So for all the writers headed to NYC this weekend for the RWA (Romance Writers of America) National Conference one of the most important things to have packed and at the ready is your pitch. After all the clothes, shoes shopping, the time you spent getting your roots done, have you spent as much time perfecting that single line you are going to toss out that will peek the interest of an editor or agent? Is it enough to stop them in their tracks and train their antenna toward you? (Honestly, they do have antenna, they are just expert at hiding them.)
A good pitch will convey your enthusiasm for your project, reveal the mood of the story and create enough excitement and curiosity in the editor to entice them to request a proposal. What pitching doesn’t need to be is a heart-stopping, frightening experience. No matter how you shake with unnecessary nerves or how badly you stutter through your pitch, chances are excellent that if your story fits the editor’s line and is something she is looking for, she will ask to see a proposal.
So relax. A good pitch will do the work for you. Your only task when you enter an agent/editor appointment is to have done your homework. Here are your pre-appointment assignments:
1. Can you explain your story in High Concept? High Concept (HC) is a Hollywood term for presenting a story idea in one line, which gives the audience an overview of the story plot and theme. Yes, you read that correctly, one line. If you’ve seen the movie, “The Player” then you are familiar with this method. The first step in preparing your pitch is to find your HC, which is essentially utilizing familiar plots, stories and myths in comparison to your story. When I started working on my book, STEALING THE BRIDE, I used the HC line, “It Happened One Night meets the Regency.” I once heard Susan Wiggs describe her book THE LIGHTHOUSE as “Beauty and the Beast in a lighthouse.”
2. Why High Concept works. Any time you use a familiar theme/story/fairy tale, it comes ready made with emotion, memories, and images. By using fairy tales, myths, beloved movies and legends that everyone is familiar with, you compare and contrast your book setting an immediate mood. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on back story or other elements of your plot, because the moment you use a HC pitch, the editor knows exactly what your manuscript is all about. If I were to say, “Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending,” you immediately know this is a story of star-crossed lovers from feuding families who don’t die at the end.
3. After the HC, what comes next? The body of the pitch tells the editor how you have spun a new take on a familiar story. A good pitch will create excitement about your story, reveal theme, entice readers with the conflict and convey the uniqueness of your story. In essence what I’m describing are the elements of a back copy blurb (BCB). Take four or five books that are similar to what you write and study the back copy, paying particular attention to the use of language and structure. One very important thing to remember: a BCB leaves you hanging as to story resolution, a good pitch won’t!
4. The real work begins. To start, divide a sheet of paper into three sections, heading one with the name of your heroine, the other, your hero, and the third, write in your HC line. Under each section, brainstorm at least twenty words that describe each of these headings. Try to avoid physical descriptions, rather think of words which describe the person’s essence. For the heroine of STEALING THE BRIDE, Lady Diana Fordham, I used words such as: spinster, daring, resolute, determined, inventive, crafty, sensual, risk taker, concealed, audacious, etc. These words reveal her personality, her conflict, her goals, her story. When you are finished, you have a project orientated thesaurus from which to draft your pitch.
5. Drafting your pitch. Take another sheet of blank paper and divide it again into three sections. In the first section, state your heroine’s goal, in the second, your hero’s, and head the last one as “Collision.” In the first two paragraphs, outline the conflict and goals for your heroine and for your hero. Again, read the copy from the back of several books and you’ll begin to see how these are crafted. As you work:
• Try to draw out the theme, mood or quality of the story by using words from your thesaurus. If the story is suspense, the audience should feel the drama in your story. If it is a warm and fuzzy romance, the audience should go away feeling the need for a cozy blanket and cup of cocoa.
• Next, make sure you have demonstrated that your heroine and hero’s goals/conflict are opposing. Simply put, show how your story conflict is “two dogs, one bone,” that the hero and heroine are in opposition. Show the editor that your story has depth and the hero and heroine are going to be battling from the first page to the resolution to have that bone.
• For what I call the collision paragraph, I try to demonstrate the romance of the story. Why these two people are so different or alike and why they will ultimately find love and romance. Again, this is a great place to draw your HC theme into the pitch, and look for language that will evoke the sexual tension/mood of your story.
• Finally, make sure your language includes your enthusiasm for your story. This is your 30 seconds of fame, make it the most memorable 30 seconds of your audience’s life. Leave them breathless with need to read your story.
6. Practice your pitch. Find someone who has never heard the elements of your story before and practice your pitch on them. Listen carefully to their questions, because these may well be the same questions an editor will ask, and you can either rework your pitch to fix the holes or have a ready answer with which to fill in the questions. Anticipate as many questions as you can about conflict, motivation, plot devices and the resolution, and then think out or write out your answers.
7. During the appointment. With so much time being spent discussing how to craft a pitch, there is little advice on what to do when you get there. In group appointments, listen to the questions the editor asks other authors. This will give you a good idea as to what the editor is looking for and what they don’t want to see. Refocus your pitch accordingly. Don’t ever monopolize the conversation, comment on other pitches, or interrupt anyone else. Politely introduce yourself, offer your HC line, and then after taking another deep breath and therefore allowing your marvelous idea to set the mood, give your complete pitch and then close your mouth and smile. Answer questions from the editor with direct, concise answers. Thank her for her time and ask her if she would like to see the complete manuscript or sample chapters and a synopsis.
8. After the appointment. Make sure you send the editor what they requested promptly. Sadly, editors say that they hear wonderful ideas all the time and then never see the manuscripts. Have it out to door and headed for New York as soon as you get back. Write “Requested Materials” on the outside envelope and remind the editor in your cover letter that you met at the RWA conference and the enclosed materials are what she has requested.
Good luck and see you in New York.