I’m grateful to have enjoyed my career as a syndicated columnist and nonfiction writer. But I always wondered what it would be like to write fiction, and finally decided to give it a try. Writing my first novel was an exhilarating process, one I found both challenging and richly satisfying … until it was time to pitch my manuscript to agents. Oh, my.
Pitching was new territory for me. Fortunately, researching a topic was not. I explored every aspect of drafting a pitch and discovered a wealth of helpful information. I devoured articles and attended a worthwhile pitching workshop. After writing and rewriting what I planned to say, I felt ready to pitch my novel to agents at a major California writing conference.
This guest post is by Tracey Barnes Priestley. Priestley secured her agent through pitching in person. The author of the novel Duck Pond Epiphany, Priestley is also a life coach who teaches writers communication and stress management skills useful for today’s publishing world.
Just before my assigned hour that morning, I rounded the corner of the hotel lobby and walked right into a mass of twitching humanity. A tsunami of energy flooded the hall. While some writers chatted amicably, others made frantic, last-minute changes to what they were going to say. A few read their pitches out loud in odd little helium voices. Others looked pale, as if they might crumble to the floor.
It’s worth noting that for the previous three days, both conference staff and agents had offered steady reassurance that pitching was an entirely manageable experience. Yet I was keenly aware that for many writers, none of this reassurance had registered. Fear had them by the throat and would not let go.
As a therapist-turned-life-coach, I understood the reactions I was witnessing. All of us had poured time and energy into our work; more important, we had poured ourselves into our work. I might even wager that most of us had indulged in pleasant fantasies about landing an agent, securing a publishing contract and even selling the movie rights. Naturally, the stakes were high.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t standing there in a sea of calm. Hardly. I had plenty of my own antsy thoughts racing through my brain. However, I also had a well-honed skill set to rely on to help me navigate this nerve-wracking experience.
Here’s the good news: It is entirely possible for you to learn these simple techniques. With the right awareness and practice, you will feel more confident, prepared and relaxed when the time comes to pitch your work in person.
1. Practice, practice, practice!
Naturally, your first task is to compose your very best pitch. Take advantage of the many resources available. Write and rewrite what you will say. When you finally feel your pitch is ready, you must take ample time to practice. Aloud.
The more comfortable you are with your own words, the more easily they will come rolling off of your tongue. Pitch to your family, trusted friends, your writing group. Too embarrassing? Then haul yourself in front of a mirror—really! How’s your delivery? Do you have good eye contact? Are you standing tall? What is your rate of speech? Too fast? Too slow? Does your voice sound conversational and natural? Are you breathing? (This sounds like a funny question, I know. But when we’re nervous, we tend to either hold our breath or take shallow breaths. Focus on deep, relaxed breathing. It really does help.) All of this may sound like overkill but the more you practice your pitch, the better you will feel and the better you will do.
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- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 26–March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (Miami)
- Feb. 24, 2017: The Alabama Writers Conference (Birmingham, AL)
- March 25, 2017: Kansas City Writing Workshop (Kansas City, MO)
- April 22, 2017: Get Published in Kentucky Conference (Louisville, KY)
- April 22, 2017: New Orleans Writers Conference (New Orleans, LA)
- May 21, 2017: Get Published in San Diego (San Diego, CA)
- June 24, 2017: The Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- July 8, 2017: Cleveland Writing Workshop (Cleveland, OH)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
2. Understand your reaction to stressful situations.
Try this little exercise: Close your eyes and imagine you are standing in line, waiting your turn to pitch to your first choice of agents. As only a writer can, develop this mental scene to its fullest. Any butterflies? Does your neck feel tense? Is your breathing more rapid? Depending on how well you’ve crafted this scene, you may find yourself experiencing a mini-version of the “fight or flight” response to stress. The trouble with getting pulled too far into this visceral reaction is that there are very few instances in modern life, including pitching to agents, where this response is either accurate or necessary.
Consider the origins of “fight or flight,” which has been a part of human existence since the beginning of time. Our long-ago ancestors would not have survived without this crucial biochemical cocktail coursing through their bodies. It helped them outrun a wild thing or fight off a marauding Neanderthal. Lives depended on lightning-quick responses.
Fast-forward a few thousand years to the morning I described at the beginning of this article. Many writers may have felt as though they were about to face flesh-eating beasts behind those double doors, but in reality, it was a room full of professionals, all hopeful we would bring them just the thing they were looking for. (Remember, agents don’t earn a living unless we provide the goods!)
Re-imagine the scene with that in mind as many times as you need to. Get the “fight or flight” out of your way ahead of time. Stress is a matter of perception, and perception can be changed.
3. Take control of your BRAIN.
One of the most productive things you can do to lower your anxiety about pitching is to quiet the seemingly endless parade of negative messages galloping around in your brain. The trouble with this “chatter” is that, though it may feel like the absolute truth, it is the product of distorted thinking, generally stemming from our fears and insecurities.
Changing those thoughts can actually change what you’re feeling. Let’s revisit our biology: Thoughts, which are the words we assign to our perceptions, translate into specific physiological changes in our systems. When you think something like, I’ll never get an agent, your biochemistry actually shifts, your system takes a hit, and you feel discouraged (or worse). This, in turn, can trigger more anxiety and fear. It’s easy to get caught in a vicious cycle. But if you change this thought even slightly, say, to I don’t know if I’ll get an agent, but I’m thoroughly prepared, a different biochemical reaction occurs within your brain and body, one that will make it easier for you to stay calm and clear.
As you prepare for your pitching session ahead of time, make a conscious effort to note the negative thoughts you’re having. These messages can be sneaky little vermin, capable of creeping into your brain without warning. Pay attention! Jot them down whenever they wander into your awareness. Then, using your rational brain, rewrite every one of those negative messages to remove the anxiety. From that point on, whenever a counterproductive thought slithers in, diligently repeat the more rational messages you’ve written. At first, sure, you may feel silly mentally talking back to yourself. But you’ll find that with practice, you will feel more relaxed going into your pitching session. You’ve developed a more realistic perspective.
4. Be physically ready.
If possible, before your assigned pitching time, visit the room in which you’ll be meeting the agents. By simply familiarizing yourself with the surroundings, you eliminate some of the mystery that may contribute to your anxiety. Later, when you return to this space, you’ll feel more comfortable here.
Take care to get enough sleep the night before and to eat good food that settles well with you. Keep an eye on your alcohol and coffee intake, as both substances can obviously affect how you feel. (Have that celebratory drink after your pitch!) Wear comfortable clothes that make you feel good about yourself. Allow plenty of time to get to your session; rushing about will only crank up that pesky adrenaline. Finally, if you’ve been sitting through instructional workshops or panels before your assigned pitching time, take a quick walk around the block to reenergize yourself or burn off a little nervous energy.
5. Make a plan for the time immediately before your pitch.
The more you minimize your anticipation of what you are about to do, the better you will feel. Your plan can begin with a clear reminder that you are prepared. Next, be ready with a list of a few positive thoughts you’ll rely on during the wait. Some people feel better engaging with other writers in attendance. It’s fine to talk about being nervous; it may help to simply acknowledge what you’re feeling aloud. This is not the time, however, to jump headfirst into your worst fears! Instead of focusing solely on your nerves, ask the other writers to share their success stories or what they enjoy most about being a writer.
You might not be the type who is comforted by casual chitchat while waiting for your turn to shine. Perhaps you know you’ll feel better if you can tune out what’s happening around you. It’s not rude to roll into yourself a bit if this is what works best for you. Make your body language plain, and others will get the point. Or, if listening to music calms you, prepare a playlist of tunes that inspire or relax you, and then simply pop in your earbuds and focus on that.
No matter what, remember to breathe!
Yes, pitching in person can be challenging, but it’s also quite manageable. Remember, you have something wonderful to share! Believe in what you’ve written. Then do your homework. By preparing your best pitch and your best self, you can have all the success you deserve.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.