QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Elevator Pitch

Greater than the anxiety of sending a query letter is the knee-dissolving prospect of pitching your book face-to-face to that uber-agent.

My advice?  Be prepared! 

One of the highlights of a writers' conference is getting to meet agents in person to pitch your book.  The workshops are great and so is meeting new friends, but the pitch sessions are why most writers spend hundreds of dollars to go to conferences.  

Mistakes writers make in the pitch sessions: 1) Not being concise, 2) not being prepared, and 3) failure to read the agent.

1)  Be concise: If you are pitching to an agent at a conference, it is understood that you have a completed novel or non-fiction proposal.  The pitch should be a brief, and I mean brief, summary of your project.  You get ten minutes with the agent usually, but ten minutes is a long time to listen to someone prattle on about their book.  Really.  Put yourself in the agent's shoes.  I've heard several agents say the same thing in workshops: Keep it short and let the agent ask questions.  This way, they are engaged and can find out things about your project or you that interest them.  

2)  Be prepared:  Distill your book into a pitch well before the conference.  Don't wait until breakfast the day of the appointment.  

I spent a great deal of time at the last conference I attended watching other writers pitch.  I was amazed how many were unprepared.  Some went on and on, speaking in circles about their project while the agent looked around the room trying to stay awake.  Others had memorized an intricate and detailed five-minute summary of their book.  While some made it through with robotic precision (yawn), others became flustered and had to start over several times, like a kid reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.  The pitches that had the greatest result with agents were the ones that were brief and conversational.  Some of these writers were more at home speaking to an agent, but most of them had a natural, conversational pitches because they had spent a long time preparing and practicing the pitch.

You can have the greatest pitch ever, but if you don't practice out-loud, it will sound stiff.  Find someone to practice with.  Have them ask questions about your book.  Practice! Practice! Practice!  

3)  Read the agent.  This is the hardest part.  You are so nervous you can hardly see straight, much less read someone's body language, but you need to be aware of your audience.  

I watched while agents politely endured ten-minute monologues about projects while shifting in their chairs, covertly sneaking peeks at their watches and gazing longingly at the door.  The writers didn't even notice--they droned on and on, oblivious to the reception their pitch was receiving.  In one case, the agent tried to interrupt a writer to ask a question, and the writer was so engrossed in his recitation, he didn't notice she wanted his attention until she tapped him on the shoulder.  

The pitch is about describing your project and having a conversation about it.  There is a live person across the table from you--take advantage of that.  A full one-sided description can be done in a letter.  

Okay, so why is it called an elevator pitch?  Because it should be short enough to deliver on a standard elevator ride.  Brief.  

Everyone should have an oral pitch for their book whether they plan to pitch to an agent at a conference or not.  

I'm asked all the time what my book is about.  I have several versions of my pitch that I apply in different situations. One is about a minute long, which would be good for a conference pitch.  I have a 30-second pitch I use in situations where I am with someone who is genuinely interested in my project. Another is a one-liner I use when someone is asking to be polite or trying to make conversation.  I call it my "party" pitch.  I love my books, but most people don't want to hear me go on and on about them.  The one-liner discharges the duty on both sides.   I recommend you create one.  

Now for an example of a 30-second elevator pitch!

Jessica Verday is a fellow QTer and one of the nicest people ever.  She was kind enough to let me use her elevator pitch for her book THE HOLLOW, which is coming out in October 2009 from Simon & Schuster.

THE HOLLOW is a modern day ghost story that follows sixteen year-old Abigail Browning in her struggles to deal with the sudden death of her best friend, Kristen.  A death that people say might not have been an accident.  When Caspian, a mysterious and gorgeous stranger, shows up out of nowhere at Kristen's funeral, he encourages Abbey to look further into the situation.  

Just when Abbey feels like she might be able to deal with everything, a hidden diary makes her question everything she thought she knew about her best friend.  Torn between her grief and anger, Abbey sets out to uncover the truth behind the secrets Kristen was keeping from her.  Along the way, she'll stumble upon the buried past of her famous town and learn that some secrets are kept for a reason, when she inadvertently comes face to face with the real Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Now, if I were an agent across the table from Jessica, I'd be asking questions at this point, wouldn't you?  The oral pitch is concise, informative and intriguing.  I want to hear more. 

Here is Jessica's "party" one-liner:  

A dead friend, an old grave, and a local Legend haunt a sixteen year-old girl.
The challenge!  I'm going to post my 30-second pitch in the comments and encourage you to do the same.  It should be under 150 words.  Jessica Verday's word-count is 149 and my pitch in the comments is 119.  Feel free to post your one-sentence pitch also.  

Seeing other pitches helps us improve our own, which is what QueryTracker.Net is all about--helping writers improve their craft and make the quest for an agent less complicated.  

Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.


Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Here's my 30-second pitch:

SOUL PURPOSE is a young adult paranormal romance about a sixteen-year-old girl named Lenzi, who has the ability to interact with spirits and help them solve problems that keep them earth bound. She discovers she is a recycled soul, called an Intercessor, who has done this for many lifetimes with her Protector, Alden.

The problem is that she has past-life amnesia and doesn’t remember any of it—especially Alden, who shows up acting like they are best friends or maybe lovers…and she’s not sure she can handle her own problems, much less those of pushy dead people.

Alden has to convince Lenzi of her special purpose before the Intercessor Council discovers there is something wrong and discontinues her soul.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

And my one-liner pitch:

A reincarnated ghost hunter with past-life amnesia is pursued by a hot, mysterious guy and a pissed-off demon.

Stina said...

Okay, I'm sold. When do I get to read the book? I was hooked on the one-liner pitch.

Now the 30-second pitch sounds like it could be the mini synposis from your query, right? It certainly sounds like the jacket blub.

Well I off now to work on my one-liner pitch. Fortunately I have 7 more months before the LA SCBWI conference to practice. Thanks for the brillant advice. QT blog is definitely my favorite writer's blog.

Suzette Saxton said...

Compared to public school, living in a burrow under the school’s flagpole is easy. Can Chris survive fifth grade? Find out in THREE SECRETS.

[I cheated - this is the piece I used in the "Query in 140 Characters" on The Swivet. I didn't win. ;)]

Anonymous said...

Here's the pitch I used on the CJLA pitch contest...

When the veil between reality and illusion collapses, 17-yr-old Julie Thomas discovers a new world in which all of her thoughts take form. Or maybe she's just insane.

What a great exercise!!! Thanks

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I am REALLY bad at these. Here's the one I have that's passable:

Reid Hamilton wants to eradicate magic from the world right up until he falls in love with a sorceress...and discovers he can use magic himself.

Diana said...

Here we go, 80 words. Please let me know what you think.

In 1925, John Green found his wife’s mangled body on the floor of their farmhouse kitchen. Three men were arrested. One was tried twice. No one paid for the crime. Anna Green’s murder was forgotten until a librarian found a folder of newsclippings and handwritten notes stashed in the stacks.

Anna Green was a real woman. And I am the real librarian who stirred the buried memories of a small Kansas town to try to solve her murder. Narrative non-fiction.

Suzette Saxton said...

Wow, Diana! That is gripping. Your novel sounds fantastic!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Hi, Diana. You had me interested in the first paragraph. The second makes me go, "Wow!"

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Hooray, Archy and Christine. That wasn't that bad, now was it?

Anonymous said...

One sentence pitch:

A college student discovers the exhilaration of magic, the pleasure of love, and the horror of war when she opens a portal to the trapped island of Avalon.

Anonymous said...

I still prefer my query pitch (but we won't get into why I didn't just post it), but here is an elevator pitch at 108 words.

AVALON'S RETURN is a fantasy with strong romantic elements that follows exchange student, KENDRA, as she stumbles upon a doorway to the island of Avalon. There she discovers her destiny, to help save the world from the evil family that claimed the throne after the death of Arthur.

Her fight against the current tyrant, Roarke, will not be hers alone though. Among the people of Avalon, Kendra has found the man of her dreams, Tully, leader of the resistance and the last remaining heir of Arthur. They must fight together, because by opening the portal, Kendra has set Roarke and his magic upon the rest of the world.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

I love your pitches, Selestial-owg. Thanks for sharing them.

Diana said...

Thanks for the kind comments! I had such a hard time coming up with a pitch for my first manuscript because I couldn't decide how much information to include. When I started working on this murder story, I decided to write the pitch first, before I became jumbled in all of the details.

Mary Lindsey, I like your one-liner pitch a lot.

Your elevator pitch really makes your project sound like a new take on the King Arthur story, Selestial-owg. Very nice!

Stina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janell Moon said...

It's informative to see how others hone their pitches. Each time the pitch gets getter. We hope. I think your pitches, Mary, are great and I've been asked and been unprepared for a 30 second pitch many times. Here goes what I have worked up:

Ransom Notes: The Makings of a Found Woman is a bittersweet memoir of a girl in small town Ohio coming of age in the 1950's who uses creativity to form identity to live not as she should but as it is for her.

Comments? Then...
The father's seminol wartime patent and the daughter's unwillingness to live a life of duty and convention conflicts with her father's lifetime obligations as a genuis inventor to the government and a corporation. This is Man in a Gray Flannel Suit story, as told from the daughter's point of view, a daughter who is a cross between the protagonist April Wheeler in the book and movie, Revolutionary Road, and Pam Miller in The Hours.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Looks great Janell! Now if I could just get mine down as well as my QT Blog colleagues... ;-)

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Anonymous said...

Hi Mary,
I'm attending the Writer's Digest conference in NY at the end of the month and am excitedly preparing for the Pitch Slam, but have a big question: For memoir, should I describe my story in the third person or the first? I've written my query letters in the third but it feels a little awkward to refer to myself out loud as "she" or "the mother." Any advice?
Thank you!
Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Unknown said...

Here's my 30 second pitch:
The Peach is a memoir that follows my recovery after I suffered a fractured pelvis and ruptured spleen at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in July 2003. In an instant, my career as a neonatal intensive care nurse ended when 86-year old George Russell Weller confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the market, injuring sixty-three people. He killed ten pedestrians. My last memory of the market is holding a peach.

Days later, when lucid, I learned that a bystander kneeled by my side, and saved my life. I spent nearly a month in California hospitals then returned home to Vermont to live with friends while I recovered. I spent three months in a wheelchair, facing the loss of independence. I suffered from PTSD and a brain injury. Ultimately, my injuries forced me to give up my nursing career and search for a new life trajectory.