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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

As writers, we are constantly being told, "Develop a great elevator pitch." 

For those of you who are new to the biz, an elevator pitch is a brief, concise presentation of your novel's central story. At its best, an elevator pitch is a clever and effective nugget that summarizes your entire manuscript. Think of it as a brilliant tag line for a movie. Here are some noteworthy tag lines you may have heard over the past 30 years: 

"Eight legs, two fangs, and an attitude." (Arachnaphobia)

"She brought a small town to its feet and a corporation to its knees." (Erin Brockovich)

"The last man on Earth is not alone." (I Am Legend)

"Escape or die frying." (Chicken Run)

Ideally, one's elevator pitch should be brilliant enough to compel any editor or agent to scream, "You, author! Send me your pages!" Or better yet: "Sign this six-figure contract!"

Back in 2006, when I was a newish writer (I'd published four books under a pseudonym, but nothing on my own), I attended my first Sleuthfest. I was filled with trepidation--make that terror--about my elevator pitch.  I didn't even want to go into the elevators, because I was afraid I'd run into an agent and blow my chance to pitch.

During the actual conference, I hung back. I watched as writers hounded an increasingly embattled group of agents and editors. Some even pursued their targets into the bathrooms to deliver a pitch. Over the course of the weekend, the expressions of the publishing professionals became glazed and semi-fearful, so accosted were they by the phalanxes of pitching newbies.

Here's what I learned about elevator pitches: Don't deliver one in an actual elevator, and never pitch to a publishing professional unless they specifically ask for it.  Learn to read body cues; back off if you sense that your listener is merely being polite about your pitch, as opposed to genuinely enthusiastic.

At Sleuthfest, I was so afraid of pitching, I decided to limit my attempt to the "Agent Fest." This is where you sign up for 15-minutes of face time with an honest-to-God agent. This is the time to make your pitch.

But I was still nervous. At the last minute, I cancelled my appointment with my assigned agents, and gave my time to another writer (who seemed incredulous that I'd handed away such an opportunity).

I did keep my appointment with a NY editor, however. Here's why: the editor had actually read 30 pages of my work before our meeting. The agent's reaction would depend solely on my verbal skills. The editor would base her reaction on the actual writing. In the end, I trusted my manuscript more than my mouth.

It all worked out. The editor liked my story enough to request the rest of the manuscript. I went home and hurriedly wrote query letters that contained my pitch. I honestly can't remember what my pitch ended up being for the first Fat City Mystery, although it was something like, "Nancy Drew grows up, gains weight and develops a potty mouth." It must have worked, because within a half dozen queries, I had an agent, followed soon by a contract with a major publishing house.

Over time, I've become much more comfortable with pitching. It was helpful to attend meetings of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, because both groups help you refine your speaking skills. Over the past few years I've been on panels and delivered presentations in person, so the whole speaking thing comes a tad easier these days.

But at my next conference, I may still avoid the elevators. I don't want to press my luck.

What about you? Have you had success with your elevator pitch? Does the idea of delivering one make you nervous? Any tips you can share?


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