3 Questions With… Diane Holmes of Pitch University (Part One)

A few years ago, I first met the indomitable force of nature known as Diane Holmes. Diane’s not only a writer, she’s an amazing resource-builder for all writers, and during the time I’ve known her, I’ve seen her pour countless hours into a writing group’s annual contest, single-handedly organize retreats with publishing and creativity professionals from all over the country, and most recently launch a brand-new absolutely FREE project known as Pitch University, where writers can not only learn about the art of pitching, but can also create video pitches viewed by acquiring agents. Wowza! Wish that had been around when I was looking for my first agent!

Thank you, Diane, for stopping by Boxing the Octopus to answer a few questions.

DH: It’s nice to be part of the jolly crew! Thanks for inviting me.

BtO: Writers are often called upon to put together brief descriptions in order to sell projects, something that might be done in an e-mail or query letter. What made you feel the need to focus on the art of verbal pitching?

DH: Well, the number one reason is that I suck at it, which has always frustrated me! After all, my Dad was in sales, and I grew up immersed in it. Plus I have a degree in Marketing, for Pete sake. And, no, the problem is not public speaking, because I founded two writers groups and have given lectures, workshops, and writing retreats.

But when it comes to pitching… the problem is me pitching my own book. It matters too much, if you know what I mean. And I have no perspective!

The second reason is that while there are a number of quality e-resources focusing on writing query letters, there wasn’t any long-term resource focusing on hands-on learning (your book, your mouth!) for verbal pitching. And now, there is!

I found myself in the unique position of understanding that pitching is a type of sales career for many people, and we could learn how to pitch our books from these experts who make their living at it. And I understand why, as a writer, it’s so very, very hard.

BtO: What are some of the things you’ve noticed that can go wrong with authors’ verbal pitches?

DH: There’re really only two things that go wrong in a pitch: presentation or content. You may laugh at that, because it sounds so rudimentary, but pitching feels so overwhelming it helps to simplify the experience. Most writers experience stress over both areas, intensified by the perceived high stakes (a.k.a. “my career is over unless I get a yes.”)

The presentation piece is easy to “get.” Of course it’s difficult. We’re writers (behind the scenes) vs. actors (out on stage). And it doesn’t matter if we’re extraverted or introverted writers. Our strength is the written word and things that happen inside our own heads. Suddenly, none of that expertise matters. And we tend to realize this right about the time we’re sitting down at an agent appointment

The content piece is murkier. Agents and editors truly believe no one knows our books better than we do. (And that somehow this knowledge will translate into being able to generate a good pitch.) But, in a way, that’s like saying the makers of Listerine know their product better than anyone else. Who needs an advertising department? We’ll have the chemists do the advertising.

So, we authors know our stories, but we don’t necessarily know how to sell them. And to make matters worse, what sounds good to us may not be effective.

These are the types of topics we’ll be exploring at Pitch University. Our focus is on becoming effective and developing real skills that work.

BtO: Tomorrow, I'll be posting the second half of Diane's interview, where Diane gives some great tips on improving the focus of your pitch's content!


Tina Moss said…
Great comparison:

"Who needs an advertising department? We’ll have the chemists do the advertising."

It's true! Writers are so often in their own heads, and while they may know their stories better than anyone else, they certainly don't always know how to sell those stories effectively.
I agree! And writers are often so close to their story, they really can't see the forest for the trees. I know I've always found it easier to help my critique partners boil down what their manuscript's about that to encapsulate my own for a query letter or a phone conversation with my agent.

It really is a learned skill.
Diane_Holmes said…
HI, Tina! ::waving:: Frankly, I've always been someone who can't even talk coherently about my book to other writers. I suspect that's a function of plotting everything in detail upfront. And writing convoluted stories. ;) Oh, wait, wait... complex. Yeah, that's what I meant to say. ;) Thanks for dropping by!
Diane_Holmes said…
Oh, Colleen! Phone conversations, imho, are much harder than "in person." You don't have all the non-verbal cues... just the silence. And in my mind, I fill silence with "Bad, bad, bad, bad, she hates it!" Yeah, but I'm on to me now, so these days I fill silence with, "Hey, maybe it's good." I think optimistic people are extra hard on themselves. We're so hopeful...
Pitch U is such a great resource, and much of that is the driving force of Diane, for sure! Looking forward to more from you both.
Diane_Holmes said…
Thanks, Angelica! You set a wonderful example for Pitch U writers. I mean, a request for a FULL on your first try? Awesome!
Susan Smith said…
Our strength is the written word and things that happen inside our own heads.

So true! And a lot is going on in there!

Diane, Pitch U is just what I need too. I look forward to the second part of the interview.
Diane_Holmes said…
Thanks so much, Susan! We have great plans at Pitch U. Next week we have Lorin Oberweger, who'll be talking about "Getting Your Protagonist’s Emotional Arc Across in Your Pitch." Cool stuff.

She'll be followed by another Pitchfest week with guest agents Michael Larsen and Elizibeth Pomada. So excited!
I'm looking so forward to this, Diane. I'm getting very close to the query stage for my book (actually, I'm already trying to write the query letter, even though I'm still finishing the revision process), and it's hitting me just how hard all of this summarizing is. But I get asked in person ALL THE TIME what my book is about, and it makes me so uncomfortable. So I'm realizing that not only do I need to work, work, work that query letter, I need to get comfortable with discussing the book in public. But it's sooooo hard!

I can tell I'm going to learn a lot from you already.
Stacey Purcell said…
What a great comparison! I'm the chemist of my book, no wonder I'm lousy at learning how to sell the product. Ha!
Pitch University is a unique, creative endeavor that is already getting amazing results. Not only has the first agent given solid spot-on advice on how to improve the writers' presentation, she has asked for manuscripts!! We can learn and sell all at the same time while honing our marketing skills...who knew??
Thanks for all the time and effort I know this must have cost you. We are all better for it!
Diane_Holmes said…

It's amazing how such sincere interest on a stranger's part can feel like an interrogation on our part. But it really is just the horror of not knowing what to say, combined with the deja vu of being a kid and having a teacher call on you when you're unprepared. :)

I truly believe that every writer can lean to pitch really well. But I also believe it's hands-on, real learning and we should probably get a diploma when we're done!
Diane_Holmes said…
Aw, thanks, Stacey!

The interesting thing about being so new is that the opportunities are huge for those writers who show up. Plus, the writers who are willing to create an audio or video pitch are really serious about their writing and career. I've been truly impressed. Plus that's what editors and agents want. ;)
To tell you the truth, Diane, I prefer phone pitching to my own agent and/or editor. It feels more comfortable, like telling your friend about a movie or TV show you're excited about having seen and want her to watch, too. Part of that, of course, is knowing that my agent and editor are on my side and really WANT me to be successful. But maybe part of it is not having to see them glancing at their watches or rolling their eyes at my enthusiasm. LOL.
Diane_Holmes said…
LOL, Colleen. I love that you turned pitching into "gabbing with a friend." You've found a way to do a mental shift that works.

I think that's one of the tricks in changing the experience of terror that is pitching... into something you look forward to doing. And seriously, we writers should look forward to telling others about our books. After all, we're writing them because we LOVE them.

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