Write It Sideways

How to Slam Dunk Your 90-Second Pitch

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Debra Eve.

Former model August McLaughlin‘s high fashion memoir had morphed into a thriller. Now it was finished.

She emailed queries and attended writers’ conferences. She met agents, but many didn’t represent her genre.

Then ThrillerFest landed in New York City. She took a leap of faith and signed up for AgentFest, the conference’s pitch slam portion.

Pitch-slamming is like literary speed-dating—you get 90 seconds to grab an agent’s attention and get their business card.

August lives in Los Angeles. “So you’re going to fly across the country to one of the most expensive cities to attend a pricy conference?” a friend asked. “What if nothing happens?”

“Something already is happening,” August replied.

Pitch Slam Prep

Last January, Canadians Marcy Kennedy and Lisa Hall-Wilson headed for New York City and the Writer’s Digest Conference to pitch their historical fantasy, The Amazon Heir.

To prepare, they studied agents’ bios and followed them on social media. They also checked recent deals in Publisher’s Weekly and got opinions from other writers via the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum.

On the big day, you get three minutes in front of the agent. For the first 90 seconds, you pitch. For the next 90 ninety seconds, the agent tells you what she thinks of your book and your pitch. If you’re lucky, she hands you a business card and asks for more material. The bell rings. You move to the next agent.

But be prepared to wait, Lisa warns. “Line-ups became very long very fast.” At Writer’s Digest, Marcy and Lisa split up to pitch. Lisa only talked to five agents, and Marcy six, during the three-hour slam.

Ninety seconds. Two to three words per second. Three to ten sentences. What do you say?

Pitch Slam By The Points

Marcy picked up these points from Chuck Sambuchino‘s workshop:

1. Establish basic details. What’s your title, genre, and word count? “When you’re able to name your genre and give a word count that’s appropriate, it also shows you know where your book fits in the market,” Marcy says.

Also, let the agent know if you’ve finished the book and, if not, how much you’ve written.

2. State your logline. Can you summarize your novel in one sentence? Thriller writer Jon Land recommends a character-driven logline that explains “who is trying to do what and why.” He gives this example:

NOT: A man falsely imprisoned on death row will die at dawn if the governor doesn’t pardon him.

INSTEAD: An intrepid reporter has only 24 hours to save the innocent man she’s fallen in love with from execution.

Marcy and Lisa, however, decided on a cinematic logline for their action-packed story:

The Amazon Heir is Xena: Warrior Princess meets Game of Thrones.

3. Introduce your main character(s). What do they want? What makes them interesting? Beyond the protagonist and antagonist, keep names to a minimum. Use relationships instead: “his bodyguard” or “her ex-husband.”

4. Reveal the inciting incident. What catapults your protagonist into the story? What shatters his or her world?

5. Continue with complications. Be specific. “The hero battles the dark side” won’t do. Why should we care? Don’t include theme or subplots — there’s not enough time.

6. Don’t give away the ending. This isn’t a synopsis. Leave the agent intrigued so you score that coveted business card.

Pitch Slam Wrap-Up

What motivated August, Marcy, and Lisa to take these risky, nerve-racking journeys? Lisa says:

It’s your chance to skip the cold query process that can last from 3-6 months, and the inevitable agency slush-pile jockey. It’s a chance to meet the person face-to-face, which is such a valuable opportunity in this digital age.

Out of the eleven agents Marcy and Lisa pitched, seven requested more material. “Although not every agent asked us to send them something, every one of them complimented our pitch,” Marcy says. You can read the full text of their pitch, point by point, here.

And for August, something did happen. She received thirteen requests from her pitch slam. A month later, two agents contacted her to discuss representing her thriller, In Her Shadow. August signed with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. You can read her full story here.

Do you have to fly 3000 miles to a big U.S. conference, like August did?

Not necessarily. Pitch slams are popping up at smaller conferences, too. I recently found one at a Women’s National Book Association regional meeting. The next Writer’s Digest pitch slam takes place at their West Coast Conference in Los Angeles, October 19-21.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” according to Louis Pasteur.

Are you ready to take a chance and slam-dunk that pitch?

Many thanks to August McLaughlin, Marcy Kennedy, and Lisa Hall-Wilson for permission to share their stories. Good luck to all three!