Pitching to an agent: AKA learn from my mistakes!
While I was at Cascade Writer’s Workshop, I got to pitch to Cameron McClure of Don Maass. It went…poorly. (She was great. *I* was poorly.)
First the story, then the lesson. I signed up to pitch with Cameron. On the messaging board before the retreat began, we learned that the pitches were not one-on-one, but in groups. Then, we learned that Cameron didn’t want formal pitches at all. She doesn’t find verbal pitching works well for her: she thinks it’s too high-pressure for the writer and prefers to have the writing itself in front of her (I could not agree more, personally). So what started out as “formal pitch with agent” turned into “group Q&A with agent, where you could have your pitch critiqued if you wanted.”
I was pretty grateful because the pitch I’d brought to the workshop was lousy and I knew it. Friday night I attended a pitch-writing session held by Spenser Ellsworth (with assistance from Cory Skerry) and gotten enough notes to trash the ultra-crappy pitch and write a shiny new one. As Cameron was gracious enough to offer her critique, I’d thought I’d bounce it off of her and see if it was actually shiny or if it just seemed that way because I’d written it two hours before.
This was literally the lowest-stress, lowest-pressure situation I could ever be pitching to an agent in (unless she was my grandma or something). I read my pitch right off my laptop screen. Cameron was thoughtful and lovely. And it was still terrifying, guys. TERRIFYING. So this is what I said, give or take a few dozen “ums”.
My Dear Watson is an 80,000 word science fantasy set on the planet of Ananke; where human society has been built upon shreds and fragments of classic literature.
After his rural family is slaughtered by the native predators known as demons, fifteen-year-old Merrylegs Noone seeks safety in the capital city. But when he learns the homeless and unemployed are given as tithe to the dragons that guard the city from demons, he is desperate to take on apprenticeship with anyone, even the most prickly woman on all Ananke; the brilliant addict Zel Baker, investigative magus.
Merre’s first task as a Watson is to learn why the castle Dauntless is haunted, and free the lingering dead; all of whom beg him for help. Merre vows to assist them, and after a long and complicated investigation, he and Zel discover the truth: the ghosts do not speak for themselves. They speak on behalf of the demons, the very creatures that killed Merre’s family. By the morals of their society Merre and Zel are obligated to help; but giving the demons what they plead for will cast their country into ruin.
And then Cameron said, “Well, I get the big stakes, but what are the personal stakes? What will happen to Merre if he fails?”
And I went “UM ER UM THAT IS A REALLY GOOD QUESTION.” I’d plotted a mystery but had not made it clear, even in the manuscript, what failure to solve that mystery would cost Merre personally. And, like a lot of beginning fantasists, I’d gotten all wrapped-up in epic stakes. It’s a big, big flaw and something I have to think hard about during this next revision.
So when I got home I ransacked my shelf of writing books. I chose Writing the Breakout Novel and flipped to Chapter Three, Stakes. And there, staring me in the face was an anecdote by Mr. Maass describing the exact scenario I’d just been in with Cameron (who, as I mentioned, works at Maass): first the newbie’s pitch, then the agent’s question: “if he is not successful, so what?”
That’s question Number One.
Question Number Two, which I didn’t survive to hear, is this: “If your stakes are X why or Z… why should I care?”
We potentially care because the protagonist is sympathetic, and his stakes are understandable stakes we can all relate to: I would speculate this is why “saving love interest” is so common as a personal stake, as is “saving child”.
Maas explains dealing with “so what” and “who cares” in greater detail, so if you’re scratching your head over either of these points, I recommend picking up Writing the Breakout Novel, because these really are the two questions you’ve got to be able to answer in a pitch or query.