At the beginning of this month, I attended the 56th annual Summer Conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association along with 500 – 600 other hopeful or already published authors and dozens of agents and editors from around the country. Conferences like this are an excellent way to network, to learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing. More important from my point of view, they are opportunities to submit one’s work on a face-to-face basis.
While an agent may receive as many as 200 queries a week—that’s over 10,000 a year—he/she may only take on fewer than half a dozen new clients a year, giving most letters only a cursory glance before tossing them into the waste bin, never seeing any of the manuscript.
Now I don’t know about you, but after I’ve spent months writing, then revising and refining a manuscript, I’d like someone to give it more than a few seconds’ blind consideration. At every conference I’ve attended, I’ve had no less than five minutes of any agent or editor’s undivided attention and the chance to pitch to several, either by formal appointment or by elevator pitch, always with a request for chapters or “the complete.”
With each new conference, I have refined both my writing and my pitching technique with improving results. Last year I was almost published until the house changed what it was looking for. This year I received a “yes”—meaning “let me take a look at your work”—from one top agent I had been warned almost never makes such a request.
Yet, while these are golden opportunities, it is amazing how unprepared most writers are when the time arrives. Agent Cherry Wiener, whom I did not pitch this year, but with whom I shared a beer, says that more than 90% of all conference attendees are not ready. Either their manuscripts are still full of typos and writing faux pas, or their pitch is unprepared. A writer should be able to give a full sense of the story in half a dozen clear, well-rehearsed sentences, yet I have been astounded to hear attendee after attendee ramble incoherently while the agent they were pitching struggled to make sense of their presentation.
If you’re unsure what an elevator pitch should sound like, drop by my website and visit the Books page. The brief description by each novel’s sample PDF file is exactly how I pitch them. I did not arrive at any of these by accident. Each is the result of weeks of phrasing and revisitation. Each describes what the protagonist must accomplish and the adverse context surrounding his struggle and/or the consequence should he fail. Your pitch should sound similarly crisp and concise.
What about the subplots? What about the minor characters? All the complexity you’ve woven though your masterpiece? These don’t belong in your pitch, as intriguing as they may be. If, after you’ve pitched the central theme, the agent wants to hear more, you may give a careful, well-rehearsed rendition of these points, none of which can be impromptu unless, of course, the agent takes you down an unexpected path with an unexpected question.
Being this anal can produce surprising rewards. Out of dozens tossing the agent gobbledy gook, you will stand out. This year, after I pitched one agent who handles thrillers, but not, I learned, paranormal thrillers like mine, she looked me in the eye and said, “That sounds intriguing. Would you send me the first fifty pages and a one page synopsis? I’d like to read more.”