Speed-dating … for writers: 3 skills for surviving a pitch slam

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By Julie Tyler

So. You’re ready to pitch your novel. You’ve written a logline. You’ve signed up for a conference and psyched yourself up for it.

Can you survive pitching multiple times in a single day?

As you head to your first (or twentieth) conference, put these three survival skills into practice:

#1 – Picture the scene before you become a part of it

Pitching a novel in person is similar (I’ve heard) to speed-dating. You’ve got a few short minutes to make a good impression. But instead of landing a second date in hopes of starting a romance, you’re trying to land an agent in hopes of launching your career as a novelist.

So what’s pitching really like? Picture this: You walk into a big room. All the agents, the gatekeepers of your industry, are seated around at little tables. You’re standing in a line behind other writers. You’re fidgeting, skimming your notes, reciting your logline in your head. You look around. The other writers doing what you’re doing. As the tension builds, the room get hot and you regret wearing that wool blazer. Then …

Dinnnng! You hear a bell or feel the hands of a conference volunteer ushering you to an agent.

That’s your cue to start! You sit down in front of an agent. You shake hands. You say “Hi, I’m [state your name].” Then you launch into the pitch you’ve rehearsed a bazillion times. “Hi, my novel is [name book’s genre]. It tells the story of etc, etc.” If you’re Whitney Jones, you throw in some jazz hands, for good measure.

It’s official. You’re pitching. You’re putting yourself and your creative work on the line.

In an ideal world, you can take an agent out to lunch and enjoy a nice leisurely conversation about your book. But in real life, that’s not what you get. The process of pitching is fast-paced and if you’re giving it all you’ve got, you’ll feel exhausted after it’s over. Depending on the conference you attend, you’ll pitch in either of these two scenarios:

  • At a pitch slam at a larger conference, there are more writers than agents in the room at any given time. That means: One, you have to wait your turn. Two, you get three minutes, that’s 180 seconds, to deliver your logline and hook an agent. Given these logistics, there’s no guarantee you’ll meet with all the agents you’re interested in. In fact, you many only get to meet with only half of them.
  • Scheduled pitch sessions at a smaller conference will often allow ten minutes to pitch a single agent. Ten minutes feels luxurious compared to the three minutes you get at a “pitch slam” at larger conferences. And you schedule (and pay for) individual sessions in advance, meaning you’re guaranteed to meet with an agent during a designated time slot. No lines. No elbowing your way through a crowd.

For surviving either scenario, it all comes down to your preparation. Have you researched the agents you want to meet? Is your logline tight? Does it speak to your novel’s central conflict? Does it provide an emotional hook? Have you practiced saying it aloud to others? 

#2 – Prepare for Q&A after you deliver your logline

Delivering a kick-A$$ logline aloud, to a real-live human being, is a huge accomplishment! But your pitch is not over. You and the agent you’re sitting in front of still have several minutes to fill with conversation about your novel.

The agent is likely to ask you questions like, What’s the book’s title? What are the subplots? Does your villain get a comeuppance? How does your novel end? Where did you get the idea for this book? How did you research for this novel? What are some comparison titles? These questions and your answers help the both of you determine if you’re a good fit for one another.

The agent will likely ask other questions in an effort to sniff out any major problems in your manuscript, like whether it lacks conflict or a compelling point-of-view. For example, an agent could ask, “What sets your novel apart from others in this genre?” You’ll want to be prepared with specific answers on the level of style, plot, character … everything.

You might be thinking, “Oh, piece of cake!” because who knows your novel better than you, right? Well … think of it this way: you know how lawyers on TV prepare their clients to take the stand and be cross-examined? Clients may know everything about their experience, but lawyers coach them to respond in ways that are favorable to their case.

It’s the same for you, minus the judge wielding a gavel. You’ll want to be able to answer an agent’s questions in ways that are favorable to your pitch. And take my word for it, the best preparation is practicing Q&A with a writing buddy.

#3 – Brace yourself for agents’ reactions

After you deliver your logline and answer questions about your novel, you’ll then have around thirty seconds to close the deal. No matter how the agent reacts–with giddy enthusiasm or spiritless rejection–this segment of your pitch can be the most grueling if you haven’t braced yourself.

It will go one of three ways, so know the possibilities ahead of time:

  • Best case scenario, an agent says, “This sounds great. Send me a query letter and samples chapers.” If this happens, don’t leap across the table and give the agent a bear hug. Simply say, “Thanks. A pleasure.” Then go back to your manuscript, your query draft, and other supporting materials, and refine the hell out of them before sending in anything.
  • Worst case scenario, an agent says, “Thanks for sharing your idea. It’s not for me, but someone else will love it. Good luck … Next?” If this happens, say, “Thanks.” Then go back to your logline. Tweak it. Work on problems in your manuscript. Pitch again.
  • Something in the middle, an agent says, “Well, I’m a little concerned about [aspect of your novel you discussed], but … send me a query and sample chapters after you have addressed this issue.” If this happens, do exactly what the agent says. Seriously, folks. Advice from an agent is worth its weight in gold.

Phew! So there are your survival tips, though after several rounds, pitching becomes sort of fun and you may not need ’em! Once you’ve finished a slam or series of scheduled pitches, though, be sure to take yourself out for a celebratory meal, hopefully with a writing buddy!

As always, let us know how your writing projects are coming along! Comment below with your ideas and experiences!

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