The art of pitching your novel; advice from Ken Levine

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about writing and self-doubt, my husband doesn’t want to hear about my writing process. He has, however, made it abundantly clear that my “pitching technique” needs serious work. I need to sell my story, and sell it like a champ.

Ken Levine, a TV comedy writer with a killer blog discusses what sets a pitch apart from a synopsis. I’ve extracted excerpts applicable to writers (and altered a few words–found in parentheses–to make it more novelist-friendly) from his post How to Pitch a Pilot or Movie:

Pitching is an art. When you walk into that room you’re not a writer, you’re a salesman. You’re Don Draper.

Your goal is to get the person you’re pitching it – be it an agent, network, studio, investor, whoever – excited. It’s way more than just about spelling out the synopsis.

First: Your appearance. Guys, you don’t have to wear ties but show some respect. Nice shirt, maybe a jacket. Don’t show up at a network meeting in a workout suit (I’ve seen this happen). For me to give women fashion advice would be like the Pope giving sex tips, but unlike men, most women are smart enough not to show up in sweats.

Bring with you a beat sheet that has the salient points of your pitch. (Writers, a synopsis or excellently executed proposal would be appropriate.) Don’t bring a presentation that you read aloud. That’s death.

If possible, you need to appear confident and relaxed. And it’s easier than you think. Those meetings always have a false sense of casualness. Everyone’s breezy, there’s usually five minutes of charming chit-chat. Meanwhile, you’re dying inside and they’re so sick of these meetings they could scream. But it’s all smiles and will help put you at ease. As a general rule, I find it’s best not to take a shot at them for not buying something you pitched (in the past). That sets a bad tone.

When you pitch, make eye contact. With everybody. Usually there will be the alpha dog and two to five assistants. Make eye contact with all of them. Some writers make the mistake of only playing to the big decision maker and ignoring everyone else. First off, that’s incredibly rude. Secondly, you want everyone on board. The more people in your corner the better. And guess what? These assistants often go on to become alpha dogs themselves. And they have a very good memory for assholes.

I’ve seen male writers only look at the male executives and ignore the women. You can’t believe how they are loathed.

Don’t mumble. Don’t say “you know” or “like” a thousand times. Don’t stop every few minutes to refer to the beat sheet, pause, and then resume.

As for the pitch itself:

Rule number one: Be enthusiastic. This is a killer idea! You’re passionate about this one. To say, “I see a lot of vampire (stories) are selling. Why I don’t know but anyway here’s my vampire (manuscript)” is to say, “Hi, I’m wasting your time and mine.”

Start with the concept and why you think it’s so great. The arena is completely unexplored. This is a relationship you’ve never seen. You’ve found a way to do THE SORROW AND THE PITY but really FUNNY.

I suggest you really rehearse your pitch. You can get so lost pitching a (novel), laying out unnecessary details and omitting others. Confusing the buyer is not a good thing. Neither is boring him. If you’ve pitched for a half-hour and you’re still in act one you are so toast. Do a dry run or two for your agent or significant other.

If you can distill the (manuscript) into a few lines, that’s a great start. For ALMOST PERFECT with Nancy Travis we said, “This is about a single woman in her thirties, having trouble with her personal life and working life and on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life. Both are full-time jobs. How does she balance both?” CBS bought it right there.

For comedic (manuscripts), have some jokes in your pitch. And this is very important: don’t bail if they don’t laugh. Some (agents or publishers) are great audiences, others are like playing tennis against a blanket. But just plow forward. Just because they didn’t laugh doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. And on the other hand, you may make your prospective agent or publisher roll in the aisles only to say no.

One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation.

Give quick sketches of the characters. Again, sprinkle in laughs.

After you’ve rundown your pitch, they will generally ask you a few questions. This is not a bad thing (unless they’re hopelessly confused, that’s bad) The more they talk about the idea the more you can get them excited about it.

Props and visual aids are at your own peril. Sometimes they help, most times they don’t. We once went into a pitch that related to the food industry with a producer who thought it would be good idea to bring in tons of chicken and side dishes. The network was horrified. All through our pitch they just stared at this food wondering what to do with it.

And finally, when they say, “Okay, this sounds good. Let us talk it over” that’s your cue to say “thank you,” get up, shake hands and leave. Don’t keep pushing. Don’t suddenly remember something about a character you forgot to mention. Get in, make your pitch, and get out.

Like I said, pitching is an art. It can be learned and practiced and perfected.

And then there’s this: You can give the greatest pitch in the world. You can be Paul Harvey, George Clooney and the Juiceman all rolled into one but if the idea itself is (junk) it’s not going to sell. Likewise, a great idea can sometimes survive even a subpar pitch. But most ideas are somewhere in the middle – that is until you step into the room and blow ‘em away.

Best of luck. Make Don Draper proud.

Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis.