A couple of days ago, a former student, currently teaching writing in the far north, wrote Ellen and me. He'd arranged for some editors to come visit his class, and he wanted some tips on how to pitch a novel.
Our first reaction was, "beats me." Neither of us has actually pitched a novel. Written portion and outlines, yes (but that's not what he meant). Talked with editors and agents about what we were working on, mostly over food. . . . Oh. Yeah. Well.
After some discussion with our current houseguest (who was an editor, back in the day), we came up with the following points, which I reproduce for your delectation:
1) Talking to editors is a lot like talking to anybody else you want to make an impression on. You don't want to bore them or waste their time, and you want to tell them something that will pique their interest.
2) Don't give the editor a plot summary. Believe it or not, the plot is the hardest portion of your novel to talk about interestingly or even coherently.
3) Figure out how to finish this sentence: "My novel is about. . . ." Some writers will finish this sentence with a description of their protagonist. (". . . a young girl who learns to be a swordsman in a society in which the only acceptable option for a noblewoman is marriage" (The Privilege of the Sword) ). Some will start with the setting (". . . an alternate New York where the folklore the immigrants brought with them live" (Changeling)) or genre or theme.
4) Your opening sentence doesn't have to be perfect, just a place to start a conversation. I've never heard a writer who could talk completely coherently about a work in progress.
5) Leave the editor some space to ask questions. They know what they're interested in and what they want to know. A conversation is a lot more useful (and memorable) than a carefully memorized pitch, however beautifully written.
There are probably more points we didn't think of. You guys got any suggestions?