…before you know you are ready.
OK, so you’ve signed up for a great conference, and there are going to be a bunch of publishing folks there! You’ll be rubbing elbows with Agents, Editors and perhaps a few Bestselling Authors. There is even a rumor on Twitter that Oprah herself likes to stop by this Conference. (don’t get your hopes up). You are pumped, but are you ready?
Over the last few weeks you’ve put your nose to the grindstone, crafting and polishing your pitch. It is short and punchy and memorable, you think. Now it is time to test. There are four people who MUST hear your pitch before you will really know you are ready.
The Confidant – Everyone has that person who has heard this story you’ve been working on since somewhere near the start. Sometimes it is spouse or a partner. More often, you have a close friend who hears about your story. They might be a Beta reader for your manuscript. In any case this is a person who knows the story you have been trying to tell, and perhaps knows too much about it. A Confident knows your goals as a writer and can be both supportive and honest.
When you pitch your Confidant listen for questions about how the story matches up with the pitch. If your confidant says ‘Wait, I thought character X was in love with character Y’ or ‘Isn’t so and so actually the Antagonist?’ then your pitch and your manuscript probably don’t match up. As you are writing a pitch you will likely find holes in your story that need attention. That is totally normal and should be addressed, but for now focus on your pitch. Make some notes about potential edits or rewrites and move on. Your pitch needs to reflect the story you are trying to tell.
The Stranger – Do you have a friend who doesn’t know anything about what you are writing? Perhaps they don’t even know that you write at all. Even better! Imagine that this person just wandered into your local bookstore and picked your book off the shelf for the first time. They are looking at the cover (your appearance) reading the title and back cover (hearing your pitch) and deciding if they want to carry it to the register (get you published). Find someone who you can trust to give you honest feedback, but who knows little or nothing about your manuscript. Explain what your goal is and pitch them.
When you pitch The Stranger you are looking for a first impression. They haven’t read your work, and know nothing about you as an author. With that in mind, did the pitch make sense? Does the book sound interesting? Would you want to hear / read more? Pitch them once as you would with an Agent and ask for initial reactions. Take notes on what they heard and liked and what they didn’t understand. Don’t try to address the issues on the spot, but just listen.
After they have shared their first impression you may want to fill in a hole or two and try again. Once you’ve talked a little bit, try to pitch them a second time and ask if the pitch still holds together. They may like it better the second time, once they know more, but the first impression is what you need to see and hear.
The Critic – Find another writer, ideally one working in your genre. Share your pitch, or better yet trade pitches with each other. This is the one person who should see your pitch in written form AND hear your pitch in the way you intend to give it. Your critic should be someone well versed in both craft and publishing issues, or at least as well versed as you. If you don’t have someone like that in your life currently make sure you find someone on the first day of your conference. Other writers will probably also be looking for a good critic in the same venue.
When you pitch to your critic, you are looking for reactions related to how ready you are for the publishing industry. Does your main character’s age match up with your target audience? Are your stakes high enough? Should you include your background as an English major? (probably not). Have you explained your platform? Where can you cut, to make your pitch shorter? Ask your critic all of the questions you have been asking yourself. Don’t hold anything back and make sure if you both don’t know the answer when you rehearse, that you find out the answer before your pitch day.
The Mirror – Have you heard your own pitch yet? Have you really listened? It is hard to hear yourself when you are pitching something so personal as a manuscript. After you have heard reactions from the other three, pitch yourself. The best way to do it is to videotape or at least record yourself. After you’ve made the recording walk away, get a cup of coffee or do something else to clear your mind and calm your nerves for a few minutes. Now come right back. With a pencil and notepad in hand watch the video. Take notes about what you hear, and what you see. You might want to watch it a few times.
Did you deliver the pitch that you wanted? Did you sound the way you hoped? Did you look wooden, nervous, or fidgety? Watching yourself pitch can be a painful experience, but you will learn a lot. Delivering your pitch to the mirror is also a final gut check. You know your story better than anyone else. You’ve sweated and bled over those words. You’ve loved those characters. You’ve created an amazing world on the page. Your passion for writing and love of what you have written should come across in your pitch. Only you can judge that. Look in the mirror and try it again.
Finding and pitching these four people before you are in a high stakes pitch situation is a must. You will learn something different from each one of them.