It’s not easy or pleasant to distill your big awesome writing idea into a compelling and concise pitch but, if you’re going to convince someone to read it (an agent, a publisher, a random reader, your neighbor Carl), you’re going to have to do it. To make it easier on yourself, I recommend these two things – pitch often and spend time thinking about why the pitch did or didn’t work. This blog post is going to talk about some of the common reasons why your pitch might not have worked and in exploring those, help you to make a better one.
You’re Pitching the Wrong Person
This is a pretty common problem with pitches. You might be sending your query letter (or doing an in person pitch) to an agent or publisher or you might just be chatting with your neighbor Carl and they’re just not your audience. Agents and publishers do their best to prevent this sort of misunderstanding by listing the kinds of content they want to represent/publish in all sorts of places including their websites. An agent that specifically represents romance novels, for example, is not the right agent for me to pitch my science fiction epic about the Great Space Otter Wars of the 27th Century. It’s important to do your research and know whether or not you’re pitching at a receptive audience but, unfortunately, even if you’ve done the best research you can do, you still might be talking to the wrong person. Could be that the epic science fiction agent you found got in a drunken fist-fight with a rabid otter in Saskatoon and he still carries those terrible, terrible scars. And your neighbor Carl, even though he’s a tattoo artist and wears sick metal t-shirts, he’s really more of a cozy mystery reader. It’s going to happen. A lot. You’re going to talk to a lot of the wrong people and all you can do is be polite about it, maybe try and understand more about their interests, and then thank them for their time and move on to the next guy. It in no way reflects on the awesomeness of my fantastic new novel about the Great Space Otter Wars of the 27th Century.
You’re Using the Wrong Pitch
Ok, so you talked to the right person and you still didn’t get a hug and a million dollars after your pitched your story. What does that mean? Well, it could mean you used the wrong pitch. There are a lot of tips on the best way to pitch your novel but the simplest thing is to make sure you answer these three questions: who is your story about? what are they trying to do and what is preventing them from doing it? why are you the right person to tell this story? Easy, right? Well, not even a little bit. Your pitch has to be an organic thing. It should be different for each different person you’re talking to. The pitch I give my friends in the Space Otter internet forums should be different from the pitch I give to an agent. More than that, agents and editors and those guys on the forums, they’re all unique people that have unique moods and triggers. You can’t develop One Pitch to Rule Them All. You need a slightly different pitch each time. It could be that you used the wrong version of your pitch on the right person and it’s going to crash and burn and you’re going to feel terrible about it. That’s also going to happen. A lot. Walk it off.
You’re Pitching the Wrong Story
Before I talk about this reason, the dreaded reason, the oh-come-on-Erik-please-don’t-say-it reason, I want to assure you that there are absolutely other unexpected calamities that can and probably will come along and derail your pitch. Earthquakes. Locusts. Roaming adorable pandas. All you can ever do is your best and then do that a million more times because you can’t let those damn pandas steal all the glory. Maybe you think that all you need is for one person to hear about your story and then that person will become an evangelist for it and you can sit back and never have to pitch again. That could happen. It’s probably not likely though and the worst thing you can do is set your expectations for that and feel like a failure when it doesn’t work out. Because it’s probably not ever going to happen like that. Even if your Space Otter sci-fi epic is really that good. (Publishers: because it totally is. Email me.)
Okay, let’s tear off the band-aid – sometimes the pitch doesn’t work because you’re pitching the wrong story. That doesn’t mean that your story isn’t amazing and that your mother and dentist don’t all have very nice things to say about it. It doesn’t mean that you failed as a storyteller or that you should quit telling your stories. It might just mean that you’re not telling the story at the right time.
Think about Star Wars. There are (currently) two trilogies of movies and they (kind of) go in order. If someone pitched you Return of the Jedi before you’ve seen or heard of or been pitched any of the other movies it wouldn’t work. That pitch requires the stories that take place before it be told first. Maybe the story you have is really the end or the beginning of a different story. Maybe you need to start earlier or go forward farther. Maybe your story needs to be smaller or maybe it needs to be bigger. Maybe you need to take this story and put it aside for awhile and come back to it. I’ve been there. It’s tough. I have stories that I think are fantastic but they’re not the right stories for me to pitch right now. They might be the right stories later or they might change when I go back to them. It’s never easy to really know when the story is wrong but the easiest way to find out is to pitch it. A lot. And see what people say.