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

Yesterday's post introduced Diane Holmes, founder of Pitch University, a free website devoted to helping writers sharpen their verbal pitches. Today, she returns to elaborate on improving the content of your face-to-face presentation.

BtO: I well remember my very first pitch session, with an editor at Harlequin. Desperately nervous and, well, just plain desperate, I blundered through pitching a type of book Harlequin didn’t even publish and came perilously close to puking on the editor’s shoes in the process.

Ironically, years later, this was the same editor who bought and published my first novel (when she was working for another house and I was writing in another genre). Probably only because she failed to associate my name with that pea-green nitwit she met outside of Houston. ;)

But I digress. Third question: Aside from the problems caused by nervousness, what particular problems do you see with the actual content of writers’ pitches?

DH: Oh, you have my sympathy! And I love that this experience didn’t stop you. Be resilient. That should be our motto! Okay, let’s talk content. Here’s my list of Top 3 Content Derailments:
1) They’re confusing.

This often occurs because you’re speaking the “pitch paragraphs” that you used in your query letter. We just don’t listen the way we read. Imagine trying to make sense of a verbal pitch that opens with, “When thrown from a horse while fleeing for her life…” only to find out later that the rider is a present-day 16-year-old girl who has time-traveled to 1916, and she running for her life because of a battle in WW1.

2) They’re misleading.

When I’m helping writers with their pitches, I listen to the pitch, then ask them fill me in on book. Often the pitch is totally misleading. The author has narrowed the story down to a few elements not realizing those elements imply a whole world in the listener’s mind.

For example, if you mention that the protagonist finds a body, I’ll assume we’re now talking about a mystery. Dead body = Mystery. Mention a famous person, and I’ll assume your characters spend the entire book interacting with this person. Talk about a child who has polio, and I’ll think this is a book about the child’s experience with polio, and not just a colorful complication.

When you choose which elements to highlight in your pitch, remember that the listener gives a great deal of weight to those elements and believes that “this” is what will fill up your pages and form the structure of your story.

3) They’re all over the place.

My dear friend Laura Gompertz told me the secret to pitching, and I share it now with you (come closer so I can whisper it in your ear): give your very brief pitch, then shut up. ☺

All the things you’ve learned about synopsis writing and query letters don’t directly translate to a pitch. Pitching isn’t a summary of your plot, including character internal conflicts and plot points. It’s more about setting an expectation, implying elements, and giving the shape or experience of reading your book. (It’s not the formula for Listerine, it’s the wonderful experience of using Listerine.)

This may be quite different from what some of you have been taught, so I understand if you’re shaking your head at me! But I’ve seen this work. And I’ve also seen “pitches that explain” fail.

Once you shut up, your pitch appointment turns into a conversation, and you learn if the person you’re talking to has questions (about plot points and internal conflict) or is the right match for your book.

And if you get a yes, stop! All you have to say at that point is say, “Thank you!”

BtO: Thanks for the tips, Diane, and I hope that many of our readers will stop by Pitch University and read the excellent advice you’ve collected from the generous agents and publicists who have shared their wisdom. But before you leave us, we always like to ask our visitors one last question. What have you been reading lately, and what was the last book that knocked your socks off?

DH: Well, Pitch University has taken over my reading as well as my life. I’m currently reading POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything by Sam Horn, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye by Literary Agent Katharine Sands, and Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way to Conquer Fear and Succeed by Bob Mayer. (I remember fiction, and I miss it so….)

As for socks being knocked off…. You’re going to laugh at me, but it was a contest entry I judged. So flipping good I actually wrote a letter of referral to an agent on her behalf.

Colleen, thank you so much for inviting me over to your many-tentacled blog. It’s been an honor.


I have been reading everything, listening to everyone and really sweating my pitch (for months.) I'm a big fan of Pitch-U, and THIS post just flipped on the light bulb.

THANK YOU!!!! I have a pitch!
Diane_Holmes said…
WOW! A lightbulb moment. Do love those. :)

Thanks for your kind words, Nancy!
Thanks so much for stopping by, Diane! I'm going to have to give Pitch U. a try. I do have a question for you, if you have time to answer it. What is the best way to pitch a multiple-POV novel? I'm even having a hard time crafting a pitch in writing because of this. My novel is narrated alternatively by the three main characters, two of whom are protagonist/antagonist (and also mother and daughter) and one of whom is their female minister. I've tried to have emotional arcs as well as plot arcs for each of the three characters, and it's not so much that they tell different stories, but different pieces of the same story. My fear is that if I focus on the protagonist (the sixteen-year-old daughter) that agents and editors will see the novel as YA, when it is very definitely NOT YA.

Do you (or anyone else) have any suggestions for this? My pitch that I used successfully with the agents who came to UH seemed to work, but it's not the norm, because I had absolutely NO IDEA what I was doing then. But it does sum up the novel beautifully.
Diane_Holmes said…
Dear Kathryn, GREAT question! Okay, I'm a true believer that there are many answers that will work here. And the fact that you had success with your first pitch and that it sums up the novel beautifully, probably means it's a keeper!

But to answer your question... Pitches really don't address POV, but instead imply the story. For example, my pitch for my thriller only mentions the hero and his brother who he wants to keep from being framed for espionage. I imply a villain. After all, someone is doing bad stuff. And you have no idea how many POV characters I have (5 or 6).

Your pitch might be something like (making up stuff here), "A mother, daughter, and minister each hold a secret piece of the puzzle behind the brutal death a stranger."

I'd be happy to help you with your pitch and discuss your query, too! Just email me at PitchUniversity@gmail.com .
Susan Smith said…
It’s more about setting an expectation, implying elements, and giving the shape or experience of reading your book.

Hi, Diane.

Those are heady aspirations. *g*

If I think about Pride and Prejudice, it's the reader’s transference into the garden of England, their observation of social norms, and their entanglement in multiple family dynamics (via superb characterizations) that are the experience of reading Jane Austen. Those enriching elements make the girl-meets-boy plot extraordinary, and if I understand you correctly, that’s what a pitch needs to convey. (I think I’ve got it!)

I’ve enjoyed your interview!

Diane_Holmes said…
Dear Susan,

Let's talk! I'm so glad you mentioned this, because the word experience can be interpreted so many ways!

What I'm referring to is story vs. plot and character. This will be 1 or 2 sentences that encapsulate and infer the direction of the story, where it starts, and (subtly) where it will end.

There's a difference between what you delight in personally, and what you'd tell, say, your cousin in 30 seconds to convince her to GO READ THAT BOOK RIGHT NOW. :)

What you're looking for is the pitch that would sell your cousin, your neighbor, and even a stranger.

I find it helpful to picture myself giving a really casual answer to, "Hey, have you read this on?" to a friend looking through my personal library desperate for a good read. You don't want to give away twists, and you aren't giving a speech.

"Oh, Yeah! It's wonderful, It's set in rural Regency England, and it's about this young woman named Lizzy, who's helping her sister's romance with a wealthy bachelor. But the real sparks are between her and the bachelor's friend, a Mr. Darcy, whose elevated station and opinion of Lizzie's family completely muck things up."

Then tinker with that:

A young woman in Regency England, from a modest family, helps her sister marry well to a visiting bachelor, while dealing with the romantic sparks and infuriating assumptions of the bachelor's good friend, Mr. Darcy, a man who is truly her perfect match.

Next version:

Lizzie helps her sister's romance to a gentle, agreeable, well-off visitor, but it's the man's friend, a wealthy aristocrat with dim views of lower classes and Lizzie's family specifically, that cause sparks to fly.

Okay, I kinda like that last one. It gives you the flavor of the book.

(And you always open with your name, your book's genre, title, wordcount, so we already know it's a historical romance set in Regency England.)

You can tell from the pitch that this is indeed Romance, and I didn't lie when I said Historical Romance. We know the set-up of "helping the sister." And the conflict is implied. Also I've implied the shape of the book. The book will be over when Lizzy and this Mr. Darcy get things sorted out. I've even told you the main challenge.

What I didn't tell you was plot, scenes, internal or external conflict, etc.

But, if I were to tell you about this book, you could make a decision about whether it's YOUR kinda of book.

So, how would you pitch Pride and Prejudice? I confess I've never read it. But I have seen Colin Firth. Enough said. ;)

Thanks for your comment. Made me think!

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