Tag Archives: pitch

Boiling Down Story – Creating a Pitch

As a competing mentee in this year’s Pitch Wars, I’ve been working on formulating a pitch. It would seem that, having dreamed up, outlined, and written an entire novel (and I won’t even go into the number of revisions I’ve done) that I should be able to write a sentence or two about what the novel is about. It should be cake, am I right? It isn’t. Or at least, it isn’t for me.

Photo by Alexander Tikhomirov

Photo by Alexander Tikhomirov

I wrote a handful of ideas to communicate the heart of my story. I’d prefer to share its emotional payoff, more than the plot points, but I seem to revert to the temptation to describe action. I’d like to arrive at the “benefit” of what the reader will gain from my book, but I also want to avoid being vague. Le sigh. What’s in it for the reader? A story about finding a place to belong, when everyone calls you crazy. But that doesn’t fulfill the book’s title, RADIO HEAD. It is truly a story about the redemptive quality of music. I’ve also tried to keep my pitch ideas between the recommended 17-25 words.

I NEED YOUR HELP! Do any of these jump out at you? Do you have any thoughts about what would make them more intriguing? Do any turn you right off? Your advice is appreciated!

Pitch Ideas for RADIO HEAD:

  1. Haunted by the burden of hearing a song inside anyone who touches her, mentally disturbed Shelby Rey searches for a place to belong.
  2. When you hear music in everything and everyone, the white-coats call you crazy.
  3. Everyone has a song inside. Can Shelby Rey silence hers before narcissistic rockstar Zac Wyatt convinces her to help him write his solo album?
  4. Mentally disturbed Shelby Rey will never be normal, not when she can hear everything, including the songs of everyone who touches her.
  5. Music is the only thing Shelby Rey can trust. When her headphones are bagged as evidence, all she can hear is herself.
  6. Mentally disturbed Shelby Rey can hear rockstar Zac Wyatt’s next album. All she has to do is touch him.
  7. Mentally disturbed Shelby Rey can hear what rockstar Zac Wyatt can’t—his next album. All she has to do is touch him.
  8. A narcissistic rockstar seeks musical healing through a mentally disturbed woman with a secret, and a heroin-addicted prodigy.
  9. Music is a healer, both transcending and transforming. RADIO HEAD is a contemporary adult novel about how we hear.
  10. Blurring the lines between music and self-expression, RADIO HEAD turns up the volume on finding a place to belong.
  11. Shelby Rey can hear music everywhere, and it’s making her crazy.
  12. An unforgettable contemporary novel about finding your song in someone else
  13. Homeless Shelby Rey is haunted by the burden of hearing the songs of anyone who touches her.
  14. Everyone has a song inside. Mentally disturbed Shelby Rey is haunted by the burden of hearing the song inside anyone who touches her.Please let me know if any of these speak to you–and any advice you’d like to share! Leave a comment below, or tweet me @TheRJLacko. Thank you, and happy writing!

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Thoughts on Plots (and whatnot) with James Thayer

When people ask what your book is about, they are really asking about the plot. A response: “It’s about two German Shepherds sniffing for buried treasure,” only scrapes the surface. Why dogs? Why that breed? What kind of treasure? Where? When? What must they overcome in order to sniff it out? What will they do with it once they find it? Why should I care?

At the risk of digressing, the author and tweeter @NathanBransford pointed out that a pitch formula should read: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER, they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.

Master Storyteller Jim Thayer, author of 13 books and new manual for novelists, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel: A Complete and Concise Manual for Fiction Writers offers his take on novel plots. The following are excerpts from his post on authormagazine.org:

What is a plot? According to E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a plot is an organization of events according to a “sense of causality.”  Encyclopedia Britannica says a plot is “the structure of interrelated actions, consciously selected and arranged by the author.”

What isn’t a plot? Forster says this isn’t a plot:  The king died and then the queen died. But this is a plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief, because of the causality.

Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.  Others think there are only five plots: man against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man against God.

Don’t worry about finding a truly fresh plot: Donald Maass says, “There are certainly no new plots.  Not a one.”  The legendary Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda says, “In books, as in other things, there is nothing new under the sun.”  The fear of imitation is immature, according to Edith Wharton.

Make sure the plot is big and bold. Most of us are happy if our lives have a nice equilibrium.  We don’t want a life that’s a county fair ride. Not so for our plot, though.  Novelist and writing teacher Sol Stein says a reader “is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experience in life.”  Stein compares readers to sports fans: “The spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life.”  Erica Jong says a novel “must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.”  Kurt Vonnegut agrees: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’

How do we know if we have a workable plot? If we can reduce our story to one or two sentences—called the pitch in the movie industry and often called the handle in publishing—we may have a successful plot.  And if we can’t, something may be missing.

The pitch will force us to trim our idea to its essentials, to a plot.  David Morrell points out, “There’s a huge difference between having an ‘idea’ and elaborating it into a plot.”  Publishers don’t want an idea.  They want a plot.  As Gerald Petievich says, “If you can’t tell yourself what your story is in one or two sentences, you’re already running into trouble.”  A story has certain elements, and if your pitch doesn’t have those elements, you don’t yet have a story.  Petievich adds, “As complex as your novel might turn out to be, it’s essential you be able to state clearly what your basic story is and where it’s going.

What are the elements of a pitch?  Donald Maass sets them out: “1. Where is your story set?  2. Who is your hero or heroine?  3. What is the main problem they must overcome?  4. Where do you think this novel fits in the marketplace?”  If our novel can’t be pitched in one or two sentences, we haven’t thought about it sufficiently.  We may be missing some ingredients in our plot, or your story may be too rambling.

James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service: www.thayerediting.com.

Check out my recommendations for books writers should read on the topic of–what else?–writing.

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The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents

Generally, I try to spare you overly lengthy blog posts. Most writers work from home and already have enough temptation to procrastinate from our craft with lame excuses such as folding laundry or taking the cat to the vet. This post is worth a sit-down. That is, if you’re serious about writing an excellent query letter for your manuscript.

Written by upcoming author JM Tohlin–whose novel The Great Lenore will be in stores Summer 2011–interviewed 50 agents about mistakes writers make when pitching a book.

The tips he has collected are invaluable. As Tohline comments, “You’ve (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.”

He also recommends visits to Janet Reid’s Query Shark page, and to Rachelle Gardner. “Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. Study, learn, and practice! You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.”

Ready to be impressed? Here are the superb agents who contributed to this post:

Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Stephany Evans * and those who requested to remain anonymous.

In JM Tohline’s words, here are the mistakes these agents mentioned most often:

Mentioned 3x
“Go to my website for a sample of my work…”
“Find my query attached…”
Querying before your manuscript is ready

Note: “Before your manuscript is ready” does not mean “before the first draft is finished.” It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

As Donald Maass put it: “Granted, it’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.

Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: “Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice.

Mentioned 4x
Talking about the book’s sequel, or…
…pitching more than one book at a time
Writing a query that lacks confidence

Mentioned 5x
Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread

Mentioned 9x
Queries addressed to “Dear Agent” (or anything similar!

Mentioned 10x
Vague query letters!

Mentioned 11x
Queries with more than one agent listed in the “To” field

Mentioned 14x
Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
…that have no clue what the agent’s submission guidelines are

And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you’ll ever make on an agent. Don’t slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.

Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a “Dear Agent” salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let’s be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email,I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn’t seem too much to ask.” Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: “We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it’s important to customize queries so they address us by name.

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff:It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I’d be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously.

Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the “multiple agents in the subject line” problem:We like to feel special!

Sean McCarthy even took this one step further:I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I’ve worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention.

After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.

Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.

Bree Ogden’s email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:

1. If a writer isn’t going to research the right agents for their project, that’s really mainly hurting them, but at least don’t publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, “I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…” It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you’re not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.

2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.

3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author’s key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.

One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:
The answer to your question is an easy one.
The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.

I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.

Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.

Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.

In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, “Do your homework!

Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don’t post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said,Don’t try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It’s great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we’ll only do that IF you’ve intrigued us with your knock-out query!” On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: “If you’re asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them.

Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!

Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the “What Not To Do In A Query” section of the lecture she gives at writers’ conferences…. Continue to read this post in its entirety for more excellent, thought-provoking advice, including nine less-obvious mistakes contributed by agent Liv Blumer.

You can  find Mr. Tohline on Twitter @JMTohline. Learn more about him and his new book The Great Lenore here.

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Lit Agent Tina Wexler’s 6.5 Tips for Impressing Agents

Does your heart skip a beat when you come within pitching range of a literary agent? When you eye a coveted agent across the crowded room at the writer’s conference, are you prepared to introduce yourself with confidence? Literary agent Tina Wexler offers a bit of advice to authors anxious to make a memorable first impression.

1. Be nice. Agents, like most everyone, want to work with people who are personable. This does not, however, mean “Fawn over the agent” or “Send a bushel of apples to the agent.”

2. Demonstrate knowledge of an agent’s list. This doesn’t mean you have to read every book they’ve ever soldI leave that job to my mombut by showing them you know a bit about who they represent, you’re telling agents you’ve done your research on who to query.

3. Do your research on who to query. Period.

4. Write a really amazing query. Which is to say: take your time, try describing your work multiple ways until you find the best approach, read successful queries online and have as many people as possible read yours so that you’re certain it makes sense and is a shiny apple.

5. Write a really amazing manuscript. Which is to say: take your time, put your work through multiple revisions, read published works in your genre, and consider joining a critique group or finding a writing partner whom you trust who can help make your manuscript a shiny apple. 

6. Don’t ask me, “Why all the talk about apples?” because if you’ve read my client Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, you already know it’s because I’m constantly daydreaming about Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake. But do ask other questions you may have. Be a part of the conversation. Agents want critical thinkers who take this getting-published thing seriously.

6 ½. Take this getting-published thing seriously. There’s plenty of fun to be had, but remember, this is a business, not a hobby or a get-rich-quick scheme. Agents want hard workers, writers dedicated to their craft who view getting published as the first step of a long journey, writers whom they will want to be with on that journey.

 

Tina Wexler, an agent at ICM, is predominately interested in middle grade/YA fiction and adult nonfiction. Tina currently serves on the board of the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature and is an active member of SCBWI.

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Act One: 10 Essential Elements

I’m a little addicted to the The Script Lab. As I worry over and scrutinize my fiction novel, tweets about screen-writing from @TheScriptLab interject with lucid, helpful, applicable ideas. My blog is for creatives of all stripes, and ideas for good writing can come from any genre. I really like this list of elements; it reminds me of both my responsibility to me reader and also makes a handy checklist to ensure all the key pieces are visible and organized before pitching a potential agent with my first chapter.

Let’s see what we can learn about the ten essential elements of Act One today from the informative folks over at The Script Lab:

The first act is very simply: the beginning of your story.
Usually the story begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole manuscript.
ACT ONE: ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS
Tone.  Very quickly you want to establish the tone: is it serious, a comedy, a fantasy, a spoof? Let people know right away that it is okay to laugh, to cry, to dream, etc.
Theme. You will also want to establish the theme – what message are you trying to convey: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, “The underdog triumphs”, “Good versus evil”, etc.
World of the story. As the story begins, you will introduce the world of the story – where does it take place? What is different and interesting to this world? What are the rules of this place?
Character introductions. At the same time, you will introduce the principle characters to the audience. Be specific and original. Let us know their age, how they dress, walk, talk. Give them a scene in which they stand out from the others. Let the audience know these people are special.
Protagonist weakness. The main character’s weakness(s) must be clear so that the later obstacles can attack that weakness in the second act.
Point of attack. The point of attack (or inciting incident) is the moment when the dramatic conflict announces itself. It’s the first perception of the predicament to come, and usually, a moment that is very visual.
Main tension. This predicament sets up the main tension around which the story will be built: Will they fall in love? Will they rob the bank? Will they escape alive? Will they do all three?
The stakes. The stakes have to be clear in order to show the audience how and why this tension is important to them, or – more importantly – what will happen if the character does not solve his/her problem. It should be huge – a matter of life and death.
Objective. A character’s objective or goal is what drives him. This should be very specific, very clear. How badly does he/she want something and what are the lengths he/she is willing to go to get it.
Lock-in. The first act concludes once the main character is locked into the predicament, propelling him/her forward on a new quest trying to accomplish a specific goal. Now the reader/audience knows the character, the predicament, and the objective, so everything else is about the future.

Usually the story really begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole script.

Follow me on Twitter @RebeccaLacko

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5 Key Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer

The book proposal may require as much time to prepare as your first draft of your manuscript. Or perhaps your fifth. While there are several schools of thought on what agents specifically look for in an effective book proposal, Gary Smailes, the author of several history books for children including the Brave Scots and Modern Hero series, has identified The 5 Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer.

Smailes is quick to remind writers that “the agent or publisher will be assessing you, your book and your concept for commercial viability,” in order to determine if it to sell enough copies to actually make a profit.

“The job of a good book proposal,” says Smailes, “is to convince the agent or publisher that your book is a solid business investment, as well as a well written work of literature.” Here are Gary Smailes’ tips for ensuring your book proposal has answered five key questions:

1. What is your book’s genre?

The book industry is divided along the lines of genre. Publishers and imprints collect expertise in editing, production, sales and marketing all based on a particular genre. After all, it takes a completely different skillset to sell cook books, as opposed to romance novels. In turn, agents look to gain knowledge and trust of these publishers. This means agents too become genre experts. An agent with in-depth knowledge of the cook book market, its publishers and internal editors, is very unlikely to have the same insider knowledge of the romance genre.

As a writer looking to have their book published, it is essential that you pin point the correct genre. Only once you know your genre, can you then go on to find a suitable agent or publisher with expertise in that genre.

One good method of identifying your genre is to look at competitor titles. If you look for books that are like your book, there is a pretty good chance that these will be in the same genre. My advice would be to go into your local book shop and find just one book that you are sure readers of your book would also enjoy. Then, identify two or three other titles that are come under the same genre.

The list of competitor titles that you produce will allow you to do two things. The first is to correctly identify the genre of your book. Using Amazon as a guide, you should be able to do this. The second is that the competitor titles will allow you to demonstrate to any potential publisher or agent that you have knowledge of your given genre. When pitching your book, your list of competitor titles will encourage the agent or publisher that they are dealing with a book that they can sell. The agent/publisher will have an intimate knowledge of the genre, if you are listing titles they know well, then there is a pretty good chance that your book will be a fit for their list.

2. Who would read your book?

Readership is an important aspect of your pitch and is closely related to your genre. My suggestion is for writers to develop the concept of the ideal reader. This is a fictional person who represents your target audience. You need to be able to explain the age of your ideal reader, their buying habits, the kinds of books they like, the lifestyle they lead and the reasons they will buy and read your book. Once you have this person in your head, it becomes easier to paint a picture to potential agents and publishers of whom will be your target reader.

3. Is the book written, if so how long is it?

In regard to fiction books, submitting a proposal for a completed book is better than submitting a proposal for a partially written book, or an idea. Think about it, when submitting a partial the best response you will realistically receive is a request for the full book. This will send you into a tail spin of panic as you rush to finish, simply because an agent has shown a glimmer of interest (an agent request for a full manuscript, is a long, long, long, long way from an offer of representation). Before you submit a partial, ask yourself why? Are you simply looking for someone to like your book? Are you looking for validation? If so, then the book submission route is not the best way to discover if your partially written book has commercial potential.

Assuming you have completed your book, the agent/publisher will be interested in knowing the book’s word count. There is no exact science here, but agents and publishers are looking to check whether your work is not too long or short. Look at your competitor list, the word count of these books should be roughly similar to your own. If your book is too short, then consider expanding before submission. If it is too long, then consider removing sections, or even splitting it into two or three separate books. Either way very long or very short books present agents/publishers with a problem.

4. What aspects of your biography may provide an interesting marketing angle?

Your book proposal should establish that your book will fit into the agents/publisher’s area of interest, show that you understand the marketplace and clearly identify the readership of your book. However, there is still one important aspect – YOU. When it comes to marketing your book, the publisher will be looking at you as a writer, and trying to determine if any aspect of your life can be used to leverage the book. If you are a skateboarding granny or a skydiving vicar, then great. But even us mundane, normal people will have an angle to offer. Maybe you have a huge online presence, or an interesting childhood or even a record number of rejections. There will be something hidden away that can be packaged to make you a more interesting prospect as a writer.

The key to understanding what to include in your biography is not to see it as an interview, but an opportunity. The agent/publisher is not looking at your credentials as a writer (though these play a part) they are looking at you as a whole and what you can bring to the marketing party. So when writing your biography, don’t be afraid to share.

5. Are there any unusual issues that are worthy of mention?

Agents and publishers hate surprises! If your book comes with baggage, then it is better to get it out in the open as early as possible. If you need illustrations or photographs, then include this in the pitch. Translations costs money, so do fancy covers. Color photos are more expensive than black and white. Oversized books bring their own problems and if the book has appeared as a self-published project the agent/publisher needs to know. The general rule is that if it is going to cost money then mention it up front.

One aspect that worries writers, agents and publishers alike is copyright. It is essential that you have a clear copyright position established prior to pitching. One special word of advice here comes in regards to songs. The use of song lyrics in a book can be a potential stumbling block for any proposal. Getting permission for using song lyrics can be expensive and time consuming. My advice is to simply avoid using lyrics at all costs.

@RebeccaLacko’s note: This last item causes me tremendous strain. If you’ve read my book pitch, song lyrics play a significant role in my story. I’ve already broken one of Smailes’ rules: I pitched my fiction book idea and received requests for three chapters and a synopsis. It sent me into exactly the tailspin Smailes described, but it also validated to me that I had a commercially viable story. Hmmm.

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The art of pitching your novel; advice from Ken Levine

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about writing and self-doubt, my husband doesn’t want to hear about my writing process. He has, however, made it abundantly clear that my “pitching technique” needs serious work. I need to sell my story, and sell it like a champ.

Ken Levine, a TV comedy writer with a killer blog discusses what sets a pitch apart from a synopsis. I’ve extracted excerpts applicable to writers (and altered a few words–found in parentheses–to make it more novelist-friendly) from his post How to Pitch a Pilot or Movie:

Pitching is an art. When you walk into that room you’re not a writer, you’re a salesman. You’re Don Draper.

Your goal is to get the person you’re pitching it – be it an agent, network, studio, investor, whoever – excited. It’s way more than just about spelling out the synopsis.

First: Your appearance. Guys, you don’t have to wear ties but show some respect. Nice shirt, maybe a jacket. Don’t show up at a network meeting in a workout suit (I’ve seen this happen). For me to give women fashion advice would be like the Pope giving sex tips, but unlike men, most women are smart enough not to show up in sweats.

Bring with you a beat sheet that has the salient points of your pitch. (Writers, a synopsis or excellently executed proposal would be appropriate.) Don’t bring a presentation that you read aloud. That’s death.

If possible, you need to appear confident and relaxed. And it’s easier than you think. Those meetings always have a false sense of casualness. Everyone’s breezy, there’s usually five minutes of charming chit-chat. Meanwhile, you’re dying inside and they’re so sick of these meetings they could scream. But it’s all smiles and will help put you at ease. As a general rule, I find it’s best not to take a shot at them for not buying something you pitched (in the past). That sets a bad tone.

When you pitch, make eye contact. With everybody. Usually there will be the alpha dog and two to five assistants. Make eye contact with all of them. Some writers make the mistake of only playing to the big decision maker and ignoring everyone else. First off, that’s incredibly rude. Secondly, you want everyone on board. The more people in your corner the better. And guess what? These assistants often go on to become alpha dogs themselves. And they have a very good memory for assholes.

I’ve seen male writers only look at the male executives and ignore the women. You can’t believe how they are loathed.

Don’t mumble. Don’t say “you know” or “like” a thousand times. Don’t stop every few minutes to refer to the beat sheet, pause, and then resume.

As for the pitch itself:

Rule number one: Be enthusiastic. This is a killer idea! You’re passionate about this one. To say, “I see a lot of vampire (stories) are selling. Why I don’t know but anyway here’s my vampire (manuscript)” is to say, “Hi, I’m wasting your time and mine.”

Start with the concept and why you think it’s so great. The arena is completely unexplored. This is a relationship you’ve never seen. You’ve found a way to do THE SORROW AND THE PITY but really FUNNY.

I suggest you really rehearse your pitch. You can get so lost pitching a (novel), laying out unnecessary details and omitting others. Confusing the buyer is not a good thing. Neither is boring him. If you’ve pitched for a half-hour and you’re still in act one you are so toast. Do a dry run or two for your agent or significant other.

If you can distill the (manuscript) into a few lines, that’s a great start. For ALMOST PERFECT with Nancy Travis we said, “This is about a single woman in her thirties, having trouble with her personal life and working life and on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life. Both are full-time jobs. How does she balance both?” CBS bought it right there.

For comedic (manuscripts), have some jokes in your pitch. And this is very important: don’t bail if they don’t laugh. Some (agents or publishers) are great audiences, others are like playing tennis against a blanket. But just plow forward. Just because they didn’t laugh doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. And on the other hand, you may make your prospective agent or publisher roll in the aisles only to say no.

One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation.

Give quick sketches of the characters. Again, sprinkle in laughs.

After you’ve rundown your pitch, they will generally ask you a few questions. This is not a bad thing (unless they’re hopelessly confused, that’s bad) The more they talk about the idea the more you can get them excited about it.

Props and visual aids are at your own peril. Sometimes they help, most times they don’t. We once went into a pitch that related to the food industry with a producer who thought it would be good idea to bring in tons of chicken and side dishes. The network was horrified. All through our pitch they just stared at this food wondering what to do with it.

And finally, when they say, “Okay, this sounds good. Let us talk it over” that’s your cue to say “thank you,” get up, shake hands and leave. Don’t keep pushing. Don’t suddenly remember something about a character you forgot to mention. Get in, make your pitch, and get out.

Like I said, pitching is an art. It can be learned and practiced and perfected.

And then there’s this: You can give the greatest pitch in the world. You can be Paul Harvey, George Clooney and the Juiceman all rolled into one but if the idea itself is (junk) it’s not going to sell. Likewise, a great idea can sometimes survive even a subpar pitch. But most ideas are somewhere in the middle – that is until you step into the room and blow ‘em away.

Best of luck. Make Don Draper proud.

Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis.

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