**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.” Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.**
Over the course of her thirteen-year career, Cheri Lasota has edited fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and short stories for publication. Clients include McGraw-Hill Publishing Company as well as individual fiction authors and screenwriters.
Cheri also has over seventeen years of experience writing poetry and fiction.
Pitching agents isn't actually a fine art, though new writers tend to think it is. There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding the dreaded agent pitches at writers conferences every year. Let me lay them out here, and debunk them in turn:
Myth 1: Pitching agents is terrifying! Look, I'm shaking in my boots!
Um, not really. Sure, pitches can be rife with awkward pauses or raised eyebrows. They can be a surefire way to make you feel foolish or idiotic. And, of course, at any point you could end up lodging your foot squarely in your mouth.
But terrifying? Hurtling down 30,000 feet in a plane crash or attempting to survive a category 5 hurricane is terrifying.
Take a deep breath and keep it in perspective.
Myth 2: This is my one and only shot with this agency. If I fold now, it's all over!
This is only sometimes true. I pitched my first novel in nearly every stage of its development (and, no, I don't actually recommend this--but that topic requires another post entirely). The novel has come a long way, as you can imagine, and its current incarnation is quite different from my first couple of drafts.
I had a personal rule that I'd be free to query an agency again after a couple of years as long as I pitched a different agent within that agency or if the agent I originally queried left the agency. This worked well for me.
In addition, you can almost always query a different novel or project if the first isn't snatched up, particularly if the agent requests a look at your other work.
Myth 3: I have to do something crazy or unusual in my pitch to stand out from the crowd.
Er, no. Please don't. I've yet to hear an agent say they've requested pages from an author who baked them brownies or showed up in a Halloween costume, etc., etc. It's most likely to backfire, because agents are looking for professionalism.
And while brownies are yummy, they don't scream professional author. Know what I mean?
Myth 4: Agents are gods and goddesses and I'm not worthy enough to lick their spurs.
While I do now actually think my awesome agent is a literary goddess, I realized when I met her that she's first and foremost a savvy business woman.
It may help you to stay calm if you realize what an agent pitch actually is: a job interview.
And here's the kicker: you're the interviewer and potential employer. Weird to think of it that way, huh?
In the literary world, our job interviews are a little backward because agents have so many prospective employers (unpublished writers) beating down their doors. This perspective certainly helped me in my pitches, as it allowed me to think of questions to ask the agent, questions that would help me see whether they'd be a good match for my career needs, both in the short- and long-term future.
If you shift the focus from your own fear, you may end up accomplishing what a pitch session is designed to do—help you and the agent decide whether you'd work well together.
Shooting from the hip
It's a different approach. Most of the time, writers come in, blurt out their story for ten minutes, and leave no time for questions or conversation.
The submission package—specifically the query letter and first few pages of the book—is where the real selling begins. But that comes later.
First things first, try pitching as if the story is not the most important thing.
When you first sit down with the agent, focus on making her comfortable with you.
- Say hi, ask her how she is doing today, and whether she has attended this conference before.
- Take a deep breath, give her time to reply.
- Express an interest in her personally by asking a few questions about books she's represented or her favorite genres.
- Try to think of your time with her as an engaging conversation about something you are both passionate about—books!
- Pay close attention to the agent's answers, as these will help you hone your upcoming pitch to her on the fly. They may also guide you in writing her a query letter later if she requests to see pages.
Get on with it, ye chicken!
After a natural pause, you can then begin to give her the stats of your novel: the genre, the word count, the setting, and the (working) title. Practice a one-line logline.
(A logline is a word borrowed from film pitching. It's a catchy one-liner on what your novel's about. Here's the one I used for my first novel: Two lovers are caught in the throes of a myth that's threatened to separate them forever.)
Feel free to shut yer trap at any time...
Oddly enough, this is a great time to shut up.
Yup, I mean it. Give her time to digest the info you've just flung at her. She's mentally checking your book against her current client list and thinking about how your novel might compete in an overly-saturated market.
Wait a beat to see if she has any questions. Look in her eyes to see if she's still with you. If you see the glazed-eye look, don't panic.
Just think back to what you gathered about her personality during your opening chit-chat with her. Does she seem like she prefers no-nonsense responses? Is she a generous conversationalist who forgives your nervous slip-ups? You know more than you realize, as we all know how to pick up facial and behavioral clues.
Waxing poetic at the pitching post
If she has no questions at this point, you might want to ask her what more she wants to know about your story.
Try to anticipate what questions she might ask and think of your answers ahead of time. If she doesn't have any questions, then you can launch into your (slightly longer) pitch at this point.
When you finally get to your pitch, try honing it down to two minutes. Throw in a quick sketch of your main character and what his or her main story goal is. Perhaps include some of the major events that make your plot shine.
Above all, be sure to share what element(s) of your novel make it stand out from the pack. Does your novel have an unusual or exotic setting? Is your character larger-than-life or incredibly empathetic? Does your plot make your readers' mouths water in anticipation?
Don't get carried away, partner!
Find a way to tell the agent what makes your story special without using any adjectives or disclaimers or wild claims.
What I mean is, telling an agent that your story is "edge-of-your-seat thrill ride beyond your wildest dreams" might get you in a heap of trouble. How can you truly be sure your book can live up to your hype?
Above all, be honest, be professional, be kind, be courteous.
Such niceties are what you'd expect to receive from a future business partner--why shouldn't you do the same? Respect goes a long, long way in the publishing world.
If you are pitching this year at any conferences, I wish you the very best of success. Don't forget to relax and have fun. Remember, she's only one agent. If you don't get a request for a partial or full, there are hundreds of others you can query later.
Cheri has a story coming out in the short story anthology, Words to Music, available at Amazon.com on Jan. 31, 2011.
All proceeds except the publisher's minor expenses go straight to charity.
She has recently finished revisions on her first novel, a historical novel set in the Azores Islands, Portugal, where she lived for two years. Artemis Rising is represented by Bernadette Baker-Baughman of Victoria Sanders and Associates, LLC. Currently, Cheri is writing and researching her second novel, a YA romance set on the Oregon Coast.
Follow Cheri on Twitter at @StirlingEditor