Real Mistakes, Real Laughs:

Air bases were built on captured islands of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam but they were barley within the range of the long-range bombers.

(hope the bombadiers weren't on gluten-free diets)

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One on One: 10 Tips for Optimizing Speed-Pitch Sessions

"Speed-pitching" describes a very brief, face-to-face pitch of your project to agents and/or editors. Often a component of writers conferences, speed-pitching is a golden opportunity that comes with the pressure of dazzling agents/editors with your project in the space of a few minutes.  A tall order, to be sure, but with a little preparation, speed-pitching can be the most productive part of your conference experience.
Back by popular demand, One on One:  Ten Tips for Optimizing Speed-Pitch Sessions is an article and presentation I developed after compiling a few tricks to obtain the best results from this advantageous albeit nerve-wracking event.  My definition of "best results" is not necessarily "to secure a contract," although that is certainly the ideal.  Successful speed-pitching means presenting yourself as an informed, talented professional hoping s/he has the right project at the right time for the right person. 
ONE ON ONE: 10 Tips for Optimizing Speed-Pitch Sessions
1.  Do your homework
Nothing turns off a literary professional faster than an ill-prepared writer.  Take time in advance to research the agents/editors participating in the speed pitch.  Don't schedule appointments with random professionals based solely on popularity or reputation; they may not handle your genre.  The same is true if the speed pitching will be on a first-come-first-served basis.  Don't waste precious time waiting in line for an agent who isn't a good match for your work.
2.  Prepare your pitch 
This crucial two- or three-sentence summary of your book has a dual purpose:  to describe the genre and basic premise, and to intrigue the consultant.  A well-crafted pitch tantalizes with a hook that sets the project apart from the rest.  That's a lot to pack into a couple of sentences, so choose words wisely. 
It's not as difficult as it may sound.  Read the movie descriptions in your local TV guide, or pick up a successful book in your genre and read the jacket or flyleaf copy.  For example, see if you can identify this bestseller:
This is a family saga that begins with a birth in 1750 in an African village and ends seven generations later at the Arkansas funeral of a black professor whose children include a teacher, a Navy architect, and an author.
Or this one:
Set in Depression-era Louisiana, this serialized novel is a prison guard's account of events that challenge his most cherished beliefs in the place of ultimate retribution:  death row.
These pitches come from the back-cover copy of Alex Haley's Roots and Stephen King's The Green Mile.
 3.  Be professional
Even if speed-pitching takes place on the beach, it is still a business meeting for which you should dress accordingly.  Neatness counts when making first impressions.  Even if the editor/agent seated across from you is sporting two days' worth of stubble and a wrinkled shirt, set the example yourself with a professional appearance.  And leave the gum, snacks, and smokes behind.
A professional, confident attitude is just as important.  Twinges of self-doubt are normal but speed pitches are no place to seek validation.  Remember, you must first believe in your work before you can persuade others to.  Exude self-assurance, but not arrogance.  Openers like "I'm the next James Patterson" or "Today is your lucky day" will only alienate the consultant.  It's okay to be enthusiastic, but temper your zeal with a patina of humility.
4.  Break the ice
Speed-pitches can make even veteran writers nervous.  If you're really nervous (I once saw a writer so nervous that she upchucked while waiting for her appointment), pretend this is someone you've just met at a party.  Offer a personable handshake and some small-talk to start things off in an easy manner.  You'll then find it easy to segue into the business at hand.
Sometimes the consultant will take the onus off you by asking, "How long have you been writing?" or "Tell me about your book."  You'll also have an automatic ice-breaker if someone has referred you to this specific agent/editor.  A few exchanges about your mutual contact, and you're off and running.
     Most professionals are approachable and easy to talk to . . . sometimes too easy.  Get them started and you may have trouble stopping them long enough for your to describe your project.  Politely remind them that this is your time by steering them back where the conversation belongs: your book.
5.  Conduct your own interview
It's only natural to want to impress the agents/editors but they should also make an impression on you.  You'll derive more from the encounter with active participation.  Don't just sit waiting for them to drop career-making comments in your lap; think ahead of some pertinent questions that aren't covered in their bios.  Ask what the editor looks for in a first-time author.  Ask how many books the agent has sold in the past year.
On the flip side, try to anticipate questions they may ask you:  What is your target market?  Do you have a platform?  What differs your book from the others?  Make a list of possible questions and review them beforehand.
6.  Get a business card
Most consultants will have a supply of business cards with them; be sure to ask for one.  If none are available, jot down the properly-spelled nam and contact information.  Even if the session doesn't culminate in a contract, you'll want to send a brief thank-you note later.  It's a courteous business practice that at best will refresh the agent/editor's memory of you, and at least will make your mother proud.  Keep the contact information for future reference.
7.  Make lemonade
It doesn't happen often, but it does happen:  once in a while you'll emerge from a consultation wondering why you wasted your time and money.  Take heart; you can salvage a seemingly useless encounter by remembering a few points:
  • It bears repeating that the allotted minutes fly by; you are entitled to every one of them.  I was once kept waiting several minutes into my scheduled pitch time while the editor stood two feet away chatting with another editor.  If a consultant acts bored, interrupts you constantly, or is otherwise rude, be sure to let the conference staff know in the evaluation sheets they typically provide attendees.  They take your comments seriously.
  • If the consultant isn't interested in your work, ask if he knows anyone else who might, either inside or outside his own company.  It never hurts to ask and you might get a referral that can lead to something positive.
  • Remember that every speed-pitch is a learning experience.  The more practice you have in dealing with the myriad personalities that comprise the publishing world, the less intimidating they become.
  • Above all, don't let a nasty encounter deflate you.  Even if your project sparked interest, would you really want to work with someone so unpleasant?
8.  End the right way
When the bell, buzzer, or tap on the shoulder ends your session, finish your thought and wrap things up.  Don't keep the next writer waiting by overstaying your time slot, and give the agent/editor a moment to catch her breath before the next writer begins.  Conclude your speed-pitch with thanks and a clear idea of what the agent/editor wants you to follow up with, if anything.
After you've left the room, immediately jot down a summary of your session, including highlights like advice, requests, referrals, and preferences.  Multiple speed-pitches quickly blur together, so get everything down on paper while it's still fresh in your mind.
9.  "I'm from Missouri; show me"
When an agent/editor waxes rhapsodic about your pitch, it's easy to get carried away with excitement.  Take a consultant's ebullience with a grain of salt.  What an editor offers as encouragement or enthusiasm may result in false hope, and the subsequent disappointment can be devastating.  The whims of the industry are as fleeting as mercury.  When euphoria starts to run away with you, curb the anticipation with a bridle of reason, and hope for the best.
10.  Breathe
The people whom you speed-pitch are just that:  people.  They do not hold the fate of your career in their hands and most of the time they don't bite.  Approach a speed-pitch the way you would any other business interview and you'll be fine.  Take a couple of calming breaths before you go in, smile, and be yourself.  Maybe, just maybe, you'll end up with a great success story to tell.

Questions?  Shoot me an email.  Now go forth and pitch!
Cynthia Polansky "Expect the Unexpected" http://www.cynthiapolansky.com/ http://www.cynthiapgallagher.com/

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