When “the end” is in sight on a manuscript that may have taken years to develop, writers tend to get a little freaked out. It’s a totally understandable response. It’s hard to think of this thing you have made going out into the world with nothing to protect it and at the same time, it’s thrilling to think of all the good things that might happen to it once people get their hands on it. Emotions run high – and that can lead to some less-than-stellar decision-making around the pitch process.
Here are some of the mistakes I see writers frequently make:
- They rush to pitch, sending out a half-baked manuscript that is never going to meet with success, and sloppy pitch materials that are never going to get a second look.
- They wait too long to pitch, believing that there is some external bar of perfection that they can meet if only they keep revising and revising and revising.
- They fail to pitch at all, letting fear and doubt take over and paralysis set in.
The key to success in pitching is a simple formula: know when your manuscript is ready to pitch, formulate a plan for pitching it, prepare your pitch materials and pitch with confidence!
I have developed a three-part test to help writers make that first important determination -- is my manuscript ready to pitch?
Over the next three Fridays, I am going to dig into each part, one at a time. (If you missed last week’s post on the difference between traditional and self-publishing, check it out HERE. I am talking in this series about the path to traditional publishing, which goes through an agent. Self-publishing writers don’t need to pitch their books to agents; they go direct to the readers.)
Part 1 is what I call The Gut Check, and it is exactly what it sounds like: a time for you to check in with your deepest level of knowing to determine if in your heart of hearts, you think your book is ready.
And in order to answer that question, you have to first be clear on the last part of the question: ready for what?
Remember that the goal of pitching is not, technically, to land a book deal. You may dream about an auction and an offer of big bucks from a big house that will lead to a spot on the best-seller list, but the goal of pitching is much different than that. It’s much smaller in scope. It’s simply to get an agent.
The agent is evaluating the commercial viability of your book, and if they know the right editors at publishing houses to place it with, and how it will fare in the marketplace, and what needs to be done to get it into shape to send it out with their blessing, and what you bring to the table as an author. In other words, there is still a lot of ground to cover before your book gets into reader’s hands.
Once you get an agent, they may ask for changes to the manuscript, or to the book proposal (for a non-fiction book.) Once you get an editor, they may also ask for changes to the manuscript. In addition, you are going to have a copyeditor and a proofreader weighing in on every single word you have written. You will have many discerning eyes on your book before it goes to print. So while you need to make sure that your manuscript is whole and strong, it doesn't have to be “camera ready” the way it does when you self-publish. It simply needs to be good enough to get an agent.
That means that you have to work hard to polish it and prepare it and have it represent your vision, but you also have to realize that at a certain point you have to make a decision to let it go.
I have a lot of clients who are perfectionists. I think it goes with the territory of being a writer. After all, we care about words and their specific meaning, so we are trained to pay attention to the details, and to want to get them right.
This trait, however, can slow people down when they get close to the end of a project. They hide behind the false belief that there is a perfect execution of the idea in their head. They refuse to let the work go.
In this, we can take a lesson from painters, who unlike writers, create tangible, physical objects – and must learn when to stop putting paint to the canvas. Leonardo DaVinci famously said that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
So when do you abandon your manuscript? When do you decide that it’s ready to pitch?
That brings us back to the gut check.
I think it’s critically important for a writer to tune into her own feelings about the manuscript. So often we turn outside ourselves for this answer – to a book group or a critique partner. We want someone else to tell us that it’s good enough. There may be a place for a professional opinion in the process (more on that in a few Fridays) but I would like to suggest that you probably already know the answer.
I suggest that you take a bit of time to think about your manuscript in whatever way you do your best thinking. Maybe that’s on a long walk or in a yoga studio or while blaring Kelly Clarkson tunes and driving down the highway. Whatever it is, be intentional about taking the time. Then ask yourself this one key question:
Do you love what you have written?
I’m not talking about the idea of it – the vision or the dream; I’m talking about the words that are actually on the page.
Do you love them?
Be dead honest with yourself, because if you cheat, the only person you are cheating is yourself. I know that there are parts of the manuscript that still confound you, and upset you, and don’t feel quite right and might never feel quite right, but on the whole, do you love it?
Do you feel that you have done your idea justice?
Would you be proud for people to read it -- and not just faceless strangers, but specific people you admire?
If you saw it on the bookshelf standing shoulder-to-shoulder with books you love, would you feel pleased? Or does that thought send you into a tailspin of shame and dread?
If there is a voice inside of you saying, “Mmmmmm I know I rushed and skimped,” or “Weeeeelllllll I know it’s not my best work but I’m sooo tired of working on it,” or “I guess I could do a lot better if I had three months in a cabin in the woods but when am I ever going to get that?” it may well be that you’re not ready.
If, on the other hand, you can say, YES! I love it and it is as strong as I can make it right now,” then I believe that is a powerful sign that you are ready to pitch.
After all, the basic act of pitching is asking an agent if they love your book enough to get behind it. It hardly seems fair to ask them to make that determination if you haven’t made it yet yourself.
Coming next Friday: Are You Ready to Pitch, Part 2: the Audience Check
Coming April 25: The Pitch Track, a course to help you get all your pitch elements and pitch strategy in pitch-perfect shape, with feedback from a pro. We have an April 16 application deadline for this course. Why is there an application? We want to make sure all writers who sign up for the course actually need the pitch track (self-publishing writers don’t) and that you’re ready for it. But don’t worry -- it’s not like an application to get into college. More like a friendly “tell us about your book.”