Perhaps this is true for every writer active online: there are some authors who you warm to and enjoy interacting with immediately—and believe you would get along with in real life, if your paths were to cross. That's how it was with Susan Breen when I discovered her online, about seven or so years ago. I'm delighted she's on the blog today.
Susan’s new mystery, Maggie Dove, was published by Random House’s digital Alibi imprint in June, and the next in the series, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency, will be out in November. Breen teaches for Gotham Writers Workshops and is on the staff of the New York Writers Workshop. She sold her first novel, The Fiction Class, at a pitch conference.
Please welcome Susan Breen
For nine years, I’ve been a workshop leader at the New York Pitch Conference in Manhattan, where I help participants write pitches for their novels and memoirs. Then I sit with them as they recite those pitches to editors from the big New York publishing houses. Figuring 18 people to a group, meeting four editors each session, four times a year—that means I’ve heard a lot of pitches.
From my unique perch, I’ve witnessed what goes on when an editor listens to a writer’s pitch. I’ve seen their doodles. (Always a bad sign when they begin crossing off your name.) I’ve seen writers sabotage themselves (begging and crying, for example). I’ve also seen editors light up when they hear something that excites them. (At the last conference an editor looked at me and said, “I want this book now!)
So, what can you do to improve your chances at a pitch conference?
1. Make them want to read your book. This seems obvious, yet often writers get swept up in the rules of pitch writing, or worrying that they accurately convey all the information about the book, that their pitches become brittle. Yes, follow the rules. The pitch shouldn’t be too long. End with a cliff hanger. But the most important thing? Be interesting. It may matter for the plot that the main character gets her teeth cleaned in chapter 3, but does the editor have to know that right now?
2. Remember, editors judge a book by its pitch. If the pitch rambles, the book probably rambles. If the pitch is unfocused, the book probably is. If the pitch is funny, if the pitch is boring, if the pitch makes no sense… My boss at the pitch conference, Michael Neff, says a pitch is a diagnostic tool, and I agree. When I’m working on one of my own novels, I always write a pitch halfway through. If I have trouble writing the pitch, it usually means there’s trouble in the book.
3. Setting is an important part of a good pitch. Editors like to know if the book takes place in Paris or Long Island or wherever. Sometimes writers insist that the story can take place anywhere, but that’s not actually a selling point. You want your book to be set somewhere specific, which does not mean it has to be glamorous. Yes, it’s fun to read about Paris, but Long Island can also be intriguing.
4. Establish an interesting and active protagonist. This is frustrating to a lot of writers, who can cite many classic novels that do not have active protagonists. This is undoubtedly true, and if Proust shows up at one of my conferences, we can debate the point. But I don’t think Proust was going for the commercial market. If your character’s not active, make sure he’s funny or in a lot of trouble.
5. Credentials help. I’ve had people who’ve won Emmy awards. That helps a lot. But I’ve also had people with stories published in magazines with a circulation of 500. That helps too. It shows the editor that you’re a part of the literary world. You’re serious. Try to build up credentials before the pitch conference. See if you can spin off a chapter as a story. Take a writing class. Join a writers’ organization. Everything helps.
6. When you are talking to an older editor, do not refer to your work set in the 1960s as “historical fiction.”
7. Even the best pitches are not successful with every editor. Over the course of the pitch conference, a participant meets with four or five editors. Sometimes every editor will request a manuscript. Other times only one editor will request it. Sometimes that pitch will be a little odd. Or the writer will be odd. And yet, that one editor really connects with it. It’s like falling in love. You don’t need everyone in the world to fall in love with you. You just need one person.
8. Word count matters. Most editors want books between 65,000 to 100,000 words. If the concept is strong enough, they may ask to see something with a longer word count, but it definitely creates an obstacle. Publishing is hard enough without adding obstacles. I also work as an editor and I can assure you that I’ve never read a novel that couldn’t be shortened.
9. Know the comparable titles in your genre and category ("comps"). My agent pitched my new mystery as "Agatha Christie meets Anne Tyler". That gives an immediate sense of the tone. When a writer has no idea of what’s comparable to her book, I feel alarmed, because that makes me think she hasn’t read anything. Sometimes people will say, “I’m writing a romance because I want to sell it, but I don’t actually read this junk.” That’s not an inducement. If you publish a romance, you’ll be meeting a lot of romance writers who will not be happy to discover you think they are idiots. Write the book you want to write, and read other books like it.
10. Don't argue with an editor. If the editor hears your pitch and says, this would be better if the protagonist were a woman, or this sounds like a YA novel, just say thank you. They might be right or they might be wrong. No one is going to force you to change your book, but it’s worth absorbing the input and thinking about it afterwards. Keep in mind that part of what they’re trying to do is figure out if you’re someone they want to work with. So if you immediately resist or argue back about every suggestion, that’s not a good sign.
11. If no one at a pitch conference warms to your book, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, a bad person, or a failure. It just means that the handful of editors you met with, didn’t want your book. There are many other editors. There are many other books to write. My first two books didn’t sell. My third did. My fourth one didn’t. My fifth did. Hopefully, I’ve figured it all out now, but if I had quit after one, I’d be nowhere.
12. Finally, try and enjoy the pitch conference. Yes, it’s stressful, but you are getting the chance to meet face to face with the people who run this crazy business we’re in. That’s exciting.
Images: Stack of Journals, Jon Betts and Talk Bubbles, Raiznext, both FlickerCreativeCommons. Others, courtesy Susan Breen.