Pointers from the Pros: Chuck Sambuchino Talks Pitching Agents in Person

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.*

I attended the 38th annual Society of Southwestern Authors’ Wrangling with Writing conference in Tuscon, Ariz., in September.  Although I couldn’t go to all the faboo sessions being offered, I took a ton of notes at those I was lucky enough to attend—and I’m sharing some of those tips with my lovely blog readers. (Thanks for being so fabulous, BTW!)

Here is what Guide to Literary Agents editor and Class-1 Gnome-Slayer Chuck Sambuchino had to say in “Pitching Agents in Person”:


  • Essentially, you’re reading your query letter out loud—except you’re not actually reading it. Have it memorized.
  • You should be done in 60 sec. Generally, this gives them time to ask questions, etc.
  • You pitch can be anywhere from 3-10 sentences.
  • A pitch is NOT a synopsis.  He points to the backs of DVD boxes, Netflix descriptions, and book jacket flap covers as examples of short pitches yours should emulate.


  • Introduce yourself and state any connections you might have to the agent right away.
  • It’s not like a query letter pitch, where they can read things again if it’s confusing, so be as clear as possible.
  • Give the logline first (a one-sentence description of your manuscript so they understand what it is right away) Then, you can go into the details.
  • State the genre, word count—especially if it’s appropriate to your genre—the title, and that it’s complete.
  • Start with your main character. He says sometimes there is a tendency for writers (especially in sci-fi/fantasy—really, anything with a lot of worldbuilding in it) to begin with setting, but he urges you to start with the main character (MC) and get to the inciting incident.  This propels your book forward—gives the conflict. What goes wrong? Every story is about something going wrong, he says.
  • Show the arc of the character in the pitch—we need to see the character changing.
  • Introduce the antagonist as well.  Show how the MC and antag clash.
  • If you are unsure of your genre, just take a stab at it. Sometimes agents will see your book in a different genre than you anyway.
  • Make sure the agent you’re pitching reps the kind of project you are pitching.
  • After the pitch, then get to the bio stuff—organizations you are part of, previous publications, awards, etc.  If you’ve ever been paid to write, say it—if you don’t have any previous publications, just don’t say anything about that.  They should be interested enough in your book without that stuff (the bio stuff), so don’t stress if you don’t have it.  The important thing is to mention whatever you have done quickly and humbly.
  • Memorize your pitch, but make it more conversational.  Agents are people.  It’s awkward if you just read something or rattle off something you’ve memorized.
  • Pitch them one project.


  • Don’t give away the ending.  A pitch is designed to pique interest.  The agent *could* ask for the ending, after your pitch, but don’t offer it unless they’ve asked.
  • Don’t say it’s a series unless they ask.
  • Don’t be general (“highs and lows”—“twists and turns”—“circumstances out of their control”—“sequence of events”).  Give them something specific and concrete. (In his book, Save the Cat, the late screenwriter Blake Snyder talks about the “promise of the premise”when you say what the story is about, scenes pop into the audience’s head—you guess what will happen.  Chuck says, make your pitch delivers on these things.)
  • Don’t talk about your themes.  These should shine through. (Show vs. tell)
  • Don’t hand the agent anything.
  • Don’t spend time on names & quirks of secondary characters.  You don’t want to bog them down with details.
  • Don’t sing it!
  • Don’t mention movie adaptations—that it’s going to be a mega hit, NYT bestseller, etc.


  • These tend to be dry—they’re not designed to be entertaining.  So, talk about what makes the book unique or memorable.
  • You HAVE to have platform here. Who are you? What have you done? Why are you the person to write this book? Are you an expert in the field? A speaker? Do you have leadership roles with something connected to the subject matter? Previous publications?
  • When pitching memoir, try not to focus on the sad details too much.  Show how it can transcend to more than just people with that experience only.  Show it’s a story about X,  but it’s more than that. It can reach more of an audience.


Q: Should you say it’s similar to a bestseller?

A: It’s tricky. If you do, avoid all the clichés—(Harry Potter, Twilight, The DaVinci Code, Eat Pray Love).  It’s probably better to say it’s X meets Y.  However, this can come off as kind of egotistical as well, depending on what you’re comparing it to.

Q: Should you pitch a short story collection?

A: Generally, no.  If you have those, you’re better off networking with them at conference—getting your face in their memory for when you query them with it later.  While we’re at it, don’t pitch articles or poetry collections in-person either.

Q: What tense should the query be in?

A: Third-person, present tense for the pitch sentences.

Visit Chuck at the GLA blog or follow him on Twitter.

*Click here for more “Pointers from the Pros.”

Plot vs. Situation & the Dramaticus Arcasaurus


Whenever you talk to writers, at some point, the conversation inevitably steers itself to: “What’s your manuscript about?”

And then one hears about the misunderstood girl who is in love with a zombie-werewolf hybrid, the guy who can’t wait to get married, the couple who loses their home, etc.

And then I wanna go: “Yeah . . . but what’s the plot?” Because all those things are concepts.  Situations.


Not this one, thank God.


Let me say that again, now that you’re done looking at the Situation: 

Those are situations—not plots.


By plot, I mean the main thread the MC (main character) has to follow.  The quest.  There must be a conflictAnd if you don’t have these things, you don’t have a plot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been doing a lot of critiquing/editing as well as trying to finish my WIP (work in progress), and it’s come up.

Yes, Harry Potter is about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and the trials and tribulations that go along with that. Self-discovery, blah blah blah. However, while that factors in to the plot, that alone is not enough to sustain a novel.  There must be some sort of journey the character has to go on.

J.K. Rowling is nice to us in that way, because if you’re looking for the “plot” of each of her books, she gives you a hint in the title.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Point is, each book has its own plot.  And while Harry’s situation—the fact that he’s a wizard and “the boy who lived” and all that—helps him through the plot, it is but a small factor.

Here’s a blog post wherein I did a complete breakdown of the arc of the first Harry Potter book.

Bottom line: Each book must follow its own dramatic arc.  And if you can’t figure it out, then there’s probably no plot—or it’s not strong enough.


Here is what my whiteboard looks like at the moment:


You're just looking at the purple line - don't worry!


Scared yet?  (You: That’s the most jacked-up dramatic arc I’ve ever seen!)

You may have noticed my ‘roided-up dramatic arc* has a few extra humps.  What I’ve done here is take the regular dramatic arc (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and mesh it with Blake Snyder’s 15 beats of the three-act structure of every successful story** (opening image, setup, theme, catalyst, debate, break into II, B-story, fun & games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into III, finale, and final image).

Snyder’s structure follows the regular dramatic arc, but it does a more thorough job of establishing what author David L. Robbins would call “bases” by breaking things down even further.


Aww---little baby Harry!


For example, while Snyder’s “opening image” and “setup” fit nicely where “exposition” sits on the dramatic arc everyone learns in fifth grade Language Arts, I wouldn’t necessarily say Snyder’s “catalyst” is the same as the “conflict.”

To me, the “catalyst” or “inciting incident” (or whatever you want to call it) is the thing that sparks some change in the main MC’s life.  [Harry P. gets the owl post/learns he’s a wizard]

But that’s *not* really the same thing as the “conflict” of the story, which is the actual thing that sets the plot in motion. Here is what I wrote for “conflict” in the HP#1 plot breakdown post I linked to above:


  • They learn of the attempted robbery of the Sorceror’s Stone from Gringotts Bank
  • This incites talk of why someone would want to steal it (because it has the power to give a wizard what he wants most) as well as who might want to steal it (He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. Voldemort)
  • Harry learns from Ron and Hermione that people say Voldemort is planning to return to power

And I would agree (it’s always nice when I agree with myself!) now.  The “plot” of HP1 has to do with finding the Sorcerer’s Stone—and, actually, that also helps the overarching plot of the entire series, which is defeating Voldemort. The “conflict” is, the stone is missing, yo—and it’s up to Harry & his posse to find out who has it and get it back.

NOW . . .

I’m not trying to say that writing a book is as mechanical as following a formula—of course it’s not.  Your characters always surprise you, and you always change things.  But if you take a look at these things—study them a bit and apply the concepts to your own WIPs—you’ll have an easier go of the initial planning and writing of your book if you figure out the bare bones of your story and they follow the arc.

It will help you with pitching and querying too, because agents and editors want to know the situation AND the plot . . .


. . . and probably not Snooki at all.


*Click here for a brushup on dramatic arcs.

**Click here for more about Snyder’s 15 beats.

***I’m not saying plot yourself silly.  I am with David L. Robbins and his “baseball writing” on that one.  But if you’ve got all these ingredients *before* you write, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tight plot and a satisfying story.

Knowing Your Process is Half the Battle

I’ve been answering some neglected e-mails today, and in one, I described my current mood by using the following video.  It’s from Forgetting Sarah Marshall; YES, I used it in my last 15 Beats post; and, YES, he swears twice (get over it):

But I think we all feel like this at one point or another—especially writers (<— probably more often than normal people)—where everything you’re doing feels like it’s pointless or for naught or just plain horrible and what were you thinking,  subjecting yourself to this??

So, what do you do when you’re feeling like that?  How do you get out of it?

Part of what helps me is that I’ve come to a point where I know it’s part of my process. And I know it’s something everyone feels at one time or another.

Maybe you’re going, “I never feel that way.  I always know I’m awesome.”  (If you are saying that, I have two words for you—and I’m not going to post them here.)

True, knowing there are going to be hours/days/weeks I’m going to feel like a hack doesn’t make me feel better instantly when I’m in that state, but I think it’s important to get to the point where you can acknowledge that it’s just a phase.  Then, you can being to look yourself objectively and get over it faster.

For instance, I notice I tend to feel this way when I’m close to something: an epiphany—a creative burst—a panic attack?  (<—Naw, I’ve only had one of those.)

My point?  I dunno—go back to the aforementioned video!

But I’d be willing to bet this happens to others when they at the precipice of awesomeness (<—hopefully) as well.  The late, great Blake Snyder might call this the “Dark Night of the Soul” beat, were your writing life a screenplay.

The question is, what makes you “Break into Three”(Act III)?

Since the rest of this post was probably very rambling and depressing, I’ll leave you with a ray of sucky sunshine from YA author Maureen Johnson:

15 Beats: Dissecting a Holiday Classic the Blake Snyder Way

When I began editing my manuscript, a friend of mine put me in touch with Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, SAVE THE CAT: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need.  In it, Snyder details the 15 beats of the three-act structure essential to any successful plot.

Since reading the book, it’s been difficult for me not to analyze every movie I see or book I read in terms of this structure, and I now “beat out” all my plots to make sure my stories are going somewhere.

Being that it’s Christmas week, being that I saw some of my former students over the weekend, and being that I just watched what—IMHO—is the greatest movie of all time, I thought I’d nerd it up a bit and beat out Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.  And I do believe this may become somewhat of a regular feature, here on the blog.


Opening Image

The movie opens with a view of a snowy Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve and the voiceovers of many people asking for prayers for the movie’s hero, George Bailey.  Two angels discuss the fact that they’re going to need to send someone down to keep George from throwing away “God’s greatest gift”—life—and they call upon George’s guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, who hasn’t yet earned his wings.

Theme Stated

The theme occurs when George discusses his future with his father.  Peter Bailey wants George to take stay on at the Bailey Building and Loan (the family business), and George wants to go to college—go exploring—travel—build things—do something important.

The theme is stated when Peter Bailey says of their business of loaning families the money to build homes: “I feel like, in a small way, we’re doing something important.”

George doesn’t quite agree or understand this at the moment, and his journey to discovering it is what the movie is about.


The angels watch George grow up from a boy and Clarence learns what kind of person he is:

  • George saves his brother Harry from falling through the ice on a frozen lake when they are young
  • He discusses his exploring aspirations with Mary Hatch (who loves him, even as a little girl) at his job in the drug store
  • He realizes the druggist, Mr. Gower, has accidentally mixed poison into a medicine delivery because he is upset and drunk over the death of his son
  • George intercepts the delivery and doesn’t ever tell on his boss
  • The evil Mr. Potter makes trouble for the Baileys because he controls everything in town but the Building and Loan
  • George grows up and meets Mary again as a young woman at Harry’s high school graduation

"I want a big one!" (He's talking about a suitcase, pervs.)


After the graduation, his father suffers a stroke and subsequently dies, so George postpones college to sort out things with the Bailey Building and Loan.  He is about to leave for school when the board of directors say that they will only keep the institution alive if George stays on to run things.

“They’ll sign with Potter otherwise.”


George gives his college money to his brother Harry and holds down the fort in Bedford Falls.  The deal is, Harry is supposed to come back from college and take over so George can finally live his life, but the younger Bailey boy comes back with a wife—and a job offer from her father.

George’s mother suggests he visit Mary Hatch—that she has all the answers for him.  He procrastinates for a bit and is gruff when he finally goes to see her because settling down with Mary means staying in Bedford Falls and never getting to fulfill his dreams.

“Now, you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married—ever—to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re… and you’re…”

Break into Two

“Oh, Mary, Mary…”

George succumbs to his love for Mary as they both talk on the same phone to his childhood friend and Mary’s sort-of boyfriend, Sam Wainwright, who is successful and living in New York and has offered George a job.

B Story

This is the love story between George and Mary and the kind of life they lead. George’s brother Harry and his friend Sam have success, but he loves Mary and the two of them build a quaint little life in Bedford Falls.

"Aaaaaand dance by the light of the moon!"

Fun and Games

This is the rapid sequence of events that shows the years going by:

  • George’s Building and Loan and Potter’s everything else are the only survivors during the Depression
  • George and Mary have four kids
  • World Wars I & II happen, and the Baileys keep afloat
  • George establishes Bailey Park, where the houses they build can safely exist, untouched by Potter


Within Act II, George and Mary get married.  They’re about to embark on their honeymoon—on a trip to Europe and many of the countries to which George has always wanted to go.

“We’re going to shoot the works! A whole week in New York, then Bermuda. The highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the richest caviar, the hottest music, and the prettiest wife!”

Bad Guys Close In

On the way to their honeymoon, they notice a commotion outside the bank, and George discovers a bank run.  Potter takes over the bank, and Mary helps George save the Building and Loan by using their honeymoon money to tide over their shareholders until the bank reopens.

As well, after the war, when George has proven himself a threat to Potter because his is the only business in town the old man can’t control, Potter offers him a job.  For a second, George considers the generous salary Potter has offered him and what it will do for his family, but when they shake hands, George realizes this is a deal with the devil, and refuses—and thus makes an even worse enemy of the powerful man.

(To Potter) "In the vast configuration of things, I'd say you're nothing but a scurvy little spider!" (To Potter's assistant) "And that goes for YOU, too!"

All Is Lost

On Christmas Eve, George’s business partner, his uncle Billy, misplaces an $8000 Building and Loan deposit—he accidentally folds it into a newspaper, bearing the headline about Harry Bailey winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, that he waved under Potter’s nose.  Potter realizes Uncle Billy’s error, but instead of returning the money, he keeps it.

When Uncle Billy tells George he lost the money, they retrace his steps—only to find nothing.

“One of us is going to jail—well, it’s not gonna be me!”

George returns home and snaps at Mary and the kids.  He kicks over a table with a model bridge on it—a reminder of his forgotten dreams of traveling and building things—and he realizes he has hit rock bottom when he turns to his stunned family.

"Happy new year to you---in jail!"

Dark Night of the Soul

Realizing there is no alternative to replacing the money, George goes to Potter and grovels, offering him a $15,000 life insurance policy with $500 equity in it, but Potter mocks him.

“You’re worth more dead than alive.”

George goes to Martini’s bar. When the husband of his daughter’s teacher (whom George berated on the phone) slugs him in the jaw, George leaves the bar and contemplates suicide on a snowy bridge.

His guardian angel, Clarence, appears and takes George on a reverse Christmas Carol journey, showing him how much worse off his friends and family would have been had George never been born.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Apparently, George never being born means Mary's eyes go bad.

Break into Three

George discovers Mary is an old maid, and practically the whole town chases him away from her—Bert the cop even shoots at him—and George flees back to his spot on the bridge to find Clarence.

“I want to live again!”


Clarence reverses the spell and George, ecstatic to be alive—no matter what the state of his affairs—runs through the streets.

“Merry Christmas, Emporium!  Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

Final Image

Mary has enlisted the town’s help for her husband, and everyone comes to their aid, donating money to the man who has touched all their lives.

George discovers the edition of Tom Sawyer Clarence left for him, in which the angel has scrawled:

Dear George,

Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!



George’s brother Harry arrives, and offers a toast (“To my big brother, George. The richest man in town.”), and the room erupts into “Auld Lang Syne.”