The Writing Pitch as Job Interview
A pitch session is an event where you have a short time to talk with a number of experts in the book business—editor , agents, publishers. Whether you are planning to participate in a pitching event, or have arranged to talk with a single literary gatekeeper, you can prepare by treating it like a job interview. Most of us know about job interviews, so what can we draw upon?
Identify your immediate goal
People see a promising job ad and post their resume and cover letter. What’s their immediate goal? It is not to be offered the job. That outcome is farther down the track.
When you are talking with a literary gatekeeper about your manuscript, know what you’re shooting for. Your immediate goal is not a book contract, but an invitation to send more of your work, such as a long synopsis or a complete manuscript.
In a job hunt, cluey applicants identify how their experience and expertise connect with the requirements of the position. You can do the same by identifying how your work is relevant to the gatekeeper’s needs and interests. E.g.,
- Does my material best suit a mainstream publisher, a smaller independent one, or a specialised publisher such as a university press? Why?
- What category describes my material? E.g., young children’s lit, crime fiction, self-help?
- In my chosen category, who are the successes, the big names? How does my work fit in? How does it differ?
- What kind of readers would be attracted to my writing? And why?
Prepare for the big day
A pitch session or a talk with a literary gatekeepers differs from a job interview in one important way. If you get a job interview, the material you have sent has already communicated much about you. The panel is already interested in you and want to know more.
In a pitch session, the people you talk to usually know nothing about you and they have not specifically asked to see you. You may have only 5-10 minutes to interest them in your writing project. It’s a stress-inducing situation, so it pays to prepare.
Aim to hook your listeners, so much so that they will ask you to provide more of your material. ‘Hooking’ strategies include the following:
- Establish rapport. People are more likely to forgive minor glitches if you make a positive connection. Smile, make eye contact. Engaging in a little small-talk at the start can make you appear confident.
- Highlight your strengths and successes. Interview panels assess applicants’ experience and ability, but they also look for positive qualities—commitment, professionalism, enthusiasm. Identify your strong points, as well as concrete examples. E.g., how have you demonstrated professionalism? You may not be asked such questions, but preparing examples can help your confidence.
- Highlight your unique selling point. After you identify how your work can be categorised, it helps to point out how it differs from other works in your chosen genre or subject. Does it provide a different and valuable slant? Create a new niche or significantly expand an old one? Or is its strength that it follows a familiar pattern, such as romance fiction, and does it very well?
Provide a conceptual frame. Job applicants may use a framing device to help the interviewing panel make sense of their work history. The frame is usually a statement of their career goal, and then they write about their various jobs with this goal as their focus for what they include and exclude.
You can provide a similar frame for your writing project. Randy Ingermanson, the famed ‘snow-flake’ writing guy, suggests starting with a one-sentence summary of your material, giving the kernel of your story and focusing on one or two major characters , without using their names. His examples:
- Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.
- Pride and Prejudice: A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.
- The DaVinci Code: A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.]
After this, provide details. But remember that in this situation, less is more. Try for a maximum of five sentences.
Practise your pitch
Once you work out what you want to convey, practise it so that you are confident about what you can communicate it in the allotted time, with poise and enthusiasm.
Practising out loud what you want to say helps you sharpen your responses and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. When I help people prepare for a job interview, I pose questions and have them respond, again out loud. Is there a friend whom you can ask to fire suitable questions at you and give feedback in terms of what you say and how?
It happens at interviews, and it may happen to you at a pitch session: You run into someone who is obnoxious or demeaning. A pitch session is short so try to remain professional and gracious.
And don’t go over to the ‘dark side’ yourself by picking an argument, not answering a direct question, interrupting, talking too much, using inappropriate humour, or getting way off track. I’ve experienced all of these no-nos from applicants when I was on interview panels, and in each case the person was not offered the job.
Diana Jenkins’ article provides a helpful account about participating in a pitch session: Nervous White Female.