Friday, June 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Diane Whiteside and her Sure-Fire Six Step Pitch

Today, we'd like to welcome guest blogger Diane Whiteside to TM! I had an opportunity to attend a pitch workshop that she and Treva Harte conducted at RT back in April. Their technique made so much sense to me that I left the room feeling excited and ready to tackle that cover letter again!

Diane, thanks for agreeing to share your technique and your Friday with us!


Hi, Mel! It was great meeting you at RT! Thanks for inviting me here to Title Magic to talk about my Sure-Fire Six Step Pitch, a method for cramming a beautifully layered book into a ten-minute pitch.

Once upon a time, I was [more or less] happily employed writing non-fiction. Then I ran into a real-life story, which hit me over the head and demanded that I retell it as a romance. After years of struggle, I found myself at my local chapter’s annual conference holding an appointment with the only editor in New York or small press at that time who might publish that book.

Talk about pressure? I was scared spitless! What could I possibly say to convince her to buy my manuscript?

My first breakthrough was realizing I didn’t need to convince her to buy my manuscript. This appointment was like a business meeting, almost like sending out a resume. I wanted her to be so smitten by my pitch that she’d ask me to see my manuscript, which is a much easier thing to pull off than selling it.

Whew! My breathing started to slow down. But I still had that ten-minute appointment staring me in the face. Ten minutes…

Breakthrough number two: treat this appointment just like a business meeting. Use time management and presentation techniques from business. Ten minutes is basically the same amount of time it takes to present SIX PowerPoint slides.

Ah ha! In my ten minute appointment, I could present
A TOTAL of SIX slides,
Each containing FIVE bullets,
Preferably 6 words per bullet but no more than 20 words per bullet.

Just to make it more fun, every word counted, even the small ones like a, and, of, the, etcetera.

Are you with me so far? Great!

But what on earth would I fill my six slides with?

Breakthrough number four: I asked my buddy, Treva Harte, the editor-in-chief of Loose-Id Publishing. After some brainstorming over really good Thai food, we came up with the following.

Number One: Always tell the genre, your manuscript’s approximate length, targeted line (if you know), and your name and contact information (however casually you want to say it). Treva gets very testy about this last bit. Me, I’ve heard legends about pitches being given for “the brunette drinking mojitos in the bar.”

Number Two: Always tell what makes your manuscript special. Focus on conflict, emotion, and what makes your manuscript unique.

This all sounded like really good stuff but I still only had ten minutes and six slides! I loved my characters! I could bore my friends for hours with my plot. I had albums of pictures of my setting. How on earth could I condense this?

Breakthrough number five: Code words. (To borrow a phrase from spy novels.) Every genre has its own set of “code words” which summarize important aspects of the story. If I used code words, I could say a lot about my story in a very few words. If I combined code words or contrasted them, I could heighten conflict and emotion.

For example, everyone has a pretty good idea of what a “modern day Cinderella story” is, when describing a romance. Poor girl meets rich boy, nasty stepmother gets in the way, yada yada yada. Right? “Navy SEAL” is a code word for hero, which has different implications from “English duke.” Similarly, “The Ton” is a common setting for Regency romances, as is the “royal court” for medieval romances or “high society” for twentieth-century romances. While similar, each of those settings has their own rules, which are subtly different to the cognoscenti, and a futuristic author would carefully select which one she wanted to base her world on. Code words can come from almost anywhere, including movie or book names.

Now I could see where I was going! It was hard, though, and it took me over four hours to write that ten minute pitch. I came up with an outline for those six slides along the way, which friends have used.

Hey, I was on a roll! I came up with a two-minute pitch by reducing each slide to a single bullet.

Gritting my teeth, I came up with a ten-second pitch by reducing those six sentences to a single sentence. (One clue: genre and length each became a single word. I got setting down to a single word, too, because my manuscript was a historical.) Of course, it’s easier to come up with a ten-second pitch if you start with the code words. For example, the pitch for my fantasy ménage is “THE MUMMY meets MURDER ON THE NILE – and the men who loved her then still love her now.”

Thankfully, my dream editor asked for my manuscript and it became THE IRISH DEVIL. You can read more about it here or read its first chapter here.

What do you think? Does this sound like something which could work for you and your manuscript? One friend uses it as a test for how well she understands her manuscript, even when she’s not planning to pitch it.

Good luck with your pitch!

Diane Whiteside


Mel Hiers said...

Diane, thanks again for coming!

I gave the SFSSP a try not long after RT. I think my favorite part about it is that the process DOES help you understand your manuscript better. Other pitch techniques seem to demand that understanding before you start. I think that's where I ran into snags before.

Diane Whiteside said...

Glad it helps you, Mel! Some of my chapter mates have said the same thing. One actually used it to get over writer's block, while she was working on a very intense, character-driven psychological thriller. It helped her clarify the issues enough to move forward.

I actually use the SFSSP the same way while I'm writing a book. It's a huge help when I'm floundering in the Big Sucky Middle. LOL


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Great advice for doing a pitch. I had to sum up my novel in one sentence for a Publishers Weekly announcement. I did something very similar to what you suggested and it worked like a charm!

Do you do something similar to write a back book blurb?

Savanna Kougar said...

Diane, thank you so much for being with us today. That's an excellent approach for pitching, as I understand it so far. Also, it looks like a good way to organize your own thoughts around your novel.
And out of that the 'sucky' middle gets going under its own steam.
Actually, I just hit that middle in my current WIP.

Powerful cover art. 'Course I always have a soft spot for cowboys. Who is your cover artist?

Mel, have you put up a notice on some of the chat loops? This is great stuff for authors and aspiring authors. I'd do it, but it's back to the writing cave today.

Diane Whiteside said...

Anitra, I handle back blurbs in a very similar way but leaving out the ending, of course. (Yes, I have written some of my own.) But it's much important to hammer home the conflict and the h/h goals. Also, each house/imprint has a different style of back blurb, which they may also vary by author. My Brava back blurbs are quite different than my Berkley ones, for example. My Berkley Sensation back blurbs are different than Berkley Heat.

Savanna, I consider myself blessed by the cover gods! All of my Brava covers - those wonderful cowboys! - were created by Kensington's fabulous in-house cover artist. She's so shy I can't even thank her directly. But, OMG, is she a genius!

Savanna Kougar said...

Diane, she is a cover art genius. I adore all your western cowboy covers, especially. And your style of writing 'turns me on' for lack of a better description, and I don't mean just the sensual heat level, which is terrific.

That's fascinating about the different back blurb formats. I hadn't given it much thought, although certainly it's noticeable when you check out the back blurbs.
What little I know, the small print e-publishers vary on how they do back blurbs also. Since I'm e-published with Siren, I know they have you write up three different word length blurbs, the longest one going on the back of the print edition, when it comes out. Of course, they alter it if the blurb isn't quite what they want.
Now, with Liquid Silver, I just wrote up one initial blurb. I haven't asked how they handle back blurbs. I should ask one of the other authors. I'm too chicken to ask -- don't want them to think I'm pushing anything.

Terry Odell said...

Great advice. I usually try to cut to the 2 sentence approach after my initial 'hook' line, giving them the hero and heroine's 'what they want, why they want it, and why they can't have it' formula.

Then I sit back (learned that the hard way) and let them ask questions.

I also tell myself that they'll usually ask for pages, because unless they're not acquiring the genre you write, that's where they'll know if it works, no matter how good (or lame) your pitch is.

Diane Whiteside said...

Thanks for saying you like my writing, savanna!

Different houses emphasize different aspects. Some houses want to hear more about the plot, others want the inner conflict, while others are concerned with the theme. Most have a very specific "tone of voice."

Terry - Good thought! Different editors have such different questions, it's hard to satisfy them all. Maybe this will help you boil your mss down faster - and sell it faster to some lucky editor!

Savanna Kougar said...

Hey, Terry, good way to approach it. Boy, am I learning today!
If I ever get the opportunity to pitch, I'll have the best techniques to do it.

Terry Odell said...

Well, since selling my manuscript is now in the hands of my agent, I'm breathing a little easier at conferences. However, she did require that I turn in a marketing plan, which included all this promo type stuff. (And if it's in writing, there's no ad-libbing like you can do face to face at a pitch).

I know I suggest the GMC approach to the round table 'prepare to pitch' session at Southern Lights, and both the women I worked with got requests for their manuscripts, so they were happy.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Diane, thanks for being here with us on Title Magic. What a wonderful step by step process for nailing down a pitch. I always struggle with pitches. I'm going to print out your advice and apply to some of my stories for practice.

Lexie O'Neill said...

Wow! What a clearly written blog--just reading your blog makes me want to read your books! Plus, those covers are fantastic!
I'm going to save this one.

Evonne Wareham said...

Thanks for being here on Title Magic. I have a chance to pitch next weekend, at a conference here in the UK, so your post could not have come at better time. Now I have to do my homework.

Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne, best of luck! Let us know how it goes. I think it will go great and just your way.

Evonne Wareham said...

Thanks. I wish I was that confident. I have to believe in the power of positive thought. And Diane's six steps.