Being able to sum up a book in a sentence or two, under pressure and with focus, organization and intrigue is a skill that takes practice. Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner recommends you “give enough information—plot, character, setting, theme—to intrigue without giving away the entire story.” Agent Kerrie Flanagan adds: “Know your story, practice your one-liner, act professional and be confident.”
That’s why I recommend participating in pitch sessions at conferences even if your manuscript is not complete. Practicing my pitch has helped me find my story. Let me explain:
I’m working on a memoir about the power of hope through faith. After three years of writing, rewriting, attending writer’s conferences, taking writing courses, I am just finding the heart of my story– a prerequisite for pitching any book.
In 2009, I attended my first national writer’s conference armed with an idea and a passion to write, I stood in long ,winding lines to pitch my story idea to any available agent or publisher, practicing my pitch with anyone who would listen.
I learned from one agent: “Your story may be fascinating in its detail but it will all be in the telling.”
So I set out to learn my craft, signing up for memoir writing courses and workshops and spending the next two years writing vignettes. I also started a memoir writer’s blog in December, 2009.
In 2011, I practice-pitched again at another writer’s conference…and learned from a publisher: “If you aren’t a celebrity, you need a strong author platform to show you have an audience for your book.”
So I signed up for Dan Blank’s Build Your Author Platform Course and continued to work on building my platform.
In 2012, I attended my first Writer’s Digest Conference and participated in “Pitch Slam.” Standing in more winding lines, practicing my pitch with others in line, I realized something important: I did not know what the heart of my story was yet. I learned by pitching that I wasn’t ready to pitch. I had more writing and rewriting to do.
So I went on a quest to find the heart of my story. I began pulling my vignettes together into a story board. I took a few more writing courses. I blogged about my journey until I was ready to send my first 100 pages to a manuscript consultant.
In 2013, two weeks before the Writer’s Digest Conference and after two rounds of professional edits and feedback from several beta readers, I found the heart of my story. It was not the story I had been working on.
I wasn’t even sure I would be attending Pitch Slam. What story would I be pitching? But on the train ride into New York City, I wrote out my pitch. Even though the process was taking a new direction, I decided I would attend Pitch Slam with no expectations other than to gain clarity and focus for my job ahead.
Here’s what happened:
“Your story sounds interesting but you have to offer a unique twist to a common topic. What do you have to offer that similar stories don’t offer?”
The answer came to me as I stood in line for the next agent. I’m a nurse and can speak about a cancer diagnosis from the other side. I incorporated that into my next pitch.
Nodding and engaged, she asked me what my platform was. When I told her about my blog and audience, she advised that I incorporate that into my pitch. And she asked me to submit a proposal. I was getting warmed up. Two new points to incorporate into my next pitch gave me increased confidence.
“Sounds intriguing. Send me three scenes. I need to see how you write and if it fits in with what I need.”
Two out of three was not bad. I was feeling excited until I sat before the next agent who asked me the most challenging question of all.
“What is your narrative arc?”
I stumbled through and she politely told me my story did not fit what she was looking for.
I knew I didn’t have the narrative arc down clearly yet. But when I went off to the side to think about it, I ended up jotting it down. It flowed like it had been there all along just waiting for me to notice. By the time I reached my final and most valued agent, I had incorporated all of the above—my story’s uniqueness, platform, narrative arc—into my pitch.
“Send me a proposal. Do you have a business card?”
I had met this agent at my first writer’s conference in 2009 and had sent her a proposal way before I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The cumulative feedback from all the previous agents and publishers had led to my best pitch yet.
Practicing my pitch has helped me refine my focus and clarify my story.
You can’t hit a home run unless you get up to bat. Or in the words of Babe Ruth:
Are you ready to pitch your story? If you have already pitched your story, how has it helped you move along in your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Kathleen Pooler is a writer and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner who is working on a memoir and a sequel about how the power of hope through her faith in God has helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.
Read Kathy’s work:
“The Stone on the Shore” is published in the anthology: “The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment” by Pat LaPointe, 2012.
“Choices and Chances” is published in the mini-anthology: “My Gutsy Story” by Sonia Marsh, 2012.