Pitchingpalooza, part XIX: mustering the wherewithal to deliver the pitch proper, or, hey, watch out for that tree!

Perhaps I am inspired by this genuinely gorgeous photo of Lou Gehrig — taken, I am reliably informed, in the midst of the famed “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech — but I’ve been feeling the urge to blog about memoir-writing lately, campers. I know, I know: I generally spend the annual publishing world holiday stretching from the second week of August until after Labor Day filling your heads with practical details aplenty; I am still planning to talk about querying in September. After I wrap up Pitchingpalooza next week, however, I think I shall indulge myself with some in-depth discussion of the writing about the real, both as memoir and as fiction.

So start digging up those scraps of paper marked ask Anne about this. As always, I like to incorporate readers’ concerns, questions, and ideas into all of my series. And call me psychic, but I’m willing to bet a nickel that somewhere out there at this very moment, some member of the Author! Author! community is rending her garments over some seemingly insurmountable problem in holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Oh, and I may be announcing a new contest next week. It’s been a while since I’ve offered my readers the chance to generate any new Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC), after all.

Back to the matter at hand: here comes the attraction for which you have all been waiting so patiently. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch proper, the full 2-minute marketing statement a writer is expected to give at an honest-to-goodness, meet-’em-in-the-flesh appointment with an agent or editor at a conference.

Goosebump-inducing, isn’t it? Don’t worry; you’re up for it. So far in this series, we’ve been learning how to describe our work in terms that make sense to the publishing industry, as well as how to benefit from an impromptu pitch opportunity.

Now, we are ready to stack up all of those building blocks into, well, a building.

But not right away; I shall be presenting you with step-by-step guidelines this weekend. First, because there are so many misconceptions floating around out there about what that building should look like, how many rooms it should contain, whether to call where you drink coffee the porch, the veranda, or the lanai, and someone please extricate me from this metaphor before I spontaneously begin producing blueprints, I’m going to begin not by telling you immediately how to do a pitch right, but by pointing out what the vast majority of 2-minute pitchers do wrong.

Here, for your cringing pleasure, are the most popular formal pitching faux pas, so that you may avoid them. To echo the title of this post, watch out for that tree!

crooked-tree(1) As with the keynote and the elevator speech, most pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot, rather than a teaser for its premise.

That’s going to be a Herculean task for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level. No wonder so many pitchers just start at page one and keep retailing details of the plot until the agent or editor says gently, “Um, I’m afraid it’s time for my next appointment.”

By which point, naturally, the pitcher has made it all the way to page 42 in a 387-page novel. Which leads me to another low-hanging branch to avoid:

lonely-tree(2) Most pitchers don’t stop talking when their pitches are done.

Yes, yes, I know: all throughout the posts on hallway pitching, I have been harping on the advisability of getting out there, saying your pitch, and then ceasing to have any sound coming out of your gullet. That’s as good advice for a formal pitch as for the elevator variety.

A 2-minute pitch means just that: the pitcher talks for two minutes about her manuscript. Possibly a bit more, if the agent or editor interrupts to ask questions (which is a good sign, people — don’t freeze up if it happens), but the pitch itself should not run longer.

In case I’m being too subtle here: plan to stop talking at that point.

Why? Well, among other things, you’re going to want to hear what the agent of your dreams has to say about your book project, right? Also, an active resolve to say what one has planned to say and then stop can be a powerful tool to keep a writer from rambling.

And why do writers tend to ramble in their formal pitches, other than pure, unadulterated nervousness? Glad you asked.

trees-without-leaves(3) The vast majority of conference pitchers neither prepare adequately nor practice enough.

Now, if you have been working diligently through this series, you shouldn’t fall prey to the first problem; here at Author! Author!, we always have our fine-toothed combs at the ready, do we not? I’ve noticed , however, that my magic wand seems to have lost the ability to compel my students to say their pitches out loud to at least 25 non-threatening human beings before they even dream of trying it out on a big, scary, Bigfoot-like agent.

Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating about the Bigfoot part. Or maybe I wasn’t: having spent years holding first-time pitchers’ hands at writers’ conferences, I’m not entirely sure that some of them would have been more terrified if they were about to be trapped in a room with a yeti.

Why? Well…

negative-tree(4) Most pitchers harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of memorizing their pitches, and thus do not bring a written copy with them into the pitch meeting.

This one drives me nuts, because it is 100% unnecessary: no reasonable human being, much less an agent accustomed to listening to nervous writers, is going to fault you for consulting your notes in a pitch meeting. Or even reading the pitch outright.

This is not an exercise in rote memorization, people; you don’t get extra credit for being able to give your pitch without cue cards. A successful pitch is a communication between two individuals about a manuscript. Everyone concerned loves books — so why on earth would an agent or editor object to a demonstration that you can read?

More to the point, having the text (or at least an outline) of what you want to say in your perspiring little hand is not only acceptable — it’s a grand idea. It’s smart. Its time has come.

It’s also a good idea to invest some pre-pitching energy in ramping down the terror level, because, let’s face it, this is a scary thing to do. Not because a writer might muff any of the technical aspects of pitching, but because of what’s at stake.

green-tree(5) Most pitchers don’t realize until they are actually in the meeting that part of what they are demonstrating in the 2-minute pitch is their acumen as storytellers. If, indeed, they realize it at all.

Raises the stakes something awful, doesn’t it? Relax — for someone who legitimately is a talented storyteller, coming across as one isn’t as hard as it sounds, as long as you avoid Tree #1, the temptation to summarize.

Rightly understood, the 2-minute pitch is substantially more intriguing than a mere summary: it’s an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are uniquely gifted to tell it.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?

I’m going to assume that giant gasp I just heard was the prelude to a yes and move on. While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (a good secondary use for an elevator speech, as I mentioned a few days back), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book.

Wait — is that another tree I see heading straight for us?

joshua-tree(6) Few pitches capture the voice of the manuscript they ostensibly represent. Instead, they tend to sound generic or vague.

Often, running afoul of Tree #6 is the result of getting bonked on the head of Tree #1: most pitchers become so obsessed with trying to stuff as many plot points as humanly possible into their limited time face-to-face with the agent that they abandon voice altogether. As is often (unfortunately) true of synopses, summary for its own sake is seldom conducive to graceful sentence construction.

Neither, alas, is a hard sell. Is that a tree I see sneaking up behind you?

(7) Too many pitches sound more like back jacket copy than a serious statement of the book’s premise and central conflict or question — and a disturbingly high percentage of these are riddled with descriptive superlatives.

You wouldn’t believe how many pitches sound like standard advertising copy. But a writer does not go to a formal pitch meeting to review her own book — she’s there to describe it.

Trust me on this one: from the pitch-hearer’s perspective, every pitch that strays into advertising-speak is going to sound very similar. All of those soi-disant the next great bestsellers, Great American Novels, the book you won’t want to misses, novels that will appeal to every woman in North America, and it’s a natural for Oprahs (which people still use, believe it or not) have one thing in common: their pitchers are wasting time that could be used to describe what is genuinely unique about the book in puffing the book concept in terms that no agent is going to believe, anyway.

Lest some of you have gotten lost whilst wandering around in that epic last sentence, let me restate that simply: boasts about the importance of a book simply do not work in pitches. Agents are accustomed to making up their own minds about manuscripts; why would they look to the writer, of all people, to provide them with a review?

So what should a savvy pitcher do instead? Here’s an idea: rather than talking about the book, why not use the 2-minute pitch as your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it?

To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.

Ah, I see we are about to run afoul of another tree.

desert-trees(8) Very few pitches include intriguing, one-of-a-kind details that set the book being pitched apart from all others.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right. Why not advise me to tap-dance, wave sparklers, and paint an abstract in oils at the same time? In two minutes, I’ll barely have time to brush the edges of my plot with generalities!”

That’s an understandable response, but actually, cramming a pitch with generalities is a rather poor strategy. It’s the unholy fruit of Tree #1.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, especially within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches that are pretty much all going to be told chronologically.

Strong imagery, on the other hand, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”

To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, sneak with me now into a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room. For the benefit of those of you who have never experienced a pitch session first-hand, let this serve as a warning: if you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.

If not actually stunned, because…

snowscape-tree(9) Most pitchers assume that a pitch-hearer will hear — and digest — every word they say, yet the combination of pitch fatigue and hectic pitch environments virtually guarantee that will not be the case.

Don’t take it personally. It honestly is the nature of the beast.

In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, frequently more and more of the latter as the day goes on. But while it’s not at all uncommon for an appointment booked for 4 PM not to commence until 5:23, obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest his agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales.

The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed-out people. Not an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.

Eventually, the writer will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where s/he is expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who in all probability has drunk far more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand, possibly to counteract the lingering effects of that big party the conference’s organizers were kind enough to throw the night before.

I don’t mean to frighten the timid by bringing up that last detail, but it’s actually not beyond belief that you might be seated close enough to the pitch recipient to smell the coffee on her breath. Or the vodka seeping out of her pores.

Heck, you might be close enough to take a whiff of all kinds of people. At a big conference, other pitchers may well be close enough for our hero/ine to reach out and touch; one may need to speak in a near-shout to be audible. Indeed, at some conferences, the pitchers simply move one seat to the right (or left, depending upon how the room is set up) to pitch to the next agent or editor. It’s rather like the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

In this relaxing environment, the writer introduces him to the agent (if he remembers his manners, that is), and then spends approximately two minutes talking about his book. Then — brace yourself for this — the agent responds to what the writer has said.

Possibly even while the writer was saying it. Which leads us straight into the path of another tree — or perhaps a thicket.

white-trees(10) Few pitchers are comfortable enough with their pitches not feel thrown off course by follow-up questions.

Oh, you thought it was an accident that I’ve kept bringing up this possibility every few days throughout Pitchingpalooza? Au contraire, mon frère: I was poking you in the ribs during practice so you would develop the sure-footedness not to lose your balance during the performance.

If a writer is prepared to have an actual conversation about her book, this part of the pitch meeting can be, if not actually pleasant, then at least informative. The agent might ask a question or two, to try to figure out how the manuscript might fit into his agency’s current needs; at this point, a writer may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.

But I’m not going to lie to you — sometimes, the agent’s first response is to say that she doesn’t handle that type of book, or that kind of story isn’t selling well right now, or any of a million other reasons that she isn’t going to ask to see pages. (Yes, they will usually tell you why; generic pitch rejections are not as common as form-letter rejections.)

Either way, at some point in the meeting, the agent is going to tell the writer whether the book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. She’s not saying whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can sell it.

You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually tenacious leech. Not to mention steering clear of our next obstacle…

fruit-tree(11) Far too many pitchers labor under the false impression that if an agent or editor likes a pitch, s/he will snap up the book on the spot. In reality, the agent or editor is going to want to read the manuscript first.

Believing otherwise only makes aspiring writers unhappy. It sounds like a truism, I know, but realistic expectations are the most important things a writer can carry into a pitch meeting.

In that spirit, let me alert you to two things that will not happen under any circumstances during your pitch meeting, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just because he happens to like the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing, period. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until both parties sign a formal contract documenting it.

Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you have ever thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.

The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.

It just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the purpose of the formal pitch is not to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see for herself what a good writer you are.

Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: it’s nice if it’s on the menu, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.

So once again, I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting. Here is a realistic best-case scenario:

cakeIf the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her business card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for nonfiction, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Mail is the operative term here. A request to see pages should never be construed as an invitation to hand her the whole thing on the spot.

Seriously. Not even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed or e-mailed) rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)

Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago, for the most part, or who have not tried to land an agent recently — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. It’s not even all that uncommon for conference brochures to recommend this method. This is WILDLY outdated advice, sort of like advising a 16-year-old nervous about taking her driver’s license test to bring along a buggy whip, in case the horse gets restless.

Just say neigh. No one is going to fault you for not pulling a manuscript out of your hip pocket.

At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, he will have a few pages in mind, not 300. If you’d like to be prepared for this eventuality, the first five pages of a book is a fairly standard writing sample. You could also use the first few pages of a favorite scene.

In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by his interest, and offer to pop anything he wants into the mail as soon as it’s feasible.

In the interests of covering the gamut of reasonable expectations, I’m afraid I must, at least briefly, take us on a walking tour of the other logical possibility: it’s imperative to understand what a no means as well.

(I’d number that, too, but I’ve run out of tree pictures. What, you thought they just grew on…oh, never mind.)

When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is not always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely encounter both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…

Getting the picture? Rejection is very, very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower. Try not to take it as if it is.

Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away. For a fuller discussion of how and why mismatched meetings happen and how to handle them, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Is your mind reeling, trying to picture this situation in full and vivid detail? Good; that means you’re grasping its complexity.

If you find yourself interrupted mid-pitch by a terse, “Sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work. Chances are pretty good that she will know all of the agents attending; wouldn’t you like to be able to begin a hallway pitch with, “Excuse me, but agent Selective Notforme recommended that I speak with you. Would you have a moment to hear my pitch?”

Whatever you do, don’t panic; you can avoid the wicked trees with relative ease. Over the next few posts, I am going to give you a template for presenting your story — fictional or not — in a vivid, exciting, memorable manner. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.

Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!

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