Secrets to Pitching, Part 2

Hey guys! It’s CJ Lyons back with more secrets to pitching.

Last time we talked about the types of pitches (high concept, elevator pitches, blurbs). Now that you have your pitch ready, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets about pitching at a conference.

First of all, relax. 90% of the time the person you’re pitching to is going to ask for your material if it is anything that sounds at all like what they are looking for. And since you did your research ahead of time, you already know what they’re looking for, right?

Second of all, the agents and editors will probably listen to 100 or more pitches during their time there. Guess what? They won’t remember any of them.

BUT they might remember you. That’s what you want, to make an impression—hopefully a good one.

Why? To build that emotional Velcro, make a connection.

So, how to make a good impression? Of course, be professional, act professional. Come prepared, display poise and confidence. Have a business card to offer, lay it on the table between you so the agent can glance at it when they’re forgotten your name.

Use your pitch to elicit questions. Remember, you are NOT there to describe your book. You’re there to make an impression, so that when you send in your work the agent or editor will remember you.

Keep it short, sweet, hook your audience and keep them asking for more.

It’s that simple.

So you give your twenty second pitch (it shouldn’t be any longer) and the agent nods and asks a few questions and wants to see the manuscript. Mission accomplished, right?

Not quite. That should take maybe two minutes, probably less of your allotted time. Don’t waste the rest!! Use it to cement that professional impression, to increase that emotional Velcro.

Think of it as a job interview—only now it’s YOUR turn. Come prepared with some well-thought out professional questions for your agent and editor. Things that will make that glazed expression in their eyes fade away as they sit up and actually talk with you instead of being barraged with pitches.

Here’s a few:
–where do you see the (insert genre) market going?
–any recent successes? OR better yet, do your research ahead of time and compliment them on a client’s success
–what’s the best advice you would give a writer trying to break in?
–what’s the best book you’ve read recently?

You get the picture. Suddenly you’ve turned a one-way pitch session into a professional conversation. Guess what? People remember conversations. People have conversations with people they like. People they want to do business with.

Bingo!! Mission accomplished!

Another tip I’ve heard that other writers have used successfully is to bring the agent or editor something to eat or drink. I’d have a care with this one—what if they’re deathly allergic or have other dietary constraints? Plus it seems a little forward and presumptuous to me…but that’s just me<g>

If you do go this route, maybe do a little recon ahead of time. Get to the pitch area early and ask the volunteers manning it if your agent/editor has expressed a favorite beverage or asked for a snack. You could save the volunteer time by getting it for the agent/editor and still get your gold star for effort.

It might be worth a try. In the long run, just remember that agents and editors are human (despite any rumors to the contrary<g>) and enjoy anything that breaks the monotony of listening to an endless drone of pitches.

Also, be prepared by bringing the synopsis and first few chapters with you. 99% of the time the agent or editor will NOT want them (they don’t want to carry stuff on the plane back home) but there are exceptions.

The very first time I ever (ever!) pitched it was to Donald Maass. He liked my pitch, liked my credentials even more (it was a medical thriller) and asked if I had the first chapter with me. To my amazement, he sat there and read it, right in front of me!

He made it through the first ten pages or so and proceeded to give me the best writing lesson I ever had. He ripped it to shreds, told me about conflict on every page and basically our fifteen minute meeting turned into a very dynamic critique session as we brainstormed alternative openings and plot lines.

Moral of the story: always be prepared!

Thanks for reading,

CJ Lyons
No one is immune to danger…
LIFELINES, Berkley March 2008

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doc, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. CJ loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers. She also loves breaking the rules; her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, is cross-genre to the extreme, combining women’s fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy’s Medical Center. Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), “a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller” and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at


Weasel Words

Writers tend to have words that they use over and over without noticing. If you don’t think you do, go back and read your scenes out loud. See if you can pick up on a repeated word or two. Mine are:

anyway, just, well, sure (like “he sure does smile a lot” rather than “he smiles a lot.”), suddenly, really, even.

After I write the first draft, I look for these, and stuff like “he sat down” and get rid of the “down.” I also need to be aware of “Have to’s” and look to see if I can change the phrase to “Must.” Of course, I watch for duplicate words and try to think of synonyms. And I watch to see if I vary my sentence lengths, and vary the structures.

One thing I wanted to note, is that when I write my Regency novels, I use “rather” because that is what the Regency gentlemen and ladies used — a lot! ;) So when I am writing a Regency, I have to go back and make sure I have my Regency character say “I feel unwell” rather than “I feel sick.” If I have my character say “It’s cold outside,” I will usually change it to “It’s rather cold outside.” Ah, Regency talk is so much fun! ;)

What are your weasel words?

Too Much? Too little? Too Confusing?

On the radio today I listened to Sam Wang, an articulate doctor (translation: he talked so that I could understand) discuss the new scientific findings that indicate we have only so much “will power” at our disposal.  Yes, he said we can actually run out of will power.  He went on to explain that is why you should not try to do two (or three, or four) big important things at the same time–like don’t try to diet while you have to work intensely on a project with a deadline. He co-authored all of this info as an op/ed piece in the New York Times.

Okay, I take it that means I can blame any weight gain on the excuse that I’m so busy plotting another book, or writing another article, or finding new sources of financial aid for this year’s College Planner (and my own daughter’s education).  I know I definitely needed chocolate while I was pulling together all of my tax stuff for this year (yes, they’re finished, thank goodness), so since I was focused on the tax deadline I was excused for the couple of pounds I gained that week, right?

In the interview, he said a person can try to focus on two or more big things to accomplish at the same time, but the results won’t be stellar.

As a writer, this truly makes sense to me.  When I’m focused on just one writing project, my success rate at word count–and I mean GOOD word count–skyrockets.  But when I have other writing assignments due at the same time and I have to allocate time to each, the writing doesn’t come nearly as easily.

If you want to hear the full story from the good doctor’s mouth, here’s the link to listen to the radio show I was listening to–it’s only about 20 minutes long if you have DSL or similar speed Internet.  Just click onto the “Listen Now” button at the top of the web page, just under the headline:

To read the print op/ed piece in the NY Times, the link is:


In the meantime, I’m left with the question: what to do, what to do?  Well, I’ve examined all of the evidence and believe I’ve made the only valid decision.  I recognize a great one-track path when I see it…

So, pardon the chocolate on my fingers while my focus stays on my WIP.

Character Motivation

You can have your character want anything as long as it’s strongly motivated. More importantly, you can make your reader believe almost any goal you set up as long as you justify it with motivation.

When I think of this, I think of the movie, Romancing the Stone. Remember when the main characters were running from the bad guys and they are surrounded by rough-looking men in the village they wend up in? Michael Douglas says, “Write us out of this one, Joan Wilder.” The leader suddenly freezes and with a wide-eyed expression says,”You’re Joan Wilder? The American author, Joan Wilder?” Come to find out he is a fan of hers and all the guys have read her books. The script writers made that scene completely believable, which gave the townsmen proper motivation to go through all the trouble to help them escape the bad guys.

When you consider a goal, make sure you think up the why, or motivation, and make it very strong:

  1. Is the goal important to the character?
  2. Is the motivation urgent?
  3. Is the goal within the realm of possibility?
  4. Does the character have skills and flaws to make this story unique?
  5. Can you use this characters goal, motivation and conflict to help the reader understand the character?

In the movie Ever After, Danielle, (who is played by Drew Barrymore), has the goal of wanting to save her farm, which includes all the servants. When her stepmother sells off one of the servants to pay for her debt, Danielle dresses as a court lady to pay for his release with money the prince tossed her for “borrowing” her beloved deceased father’s horse.

Her motivations are:

  1. The servants have become her loved ones, i.e., they took the place of her parents. How could servants become so dear to her? Because the servants were kind to her and gave her love and acceptance after her father died. Her mother died at childbirth. She was very much loved by her father when she was a child. When her beloved father died suddenly of a heart attack, she lost his love and was subjected to the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsister.
  2. She wants to hold the farm together. Why? Because that’s all she has left of her father. The farm represents better days, days when she was loved and accepted by the world.

Make sure when you set up your goals and motivations that you don’t make it coincidental.

When someone tells you that your story isn’t believable, it isn’t because you sent the characters to a planet in another galaxy. It isn’t because your character survived a two thousand yard plunge to earth. It’s because your GMC wasn’t logical. Your GMC wasn’t appropriate to your characters. What the reader is telling you is, “I didn’t believe these people would find themselves in this situation or make these decisions.”

Example — you will have a hard time convincing readers that an accountant could do emergency surgery in the jungle with matches, a flashlight and a Swiss Army knife. A fireman is better, someone who trained as a paramedic, who walked away from an internship, now you have slipped that character into the realm of possibility. Give him a downed plane’s emergency kit, and you are well on your way to fixing the problem.

Or, if you want to stick with the accountant, have the victim be his 8 year old daughter. They just survived a plane crash and they are the only two alive. His daughter is choking and needs an airway. Give him a Swiss Army knife and a half-full ink pen. Since she is going to die for sure if he doesn’t do anything, I think he would be motivated to try to create an air passage for her. Don’t you?

Sometimes books start off with coincidences, like a chance meet. This is okay as long as you have the characters react to results of the meet within their GMC’s that you have set up for them. In Ever After, The prince does happen to ride through Danielle’s farm in an attempt to escape his father’s men, (he’s rebelling against an arranged marriage) — which is the heroine and hero’s first meet. But it’s how they react to that coincidence — that is, they keep within their character that makes this coincidence all right. Danielle always has her goals in mind. She doesn’t use the money to buy food or improve their lot. She uses the money to rescue a servant, which supports her main goal of preserving the farm, keeping the place intact with all of the original servants.

CJ Lyons on Pitching–part one

Join award winning medical suspense author CJ Lyons as she explains the secrets to successful pitching, tips to engage an editor or agent, and reveals the creation of a high concept.

CJ has received requests for manuscripts every time she pitched. She’ll help you feel more comfortable during your pitch session and more confident with your pitch. Come prepared with a one paragraph summary of your manuscript, your pitch, and if you have one, your high concept.

The Pitch is a writer’s best friend.

Why? Because it’s what you’ll use every time someone asks you to tell them about your book. Agents, editors, elevator folks, Great Aunt Martha. Whoever.

So you need to polish it and since it’s verbal, shorter is better. No more than 25 words total, 10-15 is better.

Short, sweet, memorable. That’s what you’re going for—hey, I didn’t say it would be easy!

There are several different types of pitches. Here’s how I define them:

–an elevator pitch, a very quick, easily memorable way to let someone who has never read your work know what it’s going to be like (note: not what it’s about, but what they can expect).

LIFELINESFor my new medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, it is: ER meets Grey’s Anatomy

Implying that it has the edgy realism and non-stop action of ER, but also focuses on relationships like Grey’s Anatomy.

I think elevator pitches were invented by all those ADD Hollywood types

It’s your down and dirty answer to: what is your book like? It’s a comparison, not an explanation or description.

The trick with elevator pitches is to use something universally known (like Indiana Jones) or something current and trendy. You need to use comparisons your audience will understand, nod their heads and say, oh yeah, that sounds like something I’d read

–another pitch is more descriptive. Start with your book’s hook line (also known as “tag line” or “log line”).

These are those throw away lines that scream at you from book covers. Also look at movie posters and ads–they use hook lines a lot.

JAWS: don’t go into the water, ALIENS: in space no one can hear you scream, etc.

These hook lines are useful in query letters to hook the reader and transition into your blurb.

For LIFELINES, the hook line is: July 1st, the most dangerous day of the year.

Notice what a hook line does that’s different than an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a comparison. A hook line gets the reader to ASK questions, builds that emotional velcro by getting them involved.

For LIFELINES, readers might ask: why is July 1st the most dangerous day of the year? What will happen then? Who is in danger? What kind of danger? Etc

These hook lines are also great to use on websites, business cards, etc. Often, they’ll end up on the book’s front cover.

Okay, so you have a hook line. Sometimes that’s all you need, the conversation will evolve naturally from there. Other times you use it simply to attract attention and move into a more detailed description. So be prepared, either way.

–high concept pitch: also quick and dirty, but here you’re going farther than a simple comparison.

Instead of comparisons you use ICONs or universal concepts to connect your fictional world to the world of your audience. This creates emotional velcro with your audience, leading them to be interested enough to want to know more!

To do this, you need to do two things:

First, find a hook. This is the unique spin that you have put on your story. This means narrowing your search to one small part of your story. Start with your blurb, usually the hook will be apparent there. If not, keep looking

Basically you’re boiling your novel down to one and only one unique concept–whatever it is about your story that will create an immediate emotional connection or spark interest.

Second, tie this unique hook to the larger world by using universal icons and feelings, implying that society at large is affected. Something that brings this hook specific to the time and place of your novel into the ordinary world of your audience.

You’re building a bridge here, connections, emotional velcro….whatever you want to call it, it needs to be so easy to grasp that anyone can feel it immediately.

One of my favorite high concepts: ALIEN’s. It was: Jaws on a spaceship.

The unique hook = spaceship. Unique because no one has been on a spaceship, it’s something unfamiliar to the ordinary audience.

The universal icon = monster (Jaws). Everyone has had childhood fears of monsters under the bed. We all know and understand fear, nightmares, terror. In fact, a large segment of the movie going audience (Alien’s target audience, in fact!!) pays good money to feel these emotions!

Add the two together and we have a universal fear of monsters combined with no where to run (trapped on a spaceship). A powerful one-two punch!!! Feel how it evokes an immediate visceral response as well as intrigue???

The audience hearing this high concept immediately squirm in their seats, ask themselves: where can the people on the ship run? How can they fight the monster?

AND, the movie makers tied this high concept into their advertising by using a tag line of: In space, no one can hear you scream….

But note—there is no mention of character names, no long, involved psychological profiles, nothing except the bare essentials needed to pique the audience’s attention.

That’s the beauty of the high concept, it strips everything away except what you need to intrigue your audience.

Another example. David Morrell’s recent book, SCAVENGERS used as its high concept: a scavenger hunt (unique hook) to the death (universal concept). The tag line used in advertising: Some secrets should remain buried…

Pretty obvious David’s audience are lovers of thrillers/suspense, and wouldn’t that audience immediately respond to that high concept? Be intrigued, think, hmm…I want to read that book, wondering what this master of suspense has in store for them.

Stephen King is also brilliant with high concepts. CUJO: rabid dog (hook) terrorizes town (universal fear). SALEMs LOT: vampires (unique hook–at the time) terrorize town (universal fear), CARRIE: prom queen (hook) terrorizes town….okay, anyone think King is writing sweet romance? Or has he earned his title of the King of Terror?

So much depends on knowing your audience that it’s hard for anyone else who hasn’t read the entire book to create a high concept for you. It all depends who your target audience is and what kind of emotional experience you want to promise them.

Often, because the high concept is such a tiny taste of the entire book, as writers, we get frustrated because we’re looking at the big picture. We just spent months with these characters, we want to share them with our audience, expand on them, not boil them down to a bare skeleton

But think of it this way–if you boil down a compelling high concept then the reader will spend hours with your characters and story as they read….after they pay their money for the book, of course, lol!

The high concept isn’t a synopsis or blurb, it’s merely a way to give your audience a sneak peak of the emotions they’ll feel while reading your book.

And not every book lends itself to a high concept, so don’t get too frustrated if this doesn’t seem to fit your work!

But no matter which kind of pitch you use, you’ll probably need a more fleshed out description. Something that conveys very quickly what kind of book this is, what it’s about (or who it’s about) and what stands in their way.

Again your goal isn’t to give away everything but rather to raise interest and more questions in the listener’s mind.

Try starting with your theme or premise, add in your main character and their goal and main obstacle.

This is hard, very, very hard!! Be patient, keep trying, brainstorming power words, re-arranging and most importantly practicing saying them aloud. Pitches are verbal so they need to sound smooth, natural, not awkward or stilted.

The only way to learn how to do these is dive in and give it a try!

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doc, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. CJ loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers. She also loves breaking the rules; her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, is cross-genre to the extreme, combining women’s fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy’s Medical Center. Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), “a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller” and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at


No, this isn’t going to be a plea to get you out of your chair to exercise (though I could use more, I know).  Just like we get too settled in our comfy chairs, we let our writing selves get too settled in what we’re used to writing.  Not that we’re necesarily happy or even satisfied with this, but we don’t think to struggle and stretch to give our writing the kind of hurdles that make ourselves and readers finish reading out of breath and wanting more.

To combat complacency, I’ve been trying to enter every “short” contest I can find lately that doesn’t require me to snail mail an entry.  And I’ve been surprised at how many free or relatively inexpensive ones are out there.  Here are a couple of my current favorites.

 The Verb newsletter has one every quarter, and the call right now is for Killer/Thriller stories that are 1000 words or less.  This contest offers a cash price, and the guidelines are posted at  But don’t forget to also sign up for the newsletter–it’s really wonderful.

Another free set of contests is running on the bloglist for the Bookends Literary Agency at  While there is no cash prize, the winners and runners-up receive a review of the first chapter, synopsis and query letter of the entry by one of the agents.  What a deal, huh?  The kicker is that your entry rides on the first 100 words of your work–and not one word more.  Talk about first impressions!  Contests for women’s fiction and romantic suspense are coming in the next few weeks.  I’m currently waiting to see if my suspense/thriller makes the cut. One caveat–these contests are not announced ahead of time. You have to visit the bloglist often and be ready to rip, since you only have that day to enter in the comments section.  However, even if you have to check the blog regularly, the posts they put up each day are worth reading and always give me new info. And even if you don’t win, they not only post the winning entries, but also explain why they chose each one.

These kinds of contests teach me to write tight.  Keeping the focus true to the subject is something that takes practice. It’s easy to think our words are too precious, and contests like these are a way to help me keep my words sharp and on-point.

Another good spot to check out free contests is the Harlequin website.  They recently ran a contest for their Presents line that called for just the first chapter and synopsis to be posted online. I heard they are also looking for stories for their new paranormal Nocturnal line, but I since I don’t write those I don’t know all the details.  Guess that might be a new stretch I should consider, huh?

So never let yourself get into a rut.  Do a search on “contests” or sign up for new writers e-letters and read them.  It’s easy to say we don’t have time to read or write something new “just because.” But you might be surprised by what you write, or you may find that old project you pulled out and polished up for the contest gives you new ideas now that you didn’t even consider months ago when the momentum seemed to be gone.

 Stretch into new directions and find yourself getting reinvigorated! 

Tag Lines and In Medias Res

Note: My approach to discussing dialog, is to write dialog by ‘conversing’ with my imaginary friend, Piper. (I know, I’m strange, and tend to have imaginary friends with me. Good thing I’m a writer, huh?) However, I’ll start the whole article by giving you a glimpse of Sooner or Later by Vickie McDonough:

“How old are you?”
Mason pushed against a supply crate with his foot and shifted to a better position. “I’m twenty-six. How about you?”
Twenty-one? Mason blinked against the darkness. He’d thought for sure she wasn’t a day over seventeen.
“Have you—I mean—you’re not—married, are you?” Rebekah stiffened in his arms.

Piper leans forward to prop her arms on my desk from her seat opposite me. “Ooh, that Vickie McDonough writes so well. So? Why did you stop there?”

I glance at Piper, who scowls as she taps her foot. This makes me smile because I know that was mean of me to stop right in the middle of a scene like that. But I act nonchalant. “Because I wanted to ask if you noticed that Vickie didn’t have to use tag lines?”

“Ah, what’s a tag line?” Piper asks sheepishly.

“A tag line is a couple of words or a phrase that tells you who is speaking. The simplest and least obtrusive tag lines are ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ or minor variations like ‘she replied’ or ‘he asked,’ as in this conversation between us,” I reply. “Let me give you another example off the top of my head.”

“Hello,” he said, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked.
“Hi,” she replied, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace said. “I’ve been wondering who you were for an hour.”

Piper grimaces and shakes her head at me. “Kinda blah. Can’t you put some zing into it?”

“Sure,” I respond. “But it’s best to keep things simple. Using adjectives, adverbs and fancy verbs to describe tone of voice or show what’s going on just gets in the way of the action and characterization. This is what can happen—”

“Hello,” he croaked nervously. “My name is Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been wondering who you were for an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

“Ugh, that was awful, Gloria.” Piper grabs her throat and pretends to gag. “Can’t we go back to Vickie’s story?”Miss Frog

Piper had an attention span the size of a flea. “Not until I at least make my point. Now, what was wrong with that passage?”

“The dialog was amateurish—sounding stilted and forced. Why is that, I wonder?”

“It’s called author intrusion. The wish of an author is to create the illusion of reality, to make the reader forget he or she is reading a story rather than living it. Therefore, an author tries to hide herself to make the story seem as natural as possible. Adjectives and other sorts of descriptions tend to remind the reader that somebody’s controlling his or her interest.”

“But can’t that scene be livened up another way,” Piper asks, “and still keep the action and characterization going?”

“Absolutely. You can even start in medias res.”

“OK, showoff, what are you blathering about now?” The bunched brows are back.

“Hey, once in a while I can use writers’ jargon. After all, I am an author.”

“You are? Could’ve fooled me,” she retorts with a flattening of her lips.

“I’m doing this as illustration.”

“Uh-huh.” Arms crossed, she gives me a narrow-eyed appraisal.

I return Piper’s look with a frown of my own. Really. “I mean, can’t you give me a little credit?”

“Sorry,” she replies although her smirk tells me she is anything but.

“Do you want me to tell you what in medias res means, or not?”

“If you must.” Piper sighs and slumps against the back of her chair.

“It means ‘in the middle of things.’ And that’s where you’re supposed to start a narrative so as to get the action going and the reader involved as quickly as possible.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re about as quick as a sloth. Starting in the middle of a scene? I mean, would anyone know what was happening?”

“You be the judge. Here’s another version of the same scene, but starting in the middle of it. Just listen to this . . .”

“Gail Adams,” she replied. “And yours?”
“Horace. I’ve been watching you for about an hour, and I finally couldn’t help approaching you. Forgive me.” Hands trembling, he set his coffee cup on the table before he dropped it and made an even bigger fool of himself. She was beautiful.

“Much better, Gloria!” Piper beamed at me. “See? I knew you were an author, and a rather decent one, at that.”
“Thank you,” I reply, abashed.