The Pitch as an Artform

On my first apprehensive afternoon of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, I attended “Pitching to Agents and Editors without Being Pushy”. Because the agent and editor appointments began the following day, the room was packed beyond capacity, and we actually had to move to a different room to avoid fire code violations. The workshop was taught by a very bright woman and fellow writer mamma, Janna Cawrse Esarey, author of The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife. The workshop was partially based on the book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye by Katharine Sands.

After discussing the key features of a great pitch, and hearing a few examples, we broke up into groups of 3 or 4 perfect strangers, wrote our rough draft pitches, and then read them aloud to each other, commenting on how to improve them. For me, this set the tone for the rest of the conference. Later, I checked in, sat with, and had dinner and drinks with the people I met in the workshops. I didn’t know anyone else. It was like we became a team or support group, asking whenever we saw each other later, “How’s the pitch coming?” or “How many agents have you pitched?” followed by rounds of high fives, congratulations, or the dreaded, I’m sorry’s.

We learned that there are at least two versions of a pitch: the elevator pitch and the sit down pitch. The elevator pitch was just what you’d expect, one to three sentences describing what your book is about, short enough to start and finish while riding the elevator between floors, if you were lucky enough to have trapped an agent for 30 seconds without committing an assault. The sit down pitch was a bit longer, perhaps three to five sentences, to be used for your 10-minute sit down appointment with an agent later in the conference.

Here’s my very first draft of the elevator pitch, before I got feedback from anyone:

“I am another kind of mother; they call me their egg mother. I have a unique family relationship with the twin 9-year old girls that were born from my donated eggs. With witty personal stories, case studies of other unique families, and valuable resources for further reading, this book sorts through the many, sometimes complicated, issues that can arise between egg and sperm donors and the families they help create. Unconventional Family is an essential resource for those considering egg or sperm donation, those with children from donor sperm or eggs, as well as medical professionals, counselors, educators, and lawyers.”

I read this pitch to practically every person I met over the next 24 hours, perhaps 30 people, and each person gave me valuable feedback that I then used to improve the pitch over time.

Of course, I met at least two people, who happened to be spunky male senior citizens, which were vehemently opposed to egg and sperm donation. They used words like ‘barren’, ‘god’s will’, ‘natural selection’, and ‘broken’. I listened to their comments because they are also part of the audience, such as a parent or grandparent to someone that used egg or sperm donation. I’ve been surrounded by such supportive people for so long, I forgot that there were people around that felt so strongly against assisted reproduction.

Here’s the pitch I used to score solicitations from four agents and two editors, almost everyone I pitched:

“I am another kind of mother. I have a unique family relationship with twin 9-year old girls that were born to an infertile couple from my anonymously donated eggs. My memoir Egg Mother chronicles the many, sometimes complicated, situations that arose with the unconventional family I helped create. With occasional grace, I survived weighted situations like Mother’s Day, their parents divorce, and what happened when I married an older man and had to use a sperm donor to conceive a set of twins of my own.”

Granted, this is four longer sentences, but they pack a lot of punch. The major differences include the fact that the focus of my book changed quite a bit. They don’t usually recommend this, but everyone I talked to said they were less interested in the self-help side of things and more interested in the personal story. Also, I repeatedly heard, with only the exception of the talented Brooke Warner of Seal Press that you must commit to only one genre. Your book will sit on only one shelf in the book store, so you have to choose before you pitch to show that you’ve thought it through.

At first I didn’t want to abandon the self-help side of my book. I’ve been working on it for a year, I have a fantastically anal retentive outline, and partially because I can picture myself as a self-help author down the road. But narrowing the book was also a bit of a relief to me. I haven’t already completed all the research, so the thought of writing just my memoir, without doing additional extensive research was rather appealing. I thought, I’ll have a much better chance of actually pulling this off if all I have to do is write down what’s already in my head! Sounds easy (I’ve always floated along on a slick trail of denial and its served me well thus far).

I certainly need to thank all of you fellow writers at the conference that listened to my clumsy pitch and gave such candid, constructive criticism. I loved the creative, collaborative atmosphere that developed, and without their input, I might be sitting here depressed about being rejected, rather than blogging about my own good fortune.

Post your pitch here if you’d like some feedback from me or anyone else reading this blog. FYI, you must click the title of this post in order to get to the comment fields.

Coming soon: how my hubby helped me set up a web site and blog in one day, how to tweet on twitter, and other pearls of wisdom I gleaned at the conference and from my supportive family and friends.

Keep checking back.   Lorraine

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