How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey
After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.
Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.
I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.
The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.
Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?
What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.
Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”
One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.
So, we got to work.
In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”
Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.
What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?
So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.
My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.
Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.
Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.
So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:
Character, Conflict, and Change.
You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.
Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:
Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.
Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.
Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.
One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.
That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.
Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.
Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.
Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.
In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.
But it’s different for different genres, right?
Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.