All right, having waded through piles of internet "goodness," and successfully pitching my novel at SIWC2011, I think I have discovered a fairly good formula for pitching a fiction project. Here are my thoughts:
1. Finish your novel. The little light that went on in the eyes of the agents and editors when I said Aeden’s Wake is complete at 82,500 words was priceless. I met a number of fine folks who pitched unfinished novels or concepts and had the agent/editor say to contact them when it was finished – I imagine sometimes it’s a polite blow-off, and other times it’s genuine, but I’m glad I had a complete project to give. Only once did I hear of an agent asking to see an uncompleted manny. If you’re just interested in speaking with an agent, all right, but if you’re hoping to sell, the odds go up – waaaaayyyy up – when you can put the finished manuscript right into their hands. Their eyes light up all over again.
2. Know the unique premise of your book. This is more than just the plot or character – it’s what makes your story unique, and will set it apart from the (many, many, many) carbon copy novels being written. Which I know you didn't.
3. Write that premise into a one sentence logline and start your pitch with that. Hook ‘em straight away. I’ll post my logline and most of my pitch (sans climax and denouement) below.
4. Then write a 1 minute (max) synopsis of your work that really explains the following: the protagonist’s awesomeness; the novel’s problem/conflict; the complication; the climax, and the resolution. Do not hold back your ending – an agent needs to know, and now is not the time to be cagey (besides, you’re proud of it, right?).
5. Because Aeden’s Wake is literary/upmarket, I chose to say a bit about the structure of my novel, which I feel is significant to its potential reception by audiences (see below).
6. In 30 seconds, situate your book against others in the market. Don’t say it’ll be a bestseller, but try to make a commercial connection. And, if you can, try to add something specific to that agent (e.g., I used the word "quirky" because she used it in her profile).
7. Write a bit about what makes YOU qualified/able to write THIS book. If you have publication credits, pick a couple you’re most proud of or will impress; if you’re a teacher of literature, mention that, etc. However, do not talk about loosey-goosey, abstract ideas about your project – stick with real, concrete things that will impress someone who deals with writers and books for a living.
8. Practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Read it out loud to catch syntax and diction flubs – it should sound natural – and try to capture some of the voice/tone of your work if you can. Then read it to someone who will give you honest feedback.
9. If you’re good with small talk, break the ice as you shake her hand with something nice or relevant to the situation (I was able to offer a tissue to an agent who had spilled some coffee on her table – she was grateful and, from what I gleaned from others, much nicer to me than she had been to the previous pitchers…score, right?!). If not, smile, take a deep breath and plunge into your pitch – be natural, be yourself. Agents are used to nerves, so just go for it.
10. In your pitch, I recommend reading it rather than memorizing it. If you’re really good at delivering memorized material and aren’t prone to nerves, go ahead and memorize, but HAVE A WRITTEN COPY WITH YOU, JUST IN CASE. Stay focused.
11. Use any remaining time for Q&A. Be ready for the agent’s questions and pay attention to things she missed or that you forgot to put in (in my nervous state, I forgot to include my ending for my first agent, and she asked about it straight away…thankfully, she was interested in everything else, but did I make sure to add it in for my next session? You betcha.).
12. If the agent stops asking questions, have some of your own ready. Take the opportunity to ask her about her projects, whether she has handled your kind of novel, what strategies she’d recommend, etc.
13. If she asks for more material, find out the following: hard or soft copy? Does she prefer in-line/embedded or attached files? What format (.doc or .pdf)? What is her timeline?
14. Get up, smile again – but not in a creepy way – and shake her hand. End well and clean. She’s a pro, you’re a pro, right? Don’t wink. (There were some annoyingly cocky people around who probably winked. I didn’t see them do it, but I’m just sayin’.)
15. Have a soft copy of your entire ms, pitches, queries, synopses, etc. with you at the conference, and send any requested info straight away. If you run into her again at the conference, how great would it be to say that it’s already in her inbox? Hard copy: unless you want to lug it around, don’t bring a hard copy of the whole ms – it’s rare for an agent to want 300 pages to carry back with her on the plane. HOWEVER, if it does happen (it happened to me, woot!) ask the hotel concierge or Google to find a nearby Staples or copy centre. I missed a morning keynote to grab the ms from Staples, but I think the agent appreciated the extra effort, and I certainly felt good about my willingness to go the extra 1.4 kilometres.
16. Always, always, always find a way to send a quick card or email and thank the agent for her time. Be polished. Be nice. People remember those little gestures.
AEDEN’S WAKE is a novel about a young, small-town woman who discovers that her family’s personal tragedy is merely the byproduct of a greater conflict that has shaped her hometown for generations.
Rhoda Camael is tired of everyone telling her how – and when – to grieve for her father and little brother. She knows she will have to at some point, and she does want to remember what happened – she just wants to do so in her own way. However, as she begins to discover what loss truly means, she also uncovers a conflict between a town that has the power to call people to itself, and those who are drawn in as a result. The two people Rhoda loved most in the world are dead because a serial criminal named Devon Eli was called home, yet she is alive because of a moment of choice that can only happen in a place like Aeden’s Wake… (climax and denouement would go here).
AEDEN’S WAKE is an upmarket commercial novel with supernatural undercurrents, and is complete at 82,500 words. Rhoda’s first-person narrative provides the story arc and central conflict, while parallel entries from Eli’s posthumous prison journal provide a glimpse into his psyche as he lives out the consequences of that moment of choice.
In terms of audience and marketing considerations, I think the novel would appeal to readers who enjoy a quirky and flawed yet strong female protagonist, as well as those who enjoy literary fiction that can blend strong character and theme with supernatural elements. There has been commercial success for such an approach, with writers such as Justin Cronin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, and Alice Sebold demonstrating that blending the literary with the supernatural can be successful commercially and critically.
My stories have appeared or will appear in The Storyteller Magazine, bazaar Magazine, and Fringe Magazine. I have published non-fiction in The Christian Courier, The Banner, The Kuwait Times, and Al-Watan Daily. I have been a literature and writing teacher for ten years.