I had a great time Friday and Saturday at the Willamette Writers Conference where I volunteered in the free services area. I was part of the Practice-Your-Pitch team and I also did Manuscript ER. People would come in and sit down and we'd spend 15-20 minutes going over the pitch they were going to give to an agent in hopes that the agent would like it and represent them.
I pitched the last two years in a row, the first year unsuccessfully, the second year I got my agent. So I was able to share my experience in a very direct way. Most of the pitches that came to me were a recitation of the story, a synopsis in effect. They often included a lot of extraneous details, a lot of back story, a lot of history. These writers were in essence trying to sell their story. But agents are wanting to represent books that will sell and sell big and the story is only a part of that.
Here's an example. Helen came with a story of the second wave of Oregon pioneers and she launched into a recitation of the story and why the characters moved west and what their problems were. After we talked a bit about what made her book special, she came up with some ideas that would improve her pitch: The book is about commuter marriages in the 1890s (men who work in the city and their wives who are alone on the farm, a day's train ride away); it's about women who have no choices (a child every year for 9 years, the closest female to help in an emergency a half-mile walk away). The husband has an affair with a woman in town. The book has two points of view, two sympathetic characters, the husband and the wife.
Agents are wanting to know what's new about your book, what's distinctive, what's fresh, what's original. I sent Helen off to rewrite her pitch to include some of these intrigues and innovations. I hope she lets me know what happens!