Tips on pitching at the ACFW Conference

It’s conference time!

I’ll never forget the first ACFW conference I attended. About 100 of us met in Kansas City for the first ACFW event, and it felt like a family reunion. I met my editor for the first time (I’d sold a book while living overseas) and…I pitched a series.

Which I sold—with Susan Downs: The Heirs of Anton. (Get the first book FREE here!)

I was scared to death. I sat down opposite the editor and she, very kind but also business-like, said, “What do you have for me?”

Open mouth. Wait. Is there anything in there? I think I fumbled out my first line, something lame like, “I have a Russian suspense series I think you’ll like.”

Great pitch, Suz.

And then I realized . . . I love this series idea. I believed in my story. And I knew it could be a hit.

So I leaned in and said, “What if the stories of Anastasia were true . . . only they were about the wrong sister?”

I got a raised eyebrow. A subtle invitation for more. That’s all I needed to build her the premise, the storyworld and the potential for the series. My enthusiasm overrode my fears and I dove into telling the story.

I got a contract three weeks later.

This past week during our MBT Premium Members Peptalk, we talked about how to pitch a novel. (If you’re a Premium Member, I encourage you to hope over to the My Stuff page and watch the replay!).  For those who haven’t taken that advanced writer’s step, I wanted to offer some advice on how to pitch.

Let’s go back to that moment, when the agent or editor says: So what do you have for me?

Don’t panic. If you’ve done your homework and created a dramatic, ironic pitch, then lean close, look them in the eye and deliver it.

Now what? If the agent says nothing, or gives you the eyebrow, or even just nods, then . . . It’s time for the Premise—that longer blurb that drives in the hook.

What’s the difference between a premise and a pitch? Length . . . and depth.

A pitch hooks them with dramatic irony.

A premise feeds their interest. It’s simply a 2-5 sentence blurb of your story. You’re still pitching, but now you’re zeroing in on the most important elements of your book – the stakes, the fears, the dreams, the theme and plot, and the main players.

In other works, the premise follows up the pitch and boils down the most important aspects of your story, the biggest interest catcher, into a short paragraph.


Here’s the pitch from my newest book, The Wonder of You

The Pitch: Who would you chose–the hometown hero or the exotic prince?

Here’s the follow up premise:

The Premise: Wanna-be world photographer Amelia Christiansen returns home from her semester abroad with a broken heart, into the arms of her high school sweetheart. But when the man who hurt her shows up in Deep Haven asking for a second chance, she finds her heart divided . . . who should she chose – the safety of home, or a what could be her greatest adventure?


Here’s the one from Ever in My Heart:

The Pitch: He’s charged with protecting a lowly servant girl from the house of the Russian Czar . . . but what if she’s not a servant? What if she’s really the princess?

The Premise: Royal daughter Oksana can’t believe her father entrusted her life to a lowly peasant. Peace-loving Mennonite merchant Anton Klassen is paralyzed by his charge – especially when he falls in love with her. Can two people from different lives find a way to protect Russia’s most valuable secret?


Again, the Premise is softer, and is the follow up to the Pitch. And hopefully, it eases your stress enough to let the storytelling take over.


Can you guess these?

He bets he can win her heart. She bets she can break his. Who is going to win?

She just wants to prove that she can be a Pulitzer-prize winning writer. He wants to be at the top executive at his ad agency. But when two high achievers are thrown together to achieve their own goals, they just might discover that falling in love is the greatest prize of all.


She’s going to marry a king . . . until her true love returns from the dead. What will win – power or love?

She gave up on her future, believing her true love dead, and agreed to marry a king. But when her fiancé returns, ready to fight for her, can she believe in love, even when it seems the past has repeated itself? And will he be a man of his word – even beyond the grave?


He believes Russia is about start a world war, but if he’s wrong . . .well, he might just might start a war.

He believes he can prevent war with his information about a Soviet secret. But what if he’s wrong? What if, in fact, he instead pulls the trigger on World War Three? Just how far will one man’s beliefs take him . . .and the rest of the world?


So keep a Pitch short – about 50 words, then follow up with your Premise.


My final piece of advice?

Be Yourself. No one loves your story like you do, and your job is to make them see the potential. Make them love it by wooing them into the story. You’re a storyteller after all, aren’t you?


Need more help! Stop by our booth at ACFW!  We’d love to help you hone those pitches!

See you in Dallas!







PS–need more help?  Check out best-selling author James L. Rubart’s awesome How to Pitch and Sell your novel video in our MBT Store!  On sale this week 1/2 off!!




The What and Why of Writing: Story Irony

Susie May Warren, the founder of My Book Therapy (MBT), hosted the first online MBT Pitch and Promotion seminar on August 23. The seminar was an opportunity to connect with writers and help them polish their story pitches. Coaches and attendees talked about elements that help us craft a strong pitch, including characters and stakes.

Attendees were also told to look for the Story Irony as a potential component to construct a strong pitch. Writers also talk about Dramatic Irony, so I’m clarifying the difference between Story Irony and Dramatic Irony and then explaining how you use Story Irony when you’re crafting a pitch


Dramatic Irony is when the movie audience or the readers of a book know more than the main character(s) of a movie or a book.


  • *SPOILER ALERT* In the movie Return to Me, the audience knows that Grace has Bob’s dead wife’s heart. Grace and Bob don’t discover this until later in the movie – but we all know it almost from the beginning!
  • In O. Henry’s story The Gift of the Magi, the readers know that Jim and Della have both sacrificed their most precious possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts.

Story Irony (or Situational Irony) is when an incongruous situation creates tension in the story for one of your main characters. Think of a situation that is somehow unsuitable or inharmonious or absurd.


  • In the movie Hook, Robin Williams is a grown-up Peter Pan who has forgotten he is Peter Pan. Yes, other people know it – but the fact that they know his identity is not a secret. And the fact that other people know is not pivotal to the story.
  • In Rachel Hauck’s novel Dining with Joy, her heroine is a cooking show host who can’t cook. This bizarre situation creates all sorts of tension for Joy. And yes, it’s a secret for some people – but it’s not a secret kept from Joy.
  • In my novel Somebody Like You, my heroine didn’t know that her husband had an identical twin brother—a mirror twin—until after her husband dies. This secret is revealed very early on in the book and creates lots and lots of tension for Haley.


Dramatic Irony is a plot element used to create tension within your story. You ask: Do I want my readers to know something that my main character(s) don’t know? Story Irony, or Situational Irony, is something you look for when you are preparing to pitch your story to an agent or an editor at a writers conference. The question you ask is: Is there some crazy, absurd, clashing, or ironic situation in my story that I can highlight in my pitch to grab someone’s attention?


Here’s how I used Story Irony to pitch Somebody Like You to my editors: Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection?

Notice I didn’t state the Story Irony straight up. I worded it in such a way to create curiosity, to invite a question.

As you prepare to pitch, have you considered the Story Irony for your manuscript?

[Tweet “The What and Why of Writing: Story Irony #amwriting @bethvogt”]


Are you ready to Pitch your novel? A 7 question LITMUS test!

Are you ready to pitch your story?

With the ACFW Conference just a month away, many authors are polishing their pitches, proposals and pitch sheets. But…are they truly ready to pitch?  The fact is, you only get one shot to pitch your story to a particular editor/agent.

Here’s a quick litmus test to see if you’re ready to pitch your novel:

1. Is your novel finished?  First time novelists should have their novel completed before they pitch for two reasons.

  • It tells the editor/agent that YES, you can finish a novel.  And then, when you pitch an entire series of 3 novels, they have the confidence you can fnished #2 and #3.
  • It helps you understand the true external pitch of your story (and the internal storyquestion). Sometimes it takes the finished novel to take a good look at your story and understand the sellabe elements.
  • It allows you to send the novel off immediately to an editor/agent should they ask to see more (yay!)

2. Have you done your research to know with which publishing house your novel is a good fit?  Houses like to publish books similiar (but not the same) to novels they’ve had success with before.  Don’t try to sell your dystopian suspense to a house that only publishes Amish romances.  Know what other books they have published that are similar to yours, and know how yours are different, also. But you need to have some answer as to why your book would be a good fit in that publishing house. An agent might even ask you where you see this book being published. Do your homework and give them an informed answer.

3.  Do you know what is at STAKE in your story? Why does your story, your character’s external and internal journey matter?  Understanding this is essential for crafting the PITCH, the PREMISE and the Story Question.

4. have an external PITCH for your story?  This takes a bit of creativity, but you should have something you can easily rattle off in an elevator, in the food line, or when you sit down at the table.  In one quick sentence…what is your story ABOUT?

5.  Do you know the PREMISE of your story? This is a bit longer, and the follow up to your novel.  It gives the bigger picture, stirs the interest of the editor/agent and gives them a better picture of the marketing angle to your story.

6. What is the reader takeaway?  This can often be found in the Story Question – the internal journey of your character.  We’re not crafting message-driven novels, but we do want to ask big questions that work well for reader groups.  If you don’t know the Story Question of your novel, you’ll want to dig deep and ask: What is the answer your character is seeking? What do they learn at the end?  Or, what is the controversial topic in the story? (controversy sells novels!)

7. Do you have a PITCH SHEET?  This is a one-page overview of your story.  It contains your bio, your pitch, your premise, your storyquestion and contact information.  And, it should look professional – you might even want to hook up with someone like Matt Jones with to help you craft it.

Now…how do you pitch successfully?  Here’s a sample scenario:

Then, if you are in a pitching appointment, go in, shake their hand, introduce yourself, smile and hand them your one sheet.

They’ll probably look at it and say “how are you today?” or something to break the ice. Go ahead and make friends briefly, and then segue into your pitch.

“I’m great, Mr. Anderson. I enjoyed your class, Writing the Bestseller. Intriguing. I’ve written a contemporary romance that I hope fits your best-seller category….A story about a talk show host to the lovelorn who has never had a date. Why? Because she is waiting for the perfect man. But when he moves in next door, will she recognize him? It’s set in small town Minnesota and is a story about being trapped by our fears and perfect love setting us free.”

“Interesting. Why hasn’t she had a date?”

“Good question – She’s agoraphobic – trapped in her house after she survived a tragic car accident that killed her mother.  She’s tried to escape through her a national talk show – broadcast from her home. But no one knows her true identity, including the new football coach who’s moved in next door – someone who drives her crazy. See, he’s got his own scars and secrets after being wounded in Iraq, and he’s hiding something too. When he starts calling the show, in need of help to befriend the neighbor, they begin to fall for each other online without realizing they are neighbors. But will their love last when they discover the truth? And what will their secrets cost them?”

“Interesting. Why would this make a sellable story?”

“Think You’ve Got Mail, set in small town America with a little of Friday Night Lights thrown in. It’s something I could see trade size at Tyndale or Waterbrook Multnomah.”

Now, here’s where they’ll pause. They might ask you more questions. They might ask how long you’ve been writing. Or if this is a stand-alone or part of three part series. They might ask you where you got your idea. They might offer ideas to tweak it. They might ask to have you send them a proposal.

Sometimes they might even say…”How can I help you with this?” Obviously, we WISH they’d say, “Hey I love this,” and pull out a contract right there. Not gonna happen. It’s wise to arm yourself with some sort of feedback question for that situation.

Be armed with an answer, something that allows them to give you real, usable feedback: “How can I make the story more compelling?” “How could I tweak this to make it more sellable?”

The key is to use this time to talk about your story. There is nothing worse for an agent/editor than to have an author pitch their story, then sit back and smile, and make the agent/editor fill in the blank space. You have fifteen minutes to communicate your vision for this book – use it!

And here’s a hint – don’t memorize your premise word by word. It feels canned. Let the story come out on its own, with enthusiasm. You know your story – just tell it.

If they ask for a sample proposal, then thank them, take their card and follow up in a week with the proposal package. For sure, regardless of their feedback, send them a thank you note for their time (email will be fine).

I talked to a couple agent buddies of mine about pitching recently. Here’s what they said:

Steve Laube (and you should read his blog on pitching!) said: “On the one hand is the person who tries to tell their entire novel with excruciating detail. That is either a case of nerves or a case of failing to practice ahead of time.

On the other hand is the person who is so precise that they sit down, smile, and hit me with their 25 word blurb. Then they close their mouth and expectantly wait for my reaction. As if that is considered a conversation!  That “interview” lasted for all of two minutes at that point…. and the silence is rather awkward.

The key is a strong balance between being over eager and talkative and the sterile precision of a practiced speaker. Remember, this is a conversation. I am not only listening to your pitch, I’m also listening to you. I am meeting you.”

Chip MacGregor had a great thought: “The one thing I wish they’d do is to have an experienced editor look it over BEFORE they pitch me. The majority of projects I see at conferences aren’t ready to show yet, and a good editor (even an edit by an experienced writer friend) would help most projects immensely.”

So…come prepared, polished, professional…and then woo them with your story.

Go! Write something BRILLIANT!

Susie May


PS – can I offer a suggestion?  My Book Therapy is offering their Pitch and Promotion seminar ONLINE and OFFLINE this year.  ONLINE this weekend – Saturday, August 23rd, 9-NOON.  Attend the webinar, get personal help and walk away with the tools you need to prepare your pitch, proposal and PITCH sheet.

Then, join us at ACFW Thursday, September 25th, 2-2:24 pm to PRACTICE your pitch and get the last-minute encouragement you need from your coach.  It’s time for you to get published…and stay published.  Check out the seminar HERE! 

Extreme Book Makeover: Help! Why would someone pick up my story?

Make your reader care with the Story Question!

Why should someone pick up your story and read it – all the way to the end?  We talked the last two weeks about having Story Stakes – or a reason your character should care about your story by giving your character something to lose.  Last week we dissected the difference between High Concept and Low Concept stories (and how tell the difference), noting that High Concept stories are driven by high public & personal stakes, whereas Low Concept stories are fueled by the characters’ inner journeys, or the private stakes.

This week, we’re going to add another potent ingredient to the mix…the fuel for the inner journey of your character, the Story Question.

The Story Question is that question your character is asking as the book opens, ignited by the inciting incident and lingering in their mind throughout the second Act of the story.  All the tidbits of truth your character discovers along the way contribute to the answer they discover at the Aha! Moment of the story, or the epiphany. 

Consider one of the classics – Casablanca.  Rick is a broken-hearted soul who can’t forgive the woman he loves for abandoning him.  He’s become apathetic and refuses to get involved in the lives of those who come to his bar.  Then, one day, his lost love, Elsa walks into gin joint and suddenly…the inner journey ignites. Yes, the external plot drives the story – but it works in tandem with the internal journey.

What is that internal journey?  The road to forgiveness, and even true love.

The story question – Can Rick love again? And, if he does, will it change him into a better man? 

Obviously, this question is at the heart of countless stories through the ages.  One of my favorites is The Count of Monte Cristo.  A man, wrongfully imprisoned, vows revenge on the man who stole his life.  The external journey is his quest to enact revenge.  However, his inner journey is about forgiveness.  The story question – Can a man so wrongly aggrieved, forgive? And could it finally set him free?

The external plot only causes the character to grapple with the big question of the storyOne might say that the entire purpose of the external plot is only to cause the hero to confront the big story question and find an answer, with the hope that because of it, he changes and becomes a better man.

Frankly, isn’t that what life is about?

It’s this inner quest for the answer that drives the inner journey – and thus, becomes the fuel for every external decision your character makes.

So, how do you find the Story Question that will fuel your story? 

First – take a look at your theme.  Love?  Redemption?  Forgiveness?

Then ask – What are you saying about it?  You can love again?  Denying love only makes you bitter?  Unforgiveness is a prison?

Now – turn it into a question that relates to the character.

  • Can Rick learn to love again, and will it free him to become the hero inside?
  • Can the Count of Monte Cristo choose forgiveness over revenge…and if he does, will it finally set him free?

Now, instead of using “Can…” to begin your sentence, try – What if…

  • What if a man, broken by love, has to rescue the woman who destroyed him?
  • What if a man has to forgive the man who stole his life in order to find it again?

Suddenly, you have a story question that you can use for two things…

First:  It gives your story direction and helps you start the story with the character already wounded, already searching.

Recently, I started watching a new series – Torchwood.  Being a Whovian, I’ve always wanted to dive into this spin-off, so I found it on BBC and began to TiVo it.  However, I clearly started in the middle and the first episode I caught focused on Owen, one of the team, clearly broken hearted and tortured over the loss of someone he loved.

As the story opened, we saw him in a bar, picking a fight.  Then, he volunteered for a suicide assignment…only to end up nearly sacrificing his life.  Worse – he’s angry that his teammates saved him.


If I were writing Owen’s story, I might start the book with this run of events (although shortened), and the rest of the book would be his quest to make peace with himself, find love again and become the hero he is supposed to be.

His Story Question might be (and don’t tell me what happens!) –

  • After losing someone you love, is it possible to be whole again?


  • What if a man lost the one thing he loved and thought his life was over…how could he return to life – and love?

Obviously, the external plot offers plenty of opportunity to explore these questions, and I might make his epiphany be a moment where he truly has to choose between loving again…or dying.  (We’ll see!)

The key is, the Story Question helps set up the home world and beginning sequence of the story.  Then, it fuels all his decisions and creates truthlets…and situations in Act 2 that challenge or offer insight to that question.

But finding the Story Question also assists in…marketing!

See, after you deliver your pitch – focusing on your external story stakes, it’s time to tell the “real” story.  Aka – the Story Question.

Returning to the loose Torchwood example….your pitch might be:

When aliens invade the planet, only one man can save earth. (now, clearly, that is not in that episode…but it could be part of the longer running series).

(And, I acknowledge that is the premise of nearly every episode of Torchwood…or Dr. Who for that matter).

However, to add in the layer of the inner journey, weave in the Story Question:  Our hero, however, isn’t interested in saving the world – not after losing the woman he loves. Will he learn to love again – and is it in time to save humanity?

Stakes will sell you book, and ignite the journey.  It will keep your reader glued long enough to love your character.  But’s It’s this inner question that will keep your reader turning pages all the way to the end.  (Because, frankly, they want to know the answer too!)

Extreme Book Makeover Exercise:  Do you have a Story Question for your novel?  Remember – what is your theme?  What are you saying about it?  Ask a Can…or a What if question personal to your character. 


Other articles that might help: 

High Concept vs. Low Concept Stories:

Creating Story Stakes:


Next week we’ll start breaking apart the pieces of a Tired Plot into Acts (Act 1-2-3) and we’ll take a close look at Act 1, and how to HOOK your reader from the first page!

Go – write something brilliant!

smw sig without background


PS – Don’t forget to check out the Frasier Contest to get great feedback on your first scene and story idea!

PPS – want to continue the conversation?  Join our FREE Voices Community.