Getting Ready to Pitch Your Novel

Pitch, pitch, pitch. With some writing groups and conferences, the air is filled with that word. It has a lot of different meanings. We can pitch a baseball, pitch something into the trash, select a key for a song, pitch a tent or pitch a fit. The dog can get covered with pitch from the pine trees in my neighborhood. But for writers, pitch, as my Webster’s says, is “to make a sales pitch.”

Most of us are writers not salespeople, so it’s going to take some extra courage to start pitching, but it also requires writing skill, which we have.

The pitch is the basis of a query for a novel or any other kind of book, whether you deliver it on paper, by e-mail or in person at a conference. For a pitch, you need to distill your story into a few sentences that describe what kind of book it is, what it’s about, and who’s going to want to read it. Then, if you have time, you’ll describe, briefly, who you are and why you’re qualified to write this book. In writing, it should fit on one page. In person, you may only have a minute or two to spew it out before the listener loses interest.

The pitch is the most important thing you’ll write for this book, and you’ll use it long after it’s published for every interview, media appearance and conversation with book-sellers and readers. Even in casual conversation, if someone asks what your book is about, you need to be able to tell them in a few clear sentences. You can’t go into all the details of the plot. “Well there’s this girl, and she meets this guy, and oh, she only has one leg, and the guy’s a doctor and, um…” That’s not going to fly. What is the essence of this book? For example, I say that my novel Azorean Dreams is a Portuguese-American love story in which an independent newspaper reporter of Portuguese descent falls in love with a newly arrived immigrant who has old-fashioned ideas about how women should act.”

For good ideas about how to describe your book, read the descriptions on the back covers of books or the summaries on book sales sites. Check out movie descriptions online or in the TV guide.

Once you get the story across in a few lines, you need to know where it fits in the bookstore, whether virtual or bricks-and-mortar. Is it a mystery, a romance, historical, fantasy, literary? Can you compare it to other books? If you say it’s Stephen King meets Harry Potter, we know where you’re at. A little Anne Tyler and a little Ann Lamott? Okay, we get it. Now don’t go saying your book is better than any of these. No bragging. Just offer information and let the reader/listener decide that it’s fabulous.

Now it’s time to tell about you. If you have relevant experience, say it right away. If you’re writing about politics and you’ve been involved in campaigns or been elected to office yourself, that’s an important selling point. If you set your story in the Grand Canyon and you’ve worked there as a ranger for the last 10 years, say so. If some event in your own life drove you to write this story, put it in your pitch. And yes, if you have writing credits, if you have experience in the media, if you have developed a big following for your blog, tell it to help sell it.

A writer’s pitch is a sales pitch. Your book is the product, but you’re part of the package. Yours are the face and the voice that go with the book. Agents and editors want to know what they’re selling.

There’s a lot more to talk about: synopses, sample chapters, who to offer your book to and how. Stay tuned; it’s all coming up here at Writer Aid. I welcome your questions.

One of many helpful references on this subject is The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposalsby Moira Allen. I wrote the chapter on pitching to agents at a writing conference, but the whole book is filled with useful information.

Meanwhile, you can’t sell what you haven’t written. Before you pitch a novel, you need to finish it.

So now go write.


How do I get my article published?

I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.

I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.

Dear Ron,

I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.

First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.

However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.

I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.

Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.

Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.

Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.

If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:

1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach

2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work

3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.

You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.

I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.

If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.

Don’t stop writing.

Best of luck,

Sue

I welcome your comments and questions.


Traditional publishing, Part 2: How do I approach an editor or agent about my book?

I had written this whole post when it got eaten in cyberspace. I think it was God reaching down and saying, hey, that’s boring. (Also, don’t forget to hit “save.”) So we’ll try a new format. I enjoy reading questions and answers. Maybe you do, too. Here goes.

I want to try traditional publishing first. I have found a publisher I think might like my book. How do I start?

First, read their guidelines. You can probably find them at their website, where you can also find their catalog and see if your book is a good fit. They will ask for a query, a proposal (nonfiction) or synopsis (fiction), a complete manuscript, or they will say they only accept submissions from agents. If it’s the latter and you don’t have an agent, either try another publisher or start working on getting an agent. Agents will also want to see a query, a proposal or synopsis, or the complete manuscript, so let’s start with the query.

How do I write a query letter for a book?

A query for a book is much like the query for an article. They are both short, usually one page. In a few paragraphs, you must grab the reader’s attention, tell about the book, explain who you are and why you’re qualified to write it, and why people would want to read it.

That first paragraph is the key. You may have heard the word “pitch.” This is a brief kick-ass summary that you will need every time you tell someone about your book, whether you’re trying to sell it to a publisher or agent, writing text for the back cover, or sitting at a book table trying to sell a copy to someone who pauses to peruse your cover. It needs to tell what kind of book it is–if fiction, what genre, if nonfiction; is it memoir, how-to, history, or what?–and what it’s about in a few sentences. If you can’t sum it up in a paragraph, you’re not ready to sell it, so take time to work on your pitch. For examples, look at catalog descriptions and the back covers of other books. Also look at the blurbs used to describe movies.

While you’re at it, tell them whether or not the book is finished and how long it is. Describe it in words, not pages. For example, “The book is complete at approximately 100,000 words” or “I have written 10 chapters and expect the finished book to be about 80,000 words.” With varying print sizes and the explosion of e-publishing options, your page numbers probably won’t match those of the finished product.

When telling about yourself, stick to the most relevant information. Unless your book is for children or is about parenting, they don’t need to know that you have three kids. What they do need to know is what you have published before, whether you already have an audience through classes, talks, blogs or other media, and whether you have special knowledge or training in your subject. If you are writing about dogs and you’re a veterinarian, tell them.

You should know what other similar books have already been published. If you can say there’s nothing on the market like your book–and you’re sure it’s true–that’s a plus. Otherwise, tell the reader what your book offers that the others don’t? Why will people buy it?

Finally, tell them you’ll be glad to send a detailed proposal or even the whole book, if they’re interested, and you look forward to hearing from them.

Ideally, they’ll respond quickly with a “Yes! I can’t wait to see it.”

How do I send the query?

Most publishers will accept emailed queries, but check the guidelines to be sure. Look for the name of the person who handles queries for your type of book and address your query to them by name. Use the word query in your subject line as in: Pit Bull book query. Don’t forget to include your contact information.

If the publisher prefers snail mail queries, it’s back to old-school methods. Type your query letter on good white paper, fold it in thirds and put it in a business-size envelope, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their reply.

If all they want is a query, keep it short and don’t send anything else.

Can I send my query to more than one publisher or agent at a time?

Yes. If they show interest and want more, than I personally think you should let them have an exclusive look, but you should definitely query more than one publisher or agent at a time because it takes so much time to get a response. Mention in your letter that you are querying others. Just make sure that you personalize each query. Don’t do a mass emailing; send each query separately.

Next week: the proposal




Lesson from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: They Want What?

You spend 20 hours researching a great idea, e.g., why kids join gangs, and it’s rejected. Three months (or six months or a year) later, the editor calls: Will you write an article on how to plan the perfect wedding?

Despite the way writing publications constantly encourage us to query with our great ideas, most magazines are planned in-house. Editors and staff decide what stories they want to have written, then find writers to do it. They have annual special sections and departments to fill, and they always have to think about their advertisers. The wedding story fits into their bridal section and will help sell ads to every business that deals with weddings. The gangs article may be fantastic, but it doesn’t fit anywhere, and it doesn’t sell anything. There are publications that handle serious issues, but most of them are newspapers or journals with private funding, not the slick magazines sold at Safeway.

Why did they call you to write about weddings? Your query showed them you were a competent writer. They decided you were worth a try. Pat yourelf on the back and start calling wedding consultants. Once they know you, they’ll be open to your ideas and might even find a way to work that gangs story into a future issue.

One way to get inside the process is to look at magazines’ editorial calendars. These rough out the themes and featured topics for upcoming issues. They are routinely given to advertisers to encourage them to buy ads. Do a search for “editorial calendars” or, more specifically, your target magazine’s calendar and see where you can match your talents to their desires. For example, I just looked up the Horizon airline magazine’s calendar. It’s listed under its parent publication at http://alaskaairlinesmagazine.com/horizonedition/editorial. I see that they’re featuring Southern Oregon, the 2012 summer Olympics in England, and gourmet ice cream in July and doing a special section on Idaho in October. Hmmm.

If you really want to write for a specific magazine, study it so well that you know exactly what the editor is looking for and when, then offer to provide it. A good query may get your foot in the door, but the right query will have them inviting you in and offering you a chair.


Lessons from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: Response time

I thought I knew a lot about magazines. When I agreed to substitute as editor at a local regional magazine a while back, I figured my years of newspaper work and freelance writing made me an expert on how magazines were planned, put together and published. Wrong!

Writers who think editors are monsters who mangle their manuscripts and laugh at their frustrations have not yet learned the lessons I learned working as one of them. In the next few posts, I will share what I found out. You may be surprised.

1. Why is it taking so long?

You send out the query or manuscript, wait a month, and start to get antsy. Geez, they should have responded by now; what’s holding this up? Maybe they like my idea. No, maybe they hate it. No, maybe . . .

The truth? Maybe nobody has even looked at it yet. It could have gone to an editor who no longer works there and now it’s sitting in a pile of letters nobody knows what to do with. The editor might have opened it, read it, and set it aside to deal with after deadline or until the story meeting, at which the editor, publisher and various staff members discuss content for upcoming issues.

If your submission arrives in the wrong part of the cycle, it could be two months before anyone gives it any serious thought. Or, maybe the editor likes it, but someone else on the staff has to approve it and that someone is too busy to look at it. Or, they like it, but your article on the new sea otter farm doesn’t fit into the special issue they’re preparing on June weddings, so they want to “keep it on file” indefinitely.

Lesson: Be patient. It seems like a long time, and it is, but you can’t change the system by nagging the editor. You can only annoy her until she rejects you just to get you off her back. Wait under the response time stated in their guidelines has passed, then send an e-mail or make a polite phone call to see what’s happening. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer and you have a better place to sell your work, tell the editor and then do it. Meanwhile, take your mind off the delay by working on other writing projects.

Next week: Why would an editor ask me to write something completely different from what I proposed in my query letter?


Your query: Take another look

I’ve got a new gig, writing for a local weekly paper called Oregon Coast Today. The editor knew my work, and when a need arose, she called me. All I did was keep myself visible, most recently at a free writing workshop she taught for our local branch of Willamette Writers. I honestly hate networking, but contacts will get you farther than anything else in the writing business. I know, we’d like to believe talent is the key, but it’s contacts.

We have agreed that I will write a minimum of two features a month for a pleasing amount of money. So, I already have the gig. However, I still need to pitch my ideas. Here’s where we come to today’s lesson. What the editor wants is extremely specific. The stories must be local, happening right here in Lincoln County or south Tillamook County. They must promote something that is happening in the foreseeable future or something that people can do anytime. Readers must be able to take that story and do something.

There’s no coverage of things that have already happened. There are no free publicity stories about local businesses or local artists. Articles must come with photos, either mine or pictures that I am sure I can obtain from someone else. The writing must fit the breezy, let’s-have-fun tone. Overall, my queries must be very specific.

I pitched a story on an upcoming Art Walk happening over Labor Day weekend. Because I’m personally involved, I had contacts, access to pictures, and a lot of details. She bought it. I also pitched a story on an upcoming set of events around Sept. 11 on the theme of peace. I didn’t have much information, mentioned what I knew and said there would be “other cool stuff.” I would call the person in charge if she was interested. She said: Try again with more information. In addition, I pitched a “glass pumpkin patch” being displayed at a local gallery. It’s a business. I failed to mention the raising-money-for-Food-Share angle. She said: No.

I remind you that I already have the gig. We have enough stories already lined up to keep me busy. If you’re querying a publication that doesn’t already know you, you need to work even harder to make sure your query matches that publication’s mission and is as specific as possible. You need to know exactly what that story is going to contain before you ask an editor to let you write it. It works better that way for both of you because the editor  knows what she’s getting, and you know you can provide it.

So, before you send that query, take another look. If there’s anything vague about it, make it specific. If it doesn’t quite fit the publication’s mission, try again.

That’s what I’m doing today.


Tell us a story–even in nonfiction

Back in the olden days when I was in journalism school, reporters were taught to write straightforward factual stories with no personal comments or artsy asides. Just give the facts, backed up by quotes from interviewees and printed matter. Well, the times have changed. Even the most hard-news articles require a little fictional flavor these days. If you’re writing about the budget mess in Washington, we want all the details, of course, but they’ll slide down easier if you add a touch of humanity. Did the president look unshaven and haggard? Did the Speaker of the House sound hoarse because he’s been talking so much and getting so little sleep? Do you tell us about how they waited right up to the point of disaster before agreeing on a compromise that will keep the government from going into default?

Narrative. That seems to be the buzzword these days. Give us a character and a story. At last year’s Future of Freelancing conference, held at Stanford University, one of the panelists urged writers to see their articles as stories. Their queries should lay out the scenes their stories will include. Think of it as a little movie. Get the editor’s attention, then tell how you will structure the story. As with fiction, show the editor why the readers will care about what you’re writing. Why will they be interested and what will they take away from it?

My MFA is in creative nonfiction, a genre which specifically calls upon the techniques of fiction to tell stories. We use characters, dialogue, setting, suspense and all the other facets of fiction, except that we’re not making it up. Visit the Creative Nonfiction website for lots of great information on this genre.

It used to be that creative nonfiction and journalism were completely different things. Now narrative nonfiction techniques are appearing in feature articles everywhere, not just literary magazines. In an article on travel writing in the May/June 2011 Writer’s Digest, L. Peat O’Neil writes, “Try to experience your time on the road not just as a reporter, but as a traveler–because the days of conventional travel writing in a distant passive voice are long gone. Today’s writer participates in the narrative, sharing stories with readers in much the way a newly returned traveler tells friends about the journey.” O’Neil suggests that travel writers focus on telling a good story, putting details about locations, prices, etc., in sidebars.

When you’re reading articles and books, look for the narrative elements in nonfiction. Look for a personal narrator, settings, dialogue, a story arc, etc.  See how the writers tell their stories, then try to do likewise.