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What's An Aspiring Author To Do?

This column is based on questions Margaret gets asked by those who also want to write romance novels. The answers are based on her personal experience. Every author must and should find their own way along this path; however, sometimes it helps to know how it was for an author who's reached the goal of publication.

This column's question:
I'm going to a writers' conference and I've got the opportunity to "pitch" my story to an editor or agent. What's a "pitch" and how do I make mine effective?

Margaret answers:
A "pitch" is like a short interview. You meet an editor or agent face-to-face, usually sitting at a small table in a very bland room, and have the opportunity to introduce yourself and tell them something about your writing. And that's all. Like a synopsis, a pitch will not make or break a sale; it's simply a means to make a personal connection with an editor, perhaps get a little feedback (very little, given the time constraints) and -- this is the important thing -- have them ask to see your work. This is the main goal of the pitch, and if that happens, you've moved up one "rung" in the publishing ladder. In the case of an editor, if they ask to see your writing, your work has become "requested," which takes it out of the slush pile. In the case of an agent, it means that person is intrigued enough to consider representing you. These are goals worth aiming for, so how can you make your pitch the best it can be?

1. Do your homework. Make sure you're pitching to the best possible editor. Do they edit for the line you're targeting? Do they work with authors who write the sort of stories you want to write? Have they bought work you really like? If you're pitching to an agent, who else do they represent? Do you like the work of those authors?

2. Try to relax. This is not a job interview. The single most important factor in an editor's buying decision is the written work, not whether or not an author can give a good pitch. An agent wants to know if your work is publishable -- something no one can judge by looking at you. Or listening to a ten-minute pitch. However, if you can't relax, don't sweat that, too. Agents and editors appreciate this can be a stressful experience.

3. Be prepared to say what excites you about your story. If your story doesn't excite you in some way, it likely won't excite anybody else, either. Also consider what makes your story right for that line or genre, but also what makes it different from the rest. Have you put a new spin on the tried and true? Have you come up with a really great character? Exciting situations? Pick two or three elements like this to concentrate on, rather than trying to tell the whole plot. But do be prepared to give a short plot synopsis, too, just in case you're asked.

4. If possible, be able to talk about your characters and story without referring to notes. This implies you've identified the key points you want to make, you're comfortable and confident. However, if that's going to render you speechless or incoherent, by all means, use cue cards or notes. No editor or agent is going to think the less of you, because they know people get nervous. Even if you don't refer to them and just want them there as a security blanket, that's fine.

5. Whether you have cue cards or not, make as much eye contact as possible. Smile. Shake hands. Speak clearly. Even if you've got a migraine and cramps, be enthusiastic. Do NOT look down and mumble. Yes, I've said your writing is the most important thing, but you don't want the editor straining to hear, or wondering how long this pitch is going to take.

A Tale of Two Pitches
Author Sally Sensational does a truly fantastic pitch. She's vibrant, confident, the words roll off her tongue. Her story sounds exciting and her characters unique. Editor Emily Enthused can hardly wait to read Sally's work. She's so excited by the pitch, she goes out on a limb and asks for the full manuscript.

Several months later, Sally Sensational's manuscript arrives on Ms. Enthused's desk. Remembering Sally because of that outstanding pitch, Emily drops what she's doing and grabs it, thinking she's about to discover a wonderful new author for her house. She begins to read...and discovers Sally's book is anything but sensational. It's so dull, it's dead. The characters are flat, the plot contrived. With a weary sigh, Ms. Enthused stops reading after five chapters, hands it off to her overworked assistant and tells her to send a form rejection.

Author Suzy Shy is a nervous wreck before her pitch. She's practically memorized her synopsis, but even so, has enumerated key points on cue cards just in case she suddenly blanks. She knows Emily Enthused works on the line she hopes to write for, with some of her favorite authors, and edited a book she particularly adored. Thus prepared, yet shaking in her shoes, she smiles anxiously at Emily Enthused, and begins her pitch.

Sadly for Suzy, this is the fiftieth pitch Ms. Enthused has heard since arriving at the conference. Her eyes are glazing over and there's nothing particularly fascinating about Suzy's pitch. On the other hand, there's nothing outrageously wrong with it, either. So Emily does what a lot of editors do under such circumstances. She says, "Send me a partial."

Suzy returns home and gives her partial one final polish. She sends it off, duly noting in her cover letter that now it's a "requested submission." Weeks pass. Emily finally manages to get to her requested pile, and picks up Suzy's submission. By now, she doesn't remember Suzy at all. Nevertheless, she starts to read...and discovers, there in her very hands, an opening that makes her sit up straight. It's wonderful -- fresh, interesting, compelling. She reads the rest and finds the same holds true right up to the end of Chapter Three. She grabs the synopsis, because she MUST find out how Suzy's going to finish the story. Suzy's done a good job there, too, so Emily immediately asks her overworked assistant to send a letter requesting the full manuscript.

Who do you think is going to sell a book first?

Index of Aspiring Author Columns
This material is Margaret's intellectual property. If you would like to print it out for your personal use, feel free. If you belong to a writing group and would like to reproduce it for your fellow writers, please e-mail Margaret at maggiejmoore @ (no spaces). All other use is prohibited.

Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Wilkins. This material may not be copied without permission.