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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Pitching your novel - how to avoid the nightmares coming true

I've just got back from Conflux Speculative Fiction Festival & Natcon. What a fantastic time! Apart from the wonderful people who organise and attend these things - writers, fans, readers of spec fic, there are great discussion panels, themed dinners, book launches, workshops and more. My own workshop, "Writing Awesome Books for Kids" on Sunday morning was well attended and lots of fun. I was also on a panel discussing realism in YA novels. But one of the most significant aspects of the con was that as writers, we get to pitch to a publisher/agent directly. It's at conventions that the lines between publishers and writers is blurred a little. You find yourself chatting or dining with a publisher for whom you have pitched your precious work just an hour before. Weird, but great!

Previous nightmare pitching experiences
I have pitched a story before, both under excruciating conditions, in front of a whole room of people. Argh! Needless to say, they were spectacular failures. Apart from my shattered nerves, I really didn't have the pitch down right. I didn't have the rock solid confidence of knowing the best features of my work to spruik.

So, how did I prepare for the Conflux pitching sessions?
My young adult novel, Flight, was written over a two year period, during which time I had test readers, other published authors and professional editors go over it. You'd think I knew it's best features, wouldn't you? You'd think I'd know how to sell it to someone. But I don't mind admitting, I found the process of writing a synopsis difficult, let alone a pitch!

Several other writers said they wrote summaries of summaries until they distilled it down to the essence of the story. Others said you have to be able to say what it's about in just one sentence. My own methodology was a combination of things:

  1. In my mind, I pulled myself back and took in the physical landscape and its features and asked myself, 'If I was a stranger who had just arrived, what would a local tell me had happened in this place?' In this way, I got a world view. I wrote a paragraph introducing the setting. ie: Avendor, bordered by the Black Mountains, is a world where dragons once soared...
  2. I looked at the central relationships and motivations of my characters then how these were challenged by events. I wrote a paragraph about each character. ie:  Lucian – a man obsessed with domination – commits barbaric acts of brutality against his own people and even his body...  
  3. Then I indicated which books or films were of a similar ilk. (Publishers always want to know where it fits in the market and whether you've done your research.) ie: It will appeal to readers of Twilight and fans of Avatar and Iron Man.
  4. Then, I asked some of my test readers, (actually, I  begged them, with large, Puss-in-boots eyes) to come over and I handed them a printout of the above. I asked them to tell me what they thought of the summary and what they thought the story was about. I also asked them what they loved about the story and characters. While they spoke, I wrote down what they said and used phrases to add to my summary. It was heartening to hear them talk about my characters as if they were real people! I knew then that I had drawn them well. I also learned how perspective changes perception when it comes to readers.
  5. Lastly, I sent the summary to an editor friend, who sent it back slashed with red, cutting it down by three quarters. Yes, three quarters! This was SO valuable. She saw things I couldn't, being so close to it, and picked out features I didn't realise were even there. (Thank you, Zena Shapter!)
  6. At last, I had a pitch I was proud of. When I went in to see the publisher/agent, I took a printout of it with me. I had it as a backup, in case my nerves got the better of  me, but I didn't need it. Once I got talking, I was fine. I only had 4 minutes and they went super fast!

The best part about writing the pitch?
I fell in love with my story all over again.

cheers, Dawn

4 comments:

  1. You're welcome, Dawn! I'm glad the pitch went well :)

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  2. Great blog Dawn, very insightful. I hope you get the sale.
    Rick.

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  3. I enjoyed it a lot! I pitched to 5 people over the con (3 publishers and 2 agents) and ended up getting the nod from 4, then sending to 3. All in all, a great experience, definitely a learning curve.

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