Monday, July 16, 2018

Should You or Shouldn't You?

The Pitch
By Terry Shames

No, this isn’t a blog about baseball. And I'm not going to try to sell you a hot, new product. It’s about pitching a book. And I’m all for it! Here’s why:

“Oh, you’re writing a novel? What’s it about?” Ahem. “Well, it’s about a man who….”

Are there any words that strike more fear into a budding writer’s heart? Being asked to describe in a few words the novel you’ve been slaving over for months, or even years; the novel that you’ve pared down from a sprawling 150,000 words to a manageable, 95,000; the novel whose every word is dear to you; is daunting.

A few years before I was published, elevator pitches were all the rage, so I developed one for the novel I was shopping. I went to Left Coast Crime and promised not just myself, but my writer’s group, that if I found myself on an elevator with an agent, I was going to trot out the pitch. I figured I was safe making that promise. How likely was it that I would be alone on an elevator with an agent?

In the “be careful what you carelessly promise” category, at the conference I stepped onto an elevator, and at the last second an agent slipped on with me. Not just any agent, but one known for being tough and unapproachable. I won’t name her, but she was notorious for having a sharp tongue. I had a tenth of a second to decide: would I or wouldn’t I?

Friends, I did! Here’s how it went:

Me: Elevator pitch!

Tough Agent: Go for it!

Me: I give well-rehearsed pitch. (NOTE: Well-rehearsed!)

TA (handing me her card): Send it to me.

I sent it to her. In the end, she didn’t take on my book, for the best of reasons: I had another agent interested. When I told TA that, she said if I could wait a few weeks, she would get to it, but that she was headed on vacation (note, she was very cordial).

I signed with the  other agent. But I have never for one second regretted doing the elevator pitch, not because she asked for the manuscript, but because doing it gave me confidence. And it made me hone my pitch to a fine few lines.

One of the hardest things we writers do is promote our work, both before and after it is published. It’s ironic, because presumably we’re proud of our work and want to see it published and read….and yet we struggle with what is deprecatingly called “tooting our own horn.” The term BSP is often used to disparage one’s efforts to publicize books when in fact it is only P—promotion; not blatant and not egotistical. Not that BSP doesn’t happen, but not nearly as often as we accuse ourselves of doing it.

I urge everyone to develop an elevator pitch, even if you never have a chance to use it on an elevator. It’s a way of distilling your understanding of what your book is about, your understanding of what was so important to you, that you spent months writing it. And once you have it down, you won’t have those moments of panic when someone—reader, fellow writer, agent, or publisher—asks what your book is about.

To practice, think of a few lines you’d say to describe your favorite books. What is the elevator pitch for Pride and Prejudice? For one of Timothy Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty books? For Laura Lippman’s Sunburn? For Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice? For Silence of the Lambs? You can be sure the description doesn’t start the way many people start out describing their books to me: Well, it’s about this woman in the early nineteenth century. Her name is Elizabeth Bennett. She lives in a house with her four sisters and her parents. There is no male heir, which means…..blah blah blah. No. Here’s the pitch: Set in 18th Century England, it’s the story of a proud young woman of limited prospects, and a wealthy, arrogant man; and the things they discover about each other and themselves that allows them to fall in love. Give or take, that’s what it’s about. That’s it. Tell where and when, who and what. Maybe sometimes why.

P.S. At another conference, after I had a couple of books out, I ran into the agent who was the recipient of that first elevator pitch. I told her how important it had been to be able to pitch my book to her. Her first question? “Was I nice?” The takeaway from that is that even if they are “tough,” agents are people. They may be tough because they are overwhelmed with work, or because they don’t suffer fools gladly, or because they are introverts…or for a host of other reasons. But they probably aren’t tough because they don’t like good books. They want you to give them a good pitch.

Don’t be daunted because you are afraid of being rejected. You probably will be, plenty of times. Remember, the worst thing you can hear is, “Sorry, this doesn’t work for me.” They aren’t going to say, “Not only do I not like it, but I’ve put out a hit on you and your family for telling me about it.”

Polish your pitch, and tell it to anyone who will listen!


Cathy Ace said...

Thanks for this great post, Terry!

Susan C Shea said...

Excellent advice and, do you know, I still struggle - five books out - with this? So, I'm going to practice distilling my most recent book, Dressed for Death in Burgundy, into a 30-second pitch this week. Surely, at this point, I should know it well enough!

RJ Harlick said...

Dead on, Terry. Terrific post.

Terry said...

Thank you guys for commenting. I actually enjoyed writing the post. The subject was fun, even though it's really hard to write those pitches.