Pitching Your Novel is the Worst

 

One thing all writers hate is the pitch. You have to do it – you mention that you’ve written a book and people are going to ask what it’s about. But it’s not an easy thing to answer. This is something you’ve spent months, even years with, characters you know inside and out, created lives you’ve lived. How do you summarize all those story intricacies into one sentence?

When I’d finished my first novel, I submitted it for consideration for an Emerging Writers Festival event called ‘Literary Speed Dating’. The concept was that five unpublished writers would sit across the table from five publishing industry types and get a chance to pitch their novel. This was in a crowded room, on the opening night of the festival. Oh, and also, my novel is about a group of young guys who drug and rape girls (it’s totally not about that, but that’s the standout plot point and… see, the pitch – painful).  This wasn’t going to go well.

I remember the night, Christos Tsiolkas did the opening speech. Christos, it goes without saying, was amazing – he ‘s one of the best I’ve seen at capturing emotion in his talks, and his timing is always perfect, elevating the passion as he moves through his words. The crowd were cheering wildly and he came down and walked through, like a rock star, and he saw me and gave me a hug – and I felt like the belle of the ball – ‘he chose me’. Then everyone was looking at me like I was somebody they should be paying attention to, then they went back to what they were doing and I went back to staring at those five empty seats at the front of the stage, one of which I was about to be taking up to pitch my controversial novel at five unsuspecting professionals.

It was nerve wracking.

I kinda’ switched to auto-pilot – you know how sometimes you can be talking but not actually listening to anything you’re saying? It was like that, I was sitting across from these sceptical looking important folk, yelling to be heard over the noise of the room, with random passers-by leaning down to eavesdrop on the conversation, pitching my difficult-to-pitch master work. Honestly, how do you pitch a novel like that? Rohypnol is about a group of guys who drug and rape girls, but it’s a social commentary, it questions modern privilege and the factors that lead people to do horrible things. It’s not, I wouldn’t say, about drugs and/or rape. But how do you pitch it any other way? It was tough.

But something happened.

I was speaking to Michael Williams who, at that time, was a publisher at Text Publishing. Michael listened to what I was saying, my voice raspy from yelling, my mind worn out from trying to think of clever angles to describe the book. Michael leaned forward, his hand over his mouth, and he listened.

‘Do you have any sample chapters?’ He asked.

My God. He was asking to see my work. A real life publisher wanted to see what I’d written. I did have sample chapters that I’d printed off at the local Officeworks, but I also had a complete version with me. I asked Michael if he’d prefer the whole thing or the sample.

‘Give me the whole thing.’ Michael said.

My God. I just handed my book to a publisher. This was happening. I gave it over, I watched him put it in his bag, then our time was up.  I think I pitched to two more people, but Michael was the big fish that night, he worked for the most reputable publisher. And he’d taken my book. I was excited. I kept my phone on me at all times.

I never got a call.

Much later, after the book had been published, I spoke to Michael at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. As much as I was intimidated by him at the speed dating event, he’s actually a really easygoing, friendly guy. I told him how we met at the event, how he might not remember me but…

‘No, I remember you.’ He said. He told me how they wanted to publish the book (they did actually offer me a contract just after I signed with Random House) and that he was disappointed he didn’t get to take it on. I was so glad to know that, such a great compliment – and, also, good to know I didn’t come across as a total idiot at that speed dating event.

This is the story that comes to mind whenever I think about the pitch – but there were plenty more times where I had to try and give a short description of the book and I just couldn’t. Admittedly, my book is probably one of the more difficult titles to pitch, but all writers hate it. The pitch is the worst. My best advice – think of the three key themes of the book, then try to distil those key elements down into one inclusive sentence. So, for Rohypnol it would be:

‘It’s about the influencing factors that can lead a person to becoming the worst kind of criminal’

That might not be quite right, but it gets the message across clearer than:  ‘It’s about a group of guys who drug and rape girls’. It’s hard to get it to a one-liner that doesn’t sound too high-brow whilst captures the essence of your work. And ideally, you want it to be a conversation starter, you want people to want to know more. I think this sentence does that.

But ultimately I guess that’s the message of this post – it’s not about how you can do it better, not about the best process to use. The message of this post is more simply empathetic – yeah, I know, you hate trying to do your pitch. Everyone does.

You, my friend, are not alone.

 

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