Carolyn O’Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013
It’s a three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Virginia Beach, unless you hit Navy traffic. Then it could take weeks. I was careful. I left C’Ville at noon on Thursday, Sept 19th so I wouldn’t get caught in the 5:00 rush. I wasn’t heading to Virginia Beach for a late summer tan or a fishing trip in the Atlantic. I was going to Virginia Beach to attend the Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference. It ran Thursday, Sept. 19th through Saturday, Sept. 21st. The organization describes itself like this:
Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) is a nonprofit, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based group of professional and aspiring writers, friends, and supporters of the arts who have joined together to promote the craft and passion of writing and the love of reading and literature in Virginia. We aim to encourage readers and writers of all ages and talents, as well as acknowledge and celebrate awareness of local and contemporary authors and their work. We serve as a resource to our community by creating and supporting literary events throughout the Hampton Roads area.
I signed up the minute I discovered I could pitch my novel to a real, live literary agent who represented my genre. Ten-minutes, one-on-one pitch session. I was excited to get on the road. I grew up in Norfolk so driving through Norfolk to Virginia Beach packed an emotional punch: The tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay, the condos thrown up as soon as Norfolk tore down the old Ocean View Amusement Park.
Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation
I drove by my old elementary school and my parents’ house. I noted the new front porch and a beat up pickup truck parked in the driveway. Mom and Dad never would have let their car look like that. I considered visiting their gravesites but this wasn’t the time to wallow in the past. This was the time to get ready for the future.
The Westin Hotel in Virginia Beach was a great choice for the Conference.
The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center
Clean and friendly, plus the Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) Conference attendees received a reduced rate. As I checked in, I was greeted by a familiar face, Cliff Garstang from SWAG. Cliff was preparing for his first presentation that evening. I don’t remember when or how I heard about the HRW Conference. Probably from Cliff.
Since I was going to the conference mostly to pitch my story, I had e-mailed HRW earlier asking about their refund policy. Lauran Strait, the President of HRW, was great. Her responses were timely and polite. She told me the formal refund policy:
Registration fully refundable until July 26, 2013; from July 27 to Aug 23, 2013 all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $25.00; from Aug 24 to Sept 11, all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $50.00; after September 11, no refunds will be issued.
I let her know that I was driving three hours to Virginia Beach from Charlottesville and had to book a hotel room for two nights. Lauran understood the effort and expense so she added a special caveat. If the agent I was going to see canceled at the last minute, I would still receive a full refund. Not only that, she also made sure I was on schedule with my submissions. I’d signed up for a couple of events that required submissions, including a “First Ten Lines Critique Session” and an optional (fee-based) 10-page manuscript evaluation by agent Dawn Dowdle. Lauran even sent e-mail reminders of when the submissions were due.
After settling into my hotel room, I went to register for the conference. I was given an impressive agenda:
Kevin Maurer, award-winning reporter and New York Times bestselling co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, and Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of the WAKE Trilogy , the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, will deliver keynote addresses. Other presenters included fiction writers Clifford Garstang, Lydia Netzer, Jeff Andrews, andChantelle Aimée Osman, author and Certified Public Accountant Jack Downs, poet Jeanne Larsen, and agents Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle.
I attended my first breakout session Thursday evening, 6:30 – 8:00 PM on the topic of PERFECTING YOUR PITCH, presented by Chantelle Aimée Osman, owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment..
Chantelle was exhausted. She’d just arrived in Virginia after a murderous flight from Arizona. After a couple sips of coffee, she began.
Start with your Teaser Pitch.
Give the genre and 2-3 sentences that provide the agent with the basic idea of your novel. Avoid generic statements. Chantelle used the Wizard of Oz to illustrate a Teaser Pitch:
After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
Next, give the agent your Expanded Pitch.
Tell the story in an organized fashion. Add details, avoid backstory. Highlight heroes, goals, conflict, risk, pivotal elements, turning points, and the end.
Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. Through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland. There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home. So she sets off on a dangerous journey. Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion. And they travel with her. However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends … (Oz pitches courtesy of Christopher Lockhart.)
Chantelle leaned in close and looked us in the eyes.
“Pitches sell you, not just your writing.”
- If you don’t appear passionate and excited about your own work, no one else will be. You’re starting a business relationship, so be professionals. Dress appropriately (generally just slightly more casual than the person you’re pitching). Be respectful, appear open to ideas and suggestions. Be flexible. The person you’re pitching to has more experience in the industry, and can help.
- Practice, but don’t sound rehearsed. Comedy pitches should be funny, thriller pitches should have suspense. Switch up words each time to be spontaneous. Be specific, avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Watch your audience; if they appear bored, change tactic. Be prepared to start and stop for questions or other interruptions. If you fumble, recover. Provide verbal milestones to orient the listener (“at the midpoint” or “in the final scene”.)
- Avoid overselling, comparisons, describing every side plot and each character’s backstory, disagreeing.
- Make sure you have a professional synopsis and other information to leave behind ask ab out how to follow up.
- When e-mailing the agent, be sure to put where you met in the subject line. For example, ‘Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013.’”
Rules of Synopsis:
A literary synopsis is a condensed statement that conveys the narrative arc of your manuscript. A synopsis shows major characters and events, from beginning to end.
- Begin at the beginning, end at the end.
- Break it down into 12 beats. Act 1 (3 segments), Act 2 (6 segments), Act 3 (3 segments)
- Highlight on main characters
- Use attention getting/action words. This is not just a recitation of facts.
- Use 3rd person, present tense
- Tell entire story, avoid cliffhangers.
- Have synopsis read by people who haven’t read book and don’t know story. Can they understand plot and main characters?
- Use normal font, e.g. Times New Roman. Nothing unusual.
That was day one. Watch for future blog posts to learn about day two’s agenda events, how I pitched my novel, and what I learned from the conference.