You’re at a writing conference. You’ve scheduled your ten minutes with someone from New York you’ve never heard of.
That person is an agent, and this is your shot.
The pleasantries are over. You’ve introduced yourself, you’ve both commented on how wonderful this hotel is and how funny the morning keynote guy was.
Your butterflies begin to settle down. This agent seems nice, not the bored been-here-heard-that intimidator you expected.
You’ll throw up later, but for now, in that awkward pause between hellos and getting down to business, you believe you’re ready.
That’s when the agent says it. Or some form of it.
So what are you working on? Tell me about your story.
And suddenly all those butterflies are back.
The next thirty seconds will decide the fate of this relationship.
Because you are now at a crossroads. You have two choices.
You can do this properly and demonstrate your mastery – not only of your story, but of the craft of storytelling – or you can make the most common mistake in the business.
At least when it comes to pitching agents at writing conferences and in elevators.
Which is… you simply start. At the beginning. In sequence.
You begin to narrate the whole damn book, as if your words are to be heard as a condensed stand-in for the printed story itself.
As if you can tell it as well as you believe you wrote it.
Newsflash: you can’t.
You may be allowed to go on and on and on before the agent holds up a hand and asks for clarification… if that even happens at all.
Or they just say it sounds interesting but it’s not for them, and ask if you have anything else in the works.
It’s too late. You’re already toast.
Here’s what’s going on in those 30 seconds.
At least, if you don’t do this properly.
Within seconds the agent is asking herself questions like… excuse me, what genre is this again?… where did this idea come from?… where the hell is this going and why is it taking so long?
And perhaps… I wonder where the closest Carl’s Jr. is?
Because a professional author (which doesn’t necessarily mean published) – someone who knows what makes a story really tick – doesn’t do it this way.
A professional knows that what makes a story tick is context.
A set-up. Just as when a reader who picks up a book off the shelf (a form of pitching at the retail level), there are things that are clear from the outset: the genre, a hook from the inside flap or back cover, a sense of story from the cover art, and some semblance of context-setting by way of revealing the novel’s backstory.
In other words, why the author is excited to tell this story – indeed, must tell this story – and a preview of what the thematic impact of it all will be.
If Dan Brown was pitching The DaVinci Code, he might begin by saying something like:
“I’ve written a thriller that blows the lid off the entire Catholic church and threatens to undermine the very heart of the Christian religion, all within the guise of a murder mystery involving priests, crooked cops, secret sects, Leonard DaVinci and some pretty cool codes, all of it based on accepted mythologies.”
He’d say that before he utters a word about the sequence of the story itself.
And the agent – because they can smell a winner from the parking lot – would already be praying that this will work.
Imagine you’re a realtor, and you’re driving the client to see a new house you think they’ll love.
In the car on the way over you tell them why you think that. You tell them what kind of house it is, the background of the house, the way the house will make them feel, and the quality of the construction.
When you get there – if you’re a pro and you’ve done your job well – the client is already arranging their furniture in the back of their mind.
When pitching your novel…
… if you don’t do something similar before you launch into the story itself – if you don’t set it up, don’t preview and pre-sell it – the agent’s defenses are already up. Once they hear you begin with… “So there’s the guy who leaves home when he’s sixteen, and then he meets this girl…” they know this isn’t going to work.
Chances are they won’t ask for clarification. You haven’t given them a reason to.
No, as they sit there politely listening, they’re already asking the questions – the ones I told you about a moment ago – that you forgot to cover.
Agents aren’t readers, they’re sales professionals.
Which means, they’re looking for a professional-level sales pitch on your book.
Expose yourself as an amateur by simply launching into the nature of your first chapter and you’ll not only induce a fog in the listener – no matter how good the book may be – you’ll announce yourself as someone that doesn’t understand storytelling as well as you should.
Because if you can’t pitch it properly, if you don’t recognize the power of context and theme and intention and passion and a killer hook – not to mention the limitations of the pitch vehicle itself – how can you possibly write it well enough to interest them?
But the agent won’t be asking that question.
It’s a given in their mind, and they’re already deciding between a salad and a tuna melt as soon as you’re done.
If you’d like to understand more about the relationship between your story and your pitch, as well as concrete ground rules and examples of how to deliver one effectively, please consider my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”