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How to Pitch Your Novel

Crafting and Delivering the Perfect Writer's Conference Pitch

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So you've done the hard part an actually written a publishable novel. Congratulations! Now you just send it out and wait for the bidding war to start right? Well, not exactly. Before you can convince a publisher to buy your work you'll have to get them to read it in the first place.

Publishers and agents are extremely busy people with stacks of promising manuscripts littering their desks already. You need to get your writing not just onto that stack, but right on top.

To do that you need to pitch.

What's a Pitch?

A pitch can be verbal or written and often a combination of both. Verbal pitches are for face-to-face meetings with an agents or publishers. For beginning writers this will most likely be at a writer's conference. These in-person pitch sessions are a great opportunity for you to sell yourself and your writing. You have a real shot at impressing either an agent or editor and getting your manuscript read by the people who can get it published.

In this article we'll focus on the verbal writer's conference pitch, although most of this advice works equally well for a written pitch.

Here's a quick run-down of what you'll need to do before pitching:

  1. Finish the work. Especially as a beginning writer it's important to have your book completed. Without a solid track record it's difficult to get an agent or publisher interested unless you can first prove you can finish a novel.

  2. Do some research. Find out which agents and publishers that will be attending the conference. You want to make sure they represent or publish the type of work you do. Don't waste your time and theirs by pitching work that doesn't match their specialties. So get online and do some research!

  3. Make appointments. Schedule time with as many appropriate agents and editors as you can. The details of how to do this are specific to each conference, so consult the conference's website or your registration info. These appointments fill up quickly, so book early!

  4. Prepare and practice your pitch. Then practice some more. We'll discuss this in more detail.

  5. Look your best. Choose appropriate clothes and plan to look like a pro. As superficial as it sounds the publisher is buying you as well as your work. To successfully market your book they will also have to market you as an author. The more you look and act like a professional, the more comfortable agents and editors will be offering you a contract.

  6. Know what you want. You are not going after a contract quite yet. The sole reason you are pitching is to get agents and editors interested enough in you and your work to actually read it. That's it.

Your pitch itself should be a short, interesting description of your novel that captures its best qualities. Think about the blurb on the back of a paperback novel - that's the level of detail you want. Your pitch should only be about 2-3 minutes long. Remember that your appointments will only be for 10 or 15 minutes each and much of that is made up of questions and small-talk. Keep it short and snappy.

Start your pitch session by introducing yourself, asking a friendly question or two about the conference so far and then beginning your pitch.

Open with something short and catchy. You want a few sentences that describe your novel in the most compelling and intriguing way possible. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Hollywood-style:This works particularly well for genre fiction. You simply describe your novel as a mix of two other well-known (and profitable!) books or movies. For example: "It's Twilight meets Harry Potter ". Of course you'll have to explain what you mean by that in the rest of your pitch, but if it's an accurate description (and it better be) then you're off to a good start.

  2. The "Save the Cat" method: Screenwriter and teacher Blake Snyder describes this method for coming up with loglines for film ideas in his popular screenwriting book Save the Cat. It also works well for pitches! The idea is to come up with a sentence or two that describes your novel and includes the following:
    • It should be at least somewhat ironic.
    • It should paint a compelling mental picture.
    • It should give an idea of genre and audience.
    • It should have a killer title.

    That's a lot to pack into a couple of sentences, but when you get it right it's worth it.

    Here's a couple from movies you know (courtesy of Save the Cat):

    "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists." - Die Hard
    "A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend" - Pretty Woman

    Simple, clear and irresistible. This is the essence of your novel. Start here, add some colourful details and you've got a killer pitch.

  3. Write your own: Using the blurbs on the back of novels as a guide write up a pitch of your own. Make sure to state who your hero is, what his goal is, why he needs it and what's stopping him from getting it. Focus on the conflict at the heart of your book. You absolutely cannot go wrong with this formula.

Hook Them Early

This short intro to your pitch is critical to getting them hooked and wanting to hear more. Write several versions of it (15 to 20 is a good number to shoot for) then pick the best one and polish it until it shines. You can't spend too much time on this - if you nail this part of your pitch you are virtually guaranteed to be asked to submit your manuscript.

Once you've hooked them with your intro then describe your book in a bit more detail. Remember that this is a discussion with other humans and not a lecture. Be natural and passionate and describe the key elements of your story in a minute or two.

When you've finished, end by asking if your novel sounds like something they'd be interested in and take the discussion from there. They will probably have a few questions and then hopefully request a portion of your book to read. At this point be clear about what they are asking for - would they like to read the first few chapters, or the entire manuscript? Get business cards and contact information, thank them and head to your next pitch!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Although pitching sounds difficult and nerve-wracking, it does get easier the more you do it. Most nervousness comes from poor preparation. To make sure you are as relaxed as possible when giving your pitch you should prepare it at least a week ahead of time and practice it daily, out loud. Do this until you can give your pitch in your sleep - the better you know your pitch the easier it will be to relax and be yourself.

Remember that publishers and agents come to these pitch sessions looking for new authors and publishable new works. They need what you are selling. So be confident in your work and in yourself, practice and prepare, and pitch like a pro!

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