© Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Let's say you've written the world's greatest romance novel. There are two ways you can get an editor to read it. One is to mail it into the publisher (or have your agent mail it) and let the manuscript speak for itself. The other is to have an agent or editor ask to see your manuscript...which could happen during your appointment at the conference.
So here you are, face to face with the editor or agentwho, as you've probably already heard, is NOT a monster. She's there because she wants to buy books! All you need to do is make her want to send for yours so she can read it and fall in love with it and get you a publishing contract. How do you do that?
You start with the obvious "how-to-make-a-good-impression" techniques. You're businesslike, professional, friendly, etc....let's assume you already know how to make a good impression.
Let's also assume you have a book to sell. Let's assume you've run it by your critique group and your mentor and they all say, "Yeah, it's great, it's ready to submit." (If you don't have a critique group or a mentor, get one! That's what RWA is for, is to give you all the tools that can help you sell, and those are both wonderful tools.)
So you introduce yourself, shake hands, sit down, and now it's time for the pitch.
You need to tell her three basic hit points right from the start: 1) what type of book are you pitching? Long contemporary, historical saga, mainstream women's fiction, romantic suspense... 2) How long is it? 3) And is it finished, or is it still in the working stages? It's important for her to know that you have the staying power to complete a bookif the one you're pitching ISN'T finished but you've completed two others, tell her that. Maybe she'll want to see them, and at least she'll know you can stay at the keyboard long enough to finish a book.
If what you're pitching is an idea for a book that still has to be written, you'd better be pretty sure you can finish that book within the next six months...because if it takes longer than that, you can assume she will have forgotten all about you by the time your manuscript shows up in the mail. If your book won't be completed for another eight or nine months, then wait and pitch it at next year's conference instead.
It takes some of the pressure off to know that you can't make anyone want to buy your book during a conference pitch. All you can do is make her want to see it. And you do that by describing what's going to interest readers...what your book is about. You need the equivalent of a great synopsissomething that outlines your main premise, your characters, what they do and what's their conflict and how they grow and how they solve that conflict.
What you need for starters is a "topic sentence." This is something you can use over and over, by the way...when you tell people "I sold a book!" and they say "Congratulations, what's it about?" you're probably not going to have ten minutes to give them the storyline. You'll be lucky if you get ten seconds. So this topic sentence is your ten-second synopsis of what the book is about: "It's about a Southern belle who thinks she's in love with a man she can't have, and only by going through the trials of the Civil War realizes that the man she truly loves is the one she's been battling with all along." "It's about a teenage boy and girl whose families have been feuding for generations but who fall in love at first sight, and how they struggle to be together but finally choose death rather than separation." Boom. You've told the story.
Try telling it with Debra Dixon's method of three 3x5 cardsone each for characters, conflict and summary. On the first, write down WHO, WANTS, WHY and WHY NOT. (Love those "W" words...) Start by describing WHO the heroine is in three wordssay Jane Doe is a teacher, she's empathetic and she's gutsy. Then say what she WANTS more than anything in the world, like "to help student Johnny Jones overcome his learning disability." We need something specific, not something nebulous like "Jane wants to find true love."
WHY does she want this? There might be a dozen different reasons, depending on her character. Maybe she sees in Johnny the lovable son she gave up for adoption. Maybe she's determined to prove that she can make a difference in some child's life because she couldn't save her daughter from a car wreck and she's been carrying around this guilt ever since. The motivation you choose depends on her character, and it's where we get a glimpse of her internal conflict. If Jane's carrying around a lot of leftover guilt about her daughter's death, for instance, maybe she feels like she doesn't deserve to fall in love again.
WHY NOT? What's going to stand in the way of our heroine getting what she wants? Say Jane wants to help Johnny overcome his learning disability, but Johnny's father refuses to believe his son has dyslexia and the school won't allow students in their program without parental consent. This is the external conflict between your hero and heroine, and it's completely separate from the internal conflict...which is what they're each going through on their own.
Now we do the same thing on the other side of the card for the hero. WHO? Bob Jones is a rancher who's a stubborn loner. He WANTS to believe his son is normal. WHY? He can't face the idea that he might have failed as a parent because he's already failed as a husband. WHY NOT/What stands in his way? Jane refuses to back down about getting Johnny into the dyslexia program. And there we are; that's the first card.
Onto the second, which will cover the emotional aspects of the bookthe hero's and heroine's internal conflict. On the front, write down something like "Jane feels so guilty about her daughter's death that she can't let herself fall in love; Bob can't accept Johnny's disability because he feels like that would mean he's failed at every close personal relationship he's ever had." And on the back...write down how they resolve the problem.
Well, how could Jane and Bob resolve their problem? Maybe when he sees her grieving over her daughter he realizes that his son's still alive and deserves the best treatment Bob can give him, including the dyslexia program. Maybe when she sees Bob willing to acknowledge Johnny's disability, Jane realizes she can show that same courage by being willing to love again. Whatever your resolution is, write it down on the back of card #2.
Finally, card #3. Here's where you write your topic sentence, and it's nice if you can make it a kind of "hook" that will make people want to know more. For example, "A teacher advocates to help a child with dyslexia and falls in love with the oppositionthe boy's father." You want to know more, right? Like, what happens?
Next comes your heroine sentence where you combine the WHO, WHAT and WHY: "Gutsy, empathetic Jane Doe sees helping Johnny Jones as a chance to compensate for her daughter's fatal car accident, a loss which has left her afraid to love again." Now your hero sentence. "Rancher Bob Jones, a stubborn loner, refuses to acknowledge his son's disability, feeling it would mean he has failed as a father after having already failed as a husband." And finally, your resolution. "Only after Bob sees how much Jane misses her daughter does he realize that his son deserves all the caring acceptance he can give, and his courage in acknowledging Johnny's disability gives Jane the courage to risk loving again."
This is pretty quick and dirty, but it gives you the idea. Sentence #1 is your topic or hook. #2 is your heroine's who, what and why. #3 is your hero's who, what and why. #4 is how they resolve their conflict. And now you've got the guts of your book down on this 3x5 card.
This may be as far as you want to take it. You can memorize these four sentences or read them out loud at your appointment...and if you're the kind of person who can't face putting on a show in public, that's all you need to do. But you can give yourself an edge if you're willing to spark it up a little more. A good performance might improve your chance of selling. And obviously the more chance you get to practice, the better your performance will be. So you need to fine-tune your speech. When you're talking with the editor or agent, you want to sound natural, like you're chatting about the great movie you just saw last week. "I just came from the best movie. It's about a Southern belle who thinks she's in love with a man she can't have...."
And you're off on your story. Here's a hint: write your speech so it opens with the phrase "It's about." That's a smoother, easier way to start in with your topic sentence than any other opening you could rehearse...and if you practice your speech by opening with that phrase "It's about," it'll come naturally when you're making the pitch. You say that line, and the rest of the story just flows from there.
If you're going to make your pitch during a group appointment, keep your speech down to one minute or less. You don't want to go on and on about your book while eight other people are sitting around the table. If the editor/agent is fascinated and asks for more, you can always have a little more preparedthe way an orchestra has their encore sheet music already sitting on the music stand.
If you're going to make your pitch during an individual appointment, try to tell the story in four to six minutes. You can really pique her interest in that much time, and it'll still give you another few minutes to answer questions. When writing your speech, keep in mind that you can speak about 160 words during one minute.
If you're a natural performer, just go in there and perform your speech. Ideally, you'll have it memorized so you don't need to refer to your noteswhen you're telling your neighbor about a good movie, you don't refer to any notes! It helps you memorize if you recite your narrative over and over again, and that'll also give you a chance to embellish your performanceright down to the dramatic pauses.
And if you're not a natural performer, you do exactly the same thing. You write down your speech, and you rehearse it. Over and over and over. Every time you tell the story, you're going to find a different way of delivering a line. You'll remember the changes that sound really goodgo back in and put them in your script. After ten or twelve rehearsals, you're going to have this thing down pat. And it can only help your chances of selling.
So give your performance the same kind of work you gave writing your book. Recite that speech to your husband, your kids, your neighbors. Recite it in line at the grocery store, on the way home from work, and all the way to the conference hotel. Get so you can say it in your sleep. Tell it to anyone who will listen, and get so you know that story and love telling it. You'll make the editor love hearing it.
Okay, summing up: Know your book category, length and completion date. Write down your Whos, Wants, Whys and Why Nots and use them to put the four important sentences (your topic, your heroine, your hero, and the conflict resolution) on a 3x5 card. Then, if you really want to impress the editor, dress up that summary as a one-minute (for group appointments) or five-minute (for individual appointments) speech. Write it so it sounds like a real person talking, and practice the heck out of it.
Finally, remember your topic sentence so that when your book sells, you'll have an easy answer for people who say, "Oh, I can't wait to read your book; what's it about?" I hope there will be millions of those people, and you'll have a wonderful answer for them all!
Copyright © 2003, Laurie Schnebly Campbell.
All rights reserved.