From Zero to Pitch in 24 Hours

by Kayla MacNeille
published in Community

In my experience, most three hour drives feel like nothing more than numb legs, backaches, and forcing myself to stop checking the clock. But leave it to my first Writer’s Digest Conference to speed that drive right up.

I knew ahead of time that I was going to force my driving buddy into helping me practice the pitch for my book upwards of a thousand times before we even hit the Lincoln Tunnel. Come rain or shine, smooth roads or car trouble, she was stuck with me. And by the time I stepped foot in the Roosevelt Hotel, my pitch would be ready to go.

Lucky for my driving buddy, my pitch was already awesome.

Sure, I had never pitched before, but I had read many a chapter on how to put one together. They say it’s hard to summarize your book in less than a minute, but I was under the impression that “they”—you know, the entire writing community—were exaggerating.

I had crafted a beautiful, 98 word pitch that would take me just under a minute to recite, and only highlight the most important parts of my story. By the end, you knew my character. You cared deeply about his success. You felt the tension on every page, nay, every line, and you were hooked. Take that, cornered agent! Represent my book. Do it now!

Butterflies filled my stomach as I hurried through my first recitation of the pitch. It sounded good, didn’t it?

Remember how I said my driving buddy would be stuck with me come rain or shine? Well, down came the rain—the downpour of follow up questions and suggestions. Actually, it felt more like lightning than rain to me.

“You didn’t mention your genre. What’s your word count? Is it completed? Agents want to know that. What’s your theme? Your high-concept? I’m not sure I really care about your main character.”

That’s when the drive started feeling more like a speeding roller coaster. I was faced with the reality that in less than two hours I would be mingling with writing professionals who had every right and inclination to send my pitch to the guillotine. And all my writing books had failed me.

Pitch Lesson #1: Experience and Human Interaction are Better than Books

Books on craft are excellent, but supplementing them with networking and workshops in the real world is priceless. Sometimes we readers and writers forget that real people have a lot to offer, too!

By the time I walked into the hotel, I knew the answers to the questions, “What books would surround your book in a bookstore?” and “Is your book a series?” (That’s a scary one. More on that later.) My confidence restored, I handed my luggage over to the front desk people and skipped along to my first workshop of the conference. “Pitch Perfect,” presented by Chuck Sambuchino.

Okay, Chuck, teach me.

That workshop was a truly humbling experience. I was given a handout that inspired more joy than a box of chocolates (the highest honor any handout could be awarded). Chuck gave a fantastic outline of what to do and what not to do in a pitch, and sentenced me to a late evening of pitch drafting. Here’s what I learned.

Pitch Lesson #2: Treasure Your Ending

I had heard a lot of talk about agents wanting to know about the tension and stakes in the story. Of course they do! They want to know what will keep the readers hooked. What are we writers going to put our characters through? But would I have to expose my ending to prove my stakes? I would have to pull my treasured denouement out of witness protection and throw him to the wolves, wouldn’t I?

But Chuck calmed these fears by reassuring me that this was not the case. In fact, don’t do it! Ever! Protect your ending. Agents still want to have a fun surprise when they finish reading your manuscript. Instead, discuss the high stakes that drive your poor, mangled protagonist toward their end, and leave the agents with a catchy cliffhanger. Chuck called it an “unclear wrap-up.” After reworking my pitch, the end looked like this: “As his understanding of the prophecy grows, so does Damian’s urgency to prevent its repercussions from destroying him, his friends, and eventually his whole world.” This closing sentence leaves us wondering if the Lead, Damian, can fully understand his mission before the prophecy wreaks havoc on everything he cares about. Will he win? What will happen if he doesn’t?

Pitch Lesson #3: The Shorter, the Better

Already we have a lot to do. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The pitch also has to introduce our main character, explain why he or she is unique, introduce the plot, and explain why it is complicated. Oh, and we have 3-10 sentences to get all of this done. Naturally, I started counting the elements of the pitch and noting that 3 sentences was a nice mythological dream.

But Chuck went on to explain that one sentence can do more than one thing. For example, “After finally escaping from an abusive home, Damian begins to establish a suave, independent life. Just as he starts to gain control, an unearthed mythological prophecy reveals that he has an unexpected calling.” Okay, so that was two sentences. But look at everything we’ve done! By the end of the first sentence, Damian has an identity and a uniqueness that comes from his abused past and the fact that he pulled off an escape. The second sentence introduces the plot and explains that it has been complicated by a prophecy that takes control away from Damian again. I did it in two sentences, but you may be able to do it in one. The more we can cram into as few words as possible, the better!

Pitch Lesson #4: You are NOT Writing a Series

One of the lessons that rang most true to me was how to pitch a series without making the agent’s face turn purple. Chuck noted that instead of coming into a pitch, guns blazing, throwing around the words, “My book is part of a series!” I should say, “My book is a stand alone, with series potential.” Speaking agent is like speaking a different language. To a writer pitching a potential series, this phrasing is as important as is the question, “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” to a writer who wants to travel to Mexico. And this isn’t just sneaky wording. It should be true that your novel wraps up its main conflict at the end. Agents want to know that the book can stand alone so they aren’t committed to publishing sequels if the first book doesn’t sell. On a happier note, we can and should still leave hints of conflict at the end in case the book breaks out. A lot of agents actually like series ideas—they just don’t want to be tied to them.

Pitch Lesson #5: Just Keep Learning…Just Keep Learning…

The best part about the conference was that it did not stop with Chuck. Over the course of the next two days I learned about the diverse templates for pitches. I heard varying ways to convey big stakes in small amounts of time. I learned about log lines: the art (and curse) of summarizing your 78,000 word darling in one sentence.

Basically, I learned the art of learning. I learned just how lonely and deceiving it is to write without a community of learners who help you improve. I learned how to never be that lonely again. As writers we are always learning, just as there is always something to learn. That’s what makes our stories great, isn’t it?

The pitch for my current work in progress, Dead Perfect:

Dead Perfect is a 78,000 word YA fantasy novel. After finally escaping from an abusive home, Damian begins to establish a suave, independent life. Just as he starts to gain control, an unearthed mythological prophecy reveals that he has an unexpected calling. Now he must struggle between the life he wanted and the life his destiny chose for him. As his understanding of the prophecy grows, so does Damian’s urgency to prevent its repercussions from destroying him, his friends, and eventually his whole world.

Headshot-kmacneille (1)Kayla MacNeille is a YA fiction and fantasy writer out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. She is fueled by teaching, staying active, being adventurous in the kitchen, and working on her current fantasy novel–especially when writing is coupled with a nice cup of hot chocolate and some snow. Follow her on Twitter , Instagram , and on her blog.

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