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.
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.
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!)
what can you do to improve your chances at a pitch conference?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
you are talking to an older editor, do not refer to your work set in the 1960s
as “historical fiction.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.