropping up more often in fiction as well. And it doesn’t matter how you plan on publishing your book, mainstream trade press or DIY, you will need to promote your book on some level. If you’ve given this some thought…and you should…then an editor will want to hear it. The better your plan, the easier it is to become excited about a new project.
Platform and Promotion go hand in hand. As a publisher of nonfiction, I’m pretty sassy about authors having a platform in order to propel their books. We’re looking for that “resident expert” that quantifies their fabulosity. Fiction is a bit tougher, but Mr. Two Surfer Dudes proves my point about how a platform can mean the difference between indifference and “hey, dude, gotta buy your book.” Just because you’re a novelist doesn’t mean you can’t develop a platform that will enhance your footprint and make your editor love you like I love the beagle’s margaritas.
As writers, we never stop pitching our books, so it’s important to know how to do this in a manner that will make ’em slobber. Go out and embrace your brilliance.