Pitching a Military Thriller at ThrillerFest – Walt Gragg

Walt Gragg reached out to Novel Pitch to share his experience from ThrillerFest in 2014, and it is a doozy! Not only did Walt have a great story, he has an amazing pitch and the book deal to prove it. Without further ado here is Walt’s story.

by Walt Gragg

I have only pitched once in my life – in July 2014 at ThrillerFest.

The reason I only pitched once is because two weeks later I signed with one of the agents I’d pitched – Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency. In Oct 2014 she sold my military thriller THE FINAL ACE to Tom Colgan, Vice President and Editorial at Penguin Random House’s Berkley Publishing Group. I still don’t have an exact release date but it is scheduled to come out sometime in 2016. So if you want proof that pitching can work you need look no further.

Pitching is a difficult activity for many writers. Writing by its nature is highly introverted. Finding an agent and selling your work is highly extroverted. Not every writer can make that transition. Just be aware when pitching that now is not the time to be an introvert. Don’t hold back. Tell them why they should want to read your novel.

How did I make this happen? Talent? Maybe. Persistence? Yes. Luck? Absolutely. Every writer who has ever been published will tell that you have to have all three come together at the same moment to find yourself signing with an agent and a publisher. I found myself in 2014 with all three and my book’s on the way. But to make this happen I also made sure I had one more thing when I sat down across from the first agent at PitchFest – I was thoroughly prepared.

I spent nearly two months getting ready for PitchFest. I spent hours on the ThrillerFest website. I read every “success story” at least twice (my success story is now on the ThrillerFest site if you want to read more). I went over the PitchFest FAQs and Jon Land and Kathleen Antrim’s article on pitching countless time. I followed the website’s pitching advice to the letter. I went through the bios of the agents/editors multiple times determining who might be interested in a military thriller and prioritizing with whom I wished to talk. I then prepared my pitch. First I wrote my 25 word “what if, then what” pitch that Jon and Kathleen teach. It took a couple of days just to boil down my highly complex novel into just 25 words. I memorized it until I could do it in my sleep (I’m really glad I wrote it because it was the first thing my editor asked for when preparing to present my novel to his editorial board). I then wrote a page or so of supporting materials and memorized those. Obviously, in a 3 minute pitch I wasn’t going to be able to use it all but wanted to have it ready when I saw the direction each pitch was going. I also wrote a single-page summary with a picture, brief synopsis and my bio on it (some of the agents wanted it, some didn’t),

When I got to New York I was ready. Or at least I thought I was. I went to Jon and Kathleen’s excellent pitching class the day before PitchFest. Afterwards, I pitched Jon and made the changes he recommended. I am going to put a copy of my actual pitch at the end of this. Hopefully, you’ll see something that might help (please be kind, this was my first pitch).

Because I felt well prepared, as I waited in line I didn’t seem to be as nervous as those around me even though I knew I was facing daunting odds of finding an agent. Ar 2 o’clock they opened the doors. Personally, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed pitching. Even so, I stuck it out to the very end. Every pitch and every agent was different. Some said almost nothing, some were quite involved. Some lasted less than a minute, some took 5 minutes or more. Flexibility is the key. 7 out of 9 said yes, not too bad for a military thriller. But the best news was that 3 of the 7 requested the entire manuscript.

Two weeks later Liza called. As a writer who had spent years trying to break in, you can’t imagine what it feels like when the agent on the other end says things like – “beautiful writing,” “compelling characters,” “a joy to read,” and “so happy you are going to be our client.” After edits we sent it to Mr. Colgan on an exclusive. He had read the novel many years earlier and loved it but had been unable to acquire it. In Oct, 2014 Liza called again. I had a publisher.

In July, 2015 I had to honor of being the volunteer coordinator for the PitchFest preparation and practice to help calm nerves, answer questions, and get the hundreds of aspiring writers organized. I also was a room captain in one of the PitchFest rooms so I was able to observe others as they pitched. Here are a few of the things writers did that if you seriously want to be published you should avoid:

  1. Not prepared – hadn’t prepared their pitch ahead of time, hadn’t gone through the agents to determine who might be interested.
  2. Pitching agents that don’t handle the sub-genre you write. They wasted both their time and the agent’s.
  3. Walking in assuming they would walk out with an agent. Not understanding what a steep hill they had to climb. Even with a face-to-face, getting an agent is extremely difficult.
  4. Not sticking it out to the end. Some writers pitched 2 agents, got a “yes” from both and left. Not understanding that pitching is a volume business – the more you pitch, the better your chances.
  5. Letting a few “no” responses bother you to the point you give up.
  6. Not adjusting their materials if the pitch wasn’t working. Not adjusting each pitch to that agent.
  7. Trying to pitch ten books in a 3-minute pitch rather than focusing on their best work. The agent will ask further if they want to know about other works. And-on-and-on…

Walt was kind enough to share his pitch too. You can see his pitch for THE FINAL ACE here:

If you needed proof that pitching can work, look no further. I hope to see all of you at the truly incredible ThrillerFest Writers Conference next year.

Walt Gragg

Georgetown, Texas


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