As a first time conference attendee of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I was enthusiastic for the experience, but also a bit apprehensive. It would be the first time I had ever pitched a book to someone that was actually in the literary field. I would be pitching one of my children’s books, Heather Hummingbird Makes a New Friend, to Pam von Hylckama Vlieg, of Foreword Literary Agency. I was hopeful, as all writers must be as they approach the opportunity to pitch their books, but I was nervous, as well. I worried that I would stumble and fall on my face when the time to pitch finally arrived.
I spent the whole week prior to the conference practicing my pitch to anyone who would listen. I work in a long-term nursing facility, and my residents were a great audience. I’d breeze into a resident’s room and recite my pitch while making up a bed or delivering ice water. Many of my residents are supportive of my writing, so I would just take a deep breath and plunge in, concentrating on reciting the words I’d taken so much time to craft perfectly. Much of the time, I stumbled and stammered, or the words wouldn’t come, or they emitted from my mouth in the wrong order.
“Slow down,” one of my residents said. “Be sure they can understand what you’re saying.” That was some of the best advice I could have asked for and it came from someone who wasn’t even a part of the literary scene. Eight minutes isn’t long, so I was diving into the pitch as if it were a bitter pill, to be swallowed quickly before it could dissolve in my mouth. When I stopped to really think about it though, it was only seven sentences. Eight minutes was easily enough time to treat it as a hard candy and suck on it awhile, savoring the sweet flavor.
One of my young co-workers, who had experience in speech and drama asked, “You’ll have a cue card, right?” I had no idea. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to stand up in front of this woman and present my pitch as if I were class Valedictorian. I would have eight minutes to make a good impression of myself and my writing. Somehow reading it off an index card didn’t seem to be the best approach, but it might help if I could carry it around with me, pulling it out each time I had a few minutes to practice. The truth was, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never done this before. I was treading into new and unexplored territories.
Just getting to the conference posed several unforeseen obstacles, and I didn’t arrive until after noon on Saturday. I was crossing my fingers that I hadn’t missed my pitch appointment. I breathed a sigh of relief when I opened my packet and found my appointment wasn’t scheduled until later in the day.
I set about seeing what there was to see and searching for people I’d hoped to have the opportunity to speak with during the conference. Near the registration table, I saw a sign that read Practice Your Pitch. I’d been so busy trying to navigate the obstacles that stood in the way of my attending this conference that I hadn’t practiced my pitch all morning. What a relief to know I had another opportunity before I had to present it to an agent. Here was my chance to practice with someone who would know what I was up against.
I approached the pitch coaching desk and asked if they’d listen to my pitch. Of course, they agreed to. That’s what they were there for. I did well, managing to get the whole thing out with a minimum of stumbling. Then he asked me to do it again. The second time, I stumbled all over myself until my tongue was tied in knots. Boy, was I in trouble. What if I did the same thing during the real delivery of my pitch? The guys at the desk, (one, I later learned, was fantasy author Todd Fahnestock) were great. They had me stop and tell them about my book. Todd picked up on two or three things that caught his interest, suggesting that I focus on these things more, right at the beginning of the pitch. To hear Todd say it, my hummingbird’s battle with the bees sounded just as exciting as a character in one of his fantasy novels battling a fire breathing dragon. He made my story sound so fascinating, even I wanted to rush out and buy it.
They also provided pointers on what to expect during the pitch session. I was going about this as if it were a school presentation which I had to deliver from memory like a performance. They suggested that I relax a little and talk with the agent before jumping into the pitch. It made me realize that although I had an appointment with an almighty agent, she was a person like any other, not someone to fear or be nervous about.
Attending the next two sessions left me little time to rework my pitch following the suggestions offered at the pitch coaching desk. I pulled it out during each break, but ten minutes isn’t very long to try and make my book sound more exciting. What I came up with was a sensationalized version that made my children’s book sound like a fantasy novel. It just didn’t sound like my simple little children’s book that carried with it a message of friendship.
Even if I came up with something that sounded really good, there was no way I would have time to memorize it. Crap. I was nervous all over again. I could walk in and read something that I hadn’t had enough time to perfect, something that sounded only vaguely like my story, or use the original pitch I had memorized. My choice was clear.
I headed up to the seventh floor, where the pitch sessions were held about twenty minutes early. They offered a mint from the bowl on the sign-in table. Nifty idea. It couldn’t hurt, right? After listening to pitches all day long, the agents probably appreciated the gesture. Once I checked in, there was nothing to do but wait.
The lobby for the pitch sessions began to fill up. At least I wasn’t the only one that was nervous. One author tried to wear a trail in the Marriott’s tapestry carpet, as she stayed in constant motion, pacing from one side of the small lobby/waiting area to the other. If I hadn’t been nervous before, I was now. Others seemed as cool and collected as the Dalai Lama. There was a suspense/romance author, who sat chatting pleasantly with the girl running the registration table, and one man in a business suit claimed he pitched a different work earlier in the day and seemed quite at ease with the whole process. I sucked on my mint, trying to relax and went over the pitch in my head.
I’d decided to keep in mind the advice of my pitch coaches for the next year’s pitch, the one for my first novel. Their suggestions were sure to be great when applied to the western novel I’ve been working on, but children’s books are different. Their pitches don’t need sensationalism - they need to highlight what the book has to offer kids, especially those that will appeal to parents in the younger age groups. At least, that was how I saw it.
Finally, a tall dark haired girl in a gray tweed jacket with a black hat and pants stepped into the room and called out the names of those scheduled for the next pitch appointment. We followed her like herded cattle through the short hall to a large open room with several small round tables set up. I recognized Pam from her photo on the PPWC website, and as I took my seat across from her, she turned to me and smiled a smile that set me instantly at ease.
As suggested, I started the ball rolling by introducing myself and asking her if it had been a long day. Pam was pleasant and personable, easy to talk to. Once the introductions were over, I said, “So, let me tell you about my book.” I went into my pitch, which I managed not to muddle too badly and we talked about what category the book would fall into and word counts. As it turned out, Heather Hummingbird had way too many words for a picture book, so I would need to do some trimming. She gave me a slip with the information on what to send where, and we exchanged pleasantries before I exited the room with a smile on my face.
As it turned out, all of my anxiety was for nothing. That short eight minutes wasn’t really difficult at all when I followed the advice of my pitch coaches to just talk to the agent as a fellow human being. I think aspiring authors tend to place agents and editors on the almighty pedestal, looking up to them in awe. After all, here are the men or women that can make or break your manuscript, or are they? Just because one agent turns you down, doesn’t mean there’s not another out there that will think your book is fantastic. Rejection is something that every author must learn to deal with. But if you take advantage of the opportunities that come to you through great events like the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and face them in a professional manner, you can increase your chances of publication, and that’s a good thing to know.
About the Author: Kaye Lynne Booth has been published in Dusk and Dawn Magazine and was a featured poet at the 2008 Fremont County Writers' and Artists' Fair. Her poetry has also been featured, as co-creator, with the work of artist Mitchell Barrett and was exhibited and sold at the Affordable Art Fair, Battersea Park, London with Kaleidoscope Gallery. Kaye edits through her Write it Right Editing Services at Kaye’s Literary Corner. Kaye has edited poetry, short stories, essays and novels. She has written a children’s series, a middle grade mystery, and a Colorado based western, (as yet unpublished). She’s published articles, essays and short stories online. Her most recent article was published in The Freeman Magazine. Kaye Lynne is the SouthernColorado Literature Examiner for Examiner.com, as well, and her Writing to be Read blog is dedicated to sharing her writing expertise and helping other writers along the way. Kaye has been a member of Pike’s Peak Writers since 2011.