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
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
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!