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HONING YOUR PITCH: Making The Most Of Your 10 Minutes

© Winnie Griggs, Oct. 2002

If you're like most writers I know, pitching to an agent or editor is not at the top of your list of favorite things to do. There's actually a good reason for this. Writing by its nature is a solitary profession. Most of us who choose it, or are chosen by it, spend much of our time pouring our words onto a piece of paper or into a computer. While great communicators and storytellers, we're more comfortable with the written word than with formal verbal interchanges. Sure, there are those writers out there who are naturally gregarious and just love to talk to anyone and everyone who will listen. Yet, even for those (to me) curious creatures, trying to summarize their masterpiece into a few, power-packed sentences can be intimidating.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there is an art to the pitch, and anyone can master it. Feeling prepared gives you a confidence boost, and that's half the battle.

Once you've crafted your pitch (don't worry, we'll get to the how's of that in a minute) - PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. And this means saying it aloud, over and over, until it comes naturally. Grab anyone who will sit still long enough to listen to you, and pitch to them as if they were an agent or editor. If you can't find a willing vict-, uhm, volunteer, practice in front of a mirror. Make sure the words sound natural, flow smoothly, and that the words you've chosen present your work in an active and interesting light.

If you want/need to write your pitch, or just jot down bullet points as memory joggers, that's perfectly acceptable. Use 3x5 index cards and take them in with you. The important thing is to make sure you paint a concise, interesting, accurate picture of your story. But be warned, that doesn't get you off the 'say it out loud several times' hook. Practicing aloud will help ensure you don't stumble over the words, even if you're reading them, when the time comes.

The appointment.

Ok, the big day arrives. After much nail-biting, the appointment coordinator signals it's your turn. Now what?

  • Take a deep breath and try to relax (I know, I know, but try).
  • When you arrive at the table, smile, introduce yourself, shake her/his hand
  • Once the introductions are out of the way, give your pitch - just like you practiced it.
  • Be sure you let your enthusiasm and excitement for your work show through - it'll be contagious!
  • After you've delivered the opening pitch, sit back and give the editor/agent an opportunity to ask questions. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Don't spend the whole appointment talking non-stop. You need to get feedback on what you've presented so far, and you want to let the agent/editor steer the next part of the conversation. Be prepared to answer questions on any of the following:
    • additional details about the book you just pitched
    • information on what other works you have in progress or planned.
    • information about yourself and your writing credits - this is a good time
    • to mention contest wins, group affiliations, other writing credits, etc.
  • When the time is up, or you have finished your discussion, shake her hand, thank her for her time and consideration, and leave promptly. DO NOT OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME.

On to crafting the pitch itself.

First one quick caveat. What I'm going to give you here is my own slant, based on:

  • information I've garnered from workshops
  • how-to articles
  • feedback from writer friends
  • and (sometimes painful) personal experience.

Just remember - this is not necessarily the only way to do it or even the best way - it's just what works for me.

First, let's look at a quick checklist of what elements your pitch should contain:

  • genre/sub-genre and, if appropriate, targeted line
  • approximate word count
  • setting
    note: these first three bullets comprise your opening
  • high concept
  • heroine: who she is, what she wants, what stands in her way
  • hero: who he is, what he wants, what stands in his way
  • romantic conflict: what attracts them to each other/keeps them physically together, what keeps them from committing/holds them emotionally apart.

The key to this is to be concise. You should be able to pack all this info into 6-10 well crafted sentences, and still paint a vivid, interest-grabbing pitch.

Now, let's dig into the details.

  • The Opening should be easy. Simply open with something along the lines of:

THE LADY AND THE TIGER is a single title Regency-era historical of approx 105,000 words.

There, as simple as that we've covered the first three bullets from our checklist in one sentence.

  • Now, what do I mean by High Concept? Well, there are two ways to approach this.

The first is to use one of the well-known romance themes such as:

  • Marriage of Convenience
  • Secret Baby
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Rags To Riches
  • Poor Little Rich Girl
    (a more comprehensive list of these can be found in Patricia Ryan's list of CLASSIC ROMANCE PLOTS. For your convenience, and with Pat's generous permission, a link to this list is included at the end of this article)

By the way, your story may (and normally will) contain elements of more than one of these. It's perfectly ok to use more than one in your pitch, but I would stick to the two main themes. Bring up any more than that, and you threaten to muddy the water rather than paint a clear picture of your story.

The second technique to convey High Concept is that of comparing your story to well-known characters, stories or movies. This would work something like:

  • Pollyanna meets Mr. Spock
  • Sherlock Holmes meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Petticoat Junction meets Charmed
  • Dharma meets General Patton
Either approach you use gives the agent/editor an immediate image of what kind of story you will be pitching.
  • Next we describe the heroine: who she is, what she wants and what stands in her way.

Part 1: Who she is.
By this, I don't mean her name. In fact it is better if you don't mention names at all if you can help it. Instead, paint a picture using character and situational attributes.

  • a single mother of triplets
  • the only female in a prestigious law firm
  • an ugly duckling heiress
  • an impoverished princess
Don't you immediately get a sense for what each of these women might be like?

Part 2: What she wants.
This is the goal she is working toward and your description should at least hint at why.

Part 3: What stands in her way.
This is, of course, the obstacle that keeps her from achieving her goal.

  • Once you've completed the above process for the heroine, go through the same steps to describe your hero.
  • Now for the Romantic Conflict

Part 1 - What attracts them to each other/keeps them together physically. Although they may not be initially attracted to each other, there must be some logical reason they must stay in close proximity for an extended period of time, allowing the attraction to develop or deepen.

Examples of this would be:

  • their work/social circumstances throws them together often
  • they both seek the same prize/item and must work together to acquire it
  • they are stranded together
Part 2 - What keeps them from committing/holds them emotionally apart. This explains why, once the attraction builds, they cannot achieve their happily ever after, at least not without significant cost.

EXAMPLES

Ok, so enough of the conceptual - let's see some concrete examples of how this would work.

We'll start with an example based on one of my own books.

SOMETHING MORE is a single title Americana of approx 100,000 words. It's a Poor Little Rich Girl/Marriage of Convenience story set in 1892 NE Texas. The heroine, a hopelessly inept, bookish heiress, sets out to prove she can make it on her own by taking a job as a governess, only to find she's botched things yet again when she finds her new 'boss' thinks she's come west to be his mail order bride.

The hero, a lone wolf who thinks himself unlovable, is dead set on adopting his recently orphaned nieces and nephews so the children can stay together as a family, even if it means he has to marry a snooty debutante who doesn't want him.

The two strike an uneasy bargain to marry - agreeing to stay wed only long enough to finalize his adoption of the children. Their plan is to get an annulment afterwards, allowing her to quietly return to her home 'back east'. This means, of course, they must treat the marriage as a purely platonic business arrangement.

Things get complicated in a hurry, however, as the attraction sizzles between them and threatens all their well-laid plans.

In this example, only eight sentences were used and no characters were named. Yet you should have a clear sense of who the main characters are, as well as what their goals and conflicts are.

The second example was provided by Blaze and Temptation author Joanne Rock:

LEARNING CURVES is a sexy contemporary of 60,000 words targeted toward Temptation. It's Rebel Without a Cause meets The Nerdy Professor story set in Louisville, Kentucky. Sociology scholar Madeline Watson can't wait to undertake the study of human mating rituals for her dissertation. Too bad the university thinks upstanding Madeline has spent too much time in the ivory tower to undertake such an earthy subject. Now she needs to shed her good girl image in a hurry, and she knows just the man to help her.

Mechanic-turned-business mogul Cal Turner might teach part time at the university, but he's definitely not ready to provide the proper Miss Watson with the kind of lessons she's looking for. Despite his long-standing reputation as a rebel, Cal is ready to turn his life around now that guardianship of his younger sister is on the line.

But once Maddy decides to turn herself into the town bombshell and bad girl extraordinaire, Cal has no choice but put out the fire in her wake.

Again, only eight sentences were used to convey the storyline. In this example, Joanne chose to use the second type of high concept hook, painting an intriguing mind-picture. She also chose to use her hero and heroine's names, which is perfectly acceptable.

Getting the idea? For good measure, we'll look at one more example. This one was provided by Silhouette Intimate Moments author Catherine Mann:

UNDER SIEGE is an 80,000 word military romance, targeted for Silhouette Intimate Moments. It's a mix of Yours, Mine and Ours meets Black Hawk Down. Single father Lt. Col. Zach Dawson only meant to pay a speedy courtesy call to new mother Julia Sinclair. His wife's desertion of their children has thrown his world into chaos, leaving him little time to spare, even for his longtime friend, Julia. Balancing squadron commander duties and parenthood presents a challenge beyond even Zach's strategic skills.

Military widow Julia wants all reminders of her faithless flyboy husband out of her world. She longs to pursue her woodworking venture and raise her child in peace. However, worries about meeting the needs of her Down syndrome son lead her to accept the too tempting commander's marriage proposal.

When questions arise regarding Julia's first husband's crash, Zach struggles to keep his objectivity. But all too soon, seasoned warrior Zach finds Julia's gentle spirit eroding his defenses, placing his wary heart under siege!

You'll notice that here Catherine starts with the hero instead of the heroine. Order is not important - though one could argue that you start with the character who has the most at stake. For additional examples, click here.

As you can see, all three of these pitches managed to cover every point on our checklist in just 10 sentences or less. And hopefully, each grabbed your interest and made you want to learn more in the process.

In summary, you CAN learn to pitch your story successfully. Preparation is the key (did I remember to say how important it is to practice OUT LOUD?). To make the most of this brief moment when you have an agent or editor's entire focus, do not treat the pitch as just make-work. Instead, view it as an opportunity to really sell yourself as a professional writer, and to sell your work as a marketable gem.

One last word of caution - don't expect to actually strike a deal at the pitch session, no matter how good a job you do. A conference appointment is just an opportunity to connect, an in-person query if you will. But it could be the door that opens onto something absolutely wonderful.

So prepare, practice, and when the time comes, you'll be ready to wow 'em!

As promised, here's the link to Patricia Ryan's CLASSIC LIST OF ROMANCE PLOTS.

My sincere thanks to fellow authors and good friends Catherine Mann and Joanne Rock for the sample pitches they provided, and to Patricia Ryan for the use of her wonderful list of classic romance plots.

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