Pitching With Confidence

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?

4. Hook
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

Exotic setting

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


  1. Excellent advice, Jeannie. I think you covered all the bases but one: breath mints. Sitting face to face, perhaps over a 30 inch span of table, your gastronomic preferrences won't get you where you want to go. If an agent or editor is leaning way back in the chair trying not to wince at your garlic breath, chances are he or she isn't paying much attention to your pitch. Skip the onions, go for the Altoids. Oh, and don't chew gum. Cud is not recommended for professional appointments.

    (Yeah, leave it to me to go for the aesthetics!)

  2. Some great suggestions and good thoughts but #1 isn't true 100% - I've pitched four times and two times didn't get asked for a partial - maybe it's something about me, but most of the others I was pitching with did get asked - so not sure what that was about - judi

  3. Hello Rebecca! Thanks for having me. I wanted to add a correction. When I was mentioning hook, I meant to say you don't need a "high concept hook", but you definitely need a hook of some sort!

  4. Judi - That's a good point. It definitely isn't 100%. I'm wondering if the times you didn't get requests were from agents or editors? Sometimes the agent/editor isn't looking for that particular type of story. It's the luck of the draw. Glad to hear the other times were successful though.

    Gwnlyn - Good point! I get so nervous, I totally avoid coffee. Breath mints are a good thing to remember and as a former teacher, gum is a complete no-no!

  5. Wow! What a tremendous post!!! You certainly give some great advice on preparing. I think the part that throws people the most is that they want to read that one page synopsis, but you are right in saying that the editor/agent wants you to keep it brief. 2 sentences max. I think I spent hours on those damn 2 sentences. LOL

    You know what helps a person to break out of their mold? Practice. You just have to get in front of people and talk. If you did it once a month for an hour or so, I bet you could break through that shy mold. Hmmmm...maybe you should run for the president position of your local chapter in a year or so... :)

  6. Excellent article, Jeannie and thanks so much for posting it! I've got a lot of work before I query again next year. (Groan)

  7. Kimberly (aka Madame President) is someone who is NOT shy.

    Most of what I know about pitching, I learned from the pitching sessions that Kim invited me to when I first joined the local chapter. Several experienced authors volunteered to help us newbies work through how to pitch. We sat in a living room and just ran through it, asking questions and giving suggestions. I really recommend you start such a pitching session with your chapter right before the big conferences where you have several members going. It really helped to ease the way for me!

  8. Good luck Victoria! The time will be upon you before you know it.

  9. Great post Jeannie! Thanks for all the tips.

  10. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

    I think part of my problem (besided being shy) is the fact that I am new to writing.

    In my head, I know what I want to say but when I try to get the words out, I start to stutter. Then, I get freaked out that I'm doing it and lose the words I want to say.
    Grant it, it is in front of a mirror, but it still un-nerves me.

    Fallon H.

  11. Great post, Jeannie and Becky. You've given great advice. Pitching is one of those necessary evils that usually ends up not being as awful as everyone fears. You're right that being prepared and being confident are the biggest components to success.

    "Prepared" can be accomplished in the calm serenity of your own home, and "Confident" can be faked. I'm not exactly shy, but I'm like everyone else in that I get nervous and doubt myself from time to time. But I do have the benefit of a theatre background.

    So, before a pitch I would just ask myself "Who do I want to be?" Naturally, I wanted to be someone charming, confident and professional. So, I'd walk into that pitch session and ACT like I was all of those things. It usually fooled the editor or agent enough to get a request.

  12. Fallon - It really helped me to have friends in the pitching room who were in the same boat. Also agents know it's a weird, nerve-wracking situation. They expect you to be nervous.

    Susan - I like that tip! Channel your inner bestselling author persona.

  13. I am definitely shy, but like a job interview, once I sit down at a pitch, I'm usually fine. It's the waiting to pitch that kills me, but your tips and explanations are perfect to help get over that nervousness. Great reminder that if your manuscript is a genre they acquire, they'll usually request. That's something I try to keep in mind.

  14. Hi Ella! You're right about the waiting area. It really is like the stew room a la "Top Chef" while you sit and wait. Ella and I got to stew together at NECRWA last year.

  15. Awesome post!

    I think a lot of this is applicable to query letters and synopses and the like, as well. Thanks!

  16. I'm another who SO needed this. I'm terrified of pitching, now that I have the idea to think of it as a job interview, I'm more relaxed. I can get through that!

  17. Jeannie, this is the best post I've ever read on pitching. You've broken the process into its elements and given concrete suggestions for handling each of them. How I wish I'd read this before bungling my way through my pitch sessions at Nationals in 2008.

    I have one unusual tip to share based upon my experience at Toastmasters. I made it to the second level in a speech contest last year, which meant I delivered my speech to a roomful of people that included a few of my club members and a lot of strangers.

    I don't get too nervous in my local club, but that night I experienced the worst case of cotton mouth I've ever had. I was sure my teeth were going to stick to the inside of my lips and I wouldn't be able to speak.

    A friend shared the simple solution, one that sounds gross but works wonderfully: spread Vaseline on your teeth. So, if you're as shy as I am and your mouth goes dry at the thought of pitching, remember to pack your petroleum jelly. :-)

  18. Victoria - Michael Hague's book really helped me think about pitching, querying and synopses. It actually also helped me learn how to write a decent first page! Thanks for commenting.

    T.L. - Good luck with your pitches! Another tip along the job interview track is to research and read up on a blog or article where the agent or publisher is mentioned. It gives you something to whip out during the interview in case you need it.

    Keli - If you're in Toastmasters, you're way ahead of the game. I fumbled through Nationals in '08 too. I was the one constantly wiping my hands on my jacket because I was mortified I'd be sweating and clammy when I shook the editor's hand. I haven't tried the petroleum jelly, but I hear pageant goers use this trick. It must give you a nice smile too.

  19. great advice!
    I actually liked the fact that yes, they USUALLY do ask for a few chapts. I think my writing is stronger then my pitch anyway.
    I remember poor Birget Davis-Todd sitting polietly through my entire droning 5 minute pitch. She barely stayed awake. I barely stayed awake. *yawn*

  20. Wow, I'm logging on first thing in the morning to welcome Jeannie to my blog, and we've already had a nice run of guests.

    Thanks, Jeannie, for the fabulous post. And thanks to everyone who's stopped by.


  21. I think the only "bad" pitch session was my very first one. I wasn't halfway into my first sentence, when the editor started shaking her head. She asked if I had anything else. Halfway into that first sentence she started shaking her head. Told me my stories sounded "way too category." Well, I WAS pitching category. Somehow, I'd gotten in to the wrong editor, and was too shy and nervous to notice. Yikes. She could have been nicer about it though.

  22. Great advice! I never knew how to go about even beginning a pitch...I'm sure I'll stumble all over my words but from what I've heard, agents somewhat expect people to be nervous. Still, I want to try and appear as professional as possible!

  23. I wish I'd read this a few years ago before my first writing conference when my answer to an agent who asked me what I wrote was, "Books"-seriously.
    I've never pitched a book out loud ever, I still orefer to write them down, but this is all great advice!

  24. December - I'm sure it wasn't so bad. You got the request didn't you?

    Rebecca - Yikes! I've heard of such horror stories. Usually with editors rather than agents since they have a narrower band of what they're looking for. Well, if all else fails, you have that experience behind you now.

    ITWM - Definitely practice! I got totally tongue tied the first time I said my pitch out loud, but luckily it was with a bunch of fellow writers and not at the pitch.

    Kate - Oh dear! But I bet you gave that agent a chuckle. :) I actually like to write my pitches, say them, and then leave the notes. It helps to have said it out loud a couple times.

  25. I'm so excited to hear you've sold Butterfly Swords, Jeannie! And to Harlequin Mills & Boon, a perfect match! I read it in a contest (can't remember which one) and fell in love with it. So I'm really cheering now!

  26. Wow Jeannie. What great advice. The thought of pitching anything makes my knees weak. I will keep all of this in mind.

  27. Delle! Good to see you! Contest really helped whip Butterfly Swords into shape so I'm always happy to hear from judges.

    LiLa - Thanks for coming by. Did you two ever pitch before agenting up? I always wondered what it would be like pitching with a writing partner.

    Lynne - Pitching makes me nervous too. But it does get easier with each time you do it. Good luck!

  28. Great advice, Jeannie. It's nice to know nervousness about pitching is universal. Misery loves company, right?

  29. Thanks so much for the info, Jeannie. I'm pitching for the very first time at a conference on Saturday and this really helped. I've already had four books published, so I'm kind of coming in from the back door, so to speak, and I'm very nervous. Query letters seem like they are sooo much easier! Anyway, thanks for the advice... I will definitely take it to heart... Minnette :o)

  30. This was great, Jeanne! I'm going to save this post for when I pitch. Thank you! :)

  31. Jeannie, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share this priceless advice with us. As a newly published author, I have no clue about pitching... I haven't even been to a conference - yet. I plan to save your post to a file so I can retrieve it in the future. :)

    ~Tess Thieler

  32. Hi Jeannie -
    Thanks for offering such detailed suggestions. I hadn't thought about bringing underlying concepts into the pitch. I'm attending a conference next weekend and will definitely work that element into mine!

  33. Minnette - Good luck on Saturday! Having four books out must be like walking into that interview with a killer resume. Have a great time networking.

    Cari - Thanks for commenting. I hope this was helpful.

    Tess - Congrats on your debut. Hopefully there's a conference in your future soon. They can be expensive, but I love being around other authors.

  34. Good luck to everyone who's pitching this weekend. I haven't decided what to do -- my WIP isn't ready to submit yet, so I might just sit in on a couple of group appointments if there's space and listen and ask questions. But I'll have my pitch ready...just in case.

    Jeannie--Thanks so much for stopping by and writing this awesome post. I know you've helped a lot of people this week.


  35. Thanks for having me Rebecca.

    Good luck to everyone pitching this weekend or in the near future! Have fun at the Emerald City conference. With I could be there.

  36. Wow, I wish I had been armed with this information when I pitched at Nationals. I know it will come in handy as I get ready to once again rewrite my query letter.

    Thank you, Jeannie

  37. Hi Renee! The experience I gathered from pitching definitely helped in queries as well as openings. Good luck with the letter and the submission process.

  38. Pssst....I don't know if anyone is still hanging around. I just wanted to say, I had a pitching nightmare. I was stuttering through my pitch when I woke up. It was like having a back to school dream when you're no longer in school!

    It must have been my subconscious thinking about all of you who are pitching at the Emerald City conference. Sending good vibes to you! The nerves may never go away, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Your excitement about your project will shine through. Good luck.