How (Not) to Pitch Your Manuscript to Agents

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For those of you who have no idea what a pitch is, or if you’re currently hyperventilating into a paper bag—quick! Read this—to get a sense of what it’s like to pitch a manuscript to an agent for the first time. Trust me, you’ll feel better when it’s over.

A conference pitch is a short (in my case eight minute) appointment in which you throw yourself at the feet of an agent and pray they like your story. The goal is to sell an agent on your idea and secure an invitation to submit a sample of your work. The pitch itself lasts about two minutes, and the wise (desperate?) writer leaves the remaining time for the agent to ask questions about the story, to get to know you, and—most importantly—to ask for pages. At the very least, writers hope for what’s known as a partial, a request of at least a few chapters. The golden ticket is a request to see the full manuscript.

I had four appointments. I’d been writing my pitch for weeks; tweaking the words, refining the script, honing my story to its barest bones. There’s not a lot of succinct information available online about writing a pitch, so I cobbled mine together via ten or so websites that each offered tiny nuggets of wisdom. I felt like a magpie, stealing shiny bits from each to weave together two hundred words to convey the meat of my seventy-three thousand word story.

The pitches need to be memorized (and to all of my former students who ranted that memorization is an unnecessary skill, I told you so.) I practiced everywhere I went: in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen. I made myself a little nutty as I obsessed about the glitches in my delivery, the key word left out, the run-away-freight-train speed of my speech pattern. It was finally while driving during I-5’s notorious rush-hour traffic, that I nailed it. I was ready.

In order to help writers hone their pitches, Willamette Writers sponsors an event called Pitch for the Prize (personally, I think Bitchin’ Pitchin’ is far catchier, but whatever.) It’s a chance to practice your pitch before a panel of agents in a ballroom full of writers. It’s a hard thing to get up in front of fifty strangers and talk about your book using a scripted format. It’s even harder when you realize Pitch for the Prize culminates in the agents giving you feedback. Right there. In front of all those people. The best pitch of the evening wins the pot of entry fees. In my room, it was about $165.

I arrived a half hour early, paid my fee, and stuck my name in the hat. Each participant is drawn at random, has two minutes to pitch, and another two to receive the agents’ feedback. The moderator drew name after name. My stomach crawled into my mouth each time he reached into the bucket. I tried to relax, to enjoy the moment that wasn’t mine in the spotlight. Some writers clearly made up their pitches on the fly, some meandered through every character arc in their 315,000 word YA fantasy novel, and a very few knocked it out of the park. They gave pitches that left me hanging, and made me sad when I remembered their books weren’t yet published and I couldn’t read their stories. The evening waned on, and more than a few participants verbally diarrhead (verb form of the noun; I made that up) all over themselves, taking up far more than their fair share of time. As the clock struck nine, the moderator announced, “We’re all out of time!”

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“Whaaaat?”

Hours—days, weeks, really—of stress culminated in frustration when I realized I wasn’t going to get to pitch. I made a beeline for the bar. Did you know that in Portland, OR, you can’t stack drinks? Ugh.

The next afternoon, I waited to pitch my first real live agent. I sat outside the pitch room, compulsively checking the time, whispering my pitch to myself over and over again. After what felt like hours, they announced my appointment time and I crowded through the double doors with all the other hopefuls. The agents sit in a large ballroom, set up exactly like speed dating. Each writer tries to be witty, charming, and smart, to capture the agent’s attention, to get them to ask for pages before the next shiny new plot line nudges her out of her seat.

I wandered over to my agent’s table, my hand extended, prepared to introduce myself, to impress her with my firm, but not too firm, I-mean-business handshake. And in the briefest of moments, someone else swooped into the chair, at the table of MY agent, and immediately began to pitch her story.

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“WTF?”

I stood alone in the middle of the room looking at all the happy pitchers. I yanked out my phone to check my conference schedule on the app. It confirmed my 2:00 appointment. The martial artist in me wanted to uh, “interrupt” the woman’s pitch and reclaim my chair. But the professional side of me knew I couldn’t afford to get off on the wrong foot with a potential professional connection. I backed off and found a staff member. I explained what’d happened, trying hard not to sound panicked or angry—a difficult task given I was both—and they offered to reschedule my appointment.

After this, my second failed attempt to pitch my story, my nerves were frayed. I won’t lie; I thought about going all Hunter S. Thompson on the agent and bringing a flask with me to my next appointment. But cooler heads prevailed and my next window of opportunity arrived. I headed back into the pitch room. I made a bee line for her table, ready to give the pitch of my life. Her spot was empty. Nothing but two empty chairs in the middle of a room buzzing with the sound of excited authors pitching their work. No agent. I sat, clutching my bag, and felt tears well up in my eyes. I’m not a crier. Like, at all. Ever. But the stress from the missed opportunities and aborted attempts to sell an agent on my story—one I’ve worked on for three years—got the better of me. I took a deep breath and forced those tears back where they belong. Stuffed way down, a dark little knot of disappointment and despair.

After several minutes, the agent swept in, introducing herself mid-stride, and asked me to begin. Given the shortened window of time, I dived straight in and pitched my book. Just as I got rolling, she interrupted me.

Oh, for the love of God, please just let me get this out, I pleaded silently. Certainly, she was about to dismiss me, to tell me my plotline sounds ridiculous. She didn’t. She leaned in and said, very sharply, “What’s your name again?” I told her, holding up my name tag. “Great writer’s name. Continue.”

I finished up quickly, aware of the time I didn’t have. She demanded to know the title, cocked her head to the side and fixed me with a look. “Okay. I want to see this book. Send me two chapters.”

It wasn’t a full request, but given the angst I’d felt getting to this point, it might as well have been. My smile could not have been bigger (and if you know me, it’s pretty big).

I jumped up from the table, planning to rush off to my room, fire up my laptop, and send her the pages in seconds. As I turned away, she called my name. “When you submit, please be sure to let me know whether this is a multi-agent submission.”

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In the end, all four agents I met with requested pages. I went home with two partials and two full manuscript requests. Four for four.

Overall,  every agent was kind and friendly. Each of them did something to establish a connection with me, and made the right noises about my story. I’ve sent the manuscripts off. So far, I’ve received one rejection from that set of queries. Which means three (two full manuscripts) of them are still in play.

Better check my email…it might be from an agent.

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4 thoughts on “How (Not) to Pitch Your Manuscript to Agents

  1. Oh wow, such frustrations you experienced. Glad it worked out in the end.

    I’ve participated in one agent pitch. It can be nerve-wracking, no doubt, so before I entered the room for the three-hour agent querying speed-fest, I reminded myself of all the situations I’d been in that were far more stressful than this. Then I reminded myself it’s not like I was performing brain surgery. That helped put it in perspective and I calmed down enough to get through it. 🙂

    Congrats on the requests! I’ll keep my fingers (and toes) crossed for you!

    Like

    • Thanks Carrie! It was a terribly stressful 24 hours. In the end, it paid off, but I was fairly wrung out by the frustrated anticipation. As for managing the stress, you’re absolutely right. It’s not brain surgery. I think now that I’ve been through it, I won’t be nearly as panicked about the process. The agents are lovely, book-loving nerds just like the rest of us 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. It was great to read this between writing sprints!!

    Call me mean, but I think those who verbal diarrhea-ed should have been stopped mid-sentence by a three-minute bell, to give those writers who had worked hard at streamlining their pitches (like you) the opportunity to speak.

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    • I didn’t see this until just now! I’m sorry Damyanti. I’m so happy that you took time to read and that it motivated you between sprints 🙂 I agree with your idea. If I’d been moderating that room, that’s exactly how I’d have run it. Oh well. Maybe next year! I hope your writing is going well these days.

      Like

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