And Now Here’s the Pitch

Morro Bay, CA

I recently attended a “pitch” conference for a week at a charming seaside town on the coast of California. Morro Bay is a fishing village and a tourist trap, stereotypically picturesque and aggressively insular, but like all such small towns, tawdry. You don’t have to look very deeply into the eyes of hotel and coffee shop clerks to see the hopeless boredom of a prisoner. Even the “fancy” restaurants on the boardwalk betray desperation with their superlative descriptions of the Pacific Ocean view to be had from their dilapidated deck. The tablecloths are white, the wineglasses spotless, the lighting soft, and the greasy menu offers “Chile Relleno Burrito” for $19.95.  Can’t beat that for elegance.

But I wasn’t there for the scenery or the culture.  I was there to pitch my latest novel to agents and editors.  The conference had two parts.  For the first three days, each person among the dozen writers pitched their novel to the group and got feedback, mainly from the expert workshop leader.  The “pitch,” also known as the “elevator pitch” is about 150 words that accomplishes these goals:

  1. Describes your whole novel, including title, genre, word count and comparables.
  2. Presents the main character, setting, story conflict, and antagonist
  3. Suggests the story arc and ends on a cliffhanger
  4. Engages the attention and interest of an agent or editor in about one minute.

Writing a good pitch is an art form similar to writing good haiku.  In this workshop, the emphasis was on how to make the pitch commercially marketable.  Every attendee struggled mightily with revision after revision after revision.

At the end of three days, we’d all heard iterations of the pitches so many times, any one of us could have described any other person’s novel in concise detail, even though no manuscripts or writing samples were exchanged. All the novels were in the sci-fi-fantasy genre, and actually all but two were fantasy. Only mine and one other lacked dragons, witches, and mythological beasts. It’s what’s happening.

As a group we also heard “war stories” from two recently published authors about how they got the job done.  Those tended to be not helpful, as every case is unique and there’s not much to generalize to your own situation.

During the final three days of the conference, each person pitched invited agents and editors, sometimes serially in the group setting, sometimes one-on-one in private.  There were five agents and editors present, not all at once.

By the time I was “up” for pitching, I had rewritten my pitch so many times I was dizzy. I had traveled down a long path from a conceptual exploration of an idea to almost an action-adventure format. I had my doubts about whether the final version was even interesting. But I pitched it.

The result was pretty good. I got three requests for “pages” from the five listeners.  One agent asked explicitly for three chapters, a two-page synopsis and a bio, “right away.” You bet I will!  Another just said, “That’s very interesting. Send me some pages.” By asking around I learned that meant send a query letter and about 25 pages. The third person gave me helpful notes on my pitch, said she liked it, and moved on to the next person in the circle, but at the end, just as we were breaking up, she handed me her card and said to send her “something.”

Three out of five ain’t bad, especially compared to three out of fifty on my last outing with a different project using the method of cold email query.  No fish have bitten that hook so far.

My problem now is that the pitch that “worked” at the conference has only a very loose connection to the actual manuscript.  I’ve got the main ideas, the characters and locations, but the story line is not the one I started with. Now I’m furiously rewriting my query letter, synopsis and first three to bring them into alignment with the pitch.  Then I face the daunting task of rewriting the whole manuscript to match.

So it goes.  Hope springs eternal.


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