Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Conference Pitching: A Nitty Gritty Workshop (Part One)

If there's one thing that can make a writer shake until they fall out of their chair, it's the idea of pitching their story to an agent or editor face-to-face. But if you craft a killer pitch before you arrive at a conference, you'll be one step ahead of the game.

A couple months ago, my fellow Alley Cat, Angie, asked for feedback on her elevator pitch and query blurb. And weird old me jumped at the chance. Call me crazy, but I get a kick out of this stuff. Apparently the other Alley Cats found my comments helpful enough that they convinced me to turn it into a blog post. So here we are.

Just to clarify, I'm going to get into the details of wording choices and plot points to emphasize in a pitch, not necessarily how to deliver it effectively in person. So let's get started.

Here's Angie's original elevator pitch along with the comments I sent back to her.

In the Amazon basin in 1546, a tribal chief's daughter dares to love a Spanish explorer, ultimately facing a choice between her heart and her people.

[My comments: I love the unique setting! In general, this description feels a little broad to me. It's really close, but I think you could punch it up an extra notch by giving more specifics. What's her external goal throughout the story? I'd present that first, then tell how this forbidden love inhibits the goal.]

Without knowing her full story, here's the example I developed based on the longer elevator pitch she had also provided.

Desperate to escape a pre-arranged marriage to a savage beast, an Amazonian princess indulges in a forbidden love. But will the Spanish explorer who has captured her heart pull her from her home, only to lead her into a dangerous trap?

In this revised pitch, I changed the following elements to give it more kick.

1) Mentioned the marriage to a savage beast. I did that for a couple reasons. One is to give her motivation and goal in a short snippet, but it also explains the stakes (the phrase "savage beast" has a startling quality to it and gets the listener's attention).

2) Eliminated the need for a phrase describing the setting and time period. By putting the terms "savage beast" and "Spanish explorer" in there, it gives the listener a sense that it's a historical piece in a unique setting, while utilizing every word choice possible to convey the plot.

3) Mentioned the forbidden love. This clearly sets the stage for conflict no matter what she chooses. Instead of saying she's facing a choice between her heart and her people, we've now rephrased it to clearly show that conflict (marriage to a savage beast versus forbidden love with an explorer).

4) Ended the pitch with a question to increase the stakes even more. Now we're not just talking about forbidden love anymore, but forbidden love that could lead to a dangerous trap. (By the way, putting "dangerous trap" at the end is a Margie Lawson technique of backloading...putting a power word or phrase at the end of the sentence to draw the listener in and propel them to want more.) I didn't word that last sentence very well (has lots of "her" in it), but hopefully it gives you an overall sense of where to provide the specifics.

This type of pitch would be effective for those super-short snippets of time when an editor or agent says, "What's your story about?" You'd probably want a slightly longer pitch for a one-on-one appointment. I'll be dissecting that type of pitch in two weeks when I present part two.

Do you have any sort of method you use when developing an elevator pitch? If you're stuck on your elevator pitch or want feedback, share it with us in the comments. We love to brainstorm around here! :)

*Nervous photo by africa /
**Elevator photo by Gregory Szarkiewicz /


Angie Dicken said...

Sarah, Your help on this was awesome! I feel so much more confident now. Great points. Thanks!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Sarah, what a great post. I haven't prepared a pitch yet. I should, but I've had trouble figuring out how to make it pop. I'll be referring back to this post (and eagerly anticipating the next) to help me. Thanks!

Beth K. Vogt said...

I'd read that novel, for sure!
I love crafting elevator pitches--and I love pitching too!
When I'm working on pitches, I try to think: If I was in an elevator with an editor, and she asked "So, what's your book about?" what could I say that would make her hit the "STOP" button so that she could hear more?
I find that my pitches often start with a question that I hope grabs an editor's attention--makes them think, " would I answer that?" Although for my non-fiction book, I hit the editor with a startling statistic about late-in-life motherhood.

Casey said...

Great insights on the pitch Sarah, thank you! I've been working on mine and I need to finish it today so I can start getting comfortable with the words in my mouth. :) Your tips help!!

Sarah Forgrave said...

So glad I could help, Angie! Now I just need to get confident with my own pitch. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jeanne, A pitch that is specific enough to paint a picture but that leaves all the right questions is one that will pop! Good luck with yours!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Beth, What a great way to think of pitches! Wouldn't we all love to have that agent or editor hit the "Stop" button on us?! :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Casey, Glad this was helpful! Good idea to say it out loud, too. The more you do that, the more natural it will sound in person. (Well, as natural as any of us can sound with dry throats and quaking knees.) :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great post that I'm sure will be helpful when the time comes. I love Angie's unique setting, too.

Casey said...

Sarah, glad I won't be the only one! :)

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Hot off the press, I have a new method, Sarah...Using you!!!

Wow, that's amazing! I love your version--caught me instantly. And I really like the back-loading tactic--it really works!

Seriously, can I throw one to you once I catch my breath from edits here?

Can't wait to read your part 2!

Sarah Forgrave said...

I agree about the setting, Julia! I know foreign settings can be iffy in the inspy market, but I think this one sounds so intriguing.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Oh don't worry, Casey, you definitely won't be the only nervous one! (I might need some personal coaching before I go into my appts.) ;)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Absolutely, Eileen! Feel free to email me what you have any time.

Susan Anne Mason said...


How can you make a pitch sound natural as opposed to some stilted words you memorized?


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Elevator pitches definitely scare me!!! I always end up sounding rehearsed. This is a great post and I can't wait to see the follow-up. Those specific details are a challenge and when I'm done with the story I'm working on, Sarah, I'd love to get your help with a blurb :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Good question, Sue! I like to type out what my ideal words would be (sort of what we did with Angie's pitch). Then I say it out loud enough times so that it's comfortable and natural to the point where I can change up my words here and there and it STILL sounds natural. Does that make sense?

It also helps to transition into the blurb by saying something like, "Thanks for asking about my story! It's a historical romance about an Amazonian princess who's trying to escape marriage to a savage beast..."

You definitely don't want to sound like you memorized lines for a play. I've heard pitches like that, and it's very awkward for everyone involved. The key is to remember you're in a conversation, not a one-way dialogue, so treat it like you would a conversation with your best friend (only with a wee bit more formality). :)

Hope that helps!

Sarah Forgrave said...

I'd love to look at it for you, Cindy! Bring it on. :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Sarah, that is brilliant! You really have a grasp on the whole concept! Whenever I get ready to pitch, I'm coming to YOU!

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Sherrinda. Hmmm, maybe I should start a pitch-doctor business. :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Just have to say, Sarah, the pitch-doctor idea is genius. If you ever decided to do that, you'd have a line of people wanting your help :)

Pepper said...

I'm hanging around with Beth and Sarah at conference.
Just so you know!!!

What a wonderful post, Sarah. I love the succinct way you completed this.

Can I call you the Pitch Doctor? I need to make an appointment.

Pepper said...

LOL, just saw Sarah's reply about the "pitch doctor'
Great minds....
Wait, sorry - that probably scares you, Sarah ;-)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Too funny, Pepper! Dollar signs are dancing in my eyes. Er, wait, a pitch doctor probably wouldn't make as much as a REAL doctor, huh? :)