NEXT WEEK, BECOME A PITCHER WHO CLOSES
John Grisham is a believer in the Elevator Pitch. You know, the one where you get on a lift with an editor or agent and hook the unsuspecting soul with a summary of your story that makes the "This is my floor" ding coincide with the light bulb appearing over his or her head. Assuming we all might learn something from a Southern ex-lawyer who’s sold a book or two, Grisham told Writer’s Digest, “If you can’t describe what a book is about in one or two sentences, you don’t have a story worth telling.”
Here’s our pitch to you: In just 90 minutes next week, Pitch Perfect, our MWA-NY panel event, which includes an agent, an editor, and two bestselling authors, will make you better at pitching, regardless of whether you are a hopeful, a beginner, or a published writer. Ding?
Why is pitching such a big deal? It isn't just because it is the key portal between you and a sale; it’s more than that. Pitching’s a big deal because it scares the crap out of most writers. That’s, in part, because the stakes are so high. But what makes it even more daunting is this: Selling simply isn’t where most of us feel comfortable. William Butler Yeats understated things when he said that “a work of art is the social act of a solitary man.” Or woman, of course. So many of us are wired to be introverts. It’s what made us writers to begin with. But what we conceive and dream alone, huddled over our glowing screens or inky notebooks, grappling privately with our hopes and insecurities, must eventually be brought Out There to that scary place—to be pitched. And there’s plenty to scare us.
Nightmare Pitch. I was a brand new story editor on the NBC series Night Court. Story pitch day, and I was up. Not to be intimidated or anything, but I was in a room full of seven fellow writers, pitching to the series creator/executive producer/uber-curmudgeon, Reinhold Weege. I pitched my lips off for five minutes, weaving my story idea, including dialogue snippets, sample jokes, the works. When I was done, Reiny took a deep drag off his cigarette, squinted at me through the smoke, and leveled me with a single word. " . . . And?"
Nightmare Pitch. Friends of mine, a writing team, had just enjoyed the thrill of a major studio producing one of their scripts as a movie. Riding that success, they met with a big producer to pitch him their next project. Finished after 20 minutes. The producer paused and said, “Why would you bother?” He swiveled his chair to show them his back, and they were ushered out by an assistant. They took that as a pass.
Dream Pitch. Of course, there’s the flip side. My agent had booked me for a meet-and-greet with a TV producer. He was running late, so, as I waited, a film producer who was also waiting introduced himself, and small talk led him to ask what I’d been working on. I told him I’d just finished a spec screenplay. He asked what it was about. Mindful of my impending meeting, I made it brief. When I finished he said, “I want to option that.” Don’t hate me, but he actually did, and contacted my agent that afternoon. To this day, I wonder, if I’d had the time to really prepare a formalized pitch, would it have sold?
What are the common elements? We take weeks, months, sometimes years of work, and pin everything on a paragraph. Unless the elevator is to the top floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, that need to be pithy, to get it said in 25 words or fewer, is like trying to stuff a booming Fourth of July fireworks finale into a Ziploc. It’s sweet when it sells. When it doesn’t, not so much. But the thing is, with all that’s on the line and with the investment of time, sweat, sacrifice, and soul you have put into your darling, why wouldn’t you do something to overcome the hurdle and get better at pitching?
And everyone can. Aspirant or veteran.
Of the myriad obstacles to completing and selling your book or story, pitching should not be one of them. If you take an objective view, a pitch should not be an obstacle, but an opportunity. Come on, it's a chance to sell your work! Grab it! Easier said? Let’s unpack things:
What's your obstacle? Is it the pitch itself? Really? Or is it within you? Things like:
• Lack of preparation
• Stage fright
• Low self-esteem (and all its bastard cousins)
Those internals — the psychological aspects — those are real, aren’t they? You bet. And not to be ignored. Nor should they be sources of shame. But there must be some way to manage them, right? A few weeks after my Night Court nightmare, I attended a Writers Guild of America retreat at Lake Arrowhead, and one of the speakers was a psychologist who worked with creative people. Later, at the cocktail reception, I told her about my pitch anxiety, and she gave me the best advice I have ever gotten. Happy to share.
The psychologist said that in pitch situations most of us are geared to be worried about being judged personally. How am I sounding? How are they liking me so far? Should I make more eye contact? Am I smiling enough? Should I have gone with the corduroy pants? Did they notice my voice crack? Did that line just fall flat? (Sound familiar?) The life-changing advice she gave me was to forget about my performance–to forget about myself–and to focus solely on whether I am clearly conveying information to them. Period. Full stop.
All right, so that helped me, and I hope it is of use to you. But I am still—and always—on the hunt to find ways to get better at pitching. Which is why the MWA-NY Pitch Perfect event coming up next week is so essential. To me. To anyone who has to pitch. Which is most of us. Here’s an authoritative way of looking at it from mega-selling author (and member of our New York Chapter), Nelson DeMille, in a Chicago Tribune interview. “It's not good if you don't know what to do with a manuscript once you've finished with it. A lot of young writers don't have a clue about that. You've got to do your industry homework. If you're writing just for yourself, fine. But if you want to be published by a major publisher and have people read what you write, you really need to know how the business works. I think that's one of the saddest things I can think of: a good manuscript that goes nowhere because it's been written by someone who doesn't know what to do with it.”
And that means pitch it.
Your opportunity is waiting for you Monday, December 12, 5:30 – 7 p.m., at the NYPL’s Bloomingdale Library, 150 West 100th Street (between Columbus and Amsterdam).
We have assembled an all-star panel: Amy Stapp, a leading New York book editor at Tor/Forge (Macmillan), Paul Stevens, a top agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and Jason Starr, an international bestselling author of suspense novels (as well as comics and graphic novels), all of whom will be there with one goal: to talk you through the harrowing process of pitching your project. The panel with be moderated by New York Times bestselling author David Grann. Note: There will be an expanded Q&A session to allow audience members to question the experts—and to try out their pitches and get feedback on the spot.
This event also marks the annual kick-off of the MWA Mentor Program. If you are interested in finding a mentor, information and applications will be available. Admission is free and open to all. Seating is limited and filling fast, so click here to register.
Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.