Please welcome our guest this week, Jeannie Lin. Not only did she just win the 2009 Golden Heart® award for historical romance, she also sold to Harlequin Mills & Boon. She writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. After finishing two manuscripts, she queried and pitched like crazy for nearly a year before signing with an agent. Her winning and selling manuscript, Butterfly Swords, is her second manuscript. Learn more about her at http://www.jeannielin.com.
When I’m writing something like this, I sound so confident like I have no fear and this is all so easy. But that’s not me at all! I’m the shy girl, the girl that people come up to and say, “Why are you so quiet?” as if that will help me come out of my shell. My hands shake every time I’ve pitched. My toes feel numb and my stomach goes all swirly.
How do I get through it then? I remember that I want this bad! I remember that I know my story like the back of my hand and that it deserves a chance. I remember that confidence can be faked.
I also remember these three things:
1. Agents and editors will usually request.
2. Don’t think of it as a pitch. Think of it as a job interview.
3. The worst thing you can do when pitching is to try to tell your story (according to Michael Hague)
Agents and Editors Will Usually Request If they represent or publish what you write, they’ll usually ask for at least a partial. Some people are disappointed when they find this out because it means they shouldn’t be overjoyed by a request, but I think of it as a huge relief. This is your foot in the door. You can wow them with your writing, which is what you’d need to do anyway, right?
Just by the fact that you’re pitching indicates a certain level of seriousness about publishing that a query letter can’t necessarily convey. Your submission will now have the magical words “Requested” on it. But your job is not done. You still want to make a good impression so that when the submission arrives, it’s the one the agent/editor opens first and WANTS to fall in love with. Which leads me to my second point.
Think of the Pitch as a Job Interview In a job interview, you have two goals. You want to make a good impression and show that you’re someone who would be great to work with, but you also want to find out whether you want the job. So instead of you quivering before that all powerful agent, think of it as a chance for them to get to know you and for you to find out about them as well.
Almost every pitch I’ve done has been a conversation. The agent/editor will ask questions about your projects, but they’re also very open to answering questions and giving suggestions. In the end, the actual book I was pitching was definitely the centerpoint of the conversation, but it wasn’t the only point of pitching.
The Worst Thing You Can Do Is Tell Your Story Michael Hague said that in Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and it’s a good motto to remember.
Before I’d ever pitched, I saw people writing long summaries that they would memorize. I was scared to death! After researching and doing a few pitches myself, I realized that the agent doesn’t want a summary of your entire story crammed into five minutes. They want to know the hook and the premise. They want to get enough flavor to pique their interest. After that, it’s the writing that will sell the book.
So if you’re not supposed to tell your story, what do you say? Here are some guidelines that have helped me.
Putting The Pitch Together I’m going to stick to the pitch appointment as opposed to the art of the elevator pitch or what I prefer to call the cocktail pitch.
First, do not start telling your story from start to finish. Do not start explaining who your characters are and why they’re there and how you came up with the idea. Of course, you may in the course of the pitch be asked to expand and that’s fine, but from the moment you open your mouth, you want to boil down your pitch to the marketable elements. You want to immediately set up a picture in the editor or agent’s head of where your story fits on the shelf and what’s the hook that makes it marketable.
1. Be very specific about the details up front: genre, word count, title.
Most importantly, do not be wishy-washy on genre! You may think that your book doesn’t quite fit into a specific category, but do not lead with that uncertainty. It makes the editor or agent uncertain. Remember you’re not trying to explain exactly what your story is with all of its nuances. You’re trying to position it in the market. Look the editor in the eye and say something like, “It’s a romantic suspense with paranormal elements” instead of “Well, it’s a mystery, but it’s also got vampires and werewolves even though it’s not focused on the paranormal.”
Here was my pitch for my unusual premise:
“Butterfly Swords is a historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty. It also has an alternative history twist that brings medieval warriors from Europe into 8th century China.”
2. Marketable elements
Common plots or premises - These are the elements that are easy to recognize. They can be common or popular elements within a sub-genre.
Examples: secret baby stories, arranged marriages, vampires, shifters, Navy Seals, private investigators, etc.
High concept - This is a trope or a description that immediately describes your story in few words. Often this is a comparison to a classic and timeless story, but that’s not always necessary to be high concept. People have used X meets Y such as “Buffy the Vampire slayer meets Regency England”, but that’s not always necessary either.
Examples: An ordinary boy finds out he’s a wizard. A Romeo and Juliet story between two rival gangs. The Wizard of Oz told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch.
Comparable Titles - You may not want to risk comparing yourself, but you should know who else does something similar to what you write. It shows you’ve done your homework and they may end up asking to get a better idea of the project you’re describing.
3. The pitch - Hero, Heroine and Conflict
There are many different formulas for pitching and they all can work. I find Hero, Heroine and Conflict is a good one for romance. Jessica Faust points out that within that framework, the conflict has to be something besides the romance, because the romance is a given. Also within the initial pitch, you should have “The Hook”. (Ah, the magical word. More later.)
a. Who’s the heroine?
b. Who’s the hero?
c. What’s the inciting incident the kick starts the story and brings them together?
d. What’s the conflict?
The hook is what makes your story unique. Having a high concept hook that is easy to visualize can help, but don’t feel that it’s necessary. You want to highlight what makes your story different from everything else out there. Really take the time to identify this and push it in your pitch.
Sample Pitch--Here’s what my pitch sort of sounds like. This is a recreation of my pitch because I’ve never had it written down and it sounds rough on purpose.
Butterfly Swords is a 90,000 word historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty. It has an alternative history twist which brings medieval swordsmen from Europe across the Silk Road into 8th century China.
Ai Li is a princess who's running from an arranged marriage armed with her butterfly swords. She's discovered her husband-to-be is plotting against the throne. Ryam is a western swordsman who rushes into a gang of bandits to save her when she gets attacked. As the two of them try to return to the palace, of course they start falling for each other. But she's a princess and he's a barbarian. So they have to challenge a powerful warlord as well as the Emperor in order to be together.
I deliver it very conversationally. The sentences are very short, not run on. I don't like to memorize or drop into what I call blurb-speak because I know I get very nervous and I'll forget. I know it's not flashy, but it's what I can deliver while shaking. I rarely get to the end of this pitch before the agent/editor interrupts for questions or (hopefully) to request!
I found that if you're missing something the agent really wants to know, they'll simply ask about it. You don't need to make the pitch super detailed. It is important to have an end to your pitch planned so you don't just trail off and there's an awkward silence when they don't know if you're finished or not.
Though I’ve never said these out loud, here were the marketable elements I was trying to get out in the pitch:
Stranger in a strange land
Culture clash - hero and heroine from two different worlds
Swordfights and action
High concept hook: East meets West
Jeannie’s Quick and Dirty Pitch Essentials:
1. Dress professionally. When you look around a pitch room, you can almost tell who’s in it to win it. You want the agents to think the same thing when they see you after a long day of taking pitches.
2. Show up early to the pitch room to check in and get comfortable. If you’ve never done it before, you may pitch in a small meeting room or a giant conference hall. The pitch session moderators will check you in and line you up outside before leading you into the room.
3. Don’t read your pitch if you can help it. It’s okay to be nervous, it’s not okay to be robotic and monotone which can happen when people read or memorize. Remember you want to sound personable and dynamic. People tend to write long flowery pitches, but the agent/editor will glaze over the details if you ramble on. Speak in short succinct sentences that you can remember. Don’t lose the details in complicated verbiage. Of course, if you’re too nervous and need to read, please do! No one wants anyone to be uncomfortable during the pitch session.
4. Finish early to leave time for conversation. Your pitch should really be around 1-2 minutes long. See, a lot easier than planning to speak for five or ten minutes, right?
5. Have at least one question up your sleeve to ask them. This is where it helps if you’ve looked up some recent blog they’ve done or done your homework on their authors. Some fallback questions I’ve used: Ask about their agency/publishing line, clients, history, etc. Where do they see your book fitting in the market? How would they suggest you position your book?
6. Be ready to speak about another project. Agents will commonly ask what else you’re working on, so have that backup ready to go.
7. When you get a request, get the details! Find out if they want it snail mail or e-mail, how many pages, and whether they want a synopsis. Do they want you to send to a special address or put something particular in the subject or on the envelope? Write down these details because you’ll forget and then feel like a ditz later. Trust me, I speak from experience.
8. Finally, before you pitch to an agent or editor, say it out loud to somebody to iron out the jitters. Remember, don’t be so concerned about memorizing it word for word. Just practice in front of supportive people so you can be aware of what sort of questions will come up. I was blessed to be invited to a practice session before I pitched at Nationals for the very first time. At the pitching party, I was able to learn from more experienced writers about what to focus on when pitching. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I wanted to give back by doing this post.
I know I couldn’t cover it all so I’ll be hanging around to answer questions. And if you’d like to throw your pitch out there, maybe we can all help out.
Enjoy the conference and good luck pitching!
For the list of my pitching resources and links, visit my blog and click on the “Coffee Talk: Pitching” tab. Blog: http://www.jeannielin.com/blog