So here’s something I had no clue how to do a year ago: briefly tell someone about the story I’d written in a way that makes the listener want to read it. But last weekend I won a SCBWI pitching contest where I had to stand up live on stage and pitch my story to a panel of top literary agents, in front of a capacity auditorium. It’s been interesting getting from A to B, and I’ll try to explain a bit of that journey here.
The pitching contest was the brainchild of SCBWI annual conference cochair Jan Carr, who saw something similar at the London Book Fair and wanted to bring this live pitch action to the UK SCBWI annual conference for children’s writers and illustrators. I had the same first reaction as everyone who heard about the contest – which they called “The Hook” – namely, “not on your life.” It’s hard enough putting a full-length book into just a few words, never mind doing it in a competitive setting, trying to be the pitcher who the panel of agents chooses as winner.
It’s a world gone mad
But then, as I mentioned in my July blog, I was getting ready to submit, and I realised I could use the query letter I’d been preparing for agents. Many literary agents in the United States accept only the query letter itself, which is just a brief pitch, with a bit of biographical detail about yourself. Some agents allow you to send a page or two, some want no pages at all. They’re curious to know, from your query letter alone, whether you can distill your story in a come-hither way.
So I went in for The Hook (which also let us submit the first 600 words, so the agents could read our story starts in advance). I’m positively thrilled to have won, which meant I was asked to select from the panel (in the vein of TV talent shows like The Voice) the agent I’d like a one-to-one meeting with.
Wait, what? Yes! The writer chose the agent, with all of the world-gone-mad connotations that implies, as Bill Murray said so well in GHOSTBUSTERS. Let’s hear it, Bill:
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Writers-choosing-agents is absolutely not how the real world works when writers first query their work! I can imagine how weird and strange this felt for them, so my huge and humble thanks go to the agents Gemma Cooper, Amber Caravéo, Penny Holroyde, Julia Churchill and Felicity Trew who put themselves through this. You were so patient and helpful — I talked to so many writers afterwards who said how illuminating it was to hear your live critiques, articulating things about each story that we other listeners probably couldn’t have put into words. Yay and thank you! Please come again!
Here I am, with The Hook master of ceremonies Sara Grant, listening to the agents’ comments on why they’d chosen my manuscript, SEVEN PLACES LIKE HOME, as the overall winner. The agents are waiting to hear which of them I would choose. Like I say, world gone mad. But it was thrilling: my name got pulled from the envelope, and 5 min. later I had an agent’s business card in my hand and plans to set up our one-hour meeting.
Just a few thoughts, then, on how I got from A (not being able to pitch) to B (Hook-mania):
- I joined SCBWI. If you’re not already a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, here’s a perfect example of why you should consider it: not only do you get opportunities like The Hook, but you also get a supportive community of writers around you who can help you figure out things like how to distill your manuscript, how to find master classes and writers retreats that let you develop life-skills you need as a writer, whether you’re a newbie (pitching, character development and revision) or an old hand (school visits, social media, handling trolls, PLR). Most of all, your fellow Scoobies help you survive this soul-searching, soul bearing, heartbreaking business of book-making that we’re all enthralled by. The SCBWI writers from our Southeast Scotland SCBWI network were out in force at the conference, right there behind me as I stood on stage, and that meant more to me than I can probably describe right now or ever. Thank-you, guys. I’ve been a member since 2012 and it’s been awesome all the way. More on SCBWI here.
- I attended BookBound UK. This residential retreat is an application-only writing weekend which had its inaugural outing in 2014 and is now taking applications for 2016. I recommend it, because for me it was an invaluable weekend of character development, revision guidance, and critically live pitching practice, helping me grasp not just the heart of my story, but also the “why me” message I’d never really thought about, explaining why I wrote this book and not another book. More on BookBound here.
- A writer pitched his story to me. I went to the Edinburgh Lit Salon, where YA writer Roy Gill answered the question beautifully when I asked him what his book was about. Magically, with just a spoken sentence or two, he made me imagine that I was the main character, a boy whose father had just died, and whose weird grandmother was offering to bring Dad back from the dead (this is about The Daemon Parallel…go read it!). I resolved to learn how to pitch like Roy!
- I snooped around Twitter pitching contests. Contests like NoQS and PitchWars pair writers with a mentor who helps work on the writer’s pitch and opening page. The polished, finished manuscript excerpts, posted online, make it clear how high the bar is, if you’re a writer on submission. They make inspiring reading…go see PitchWars or scroll down here to see NoQS. I didn’t succeed in finding an agent when I took part in NoQS, but I met a great mentor and a new beta reader who’ve helped me tons.
- I workshopped my query and pitch. This step almost didn’t occur to me: run my query letter (and my live pitch) past fellow writers. Thank you Miriam, Louise, Anita, Celia, Fiona (and others I’m sure I’m forgetting) for your help!
This process has been a big eye-opener for me. I realised that, in learning to pitch, I came to know the true heart of my story — and love it — in a way I hadn’t known it before. Jasmine Richards, speaking at the #scbwicon15 writer’s craft session I attended last weekend, said that a book is always being sold, whether that’s at the beginning of the process when it’s writer-pitching-agent, or right down the end of the chain to a parent trying to interest their kid in reading the story (rather than playing on the PlayStation). A short, single hook sentence and a longer, one-paragraph summary will always be useful to — and used by — anyone who wants to share your story onwards. You’ll even have one kid telling another kid about your book, if you’re really lucky.
May we all be that lucky!
Have you tried summing up your book in a line, or a paragraph? What techniques work for you?
The Hook agent panel photo is by George Kirk