More on Pitching by Sharon Mignerey

Yesterday, I introduced my friend and fellow writer, Sharon Mignerey, along with Part One of an article she wrote on pitching your novel project. Today she's back sharing more tips on how to boil down your idea to a delectable, marketable, sound byte.

Feel free to post questions, comments, or your own tips on pitching.

And now, Part Two of "The Pitch . . . Formula or Free-for-all?"

Figure out what your story is about. According to Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) every story, no matter how complex, can be reduced to the following five elements: (1) a character in a (2) situation with an (3) objective he or she hopes to attain, an (4) opponent (villain or situation) who strives against your character, and (5) a possible catastrophe that can result. If you can reduce your story to these five elements using no more than two sentences, you’ll be a star. One common technique is to put the first three elements in a statement and pose the last two as a question. A couple of examples:

When a huge superstore opens around the corner, Kathleen Kelly struggles to keep her small bookstore open and is comforted by an online buddy she knows simply as NY152--a man she grows to love though she’s never met him. After her business is forced to close, can she pick up the pieces of her life, especially after she discovers her nemesis and her trusted online friend are the same man? (YOU’VE GOT MAIL starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks)

Detective Wade Prescott is investigating the first murder in this small town in thirty years, and all the evidence is pointing toward to pretty next-door neighbor who found the body. Which does he trust: the mounting evidence against her or his instinct that says she’s not the killer and that someone is doing an effective job of framing her? (THE GOOD NEIGHBOR by Sharon Mignerey)
Write your two or three sentences on a 3x5 card, and carry it around until you have them memorized and can say what your story is about no matter how distracted you feel. Why? The truth is that you’re going to be nervous, and so if you have this memorized to the point that preparation overrides nerves, the better you will feel. All you need are those five elements boiled down to two sentences. Your character (1) is in a situation (2) and has a goal(3). Remember, this says nothing more than the bare bones about your character. It’s using that dominant impression of a noun and an adjective – the burned out district attorney wants to move to the country, the idealistic rookie sets out to make a name for himself, the nurturing teacher gets too involved with a needy student, and so on. You don’t have to include all the stuff that brings your story alive–this is telling in its leanest form. Do the same thing with the obstacle (4), which can be in the form of a villain or situation. The disaster (5) is that question that ends the back cover copy, which asks: will there be a happily-ever-after.

When Lucy rescues the man of her dreams from an oncoming train, the misunderstandings that follow have his close-knit family thinking she is his fiancé, a situation further complicated when she begins to fall in love with his brother. When the mess is untangled, where will her heart lead her--toward the man of her dreams or the brother who has captured her heart? (WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman)

If you can’t figure out how to do this for your own story, pair up with a writing buddy. Do this exercise for her story and have her do it for yours.

Michael Hauge also says that your job is to sell yourself and your passion for your story rather than selling the story. He advises leading with, if it’s relevant, how you came to write this story. For example, I’ve been hearing a lot on the news recently about kids using cell phones to engage in sexting. We also know that laws have never been tougher about putting sex offenders on a national registry. If you had a teen touched by this topic to the point of writing a novel with this as a background, it might be one that you have some passion for, in addition to being timely.

After you’ve pitched your story, a good close is always: Can I answer any questions or would you like me to send you my manuscript? As soon as she says yes, thank her for her time and leave. End on that up note before nerves take over and you put your foot in your mouth.

As part of your preparation for answering those additional questions an editor or agent may have, prepare a query letter that is no longer than two pages (double spaced). Think of the query letter as the quick telling of your story as you’d relate it to friends over lunch. Include those journalistic conventions of who, what, where, and why. Who is the hero? What is his internal conflict and what is his goal? What is the heroine’s internal conflict, and what is her goal? What is the story problem? How do they grow and change? Where is the story set? Why is this story important? As you did with your pitch, know this material inside and out, practically word for word. Then practice answering those imaginary questions until you can be as conversational as you are with your critique partners.

Bear in mind, the above is not your pitch. It’s additional preparation so you don’t stumble over your answers when an editor asks you to tell her more.

Before you go to your appointment, find out as much about the editor or agent as you can. If she has a blog, go read her recent posts. If you have questions, write them down on a separate 3 x 5 card so you don’t forget.

For a meeting at a conference, keep your questions brief and general. You may want to know the royalty rate a publisher pays or how much of a fee an agent charges. These are good questions, but the pitch is not the time to ask them. And, you probably already know this, but it’s worth repeating. Never ask an editor or agent to take your query letter, your proposal, or your manuscript. If they want it, mail it or send it by whatever means they request.

So . . . you’ve made your appointment. You’ve prepared. You’re ready. There’s only one final step – present yourself as the confident, professional author you know yourself to be.

Guest Blogger Bio: Sharon Mignerey can personally attest that she gets just as nervous pitching to editors and agents now as she did as an unpublished author. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway. Sharon’s most recent book is THE GOOD NEIGHBOR (November 2008) from Love Inspired Suspense. She’s closing in on the end of her Masters program at Seton Hill University and expects to graduate in January 2010.


Theresa Lehr said…
Thanks Sharon and Colleen- this advice is succinct and easy to understand. You are both wonderful teachers and dedicated not only to improving your craft, but helping others do the same!
Thanks for the kind words, Theresa. I always learn when I strive to teach. :)
Anonymous said…
Excellent insights and examples.

Do you come up with your pitch before you start writing, as a way to keep yourself on track, or do you write this once you're completely done?

Jo Anne said…
Succinct and concise. Fabulous info, Sharon. Thanks for boiling it down to understandable points. This is so helpful.

And Colleen, thanks for bringing Sharon and this learning opportunity to us.
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for visiting, Sharon!
Sharon said…
Theresa and JoAnn, thanks for the kind words. Diane, regarding your question, I have a short and a longer answer for you.

First the short one: you can certainly develop a pitch for your story while it's evolving. In fact, I know of some authors who do this sort of blurb that they put next to their computer to help keep them focused. It's an, “Ah! This is what the story is about.” So definitely yes. This can be a valuable tool that assists with the writing process.

Second, the longer answer, which comes in 2 parts: Bear in mind, this is my opinion only. Part 1: the more you practice pitching, the better you'll get. It is a learned skill that comes more easily to some than to others. In that respect, I think it's good to get used to presenting yourself to professionals. Pitching is an essential skill.

Part 2: Every single year I hear too many stories about authors pitching uncompleted manuscripts to editors and agents; and when an editor requests to see the full manuscript, it’s an exhilarating feeling. But when a writer gets home and faces unfinished work, what then? Six months later, 95% of those writers still don’t have a product to send to that editor; ditto with a year later. And, how sad is that! Though an exception always proves the rule, it's a rare thing to have an editor purchase a first novel without it being completed. If a writer doesn’t get that manuscript to an editor when requested, it’s a squandered opportunity. Editors move on and may not even be at a house by the time a requested manuscript gets finished. The point of all this, of course, is that you want to be able to send an editor a requested manuscript as soon as you possibly can. In my opinion, no later than six weeks after the request. So, that's the caution that comes with pitching a manuscript before it is finished.
Anonymous said…

Thanks for such a detailed response! I am using a "pitch" to stay focused in my story, and it helps a lot. :)


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