Two weeks ago, a client of mine whom I shall call Kathy, did something that I advise people never to do: she threw her hat in the ring to pitch at a local writing conference. Her friend had roped her into going, there were some great agents coming, so she thought — why not see what happens?
Why not? Because Kathy had literally just finished her first draft*, because she had not even started to work on a pitch, because she had not given a moment’s thought to her pitch mindset, because she had not researched the agents to see if they were appropriate for her book and her goals, and because she hadn’t even settled on a title.
*a first draft developed with a book coach is more like a fifth or sixth draft, since course corrections are made along the way, but the point is that Kathy did not have a polished, ready to pitch draft.
I was displeased that Kathy had jumped the gun, but I also get it. When you finish, you get so excited! Kathy has been working for years on this novel. She could taste the victory! And opportunity knocked! Her emotions took over her reason, which is one of the things that happens with writers because we care so darn much about what we are making. And it’s one of the things I love about writers.
So, Kathy and I made an emergency plan to do everything we could to prepare her for the pitch over the four days we had to work with. She had slots with four agents, three of whom were a very good fit, from very good agencies. The fourth was a very accomplished agent but an outlier in terms of genre, so we figured that one would be good practice.
Here is what we did:
1.) We researched the agents. We scoured their websites, learned about their clientele, learned about their history and their preferences. We Googled them, looked them up on the Manuscript Wish List site, followed them on Twitter.
2.) Kathy wrote a query letter and we went around and around and around on the critical first line, the lines that captured a very complex plot in a very short space, the comp titles, and her bio. The goal was to capture the spirit of the book, the mood, the feel, and also what happens and why it matters. It’s a lot of responsibility for a short letter to carry. We agonized over word choice, rhythm, order. Kathy settled on a title she had always loved but had been veering away from. Kathy was relentless in her pursuit of perfection.
3.) Once we got the written pitch into a solid shape, we turned to a verbal pitch — since that is how it’s done in person at most conferences. Speaking a pitch is a very different thing than writing it. You want to sound natural, comfortable, but also get in all the same elements as the query, so what we were now writing was a script. Kathy has a career in which public speaking and presentations are part of the gig, so she was very good at this part, but we still spent a lot of time. She spent all day memorizing the script and then we got on the phone for her to practice. (It was 7 a.m. my time — the only time I had available. We captured a video of this, which I will be using in our book coach certification training program and it’s pretty hilarious — me with my bedhead hair in a hoodie sweatshirt with my coffee. The glamorous life of a book coach!) We tweaked the script as she practiced, axing out the entire first ¼, changing the ending. We talked about the agents and how to approach them and what to say to them — how to optimize the 10 minutes. We talked about what to say if someone asked for the manuscript since it wasn’t done, because sending in a half-baked book does no one any good. We talked about the fact that the goal of pitching is not to get picked; the goal is to find an effective match.
4.) Kathy attended a conference session on pitching and they recommended beginning the pitch with a logline — a very brief summary of the whole. She crafted one. And kept tweaking the script. And kept practicing.
5.) My phone rang before 8 a.m. the next morning (which was a Saturday — see note about the glamorous life of a book coach!): the first agent loved the pitch, wanted the whole thing, was more than fine to wait until it was polished. More calls followed. All four agents loved the pitched, wanted the whole thing, were more than fine to wait until it was polished. Even the seasoned agent who didn’t seem to love this genre loved it and was eager to see it.
The point of all this? When your query or your pitch is rejected, it is almost never a mystery. Every once in a while, I am totally baffled as to why a manuscript is rejected (I’m looking at you Jen B), but it doesn’t happen very often. It’s usually crystal clear — something wrong in the query, something wrong in your approach, something wrong in the pages.
Your job is to put your emotions aside — rejection is horrible, no way around it, but letting the disappointment drive you doesn’t help. Then you need to get honest about what is working and what is not, and keep doing whatever you need to do to move the needle on your project.
We’re coming into conference season, so on May 22nd at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT, I’m doing a presentation I call the Rejection Audit. I’m going to go through the reasons why you might be getting rejected and analyze actual rejection letters to show you what you can learn from them. I have a few very generous and brave Author Accelerator writers who are allowing me to use their query letters and their rejections so we can all get smarter about this process. I’d love to have you join me.
Thanks for taking the time to read. If you enjoyed this article, please hit that clap 👏 button to help others find it!