My Experience at #WDC18’s Pitch Slam!

My husband and I just got back from several days in NYC, where we attended the 2018 Writer’s Digest Conference for the first time ever. Because my experience, especially with Pitch Slam, was very positive and fruitful (all four agents I sat down with requested pages), I figured I’d make a blog post about it.

Not only was this my first writing conference, but this was my first time pitching or taking any steps forward with my story beyond the writing/revision cycle. Well before the conference, I did a boatload of research specifically on how to pitch well in person at a writer’s conference. What everything boiled down to was this: tell the agent the stuff they need to know (title, genre, length) and then, with what time you have, who your MC is, what the situation is that they’re facing, and why the reader should care. That’s it, within the time frame that you have, which varies from one pitch event to the next.

Because Pitch Slam offered us 3 mins with each agent, I decided to make 90 seconds or less my goal, while being sure to hit all of the abovementioned points. I ended up with this:

FRONT AND CENTER: CURTAINS UP, is character-driven upmarket adult fiction at 89k words, with strong series potential. TJ McKenna is a teen who’s been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: a full year of conservatory training and an apprenticeship with a prominent repertory company in Providence, RI. But his parents expect him to start thinking about a future that does not involve theatre, which their peculiar, personal brand of Catholicism has labeled a deviance. Knowing that he won’t be welcome back, TJ takes the plunge anyway, but getting to RI might be the easiest part. Although the artistic director who invited him, Mike Cullen, becomes more like a father figure than a mentor, there’s no escaping the stress and uncertainty that’s part of a professional actor’s life. The undiagnosed depression and self-destructive urges that TJ hoped to leave behind also don’t help. With the threat of being fired, replaced, or stuck in the chorus forever constantly looming over head, TJ has to figure out a way to make his new life work, no matter what.

I felt pretty good about it, tweaked things here and there, and then set it aside for a few weeks. As the conference loomed closer though, more and more advice about how to do Pitch Slam successfully started cropping up; in the pre-conference webinar, and especially in the Facebook group. I took in all of these new recommendations and began to feel uneasy. “30 seconds max.” “Aim for 2-3 sentences.” “MEMORIZE.” It was all well-meaning, I’m sure, but I knew that none of these things were going to work for me. In any case, I created an alternate, shorter pitch, just in case:

After being “discovered” during a high school play and offered the opportunity of a lifetime, 15 year old TJ McKenna runs away from his strict, religious household to pursue an acting career. But is he really cut out for the stressful, uncertain life of a stage actor, or will his internal demons, in the form of depression and self-harm, make it an impossible endeavor? FRONT AND CENTER: CURTAINS UP, is character-driven, upmarket, adult fiction at 89k words, with strong series potential.

I didn’t know what to do.

Thankfully, I signed up for a pre-conference 30 minute Skype session with Jennifer Wilkov, a writing, marketing, publishing, and platform consultant (and author!). This session was a HUGE help, because now, on top of being worried about things like not having great comp titles, I also had no idea which pitch to go with.

After sharing both, with her guidance and just a few small tweaks, I decided to go with my longer, 60-second pitch. With the shorter one, she explained that it wasn’t really getting to the essence of my story, and that the agents would probably have to ask me several questions to clarify, eating into my 3 minute window. Also, Jennifer is the first person to make me feel better about comp titles; hell, read through my past entries and you’ll see that it’s something I’ve worried over for months and months. Her best piece of advice regarding this was to think about other media (not just books) that my readers would be into, such as Mozart in the Jungle. It was such an “A ha!” moment for me, especially when she reassured me that mentioning a non-fiction title also wouldn’t be the end of the world. It all boils down to the audience.

FRONT AND CENTER: CURTAINS UP, is character-driven, upmarket fiction with strong series potential. TJ McKenna is a teen who’s been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: a full year of conservatory training and an apprenticeship with a prominent repertory company in Providence, RI. But his parents expect him to start thinking about a future that does not involve theatre, which their peculiar, personal brand of Catholicism has labeled a deviance. Knowing that he won’t be welcome back, TJ takes the plunge anyway, but getting to RI might be the easiest part. Although the artistic director who invited him, Mike Cullen, becomes more like a father figure than a mentor, there’s no escaping the stress and uncertainty that’s part of a professional actor’s life. The undiagnosed depression and self-destructive urges that TJ hoped to leave behind also don’t help. With the threat of being fired, replaced, or stuck in the chorus forever constantly looming over head, TJ has to figure out a way to make his new life work, no matter what. FRONT AND CENTER: CURTAINS UP is around 89k words and would be my debut novel.

With a slightly new pitch in hand, I was feeling confident as my husband and I set out for NYC on the Amtrak the next morning. Now the only other thing I had to check and double check on was which agents to pitch to.

I’d been checking and re-checking since they were first announced, and good thing! Two of my initial “top choices” dropped out , but as new people were added, right up until the day of the Pitch Slam, I developed a list of 6 or so agents who were looking for upmarket, or at least looking for stories with elements that I felt matched what I had to offer.

Once we were at the conference and I was given the table map, I was strategic. The night before Pitch Slam, I highlighted each agent’s name and the table where they would be sitting. I planned to take both the folded paper with my pitch and this highlighted map into the room with me.

Oh, because I go further, that takes me to another big point: Memorization? NOT NECESSARY.

This seemed to be a thing that soooo many people were hung up on, as though you were doomed if you did anything more than bring a notecard with keywords to surreptitiously glance at.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

After having two concussions when I was younger, I have a terrible memory, BUT, I am very good at reading scripts. So I wasn’t going to stress myself out trying to commit this paragraph to memory, adding to any anxiety I knew I’d feel on the morning of. I literally brought a folded up piece of printer paper on which I’d typed my pitch in size 14 font. I read it out loud a trillion times, and knew enough not to stare down at the paper, but to slow down and make eye contact with the agent while reading.

Fast forward to the morning of the Pitch Slam. I was in the first section at 10:15am, so I skipped the first sessions of the day to stay in my hotel room and take plenty of time to make myself presentable appearance-wise and listen to the OBC of Evita because that’s been my drug of choice for months, lol. I went downstairs around 9:45am, surprised to see that there was already quite a line down the hallway, leading into the Pitch Slam room.

When the doors opened, because I was pretty far back in the line, my top couple of agents already had lines of 4-5 people, and I decided not to wait. I took a chance on a newer agent who was looking for upmarket, and who only had one person in line. I was actually glad things turned out this way, because this allowed me to do my pitch for the first time to someone who I wasn’t biting my nails over. It went well, and although she didn’t seem over-the-moon with my story, still requested I send along my first chapter.

Yay!

And honestly, after that first go, it became easier. Since so few agents were looking for upmarket (not upmarket women’s fiction, which my series is most definitely not), I decided to hone in on my top three, even if it meant waiting in some lines. Waiting in line was actually not bad. The time went fast, and other people waiting were friendly. Only when I was at the head of the line did I tend to shut myself off and get “in the zone” right before it was my turn.

In the end, I saw all three of my top choices, and all three were fairly enthusiastic about what I had to offer. One requested 20 pages, one requested 30, and my final (and top) choice, requested my full MS.

So, yeah. I’d say my Pitch Slam express was very positive! I know better than to think that this means anything, and that I’m as apt to get rejected after sending in my pages as anyone else, but what this experience DID do was validate that my story has potential. If you look back at older entries, I’ve stressed over comp titles, stressed over genre, stressed over YA vs. NA vs. A. I was worried that my character-driven story would hold little interest for most agents, despite getting largely good feedback from betas and CPs. This experience showed me otherwise.

I wanted to share this story because the moral of it, for future Pitch Slammers, is not to get SO wrapped up and SO tied to every morsel of advice you’re going to read about pitching. Take what works for you and your story and toss the rest out. It’s like taking advice from your betas and CPs; not everything everyone suggests has to be changed, but you have to know yourself and your story well enough to make those decisions. Or, do as I did, and get an expert opinion. I can’t emphasize enough how much Jennifer’s assistance reassured me that my instincts regarding the “correct” length and content of my pitch were right, thus taking a huge weight off my shoulders before I even headed out to the conference.

It’s anyone’s guess where my four submissions will take me – and I haven’t sent them out yet, as I’m restructuring part of my story and want to make sure everything is as good as it can be before doing so – but if I attend the Writer’s Digest conference in the future and I still don’t have an agent, I will do Pitch Slam again in a heartbeat.

Were you at Pitch Slam this year? What was your experience like? Leave a comment!

 

 

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