You know how writers’ conferences are. Fast, furious, with lots of breakout sessions and hopefully, one-on-one meetings with agents and editors.
I’ll be giving the opening speech at the NETWO 2016 Annual Spring Writers’ Roundup, and will be hearing lots of manuscript pitches, as will all of the presenters involved.
Usually those agents and editors are booked full to overflowing, and often you get about five seconds (perhaps at the cocktail party!) to pitch your book.
So how do you get the attention of that perfect literary agent you have your sights on?
It’s simple really. Simple, sadly, doesn’t mean easy but it all boils down to perfecting the perfect pitch for your book.
First off, you’ve done your homework beforehand, in 2 different areas:
- Identifying that agent and/or editor who is just ideal for what you write.
- Honing that pitch.
You have to do number one before even beginning the arduous task of boiling your book down to a couple of beautiful sentences. Because one of the first things said agent will ask you is, “Why are you coming to me?”
More nicely, but that’s what they mean 🙂
And you of course already know that she handles what you write, and professional that you are, you can compare your manuscript to other of her authors and books she represents.
That’ll perk up her ears.
So you’ve done that, and are ready to attack her in the elevator or bathroom.
Laugh here. That’s a joke. Agents and editors hate being caught during personal time. They tell horror stories about it at dinner.
And although writers can and do get desperate trying to catch the eye of that perfect person, you’re better off not to start 50 yards back after assaulting someone during private time!
Back to the homework.
Once you’ve identified to whom you hope to pitch, then we get down to the brass tacks of what you’re going to say.
And we do this backward. In 2 steps.
- It all starts with the synopsis.
Wait! You say. I just want that 2-sentence pitch!
Yep, but we start honing in on those by fashioning a great synopsis to begin. And here’s what you need:
A good synopsis is composed of very specific elements:
A). The tone of it should be almost conversational—as if one were giving the gist of a book to a neighbor, while leaning across the fence.
Of course, the tone needs to reflect that of the book itself.
B). Make it creative—create, evoke, show—rather than ‘told to.’ Have the flow of the language sound like that of the text itself. In other words, give a flavor of your writing.
With most writers, 99% of the time, the prose in the synopsis is opposite of that from the book. If the first thing an agent or editor sees/hears is a dry synopsis, you run the risk of him not looking past it.
C). Use active voice, rather than passive; the latter gives that ‘told to’ effect, the former draws a reader into the story.
D). Cover the beginning, middle, and end. The agent or editor needs to know the end of the story to evaluate whether you can complete it. Include backstory only if needed. Give a sense of time and place.
E). Evoke the central conflict and identify the antagonist or opposing forces.
F). Highlight some of the big plot points, including the climax.
G). Give clear characterization of the protagonist—his reason for involvement in the story problem, the goals, the stakes, the character’s Achilles’ heel, needs, primary strength and weakness. Show how the protagonist has changed—what need was fulfilled, what goal met, what character flaw overcome, etc.
H). However, do not give a lot of details, especially ancillary ones. We don’t need to know ages of characters here (unless age is a big issue, such as a mid-life crises, or YA rite-of-passage, etc.), their professions (ditto), where they were from, who their family was, etc., unless, again, this plays a part in the story itself. Also, name only the important characters
I). Make this read as does the inside jacket-cover blurb from books you love. Study those. Emulate them. Then, take what you learned and apply it to your own book.
J). One page. At most, two. Single-spaced
Okay, got that. Done, right? You have the perfect one-page synopsis. Whew!
And why do you need that now? A., to fashion from it your pitch, and b., to have it on hand in case you get the attention of that literary agent or editor, who now agrees to see more.
An inside secret here: Agents and editors most often cringe at synopses. Because writers tend to be terrible at them. I’ve had more than one top editor at a major house tell me he doesn’t even read the synopsis because they’re usually so bad, he’d never even look at the manuscript.
But yours is different now, no?
- So, finally, we’re ready to tackle that pitch.
And this is where you go backward:
- Take your long synopsis, and cut it in half.
- Cut this down to two paragraphs.
- Then, to one paragraph.
- Pare that down to a couple of sentences.
- Boil all of that down into one, thesis sentence.
- Finally, write another sentence or two around that. This is your “pitch.”
While yes, this seems backward and a lot of unnecessary struggle, the exercise really works.
Finally, get very clear on one last point. Because if that literary agency or editor is interested, this will be her next question: Who are you and why are you qualified to write this book?
Hone in on only that which pertains to you writing this book. They do not want to know that you’re married with two children and live on the coast of Maine with your Golden Retriever—unless, the coast of Maine is a pertinent point in the storyline. Or that the Golden Retriever is the actual narrator. Even then, include only that part.
Include any publications you might have had. That is a big plus. If you don’t have those, don’t worry. The debut novel is still king, at least for the time being.
Once you have all this pared down to the essence, you can confidently pitch that agent or editor at the drop of a hat (or cocktail napkin). You’re always prepared, always professional, and that’s what they’re looking for.
Because when it all boils down to it, the only thing agents and editors are seeking are books that they can sell. That’s it.
They want to know:
֎ Why you think they’re right for your book.
֎ The core of it.
֎ And who you are.
Everything else is just window dressing, and will get in the way of your goal.
Now, go write that perfect pitch!