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Writing Excuses 6.19: Pitching

Writing Excuses 6.19: Pitching


Key points: three pitches, one line, three paragraph, deep conversation. Adding more words to a pitch that's failing will sink it faster -- stop. What's it about? Not a plot synopsis -- what kind of book is it, who would like it. Make them say, "Tell me more." Three paragraph -- one concept, something interesting, something cool. Make them say, "I want to read this book." Deep conversation -- let the other person talk about what they find exciting, what they find interesting. Practice your pitches with friends and family.

[Brandon] ...pode 19, Pitching.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because Writing Excuses is a 15 minute long podcast that you should listen to because we are all very clever and we talk about writing and it is things that writers should all be listening to...
[Brandon] BRNNNNN.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] Is that not a very good pitch?
[Brandon] No, that's not a very good pitch. Sorry, Howard. But, you're here to learn. So we'll teach you.
[Howard] Okay, teach me how to make a good pitch.
[Brandon] Theoretically.
[Mary] Besides, our listeners are in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] Well, there's 35 seconds we're not getting back.

[Brandon] Okay. So, pitching. We get this request a lot. The longer I've been in the business, the more I've come to understand how poorly new writers pitch. In a way that I wish I had understood as a new writer because I pitched poorly. So this podcast is going to be talking about pitches. We're going to talk about three different types of pitches. Basically, your first one is your one-liner, your elevator pitch is what they call it. We'll then move on to the sort of three or four paragraph explanation. Then, the last thing for the pitch is if you happen to get into a nice deep conversation, where to go from there. The first two are the most important ones.
[Dan] The reason that you need to have all three of these prepared... Say that you're going to Worldcon or World Fantasy or... Somewhere where you're intending to meet an editor or an agent and try to pitch them. You need to have all of these ready based on the situation. If you just happen to run into an editor, "Hey, can I tell you about my book?" "Well, what's it about?" One sentence, and you're done. If you can distinctly and succinctly describe your book in one sentence, you're great. If they have more time, you want a nice little thirty second to sixty second thing so that you're still not overwhelming them, but you are giving them more information.
[Mary] The reason it's called an elevator pitch is because in theory, you should be able to give it in the time it takes to get between one floor and the next.
[Brandon] Yup. This is actually really important, guys. Being able to boil down your story to one sentence. It's excruciating, perhaps... Particularly for us epic fantasy writers. But you've got to be able to do it. So many new writers... Editors get this scared look in their eyes when someone says, "I'm a writer" or "I'm an aspiring writer."
[Howard] They start to glaze over.
[Brandon] Because they been cornered by so many writers who won't stop talking about their book for minutes and minutes on end and the longer that goes, the editor's mind is just going, "Oh, this is..."
[Dan] Well, and the other problem, in addition to just talking too much, is that what you end up saying is so generic that it's useless to the editor or agent.

[Howard] If I had one piece of advice to offer, it's that if you think the pitch that you are giving right now to this editor is not going well, adding more words won't help. It's time to stop. Just bow out and acknowledge, "You know what? I need to work on my pitch. I'm sorry."
[Dan] We see this a lot at conventions when people will ask us... Because we're apparently experts now... Will ask us for advice. We'll say, "Well, tell me about your book." "Well... It's..."
[Not sure] "Oh, it's about..."
[Dan] "So much stuff!" If they have anything to say, it's often a comparison to somebody else, which is not bad, but still doesn't tell you a ton.
[Mary] One of the best pieces of advice I got from Jim Mintz was... He said, "So what are you working on?" And I was like, "Agayaya..." He's an editor at Baen. What he said was, "Don't tell me the plot. Tell me what it's about." Which was really useful for me. Because I was trying to describe what happened. That's not what they need to know. What they need to know is what kind of book is it, who is it likely to appeal to... Not this is going to appeal to all fans of Harry Potter. Not that.

[Dan] Let's start with the one sentence. I will give you my pitch for Hollow City. My book coming out next year. The one sentence for that is, "It's a story about a man with schizophrenia who realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real."
[Brandon] That's a great one sentence pitch.
[Mary] That is fantastic.
[Brandon] Now, one thing that that's doing, and I'm going to give you this point of advice, listeners... Proper names. Keep as few of them in your pitch... Both the one sentence and the multi-paragraph... As possible. One name, maybe. Otherwise, you can just drop the name and say, "It's about a guy..." Because what's going to happen is... I find a lot of new writers come and they'll pitch to me. They'll have, "His name is Fargnatz, and he lives in the kingdom of Slarpathia, and in Slarpathia the..." You go and...
[Dan] Yeah. In the pitch I just gave you, the guy's name is Michael, but if I tell you that, that doesn't increase your interest or knowledge of the story whatsoever.
[Howard] The thing about that pitch is that with the exception of the word schizophrenia, nothing in that pitch tells me whether it's fantasy or science fiction or horror. You tell me that somebody has... Somebody is seeing things and some of the things he sees are real... And are scary.
[Brandon] See, but mentioning schizophrenia tells me immediately what genre it's in.
[Howard] Locks in a genre. But it could be science fiction with the addition of one or two words. Robot!
[Dan] A robot with schizophrenia...
[Brandon] Now I'm going to say, Dan, you could say, "Michael is a man with schizophrenia..."
[Dan] You certainly could.
[Brandon] Because your name is normal enough. Even just one name, if it comes off the tongue... Even if his name is Tam. Tam is not a normal American name.
[Dan] But if I tried to say, "Michael lives in Chicago, and is an inmate at the Powell Psychiatric Institute and..." At that point, I'm giving you more information than you need in order to know whether my story is interesting or not.

[Mary] One of the goals of the pitch is actually to make someone say, "Oh, that's interesting. Tell me more."
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Howard] Mary, how do you pitch Shades of Milk and Honey?
[Mary] Jane Austen with magic.
[Brandon] That's all you need.
[Dan] Fantastic.
[Brandon] One of the other things that I've heard professionals tell me a lot about it... About pitching... Is what has been mentioned here. Try to get across what type of category of book it is, if you can. Jane Austen with magic is perfect. Now, you don't want to go overboard on the it's-this-makes-this, and yet occasionally...
[Dan] That can be effective.
[Brandon] That can be very effective. At... We were doing a pitch session at Jordan Con, and the author there was David B. Coe. He was saying, "Yeah, I'm writing a book that's Harry Dresden meets Samuel Adams."
[Dan] That sounds cool.
[Brandon] It's a this meets this, and that's actually a pretty... It tells you everything you need to know about this book in your one sentence pitch. It's new, but it's like some of these things. It's a historical Harry Dresden book. It's a historical urban fantasy wizard story.
[Mary] What they're doing with that is that you're picking... You're basically using a shorthand. It's not I'm going to pick this highly popular thing so that you will think my book is also going to be highly popular. You're picking something that's popular because it's recognizable and that makes a useful shorthand.
[Dan] Yeah. That was a big thing when we had my agent on the podcast now months ago. She talked about that. Don't just say, "Harry Potter, Twilight, [garbled]" whatever the big book of the month is, because that's not going to tell anyone about your story.
[Brandon] Right. But adding... Taking something... If it's seriously like...
[Dan] If it literally is Harry Potter and Samuel Adams, then say that.

[Brandon] Right. So. There we are. That's the one sentence pitch. Short. Quick. If you can do it in four or five words, do it. Your goal with the one sentence pitch is to make them say, "Tell me more" so you can move into the three paragraph pitch, where you can actually explain about your story. One sentence is only a... What do you call it? A hook...
[Howard] It's a hook, it's an appetizer.

[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week, though, before we move on to the longer ones. Mary, you were going to do our book of the week this week?
[Mary] I was going to do The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. The tagline for that is that it's an ambiguous Utopia. I thought I would try and [inaudible]
[Dan] Well, you already told us it was by Ursula K. Le Guin. Isn't that all of her stuff?
[Mary] This is a science fiction book that is set on two different planets. The thing that's interesting about it is that either of those planets could be seen as a Utopia, but it completely depends on how you define Utopia. It's fascinating. The other thing that is interesting about it is it introduced the word ansible into the science-fiction vocabulary.
[Dan] Oh, cool.
[Brandon] Excellent. Which is become essentially evergreen. Everyone uses that to mean faster than light communication. So, The Dispossessed. Howard, how can we get it?
[Howard] You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership. Download The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin or any number of fine audio books and support the podcast.
[Brandon] Yup. Details on our website that you can read.

[Brandon] All right. Let's move on to the longer pitch. Let's say you've got the editor, and you've told them your one sentence pitch which is brilliant. And they say, "All right, tell me more." Where do you go from there?
[Dan] Well, like we said in the beginning, you have to have something ready, so you don't just say, "BlubbluhBlubbluhbluhbluh." What you're looking for here is, again, you don't want to tell them the whole plot. You're not giving them a plot synopsis. You're telling them why your book is cool and why they will be interested in it.
[Brandon] Still, stay away from too many names. I can't emphasize this enough. Particularly in fantasy.
[Mary] The best way I think to look at creating this is to imagine describing somebody else's book that you are incredibly excited about. You're going to focus in on the geewhiz factor.
[Brandon] Right. You're going to... Usually, I would say, pick one concept. Maybe one character and one concept. You're going to pick something that's interesting that you can describe in three paragraphs. This is essentially the movie trailer for your book, rather than the tagline for your book. Stay away from rhetorical questions. We're not talking about, "One man..." But you are going to want the experience to be, "Wow, there is something cool about this book. I want to experience this whole book." The hard thing about this is you have to pick that one concept and then talk about it, even if it's not even the main core of your book. It has to be an important element, but it doesn't have to be the main core. It just has to be interesting. Something you can talk about for three paragraphs... For a minute... 2 minutes.
[Dan] Yeah. I hesitate to give any examples because we don't want to eat up to 3 minutes of our podcast with an example pitch, but...
[Brandon] Right. Reading the backs of books can be a good way to approach this. One big difference however is that an editor or an agent you're pitching to can know the ending. The back of the book can't reveal too much. An agent or an editor certainly can. In fact, you want to... If your cool thing about your book is this awesome twist ending, you can go ahead and give the awesome twist ending as the last line of your three paragraph pitch, if you've set it up well. Then make them say, "That is awesome. I want to read this book." If I were pitching the Sixth Sense, I would pitch it with the last line being the secret of the movie. That's how I'd pitch that.

[Howard] A friend of mine pitched to me Robert Reed's book Marrow. His pitch to me was way more effective than the synopsis that's on the back of the book. Let me take just a moment and read you the synopsis on the back. "The ship has roamed the universe for longer than any of the immortal crew can recall, its true purpose and origins unknown. It's larger than many planets, housing thousands of alien races and just as many secrets. Now one of those secrets has been discovered." When he described it to me, he said, "It's what happens when a group of humans who are functionally immortal discover a spaceship the size of Jupiter and me things that can actually kill them."
[Brandon] See, those are actually both effective pitches. Yours is better... Or the one that you were told.
[Howard] They're both good. The reason it was better is because it was a face-to-face meeting and he was telling me what interested him. You've got immortal people, only now they found something that can actually kill them, it actually poses a threat. That engaged me.
[Mary] The other thing that that does effectively which is, I think, a useful thing, is that it ends with something that begs for a question. It's things that can kill them, which immediately begs you to say, "Well, what..."
[Brandon] What is it?
[Mary] What things can kill them? Part of the reason that useful is that it gets the editor potentially into a longer conversation. A lot of this is about building relationships.
[Brandon] Yup. If you can come out of this having segued into at the bar or whatever a good half-hour discussion about what you find exciting in science fiction and what the editor finds exciting in science fiction, that leaves your book and then comes back to it again, then you've accomplished something awesome.
[Howard] The thing I would stay away from in that long conversation? Talk about your book. Talk about your things. Don't say, "I think this is good because it's better than this..."
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, yeah. Don't knock things. But you know what, even in that longer conversation, leave your book. Talk about what's exciting in the genre for you.
[Howard] Okay. Yeah, I see that. But in pitching your book, don't...
[Brandon] Don't knock other people. The thing is, that's very common in Hollywood. So if you live out in California, it's kind of what they do. Oh, this is way better than that. Don't do that in New York.

[Mary] The other thing, when you're talking to an editor... Once you've done the pitch... After they've asked you to pitch! Please avoid just pouncing on people. Is... People always find themselves to be the most interesting topic. So asking them about themselves...
[Brandon] What they're working on...
[Mary] What they're working on, what they've read recently, will also tell you more... Give you more information that will help you tailor your pitch to fit their interest.
[Dan] What we're talking about now is the third kind of pitch, which is the larger conversation, where you are equipped to talk not only about your book, but about anything that will keep the person's attention that you are talking to.
[Brandon] Well, the way to do that is to let them do a lot of the talking. This should be natural social skill, but most of us don't have it. We're new writers at this era, we're nervous, so we just start talking. Go ahead and let them talk. Find out what this editor is interested in. This editor may not be a good match for you.
[Howard] We talked about this a lot in our episode on approaching editors.
[Brandon] We did.
[Howard] I think we just need to can of worms that whole discussion, the whole social skills of...
[Brandon] Yeah, send them back there. You know what, I'm going to actually take this a different direction, and give it just a few more points of advice that I've heard. One thing is, you do want to have your pitch rehearsed, particularly the three paragraph. But don't make it sound too rehearsed. This is the trick...
[Dan] You're not performing. If it sounds like you're reciting something...
[Brandon] So, the way to do this is to write it out, practice saying it, but then allow yourself to get energetic about it. Say, "Oh, it's great. It is..." Don't just, "Well..." And then go line by line in your pitch.
[Dan] Don't just practice it in front of a mirror. Practice it to people.
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Dan] Grab your friends and your family and say, "Okay. Sorry. I'm going to describe this book to you again. One more time. Let's..."

[Howard] Some of the most frustrating and most profitable pitch practice I've had was at Worldcon in Denver where I was sitting at my table hawking comic books. I finally arrived at, "It's epic science fiction being told four panels at a time. Here, have a sample."
[Brandon] Where I learned to pitch, honestly, was sitting at the book table doing my first book signings when nobody was there, trying to convince passersby to buy my book. Step by step, I got better at pitching.
[Howard] It's long, it's painful, it's useful.
[Mary] I learned to do it selling puppet shows.

[Dan] As maybe a final note, because we're running out of time, I heard this great story in Minneapolis from a writer that I met there. I asked her if I could share it. She was at a pitching like class at a conference, and had the opportunity to pitch to Moshe Feder, my editor and Brandon's editor, and pitched this great story, this very cool twist on the sleeping beauty story in which she's asleep for 1000 years and is telepathically controlling the movement of all of these nations. Then the prince kisses her and she wakes up and loses all of that power. Moshe said, "That's brilliant. Please send it to me." She said, "I haven't written it yet." So if you're going to be pitching something, especially if it's that effective and cool, make sure you have it ready.
[Brandon] Yeah, or...
[Howard] Or make sure you can write very, very quickly and don't admit weakness.
[Dan] You can get it ready in time. Make sure there's ammo in your gun when you're called upon to fire it.

[Brandon] All right. Howard, you've got a...
[Howard] I've got a writing prompt. Take three of your favorite books. Go ahead and look at the back cover copy if you want to. Take three of your favorite books. Write one of each pitch for each of those books, so you're writing nine things. You're learning to pitch somebody else's stuff. Then, and here's the hard part, you need to make one of your friends read one of those books by using those pitches.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go pitch.
[Howard] To actual other people.
Tags: elevator pitch, interest, pitch, plot synopsis, practice

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