Alison Belsham on Pitching Perfectly
Alison Belsham, author of The Tattoo Thief, has given us some insight into what it’s like to apply for Pitch Perfect, prep, take part and then win!
Bloody hell! I just won Pitch Perfect!
To say that winning Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect in 2016 came as a surprise is something of an understatement. But what happened afterwards – well, I couldn’t have made it up, and I write fiction for a living.
Over the summer of 2015, I started working on an idea for a novel. And when I say ‘working on’, I don’t mean writing. I was just jotting notes about the plot and developing ideas about the characters it would feature. Really, all I had was a title – The Tattoo Thief – and a very sketchy outline of a possible story.
This was how things stood when a Facebook post calling for entries into the Bloody Scotland Pitch Perfect event stopped me in my tracks. I had never heard of Bloody Scotland as I was completely new to the whole crime-writing arena. But the contest held the promise of professional feedback from a panel of agents and publishers, and all I had to do to enter was write 100 words about my book. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Of course, the whole thing seemed like a long shot, and I’d never pitched anything before in my life, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured that if I was lucky enough to get some feedback at such an early stage, it could only be a good thing. So, I double checked the rules to make sure that I didn’t have to be Scottish, wrote my one hundred words and then forgot all about it.
A few weeks later when an email arrived asking me whether I was able to come and pitch The Tattoo Thief in Stirling, to say I was surprised hardly begins to cover it! As far as I was concerned, I’d won – the opportunity for feedback from agents and publishers was a grand prize. Like gold dust, frankly, and, as thrilled as I was, I had no further expectation than that. Of course I would come to Stirling, I replied. Of course.
There was just one snag. I would have to stand up in front of a ballroom full of people and pitch my as-yet-unwritten novel. I’d never pitched anything in front of an audience in my life. The prospect terrified me and excited me in equal measure. No, that’s a lie. Not equal measure – more in the ratio of 90 percent terror, 10 percent excitement. But I read the pitching tips provided by the panel’s chair, Scottish super agent Jenny Brown, and I set about writing my three-minute pitch.
I had about three weeks from learning I would be in the competition until the actual day and I think it’s fair to say that I probably practised my pitch every single day, at least ten times. Mostly to myself in the mirror, but then repeatedly to my husband and children, then to my friends and even to acquaintances who didn’t know that I wrote. I refined it until it read naturally and I repeated it until I practically knew the damn thing off by heart. I conveniently forgot that I hadn’t written any of the book yet. That wasn’t important. Honing my three-minute pitch was all that mattered. Three minutes to introduce myself, tell my story and set out my credibility as a writer. If you think that doesn’t sound like much time, you’d be right.
Three minutes that would change my life – not that that thought crossed my mind for a moment at that point.
Finally, the Bloody Scotland weekend came around. Sucking up my fear of flying, I boarded a flight from Stansted to Glasgow and took the train to Stirling. I attended some of the panels on the Saturday afternoon, agog at my first experience of a crime writing festival. Then, after a fitful night’s sleep and another half dozen run-throughs of the pitch, it was time.
I went to assemble with my fellow pitchers in the Green Room. Past participant Mark Leggatt herded us like cats to where we were supposed to be. Orion Editor Sam Eades, though I had no idea who she was, gave us a last-minute pep talk. I was scheduled to go second, which I thought was good – getting it out of the way early, but not having the dreaded first spot. Then the order changed because the BBC, who were there filming a documentary about women crime writers, were running late so the women pitchers all needed to go further down the roster. Now I would go seventh, out of eight.
As we walked into the crowded ballroom in the Golden Lion Hotel, my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. There was the stage, there was the lectern. The lights were fiercely bright. There sat the panel who would judge our pitches and beyond was an audience of probably a hundred people or so, who would each also individually judge our efforts.
Why ever had I thought it a good idea to enter?
My turn came around at last. I’d been mighty impressed by the six that had gone before me, which didn’t help my nerves. On wobbly legs, I stood up and went to the lectern, my notes trembling in shaky hands. My mouth was dry as I forced myself to look the panel members in the eye and then to look out at the audience. Then I was off.
It was over in a matter of minutes. Of course! Suddenly, I was folding my notes and the audience was clapping. So far, so good. But what of the precious feedback? Would I now be told this was an idea worth abandoning? Far from it. The next few moments were possibly some of the most extraordinary moments of my life. All four panellists said they loved it and that they could see it as something they could publish. How much had I written so far? Dear reader, I lied – I said I’d written a thousand words. Could it be a series? Yes, I said, though the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
The panel went out to deliberate while we panellists sat and waited, all bundles of nerves. They were picking a winner and although there was no prize other than the kudos of having won, I think all of us were desperate to be chosen. The panel returned and announced third place. It wasn’t me, and my heart sank a little. I hadn’t come second either and my heart sank some more. But what I had done was come first – and in all seriousness, no one could have been more shocked than I was at that moment. Jenny Brown took a photo of me with Sam Eades and Alan Yentob shook my hand and wished me luck.
Yes, I cried. Then I went down to the bar and ordered a very large glass of wine.
So how did it change my life? Within a week, I had an agent – the wonderful Jenny Brown – and within three months I had a book deal with Orion imprint Trapeze, where Sam Eades is my editor. The Tattoo Thief has already been a number one bestseller in Italy and the paperback is out in the UK just in time for this year’s Bloody Scotland.
And to think, if I hadn’t stumbled across that Facebook post… If you’re thinking about entering Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland this year, I have three words for you: BLOODY DO IT. You won’t have a moment of regret.
Apply for Pitch Perfect 2018 here: https://bloodyscotland.com/take-part/pitch-perfect/ (Deadline: August 3rd)
Be part of the Pitch Perfect audience here: http://bit.ly/2sDwNQt
See Alison in event Crime that Goes Bump in the Night here: http://bit.ly/2JCPnlu