Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXI: learning from the masters, or, how to get to “Wow, I’ve never heard that before.”

August 22nd, 2011

Wouldn’t you have assumed, campers, that yesterday’s little foray into obscure editorial pet peeves would have worked some nit-picking vim out of my system? Not so, apparently. This evening, my dinner companion and I made the mistake of allowing the waitress in our neighborhood sushi place to seat us near a comely matron lecturing her rather obnoxious college-age daughters. They lectured right back at her, sometimes simultaneously. All three spoke in tones that, while perhaps not quite capable of waking the dead, would at least prompt the critically wounded to drag themselves bodily into another room, if not another county, in order to escape the non-stop barrage of chatter.

And you know how I’m always pointing out that while realistic dialogue is wonderful on the page, real-life dialogue tends to be stultifying, due to its tendency to repeat itself? Had this trio been providing the listen and repeat audio for a college language lab, they could hardly have reused phrases more. Adding to the fun, the younger daughter had such an unparalleled gift for cliché that the average greeting card would have found her observations unbearably banal.

Since carrying on a conversation at our table was hopeless, I did what any self-respecting editor would have done: toyed with my asparagus tempura and mentally trimmed entire paragraphs out of the dialogue blasting through the restaurant. I was busily engaged in running a mental red pencil line through the younger daughter’s third “you can’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins” of the evening when the mother’s monologue veered abruptly into a discussion of DON QUIXOTE.

Frankly, I thought that I was dreaming (speaking of clichés). Although the lady seemed to have trouble recalling author’s name, her analysis was surprisingly trenchant — so much so that I almost stopped editing it. (The younger daughter’s frequent observation that the book was a classic still had to go, however.) She began talking about how a young friend of hers had responded to the book. It sounded as though they might have been reading it together.

She referred to her co-reader as — oh, I tremble to relate it — her mentee. As in the person who sits at the feet of a mentor, drinking in wisdom.

I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Protégé,” I said, loudly enough to be heard over the ambient din. “You mean protégé. Unless, of course, you are referring to the Mentor of classical myth, in which case the student would be Telemachus.”

Dead silence from the other table, but several other diners spontaneously burst into applause. The mother waved frantically at the waitress for her check.

As they left, glaring at me viciously, I thought about informing them that the author of DON QUIXOTE was Miguel Cervantes. But as he wrote the immortal line, “A closed mouth catches no flies,” I thought better of it.

See to what extremes a life of editing drives otherwise perfectly reasonable people? Naturally, I was aware that the mother had not coined the term mentee on the spot; based on her highly redundant anecdotal style, she lacked the essential creativity to add a new word to the language. It’s one of those annoying business-speak terms that has somehow worked its way into everyday speech. I might have let it pass had the speaker and her progeny not spent half an hour boring me and everyone else in the restaurant to the verge of extinction.

That level of touchiness is roughly what the average pitch-hearer reaches by the tenth or twelfth similar pitch of the conference. By the fiftieth or sixtieth, she’s not only ready to correct the verbal gaffes of passersby — she’s praying that some kind muse will take pity on her and drop an anvil on her head. Anything, so she does not have to listen to yet another cliché-ridden summary of a plot that sounds suspiciously like the first TWILIGHT book.

Chant it with me now, campers: the first rule of pitching is thou shalt not bore. The second is the pitcher is there to hear your original ideas and language. Stock phrases, no matter how apt, are unlikely to make your premise shine; a description so general that your book will merge in the hearer’s mind with a dozen others is not the best way to make yours memorable.

You’re a writer, are you not? Is there a reason that your pitch should not demonstrate that you have some talent in that direction?

Why, we were just talking about that, weren’t we? Last time, I went over the basic format of a 2-minute pitch, the kind a writer is expected to give within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting. Unlike the shorter elevator speech or hallway pitch, the formal pitch is intended not merely to pique the hearer’s interest in the book, but to convey that the writer is one heck of a storyteller, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

In case that’s too subtle for anyone, I shall throw a brick through the nearest window and shout: no matter what kind of prose you write, your storytelling skills are part of what you are selling here.

How might a trembling author-to-be demonstrate those skills? Basically, by dolling up her elevator speech with simply fascinating details and fresh twists that will hold the hearer in thrall.

At least for two minutes. After that, the agent’s going to have to ask to read your book to find out what happens.

Because sounding scintillating to the pitch-fatigued is a genuinely tall order, it is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by buttonholing like-minded writers at the conference for mutual practice. Otherwise, as I mentioned in passing last time, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting.

Frankly, the length of the pitch appointment typically doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association. Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of free-form discussion he might have with another writer. All too often, pitchers will digress into artistic-critical questions (“What do you think of multiple protagonists in general?”), literary-philosophical issues (“I wanted to experiment with a double identity in my romance novel, because I feel that Descartian dualism forms the underpinnings of the modern Western love relationship.”), and autobiographical observations (“I spent 17 years writing this novel. Please love it, or I shall impale myself on the nearest sharp object.”) .

Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art and theory can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with this agent or that editor. For now, your job is to wow ‘em with the originality of your book concept, the freshness of your approach, and the evocative language of your pitch.

Don’t forget that that the formal pitch is, in fact, is an extended, spoken query letter; it should contain, at minimum, the same information. Like any good promotional speech, it also needs to present the book as both unique and memorable.

Oh, you would like to know how to go about that, would you? Glad you asked. Time to whip out one of my famous lists of tips.

(1) Emphasize the most original parts of your story or argument
One great way to increase the probability of its seeming both is to include beautifully-phrased telling details from the book, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else. What specifics can you use to describe your protagonist’s personality, the challenges he faces, the environment in which he functions, that render each different from any other book currently on the market?

See why I suggested earlier in this series that you might want to gain some familiarity with what is being published right now in your book category? Unless you know what’s out there, how can you draw a vibrant contrast?

I sense a touch of annoyance out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” a disgruntled soul or two protests, “I understand that part of the point here is to present my book concept as fresh, but I’m going to be talking about my book for two minutes, at best. Do I really want to waste my time on a compare-and-contrast exercise when I could be showing (not telling) that my book is in fact unique?”

Well, I wasn’t precisely envisioning that you embark upon a master’s thesis on the literary merits of the current thriller market; what I had in mind was your becoming aware enough of the current offerings to know what about your project is going to seem most unusual to someone who has been marinating in the present offerings for the last couple of years.

Regardless of how your book is fresh, you’re going to want to be as specific as possible about it. Which leads me to…

(2) Include details that the hearer won’t be expecting.
Think back to the elevator speech I developed earlier in this series for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. How likely is it that anybody else at the conference will be pitching a story that includes a sister who talks philosophy while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met?

Not very — which means that including these details in the pitch is going to surprise the hearer a little. And that, in turn, will render the pitch more memorable.

(3) Broaden your scope a little.
In a hallway pitch, of course, you don’t have the luxury of including more than a couple of rich details, but the 2-minute pitch is another kettle of proverbial fish. You can afford the time to flesh out the skeleton of your premise and story arc. You can, in fact, include a small scene.

So here’s a wacky suggestion: take fifteen or twenty seconds of those two minutes to tell the story of ONE scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief AND fresh.

Yes, even if the book in question is a memoir — or a nonfiction book about an incident that took place in 512 BC, for that matter. To render any subject interesting to a reader, you’re going to need to introduce an anecdote or two. This is a fabulous opportunity to flex your show-don’t-tell muscles.

Which is, if you think about it, why a gripping story draws us in: good storytelling creates the illusion of being there. By placing the pitch-hearer in the middle of a vividly-realized scene, you make him more than a listener to a summary — you let him feel a part of the story.

(4) Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave the hearer wanting more.
Remember, the pitcher’s job is not to summarize the plot or argument — it’s to present it in a fascinating manner. After all, the point of the pitch is to convince the agent or editor to ask to read the manuscript, right? So focusing on making the premise sound irresistible is usually a better plan than trying to cram the entire story arc into a couple of breathless paragraphs.

Don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger at the end of your pitch– scenarios that leave the hearer wondering how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation? can work very, very well in this context.

(5) Axe the jargon.
Many pitchers (and queriers, actually) assume, wrongly, that if their manuscripts are about people who habitually use an industry-based jargon, it will make their pitches more credible if that language permeates the 2-minute speech. In fact, the opposite is generally true: terminology that excludes outsiders usually merely perplexes the pitch hearer.

Remember, it’s never safe to assume that any given agent or editor (or Millicent, for that matter) has any background in your chosen subject matter. It would behoove you, then, to use language in your pitch that everybody in the publishing industry can understand.

Unless, of course, your book is about the publishing industry, in which case you may be as jargon-ridden as you like.

(6) Delve into the realm of the senses.
Another technique that helps elevate memorability: including as many sensual words and images as you can in your pitch. Not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the operation of the senses. As anyone who has spent even a couple of weeks reading submissions or contest entries can tell you, the vast majority of writing out there sticks to the most obvious senses — sight and sound — probably because these are the two to which TV and movie scripts are limited.

So a uniquely-described scent, taste, skin sensation, or pricking of the sixth sense does tend to be memorable. I just mention.

How might you go about this, you ask? Comb the text itself. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer concentrating his professional efforts on chefs? We’d better taste some fois gras.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original image or scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and ask to read the book.

Which leads me to ask those of you whose works are still in the writing phase: are there places in your manuscript where you could beef up the comic elements, sensual details, elegant environmental descriptions, etc., to strengthen the narrative and to render the book easier to pitch when its day comes?

Just something to ponder.

(7) Make sure that your pitch contains at least one detailed, memorable image.
There is a terrific example of such a pitch in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you plan to pitch. The protagonist is an executive at a motion picture studio; throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, I’m guessing.) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell him the film in 25 words or less.

Rather than launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting: he spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

”That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Pitching success!

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free. Give some thought to where your book might offer up the scene, sensual detail, or magnificently evocative sentence that will make ‘em do a double-take.

Or a spit-take, if your book is a comedy. Which brings me to…

(8) Let the tone of the pitch reflect the tone of the book.
This one’s just common sense, really: an agent or editor who likes a particular kind of book enough to handle it routinely may reasonably be expected to admire that kind of writing, right? So why not write the pitch in the tone and language you already know has pleased this person in the past?

A good pitch for a funny book makes its premise seem amusing; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer. By the same token, while a good pitch for a romance would make it sound like a fun read, a great pitch might prompt the hearer to say, “Is it getting hot in here?”

Getting the picture?

I’m tempted to sign off for the day to allow all of you to rush off to stuff your pitches to the gills with indelible imagery, sensual details, and book category-appropriate mood-enhancers, but I know from long experience teaching writers to pitch that some of your manuscripts will not necessarily fit comfortably into the template I’ve laid out over the last couple of posts. To head off one of the more common problems at the pass, I’m going to revive a reader’s excellent question about the pitch proper from years past. (Keep ‘em coming, folks!)

Somewhere back in the dim mists of time, sharp-eyed reader Colleen wrote in to ask how one adapts the 2-minute pitch format to stories with multiple protagonists — a more difficult task than it might appear at first glance. By definition, it would be pretty hard to pitch it as just one of the characters’ being an interesting person in an interesting situation; in theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

So what’s the writer to do? Tell the story of the book in the pitch, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — it has to be, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your pitch, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward pitch brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable pitching time in telling an agent that your book was written in the third person, would you? (In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript.) Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant, concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it?

That something should be the subject of your pitch. Why? Because any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it. And it’s unlikely to the point of hilarity that she’ll stop you immediately after you say, “Well, my novel is told from the perspectives of three different protagonists…” with a curt, “I’ve heard enough; I’ve been looking for a good multiple-perspective novel. Allow me to sign you on the spot.”

How you have chosen to construct the narrative is not information that should be in your pitch. The agent or editor is going to want to know what the book is about.

“Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see that, if we want to reduce the discussion to marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my pitch.”

Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, they will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to pitch a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Bernice is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in two minutes doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only pitch that agent or editor has heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book with several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names. They will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone in the pitching session ASK about your perspective choices?

Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to include this information: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told. Thus, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your pitch. I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the elevator speech above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across, without presenting the perspective choice as the most important thing about the book.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at conferences. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea– and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, they may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Again, bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind.

And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place. And yes, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but nobody in the publishing industry is likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the stories of each of the major characters: POV choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. While you will want to talk about some non-story elements in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn how you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Dig deep for those memorable details, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XX: stacking all of those building blocks into a rock-solid pitch

August 21st, 2011

pigeon-in-a-niche

No, I didn’t pose that pigeon; she volunteered to be today’s illustration of a book happily inhabiting a niche market atop a well-constructed pitch. It would be a better visual metaphor if there weren’t also bricks above her, of course, but you focus on a medieval bridge, you take your chances, right?

Before I launch into today’s task in earnest, my mother has charged me to pass along an editorial admonition to you — and believe me, we do not take such decrees lightly chez Mini. Madame Mini senior desires me to inform all conscientious writers everywhere that she is darned tired of reading books and manuscripts that use each other and one another interchangeably.

That’s one of my pet peeves, too, doubtless due to my strenuously literary upbringing: each other refers to interactions between two characters, entities, or objects; one another is activity amongst 3 or more. My parents used to correct this one in conversation, as well as on the page.

And yes, that practice did rather startle anecdote-spouting dinner guests, now that you mention it. One’s standards do not evaporate just because one happens to be serving a soufflé, however.

So abandon hope, all ye who were hoping to get a sentence like Marni, Monique, and Murgatroyd looked at each other past a good, old-fashioned editor. While you’re at it, Madame Mini would also like you to start making a distinction between farther (refers to physical distance) and further (conceptual distance). There’s a pretty good reason that one doesn’t hear farthermore in casual conversation, after all.

In answer to those of you busily engaged in picking your jaws off the floor: yes, these are nit-picky distinctions, but little things like this drive classically-trained professional readers nuts. It’s inconceivable to an editor of my mother’s experience that anyone would not have learned these precepts, if not actually at their parents’ knees, then at least by the end of the fourth grade. She flatly refuses to believe that I constantly meet talented writers who — sacre bleu! — claim that they were never taught the rules governing when to use to, two, and too or there, their, and they’re.

“What do these writers do, then?” Madame Mini scoffs. “Guess?”

Judging by the average manuscript submission, I would have to say that is precisely what a lot of aspiring writers do. That, and rely too heavily upon their word processing programs’ spell- and grammar-checkers. I have yet to break it to my mother that my version of Microsoft Word not only doesn’t make the necessary each other/one another or farther/further distinctions; it frequently suggests that I should use the incorrect form of there, their, and they’re.

My neighbors who work at the Lazy M Ranch profess to have no idea why this might be the case. “Poor elementary school education?” one of them suggested. “I wasn’t sure about that rule until I was in college.”

Please don’t tell my mother. She might faint from the shock.

Actually, while we’re on the subject of looking, would you mind if I ask you to avoid a pet peeve of my own? Novelists, would you at least consider giving the phrases they looked at each other and she gave him a look a rest, please? Millicent the agency screener scarcely sees a manuscript these days that does not include one or the other within the first chapter, and often both.

It’s not merely the percussive effect of seeing the same sentences so often across so many manuscripts in any given reading day that gets her proverbial goat, you know; it’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seem to believe that eye movement is an inherently interesting enough activity to deserve page space in an otherwise tightly-written narrative. From a professional reader’s perspective, it seldom is.

Remember, from a professional reader’s point of view, the bare fact that a character might have done something isn’t necessarily reason enough to for a narrative to mention it; especially in fiction and memoir, we tend to go for the character-revealing stuff. Unless the reader is shown the emotional intensity of a look, or what thoughts the author believes are being conveyed telepathically when two characters look at each other (or seventeen look at one another; it helps to see the rules in practice), all of that looking can come across as simply a substitute for more character- or situation-illuminating reactions.

Oh, it feels good to have gotten that one off my chest. Let’s get to work.

Last time, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you brand-new to verbal book pitching to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety conference pitching room. Why on earth would I scare you like that, you ask? Well, I think it’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.

Why, you ask again? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things that might be waiting for us on the other side of the pitching table. Like, for instance, an agent who cuts a writer off three sentences into a pitch given within the context of a formal meeting: “Oh, that’s the third period, I’m afraid, and you had not even gotten halfway through establishing your premise. I’m sorry; industry standards prevent me from listening to even one more word from you.”

Or an agent who shouts, “I hate your plot, your hairdo, and your tie! Begone, and never cause me to choke on my latte again.”

Or a writer’s rocketing to instant fame, fortune, and publication as a result of a particularly well-given pitch. “Oh, I don’t need to read the manuscript,” the agent in this fantasy says, clapping the lucky pitcher on the back. “Someone who can talk about a book as well as you can is obviously a talented writer. Let me introduce you to that editor standing over there at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, so we may sign a contract immediately. Would you be available to go on Oprah next week?”

Please believe me when I say that in years and years and years of attending conferences as both would-be pitcher and presenter, I have not even heard of any of these extremes actually occurring in real life. Honest. And Oprah’s off the air, at least on network television.

As I may have hinted a few times over the last couple of weeks, adhering to the common fantasies about what can happen in a pitch meetings both raise expectations to unreasonable levels and increase anticipatory fright to the point of being crushing. Knowledge really is power, at least in this respect.

No, really. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively for your appointment with an agent or editor — and psych yourself out much less in the process.

Feeling a little better about the prospect of pitch preparation? No? Okay, here’s a bit more good news to gladden your heart: if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.

How is that possible, you cry? Well, for starters, you’ve already wrestled some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching until they lay panting, gone over how to narrow down your book’s category, figured out who your target market is, brainstormed selling points for your book), as well as a platform for those of you who write nonfiction, and constructed a snappy keynote statement. We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words, to keep it pithy with the elevator speech, and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a well-conceived hallway pitch.

Today, with all that under your proverbial belt, we’re going to begin to pull it all together into a two-pronged strategy for a stellar formal pitch: first, you’re going to impress ‘em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ‘em with your storytelling ability.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Actually, it’s a heck of a lot easier than it sounds, once you understand what a formal pitch is and what you’re trying to achieve with it. To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is not just a few sentences about the premise of a book, nor is it a summary of the plot, or even a statement of the platform for a nonfiction book.

A formal book pitch is A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also precisely how and why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand this — and once you accept that, within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET FOR YOU — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch is a much, much less frightening moment to contemplate. It’s not an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed BOOK CONCEPT.

Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not. And your hair is fine, I tell you. If only you would stop thinking in all of those capital letters.

What a formal pitch meeting can and should be is the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would.

Why, what a coincidence: if you will be so kind as to cast your eye back over my breakdown of Pitchingpalooza above, you will see that you have already defined your work in those terms. Aren’t you clever, to be so well prepared?

Really, you’re almost there. If it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional short pitch from these elements alone.

Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch, and I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound have already begun trying it out on everyone you meet. It’s a serious mistake not to speak it out loud prior to your scheduled pitch meeting, or even to the conference.

Why? Out comes the broken record again:

It takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a serious writer talking to other serious writers. Or a hobbyist writer talking to someone at a party kind enough to say, “Oh, you write? What kind of books?”

Why shouldn’t you talk about your work to the pros the way we talk about amongst ourselves or at a non-literary cocktail party? Well, when we’re in creative mode, we tend to speak with other writers about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer? But in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.

It’s time, to put it bluntly, to speak of your book as a commodity that you might conceivably want someone to buy, not as a reason to like or respect you as a creative human being. (Hey, I warned you it was going to be blunt.)

Recognizing that is not the first sign of selling out, as so many aspiring writers seem to believe: it’s an absolutely necessary step along the undiscovered (and unpaid) artist’s road to fame, fortune, and large readerships. Or even small ones.

Besides, walking into a conference believing that agencies and publishing houses are primarily non-profit institutions devoted to the charitable promotion of good art tends to lead to poor pitching. A savvy pitcher understands that good marketing and good art can are not natural enemies.

It’s imperative that your formal pitch reflect that understanding. Think about it: reputable agents and editors make their livings by selling books, after all; they are unlikely to the point of hilarity to be even remotely sympathetic to an aspiring writer who feels that his book will seem less artistically worthwhile if he knows anything about how — or even to whom — it might be sold.

That can work to your advantage: because art vs. commerce is such a common attitude, even amongst writers who have plopped down a considerable amount of money to pitch at a conference, presenting yourself as one of the few who has taken the time to learn how publishing actually works and how your book might fit into the current market will at least enjoy the benefit of novelty.

And a thousand hands just shot into the air. “I want to be the exception, Anne,” eager pitchers everywhere cry, “but I’m not sure how to force my book’s premise into a form that makes sense from a marketing perspective. How might one go about satisfying the demands of both art and commerce in a formal pitch meeting?”

I’m so glad you asked. I feel a theoretical structure about to emerge.

Step I: First, begin with your magic first hundred words:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

As in a query letter, if you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,

“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult guidance! That sounds like a back jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”

If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,

“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, building upon that expertise. My latest project…”

Everyone on board with that? Good. Let’s press on.

Step II: After you finish Step I, with nary a pause for breath, launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc or argument of the book. The resulting equation would look like this:

“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

Again, do not even attempt to tell the entire plot. Your goal here is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels she has already read it.

This structure will work equally well for a memoir, of course. The trick is to present oneself as the protagonist — and to do that, you’re going to have to think of yourself as a character in your book, as well as its writer.

“I was in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts, using vivid and memorable imagery.

For a nonfiction book that isn’t a memoir, present the central question your book will address, along with why a reader would care about it. In considering that last part, remember, you can’t safely assume that the agent or editor to whom you will be pitching will be forearmed with any prior knowledge of your subject matter. This structure tends to work:

“The world is facing (interesting situation); if it is not resolved, (insert dire consequence here).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

For fiction or memoir, make sure to identify your protagonist in the first line of your pitch– by name, never as “my protagonist,” or you will sound like you are giving a book report. Yes, yes, I know that you learned in English class that it’s spiffy to speak in terms of protagonists and antagonists, as well as to say things like, “At the climax of the book…”, but a verbal pitch is the wrong context to talk about a book as if you were writing an essay about it. It’s distancing, and many pros find it more than a bit pretentious. (True in query letters as well, by the way.)

Here’s an even better reason to identify your protagonist by name: it’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Even better, introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it. (And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right before your next pitch appointment.)

Step III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell to your intended readership. Not a boast, mind you: analysis that demonstrates the extent of your market research.

If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it:

“I’m excited about this project, because of its (SELLING POINTS). Currently, there are (# of TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Add a little charm and stir, and voilà: the two-minute pitch. Admittedly, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Not to mention quite doable. You could manage all three of those steps in two minutes, right?

Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, all you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.

Once again, a forest of hands arises before my eyes. “But Anne,” some confused souls point out, “didn’t you say that most scheduled pitch meetings are around 10 minutes long? If that’s the case, why do I have to limit myself to a 2-minute pitch? Couldn’t it be, you know, 3? Or 8?”

Good question, confused ones, and here’s the answer: no, because if you went much over 2, there would not be time for subsequent conversation. Or for the agent of your dreams to interrupt you in the course of your speech in order to ask trenchant and enlightening questions.

Or to allow for time for a panicking pitcher to take a moment to compose herself, if necessary and appropriate. Aspiring writers aren’t tape recorders, you know, and most agents and editors honestly do want to give ‘em a chance to give their pitches.

The 2-minute pitch usually takes place at the very beginning of a pitch meeting; thus the imperative to introduce oneself. (You wouldn’t believe how many pitchers get so excited that they omit this essential information. Or the title of the book.) See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?

No? Was there so much going on in these last two posts that you forgot to look for a moral hidden in the midst of it all?

Excellent, if so — because that IS the moral: there’s going to be so much going on during your pitch appointment that it’s prudent to assume that it will be darned difficult to make even the most elegant story sound fresh and pithy.

Especially if you find yourself, as so many pitchers do, having a meeting under ear-splitting conditions. Remember, a high probability that you — and the agent sitting across the table from you — will be able to hear the other pitches and conversations going on around you. It’s easy for a hearer to get distracted, especially after pitch fatigue — the inevitable numbing effect on the mind of hearing many pitches over a short period of time — has started to set in.

Heck, you may find it hard to concentrate on your storyline — and you won’t even be the one who has already heard fifty pitches that day. Counterintuitive as it may seem, buttonholing an agent at a crowded luncheon or after a well-attended seminar for a hallway pitch is often a significantly quieter option than giving a 2-minute pitch during a scheduled appointment.

And yes, if I ruled the universe, this would not be the case, but apparently, conference centers fall outside the range of my scepter. Yet conference organizers are not actively trying to weed out the shy, the agoraphobic, and the noise-sensitive — although that is often the effect of a well-stocked pitching room. It’s just that space is often at a premium at a literary conference, and many conference centers have really lousy acoustics.

Or really good acoustics, depending upon how badly you want to hear the pitcher 20 feet away from you describe the gory mass murder at the center of his thriller.

Thus your goal is not merely to make the case that your book is a good one — it is to tell a story so original, in such interesting language, and with such great imagery that it will seem fresh in a pitching environment. That’s equally true for fiction and nonfiction, by the way, and even more so for memoir.

How might one go about that? In a frequently chaotic-feeling pitching situation, including vivid, surprising details is the best way I know for a good storyteller to make an exhausted agent sit up and say, “Wait a minute — I’ve never heard a tale like THAT before!”

Does this advice seem just a touch familiar? It should — it’s that old saw show, don’t tell, transplanted from the page to the pitching environment. The essence of good storytelling, after all, lies in evocative specifics, not one-size-fits-all generalities. The higher the ratio of one-of-a-kind details to summary in your pitch, the greater the probability of its being memorable.

And terrific.

Oh, there are all of those raised hands again. “But Anne,” some of these wavers protest, “I’m likely to be too nervous to remember the name of my book during my pitch meeting, much less any brilliantly vivid and pithy details I might have thought up in the solitude of my quiet room. Isn’t it just a touch unreasonable to expect me to be able to blurt ‘em out on command?”

Not really — as long as you don’t rely solely on your memory to help you through. There’s no earthly reason not to write out your 2-minute pitch on an index card or piece of paper and have it in front of you throughout the meeting.

Honest, it won’t render your pitch less impressive. As I mentioned last time, reading a formal pitch is completely acceptable; if you remember to look up occasionally, no one will fault you for reading your pitch, rather than blurting it out from memory. That way, you will be sure to hit all of those important points, as well as to include each and every memorable detail.

And no, you will not get Brownie points for reciting it from memory. This isn’t your 5th grade class’ Americana pageant, and this isn’t the Gettysburg Address — which, incidentally, Abraham Lincoln was too experienced a public speaker to attempt to give from memory.

Actually, at 267 words, the Gettysburg Address is a pretty good length guideline for a formal pitch. It’s also proof positive that it is indeed possible to work expressive language and strong imagery into a 2-minute speech. Take a gander:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Great speech, eh? Admittedly, my editorial hand itches to excise some of the structural redundancy, as well as some of those extraneous heres, and smooth out some of those slightly awkward subordinate clauses. (Had I mentioned that editors tend to be nit-picky?) There’s no denying, though, that this is a magnificently constructed argument.

Ever heard the story about why it’s so short? It wasn’t that Lincoln didn’t have a lot to say — he was scheduled to speak immediately after one of the greatest of living orators, Edward Everett. The opening act’s light-hearted little lecture lasted for two solid hours.

Who could compete? Lincoln knew better. Rather than fight fire with fire, he did one of the smartest things someone making a speech can do if he wants to be remembered fondly by his hearers: he made his point, and then he stopped talking.

In memory of that excellent strategic choice, let’s add another step to our formula for a formal pitch:

Step IV: once you have gone through all of the steps above, shut up and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.

Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Or even after the agent or editor has said, “Great; send me the first chapter.”

Don’t keep trying to sell your book; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.

Besides, it’s better storytelling. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT?”

A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more — and a good salesperson knows when to take yes for an answer.

Most of us have been turned off by a too-hard sell in other contexts, right? If your primary concern in choosing a vehicle is the gas mileage, you’re going to start to feel impatient if the car dealer keeps rattling off details about how many bags of groceries you could fit in the trunk.

By rambling, you’ll be missing out on a golden opportunity to demonstrate what a good listener you are. Remember, you’re not only trying to convince the agent or editor that your book is well-written and interesting — you’re also, if you’re smart (and I know you are), attempting to convey that you’d be an absolute dream to work with if they signed you.

I don’t know why this point so seldom comes up in pitching classes or in agent and editor Q&As at conferences, but being a considerate, careful listener is a definite selling point for a writer. So is the ability to ask thoughtful questions and an understanding that agents and editors in fact have jobs that are extraordinarily difficult to do well.

Treating them with respect during your pitch session will go a long way toward demonstrating that you have been working those delightful skills. These are interesting human beings, after all, not publication-granting machines.

Why, there’s yet another coincidence: if you’ve been following this series from the very beginning, you have been building the knowledge base to handle your pitch encounters as professional meetings, not as Hail Mary shots at a target nearly impossible to hit. You’ve done your homework about the people to whom you are intending to pitch (or query), so you may speak to them intelligently about their work; you have performed a little market research, so you may discuss your target market and sales trends for your type of book; you have figured out why people out there will want to buy your book as opposed to any other.

Okay, you’ve caught me: I’ve been pursuing a dual agenda here. I’ve not only been helping you prepare to pitch, but I’ve been pushing you to develop the skills that will make you a great client for an agency and a wonderful writer for a publishing house. Call me zany, but I like win-win outcomes.

Next time, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XVI: take a deep breath. You have not blown it irretrievably.

August 8th, 2011

Smack dab in the middle of this last weekend’s Conference that Shall Remain Nameless, I received one of the most pitiful types of calls a pitching coach can get: a frantic “What do I do now?” cri de coeur from a talented aspiring writer who had just realized that she had missed one of her scheduled pitching appointments. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really; he had simply written down the wrong day in her calendar.

In the midst of trying to navigate a busy conference schedule, it isn’t all that hard to do. In fact, it’s not all that uncommon a snafu. (So in response to what a third of you thought very loudly while reading the last paragraph: yes, there are agents and editors who do read this blog, but no, the petitioning writer would not be identifiable from this description. He probably wasn’t even the only scheduled pitcher who missed an appointment at this conference; because people have been known to panic at the last minute, agents and editors are used to no-shows.)

My first thought was for him, of course, but my second thought was for you, campers. It ran a little something like this: my God, is it possible that I have never covered this situation on Author! Author! at any point within the last 6 years? (My third thought, should you care to know it: wait, aren’t we coming up on our iron anniversary any day now? Indeed we are: I posted for the first time as the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless’ Resident Writer on August 11th, 2005. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of one single thing a blogger might actually need that is made of iron, other than a hammer to batter home a point or two, but I’m open to suggestions.)

My alarmed second thought was, alas, depressingly accurate. Not only have I never written anything here about this rather common conference faux pas; a panicked would-be pitcher who realized with a start at 2:15 that his meeting with the agent of his dreams had been a 12:15 — oh, for the loss of a digit! — might end up scrolling through dozens of posts searching for an answer.

Obviously, that’s not acceptable to me; I try very hard to make this site panic-friendly. I hope all of you who are not planning to pitch anytime soon will forgive me, therefore, if I devote part of today’s post to addressing this question, so I may establish a category for it on the archive list toute suite.

The first thing to do upon realizing that one has spaced out (or chickened out; no shame in that) of a scheduled appointment with an agent or editor is to relax. The pro is not going to hate you for all eternity, nor is s/he going to regale all of her friends in the publishing industry with the tale of how (insert your name here) didn’t show up for the meeting. As I said, it’s just too frequent an occurrence to generate much umbrage — and it’s definitely too common a conference phenomenon to make a good anecdote.

“Oh, that’s happened to all of us,” the tellers coworkers will say, yawning. “Writers get too stressed out to pitch all the time.”

You feel better already, don’t you? Excellent. What you should do next is march up to the meeting-scheduling desk (or, if it’s closed, march up to the nearest well-marked member of the conference’s organizing committee) and boldly admit that you got your scheduling wires crossed. “Is there any way at all,” you should ask politely, “that I could reschedule?”

Yes, really. Try dangling your head between your knees until the urge to faint passes.

You’d be surprised how often the schedulers will say yes, provided that you are hugely apologetic about imposing upon their time. Pitchers cancel appointments all the time; they may be able to give you an abruptly emptied appointment, if you are willing to hang around on the off chance that one might open.

Why do they tend to be willing to do that? Well, rescheduling meetings is part of their job. Not only do first-time pitchers come tiptoeing up to them to whisper regrets about suddenly having developed a case of laryngitis; It’s also not unheard-of for — brace yourselves — an agent or editor to miss a scheduled meeting. In either case, they’re going to need to do some appointment-shuffling.

Head back from its second field trip between your knees yet? “But Anne,” excited pitchers everywhere gasp, “how on earth is that possible? I prepared for weeks for that meeting — what do you mean, they might not show up?”

I mean that as powerful as aspiring writers perceive agents and editors to be, they do not control flight schedules; if a plane gets delayed at JFK, they might well be late arriving at a conference in Austin. If (heaven forfend) a child gets sick, a parent might very well decide not to arrive in St. Louis to hear pitches until the next day. I’ve even heard rumors (mostly over bloody Marys the day after a conference party) that people simply oversleep.

It happens. If it happens to you, your first and second steps should be precisely the same: take a nice, deep breath, remember that it wasn’t the conference organizers’ fault, and go make a polite request to reschedule.

Believe me, courtesy counts here: if the agency decided at the last minute to send a different agent with different tastes at the last minute because the one originally scheduled has a client whose revision deadline just got moved up by a month (again, it happens), plenty of writers will be scrambling to switch appointments. Stand out from the crowd by being the one who is nice about it, especially if you are willing to stick around and wait for any last-minute openings.

Say, because someone forgot about a pitching appointment. Their gaffe may be your gain.

Please remember, though, that it’s in your interest to be polite even if the answer is no. Think about it: when a slot opens up unexpectedly three hours later, who is the scheduler more likely to flag down for it, the writer that yelled at her, or the one who commiserated with the craziness of trying to juggle so many irate people’s demands?

If you cannot make a fresh appointment (as is likely to happen, if the agent does not turn up at the conference at all), don’t lose hope; you still have two quite good options, the gutsy and the shy. The gutsy route involves doing precisely what we’ve been discussing over the last few posts: walking up to an agent or editor in the hallway or other non-bathroom conference venue, courteously attracting her attention, and asking if you can pitch.

Wow, you are prone to attacks of dizziness, aren’t you? Have you tried not locking your knees?

Actually, a pro is more likely to say yes to a hallway pitch if the requester mentions a missed pitching appointment. No need to say why you weren’t there (or to remind the agent that he was the one who didn’t show); just apologize briefly if it was your doing, and ask if you can have some time now. Or later.

Can’t imagine yourself saying it? Come on, it’s easy.

Writer (edging up to agent chatting with editor at the end of rubber chicken luncheon): Excuse me for disturbing you, Ms. Pickyperson, but may I have a moment?

Agent (clutching her coffee cup; she didn’t get a lot of sleep last night): Yes?

Writer: I’m terribly sorry, but there was a mix-up, and I missed our appointment this morning. Is there any possibility that you could make a few minutes for me? I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (shoving out a chair with her foot so she need not remove the coffee cup from her mouth): I’ll give you two minutes right now.

See? Your mother was right; politeness pays. Do be prepared to be equally polite, however, if she gives you a different time to meet, or if says no.

Writer: I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (glancing at her watch): I’m afraid that I just don’t have time. My plane leaves in two hours.

Writer (disappointed, but hiding it well): Oh, I understand. May I send you a query?

Agent (hoisting her carry-on bag): Yes, that would be fine.

Wasn’t our writer clever to suggest that last option? He could also just have gone there directly, if he was shy, skipping the face-to-face approach altogether and dispatching a query that builds upon the missed meeting.

I prefer e-mail for these sorts of missives, if the agency accepts them; that way, it’s apparent that the writer is trying to follow up as soon as possible on that canceled appointment. Again, there is no need to raise the issue of fault.

SUBJECT LINE: I missed you at the Greenwater Conference

Dear Ms. Pickyperson,

I am so sorry that our scheduled appointment at Greenwater did not happen; I was looking forward to talking to you about my romance novel, OOPS, I LOST MY CALENDAR. I hope that you are still interested in hearing about it now.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

Perfectly polite and reasonable, isn’t it? This method can also work delightfully well for agents whom one did not have the nerve to buttonhole in the hallways.

SUBJECT LINE: post-Greenwater Conference query

Dear Mr. EyeofSharpness,

I enjoyed your talk at the recent Greenwater Conference. Unfortunately, I could not obtain an appointment to speak with you about my thriller, THE BUTLER DID IT TWICE.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

What you should most emphatically not do — but need I add that these are the most popular choices in practice? — is either dash up to the scheduling desk to demand a fresh appointment on the spot, trail weeping after the agent in the hallways, loudly berating yourself for having spaced out on your meeting, or decide in humiliated silence to do nothing at all. None of these methods is likely to turn a missed opportunity into a saved one.

Is everybody clear on that? Please feel free to pepper the comments with follow-up questions and hypothetical situations, if not. I would much, much rather that you ask me now than send me a breathless e-mail as you hyperventilate at a conference a month hence.

Call me zany, but I prefer it when my readers can breathe. They tend to think more clearly that way.

Back to our originally scheduled programming. Next time, I shall be talking about how to make the actual approach for a hallway pitch, because it requires a certain amount of finesse not to end up as the subject of an anecdote about how pushy aspiring writers can be. Today, however, I want to bring up another common trait of the successful hallway pitcher: freshness.

As I pointed out a couple of days ago, the first commandment of a winning elevator speech is THOU SHALL NOT BORE. Actually, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any pitch, query letter, or submission, but if a hallway pitch is snore-inducing, the results can be instantly fatal.

Not boring is a while lot harder than it sounds, you know. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most 3-line pitches sound a great deal alike, at least to someone who has been hearing them for three days straight.

Agent (eying the bottom of her empty coffee cup): Tell me about your book.

Writer: Well, it’s called GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and it’s the story of (insert protagonist’s name, age, profession, if any, and geographic location here), a (insert adjective) man/woman/group who face (insert conflict here). The stakes couldn’t be higher, because (insert barrier to achieving goal here). In pursuing his/her/its collective dream and/or saving his/her/its (insert treasured resource here), he/she/they will discover (insert life lesson here).

Agent (overcome by certain sense of déjà vu): Hmm. Sounds interesting. Tell me more.

The structure is, let’s face it, awfully darned restrictive. No wonder the people who hear them for a living tend to remember my students: the mere fact of their introducing themselves prior to pitching is out of the ordinary.

Add to that structural similarity all of the pitches for books that sound suspiciously like the big bestseller from two years ago, as well as the ones that lift plots, character traits, and situations from movies, TV shows, pop culture, and good, old-fashioned clichés, and is it still surprising that pitches start to blur together in the hearer’s mind after a startlingly short while?

Hands up, anyone who still doesn’t understand why that agent who requested the first fifty pages of a manuscript last Saturday might not recall the details of the pitch today. (On the bright side, that agent was probably downright grateful when her eighteenth pitch appointment was a no-show; it gave her time to grab an extra cup o’ joe.)

Is that abject terror I’m sensing creeping around out there, or have the trees outside my window suddenly taken up moaning for fun and profit? “Gee, Anne,” the newly nervous pipe up, “I had no idea that part of the goal of my pitch — 3-line or otherwise — was to strike the agent or editor as original. Now I’m quaking in my proverbial boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and shout, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath; it’s the too-common structure that is snore-inducing, not necessarily any individual pitch’s subject matter. Besides, no agent or editor can possibly judge the quality of your writing solely through a verbal pitch, so even in the unlikely event that a pro said something like that to your face, it would be a response to your book’s premise or plot as you have just presented it, not to the book itself. As practically everybody in the industry is fond of saying, it all depends on the writing.

And I have even more good news: if you can make your elevator speech resemble your narrative voice, it is far, far more likely to strike the hearer as original.

Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advising you to work with your elevator speech or pitch until it sounds like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. Or like a pitch for a book that’s already on the bestseller list.

Was that giant thud I just heard the sound of the jaws of all of you who have attended conferences recently hitting the floor? “But Anne,” these astonished souls protest, cradling their sore mandibles, “you’re got that backwards, don’t you? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard agents and editors say at conferences, ‘Oh, THAT kind of book isn’t selling anymore.’ Wouldn’t it be better strategy for me to imply that my book is just like something that is selling well right now?”

Perhaps, if your manuscript actually is similar to a current bestseller. Even if you find yourself in this position, though, you’re going to want to figure out what makes your book original and work some inkling of it into your pitch. After all, any agent who represents those types of books will have been inundated with carbon copies of that bestseller since about a month after it hit the big time.

Seriously, do you have the slightest idea how many YA vampire books Millicent the agency screener sees in any given week?

In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else. To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And somnambulant Sally sells salacious seashells by the sordid seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often two. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY? Or even the next DA VINCI CODE? How about something that’s selling immensely well in your book category right now?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

That’s as true of a pitch as it is for a novel or memoir, you know. A generic pitch isn’t going to show off an honestly original voice, or even a fresh story — it’s just going to sound like two-thirds of the other pitches an agent or editor has heard that day.

See why I so discourage writers I like from embracing the ubiquitous 3-line pitch formula? The way that new pitchers are typically encouraged to do it tends to flatten original stories. Squashes some of ‘em flat as pancakes, it does.

“Wait just a minute,” that Greek chorus of conference-goers pipes up again. “I’m confused. We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks here about making my book project sound marketable. So if I make it sound like something that’s already a bestseller, why won’t that lend my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, there’s just no getting around the fact that a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is inevitably going to come across as derivative. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is why those periodic experiments where some wag tries to query and submit the first five pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in order to demonstrate that good writing no longer stands a chance are not actually measuring agents’ responses to high-quality writing. At this point in literary history, the first five pages of any Jane Austen novel would strike any literate Millicent as being derivative of Jane Austen.

Not that quite a few authors haven’t made a killing in recent years being derivative of Jane Austen, mind you. So much so that even copying her style has been done.

The second answer is that what is already in print isn’t necessarily indicative of what agents and editors are looking for NOW. (If you’re not sure why, I refer you back to that section above where I talked about the usual lapse between acquisition and publication.) The third answer — I’ll throw this one in for free — is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice, so copying it is going to seem even less fresh.

That “Wha–?” you just heard was Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. Take a bow, everyone. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. I’m not going out on a particularly lengthy literary limb by suggesting — or even stating categorically — that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege.)

I seem still to be standing, so allow me to continue: books get published for all kinds of reasons. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction in the five years before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a Pulitzer winner’s ex-husband. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective, and strenuously pretending that any issue affecting humanity has two equal sides — and only two sides. But the author is not going to lean toward either. Uh-uh. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

To have a literary voice, though, is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option. In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the writer chose for this appropriate for the story?”

Not all voices fit all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would you want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? A political thriller whose first-person narrator is a senator by day, a hacker by night, but speaks all the time like a Barbary pirate? What about a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write. Nor would it best serve my literary purposes to pitch my fiction in the same voice as my memoir.

Honestly, if I used my wistful-yet-tough memoir voice here to discuss the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor in 42 second flat. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please. I have some masses to mobilize.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written everything from political platforms to fashion articles to promotional copy for wine bottles to lectures on Plato. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these topics, because the audiences were very different.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting (although believe me, you need some pretty good comic timing to keep hung-over frat boys awake throughout the entirety of an 8 a.m. lecture on ancient Athenian political theory), and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Just as there are millions of different ways to tell any given story, there are millions of different ways to pitch it. Tone, voice, vocabulary choice, rhythm — a skillful writer may play with all of these tools in order to alter how a reader or pitch hearer receives the story.

Speaking of stories, let me tell you one that you may find enlightening.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay very young, very naïve Harvard students a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area.

Alone. All summer. In my case, throughout the wildlife-rich Pacific Northwest. I awoke once near Mt. St. Helens to find a ground squirrel tap-dancing on my head; something with awfully big paws made off with my frying pan outside of Bend, and a tourist bureau employee in Walla Walla told me I was “asking for it” by wandering around town, inquiring about motel rates. (He offered to explain over dinner what “it” was, but I declined.) My gig was heaven, however, compared to my friend who got a switchblade in his gut while asking some perfectly straightforward questions about the freshness of the fish in a bar in Barcelona.

The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Not entirely coincidentally, Let’s Go’s tone at the time was very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right? Not so.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket. It was raining so hard on the outskirts of Eugene that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique her obviously underdeveloped customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge. (If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework, please, and don’t accept any job offers that involve hitchhiking.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to slip into her jeans after checking around the corner for the manager. After I deposited my backpack in my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name.” The combination of the rain noisily battering the phone booth and the angry mob urging me not to impinge upon their territory rendered his response inaudible. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

He had to shout his response three times before I could understand what he was saying. ”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up. He’s an extremely respectable English professor at a well-known liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest now. He tells me that he thinks about my motel adventure every time he meets a student from Eugene.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

In other words, presenting the story in the same flat, just-the-fact voice that dogs the average conference pitch. You’d be surprised at how many pitches for interesting, imaginative books come across with all of the stylistic verve of a police report.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go anecdote, compressed into a standard 3-line pitch:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby and tells the clerk she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity, but the manager confirms the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lamé huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman suspects that she might not be in the right place and telephones the editor who sent her there.

Not the apex of colorful, is it? It’s the same story, essentially, but an agent or editor hearing this second account and think, “Gee, this story might have potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story. I think I’ll pass.” Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

I might not garner precisely the same reactions if I pitched this story in the style of a bestselling writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing over how often aspiring writers pitch and submit books that bear suspicious similarities to theirs.

To an experienced pitch-hearer, the resemblance doesn’t have to be too overt for the kinship to be obvious, if you catch my drift. You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

All that being said, I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting some agents’ and editors’ attention, at least on the Hollywood hook level:

“My memoir is ANGELA’S ASHES, but without all of that pesky poverty!”

“My chick lit manuscript is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!”

“The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or the death!”

However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copycats may hit the big time in the short term, for the long haul, what audiences find memorable is originality.

That’s as true for a pitch as for a manuscript, you know. Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a pitch is this: three days after an agent has heard it, will he remember it on the airplane back to New York? Even if the storyline escapes him, will he remember the interesting way in which the pitcher told it, the narrative voice, the details he’d ever heard before?

In 99% of 3-line pitches, the answer is no. Partially, that’s the fault of the flattening format. Partially, it isn’t.

So at the risk of boring you, allow me to repeat the advice I’ve been hawking for the last couple of posts: the best use of your pre-pitching time — or pre-querying time — is to figure out precisely how your book is different from what’s currently on the market, not trying to make it sound like the current bestseller. A fresh story told in an original manner is hard for even the most jaded pro to resist.

Provided, of course, it’s presented in a polite, professional manner. Next time, I’ll give you some tips on how to give a hallway pitch without impinging upon the hearer’s boundaries. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XV: “You’ve got moxie, kid!” and other delightful responses to hallway pitching

August 6th, 2011

Okay, so that’s not really what Our Lady of the Quips was saying to her young admirer in this particular instance. Nor, apparently, is Mae about to say, “My, but that’s an original book concept. I haven’t heard anything like it at this writers’ conference, even though I have been listening to pitches all weekend.” But clearly, the lady likes what she is hearing.

Please imbed this image in your brainpan, so you may recall it while you are pitching. In hallway pitching, as in life in general, you can tell a lot about how open a hearer is to suggestion by paying attention to expression and body language.

No, I didn’t mean that; what minds you people have. I’m talking about basic common sense here: if an agent’s eyes start to glaze over, you might want to think about cutting it short, thanking her for her time, and walking away with your dignity intact.

Yes, really. Standing there talking while your fine writer’s instincts are screaming that your hearer has lost interest can feel pretty terrible — and believe me, it will feel worse in retrospect. I’ve never attended a pitching-oriented writers’ conference where I didn’t overhear at least one poor soul say something along the lines of, “Oh, it was so awful, but I just couldn’t stop talking! I knew the answer was no, but I just kept piling on more and more detail!”

Actually, you can stop talking, and you should. Brevity is the essence of a hallway pitch, after all, so unless the agent asks to hear more — and we all hope she might — you’re going to want to stop talking after about 30 seconds, anyway. Ditto in a formal meeting, when you reach the end of your prepared (yes, we’re getting to it) 2-minute pitch.

And that’s going to be hard, if you’re like most writers, whether the agent seems to be interested or not: since this is a solitary craft, it’s not at all uncommon for a pitcher to be so relieved at being able to talk about his book to someone in a position to comment knowledgeably upon its publication prospects that he hears himself just keep babbling on and on in one continuous run-on sentence not unlike this one until he’s practically ready to perish from oxygen deprivation or the agent glances at her watch and announces it is time for her next scheduled appointment.

You even stopped breathing while you were reading that, didn’t you? Take a moment to restock your lungs; I’ll wait.

That impulse is understandable, of course, when an agent is leaning forward like a bird dog that’s spotted a partridge, eyes moist and mouth dry with mercantile lust, firing questions at you about your book. You’re going to want to remember to breathe, and you’re going to want to shut up and allow her time to speak, but it won’t be easy. It’s pretty nice to have someone looking at you as though you’re her next meal and she’s famished, at least in this context: to a savvy agent, an exciting new writer is her next meal, in a manner of speaking; she’s planning to be dining out on the proceeds of that writer’s work for years.

Shall I pause again to allow you to revel in that mental image? Or may I move on?

Unfortunately, the tendency to talk too much is not limited to pitches that a perceptive observer could tell from the other end of the hallway are going well. For many pitchers new to the game — and it is a game, lest we forget, with standing rules — the impulse to babble becomes even stronger when the pitch seems to be falling flat. While reason may be battering on the inside of the writer’s hippocampus, bellowing, “Jamie! Didn’t you hear her just say that she doesn’t think she can sell a book about tennis right now? Stop pitching, thank her for her time, and walk away!” poor James keeps hearing himself describing that ball flying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Adrenaline kicks in either way, you see. So does, alas, that third grade teacher in all of our heads that likes to shout at us to try, try again, and harder.

That teacher was wrong. So was your Little League coach, at least as his advice applies to this type of pitching. (Oh, you thought I’d be able to resist the pun throughout this entire series?) In this game, while working up the nerve to step up to the plate is a necessary prerequisite to winning, the umpire’s not going to be judging you on effort. You’re going to have to swing. And in order to become a good player, you’re going to need to develop an eye for assessing when it’s time to let a ball go by when it’s outside your batting range.

I think I’ve mined just about all of the available ore out of that metaphor, don’t you?

There’s a reason I’ve mentioned in at least every other Pitchingpalooza post that it’s not worth your energy to pitch to an agent who does not already represent your type of book: not only are the chances of generating a request for pages much, much lower than with an agent that habitually sells manuscripts like yours; even if the former did fall in love with your work, he might not have the connections at publishing houses to sell it in the current hyper-competitive market. The same holds true for an agent who hasn’t sold a book like yours recently: editorial turnover at the major publishers has been astronomical over the last couple of years.

This is, after all, a connections-based business; your manuscript has to land on the right editorial desk before a publisher can snap it up. So when an agent who used to sell your kind of book stands up at the agents’ forum and announces that she’s not longer looking for new clients who write it, it’s in your interests to believe her.

Don’t waste energy fretting over it; just take your pitch elsewhere. Don’t even try to pitch to her informally — and if it’s a big conference, don’t be afraid to ask to change a scheduled pitch meeting.

Yes, even if you signed up to meet with her specifically because her blurb in the conference brochure said that she did represent books in your category. The literary market changes fast; trust that she knows what she can and cannot sell right now. No matter how good your pitch is, you’re not going to alter that perception.

The same logic holds true even if you don’t find out until you are already face-to-face with her that she does not handle books like yours. Or if she’s disinclined to try selling another, because she’s still chagrined that she couldn’t place the last similar manuscript. Or if she’s just broken up with a professional lacrosse player, and your novel is set at a lacrosse camp. How could you possibly have anticipated that she would never want to hear the word goal again?

Don’t bother to argue. If she’s decided it’s ix-nay on the ports-say, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Stop pitching, thank her for her time, and walk away. Oh, you’ll want to scream and engage in some heavy battery on the nearest padded surface (in a conference center, a couch is always a nice choice), but I can tell you now that’s not going to help.

Listen to me as if I were your third-grade teacher: in the long term, it’s best for your writing career if you handle this contretemps with aplomb. After all, just because that agent is not interested in your current book doesn’t mean that she won’t be fascinated by your next. Or that she won’t be opening an agency two years from now with the agent of your dreams. And had you considered the possibility that her sister might have been your future editor’s college roommate?

Your brain-batterer was right, Jamie: stop pitching, thank her for her time, and walk away.

Not only is she quite likely to be grateful for your professionalism; your response will be memorable for its novelty. You’re probably not going to be the only pitcher who runs afoul of her no net sports policy at that conference, but it’s entirely possible that you will be the only one to take the news well. She’ll appreciate that you understand the industry well enough to get that she’s not rejecting your book per se; she’s rejected the notion of spending her days reading about balls of any sort. (You should have seen her ex flying down the field after that ball. Sheer poetry. But she’s not going to think about it any more, darn it.)

You’re almost certainly going to be the only pitcher, hallway or not, who has the great good sense and courtesy to stop talking immediately after she’s indicated that she’s averse to sports stories. (Her sister’s roommate will be able to fill you in on why. For all you know, that agent covered hockey, soccer, and water polo for her college paper with a zeal that made the Journalism Gods glance down from Olympus and murmur, “Really?”) That will be smart of you: you’re sensitive enough to realize that by now, she’s darned sick of explaining herself.

And of arguing with aspiring writers bent upon foisting stories about basketballs upon her. Oh, the pitchers in question probably didn’t think of it as argument, but if they’re trying to change her categorical no into a yes, how else could she take it?

From the pro’s point of view, how many pitchers seem not to be able to hear the sound spelled N-O until it’s hit their eardrums half a dozen times is one of the great eternal mysteries. (Another is why so many writers seem to hear, “I’m sorry, but I don’t represent books in that category,” as “I am rejecting you personally. Your writing is terrible — something I know telepathically, so I shan’t bother to read it — and you should just give up. Begone from my sight, loser.” It honestly is just a professional choice.)

To be fair, though, what sounds like a no to a nice person who spends her days rejecting people doesn’t always sound like rejection to an excited pitcher in love with his book. The exchange often runs a little something like this:

Writer (cornering agent after she’s just participated in a panel): Hi. I really enjoyed your talk. You had said at the agents’ forum this morning that you were looking for murder mysteries with tough female protagonists, but I couldn’t get an appointment with you. Do you have time for a 30-second pitch for a mystery as we walk to the rubber chicken luncheon?

Agent: Yes, if it’s quick.

Writer (overjoyed): Thank you! Here goes: when Allan, a roguishly handsome lacrosse player…

Agent (turning the dull green of day-old pea soup): I’m sorry, but I don’t represent books about sports anymore.

Writer: …a real ladies’ man, is found dead after he’s just jilted a beautiful-but-naïve journalist…

Agent (clutching her roiling abdomen): Really, there’s no market right now for novels about field sports.

Writer: …the police are stumped. Honestly, given the wide swathe he cut through the newspaper world romantically…

Agent (looking around frantically for an escape route): I wouldn’t be a good fit for this.

Writer: …the likely suspect pool seems to encompass half the female population. Knowing that the authorities have their eye on her, the journalist starts tracking down the other 57 women he had been seeing over the past month…

Agent (contemplating murder herself): Ah, here’s the restroom. Will you excuse me?

Writer (mentally kicking himself): Darn, I broke the cardinal rule of hallway pitching: never accost an agent on her way to the restroom. How could I have made such a basic mistake?

From the agent’s point of view, she was practically shouting, “Please don’t take it personally, but this is the last book in the world I would consider spending the next year of my life trying to sell. Go away! Now, if at all possible!” Her mother brought her up to be nice, though, so she expressed herself gently. Unfortunately, our lacrosse-loving writer got too caught up in spitting out his prepared elevator speech to pay attention to the not-so-subtle indications she was giving him that he was wasting both of their time by continuing.

How should he have handled it, you ask? Do I really need to repeat today’s mantra?

Hint: it begins with stop talking. Let’s see that exchange again.

Writer (cornering agent after a panel): May I speak with you for a moment? I really enjoyed your talk.

Agent: Thanks.

Writer: At the agents’ forum this morning, you said that you were looking for murder mysteries with tough female protagonists, but I couldn’t get a pitch appointment with you. Do you have time for a 30-second pitch for a mystery that might be right up your alley?

Agent (wincing at the bowling reference): Yes, if it’s quick.

Writer (delighted): Thank you! The book’s called LACROSSE MY HEART AND HOPE TO DIE.

Agent (blood draining from her visage): I’m sorry, but I don’t represent books about sports anymore.

Writer: Oh, I’m so sorry — I didn’t know that. (Begins to back away.) Thank you for your time. I really did get a lot out of your talk.

Agent (astonished that he is taking it so well): Wait. A friend of mine just loves sports novels. She works at another agency, so I can’t give you her card, but here’s her name. (Spells her sister’s college roommate’s name for him.)

Writer (scribbling frantically on the back of his notebook): Thank you so much. And may I say that you recommended I query her?

Agent: Yes. She might get a kick out of that, actually.

Of course, it does not always work out quite that well, but as my aphorism-addicted third grade teacher might have said (over and over), you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And a stitch in time saves nine.

Oh, you thought that I was born spouting proverbs? That sort of thing is learned. In Mrs. Eliopoulos’ classroom, by a level of phrase repetition that would have made Patty Hearst’s kidnappers think, “Darn — why didn’t we think of that?”

And that, my friends, is how little girls with long braids and good eyes for curve balls grow up to become editors scrawling in margins, “You have already used this metaphor twice,” 234 pages after its first appearance and 42 pages after its second. We were the 8-year-olds visibly shaking with the effort of not screaming, “Cut that entire last speech! It was utterly redundant,” as we bent our rebellious little heads over our multiplication tables.

Paying attention to your pitch-hearer’s reactions is also learned behavior, and as such, benefits from practice. Were you able to hit the first curve ball that came flying at you?

If you are planning to engage in any pitching at all, hallway or otherwise, it’s very worth your while not to reserve the first, second, or even thirtieth time you say your elevator speech out loud for when an agent or editor is standing in front of you. Do some dry runs with kith, kin, and that guy sitting next to you right now at that café with the good tables for laptop use, taking note of any changes in their facial expressions or body language.

You may be stunned by how obvious it is when a hearer has lost interest. Or how often people will begin to zone out around the time you need to take your first breath.

Think that’s a good place to work in that startling metaphor you were saving for pp. 138, 372, and 413? Or to mention a surprising twist? Or would you rather go droning on about lacrosse?

I sense some of you tuning me out right now. “I get what you’re saying, Anne,” some conference-attendees drawl, “but I’m not planning to do any hallway pitching. Too scary. Within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting, I at least know that the agent will hear me out. So why should I waste my energies preparing to assess the nuances in a situation in which he might not?”

Two reasons, drawlers. First, if an agent does not represent your type of book, he’s actually quite likely to interrupt you to say so, even in a formal meeting. Knowing that you have the option of stopping your pitch, thanking him for his time, and walking away can spare you both the 9 1/2 uncomfortable minutes remaining in your 10-minute appointment.

Oh, pick your jawbones off the floor; it’s considered perfectly acceptable, as long as you exit politely. Do you think that agent wants to spend those 9 1/2 minutes watching you glower at him and pipe plaintively, “But why?” Or arguing about whether he really meant to say no?

Second, writers often find themselves pitching unexpectedly. You might have an opportunity to give your elevator speech at a luncheon, for instance, when an off-duty agent or editor sitting across the table asks, “So what do you write?” Or you might decide during a seminar that the agent teaching it is perfect for your book.

I speak from experience here. I once found myself pitching at a behind-the-scenes conference party at 4 am while fending off a senior editor from a major publishing house’s astonishingly persistent attempts to convince me to accompany him into a nearby hot tub. Something about his approach did not strike me as completely professional. Or so I surmised from his body language, facial expression, and the fact that he kept tugging my arm in the direction of steam.

But when one’s agent is at one’s elbow, hissing, “Give him your pitch,” a good writer obeys. Then one gets the heck out of there. As Mrs. Eliopoulos would have been happy to tell anyone several dozen times, discretion is the better part of valor.

Since informal pitch opportunities generally entail speaking up gamely under less-than-ideal circumstances, it can take some guts to take advantage of them. Let’s face it, not every writer has the pure, unadulterated moxie to stop a well-known agent in the buffet line and say, “I’m sorry to bug you while you are nabbing your third dessert, but I’ve been trying for two days to get an appointment with you. Could you possibly spare thirty seconds after dinner to hear my pitch?” And, frankly, not every conference organizer is going to be thoroughly pleased with the writers brave enough to do it.

Allow me to let you in on a little professional secret, though: if you did an anonymous poll of agented writers who found representation by pitching at conferences (including, incidentally, your humble correspondent), most of them would tell you that they’ve engaged in hallway pitching. Shamelessly. And constantly, at conference after conference, until they have landed an agent.

“Quitters never win,” Mrs. Eliopoulos used to say. “And winners never quit.”

Statistically, it makes perfect sense: the more agents to whom one pitches, the greater one’s probability of being picked up. (In the signed-by-an-agent sense, mind you; stop thinking about that editor at the publishing house that shall remain nameless. In his defense, he claimed he had just broken up with his girlfriend — a lacrosse player, no doubt.) At most conferences that offer pitch meetings, writers are given only one or two appointments, so simple math would tell us that those who generated their own extra pitching opportunities would be more likely to land agents.

That level of persistence need not involve being rude to anybody. I know a perfectly respectable author who landed his agent by the simple expedient of beginning at one end of a conference dais immediately after a panel and moving sideways like a crab for the next 15 minutes, pitching to every agent remotely likely to be interested in his writing. The agent of his dreams turned out to be waiting in the eighth chair, her eyes glazed over after listening for several minutes to a writer talking about a book that she knew she did not have the connections to sell.

How did he pull that off without alienating anyone? By paying attention to subtle hints like facial expression, eye-glazing, and the agent in front of him saying, “Sorry, that’s not my cup of tea,” to tell him when to stop pitching, thank her for her time, and walk away.

Sensing a pattern here? I hope so. All too often, pitchers perceive themselves to be entirely powerless in the situation, supplicants at the feet of a whimsical monarch magically empowered to speak for the entire publishing industry. But that’s just not true. A pitch is a conversation, and as a participant in it, you may chose to terminate it if you feel it is not going well.

Remember that, please, if the agent you picked for your field hockey romantica manuscript because her blurb mentioned that she successfully represented LACROSSE THE RIVER LOVE, NETTED BY PASSION, and HEY, LADY, MY STICK HAS A NET ON IT. Don’t torture her or yourself by pitching a book she has already told you she will not consider representing.

Move on, even if that means working up the nerve for unplanned hallway pitching. You came to that conference to find an agent, didn’t you? As long as you are polite, that goal need not be unattainable simply because you didn’t know that agent’s preferences had changed when you signed up to pitch to her.

Oh, dear, I said goal, didn’t I? I beg your pardon; I’m going to walk away now. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIV: hammering together a solid platform, or, isn’t it convenient that the best-qualified individual in the known universe to write this nonfiction book just happens to be the person pitching it?

August 4th, 2011

You guessed it, long-time readers of this blog: we’re about to launch into one of my cherished (if a bit heavy-handed) exercises in expanding your expectations. So — what do you think this nebulous picture depicts?

Give it some thought. In the meantime, do you mind if I get back to the matter at hand?

Thanks. For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the elevator speech, the ubiquitous 3-line pitch’s prettier fraternal twin.

Prettier in what sense, you ask? Well, in the most important way a verbal pitch can be: it’s more likely to impress a hearer. Unlike the usual 3-line pitch, a plot summary whose primary (and sometimes only) virtue is brevity, an elevator speech is an introduction of an interesting protagonist with an interesting goal facing interesting opposition, preceded by a polite request to pitch, the writer’s name, and the book category.

What’s the difference in practice, you ask? An excellent question. Here is a fairly representative specimen of the kind of thrown-together 3-line pitches agents and editors often hear at writers’ conferences.

Agent: Hi, I’m Emma Perfectagentforyou. Won’t you sit down?

Writer (drawing in the kind of breath Olympic swimmers take immediately prior to diving into a pool): My book’s about an old folks’ home with a problem: people keep getting murdered in various ways; no one knows why. Someone’s got to do something about it, or else the town’s elders — who want the land the retirement home is sitting on to sell to a greedy developer in exchange for major bribes — will close the place down, and fast. By the end of the book, my heroine has foiled the developers, shot the mayor, and, along with all of the surviving circle of friends from the retirement home, has taken over the city council — which had been corrupt for decades due to a hushed-up bribery scandal decades before that only the residents of the home are old enough to remember, so only they can catch the crooks.

That’s not a terrible pitch, certainly; at least we know in general terms what the book is about. But it’s awfully vague, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Who is the protagonist, for instance? In what era is the book set? Does it have a title? And what kind of a book is it?

Surprised that a plot summary laden with twists could leave so much relevant material out? Don’t be — and don’t judge our intrepid writer too harshly. She’s out there trying, and that takes bravery. Besides, she’s never heard a professional writer pitch a book before. All she knows — and see if this sounds at all familiar — is that the conference materials said that the pitch could not be more than three sentences long.

Thus all of those semicolons, commas, and dashes. Technically, it’s only three sentences long; count the periods. But how would one say all of that in a 30-second hallway pitch?

Go ahead, try it. In my many-hued past, I used to declaim Shakespeare on a regular basis, but even my lungs could not get through all of that in less than five breaths and still produce remotely comprehensible words.

And at the risk of terrifying you, that’s the dilemma facing the conscientious pitcher who takes the time to craft something that seems to fit the bill. Although it pains me to say it, most pitchers do not prepare adequately — or, if they do, they often write their pitches so close to their pitching appointments that they don’t have time to practice.

The results, I’m afraid, are seldom pretty. Let’s take a peek at how the attempt usually plays out — no, I don’t have the heart to put you through that. Instead, let’s take a gander at a relatively unstressful pitching session.

Agent: Hi, I’m Emma Perfectagentforyou. Won’t you sit down?

Writer (sits, clutching notes in a death grip): Oh, I’m so nervous.

Agent: That’s okay. Tell me about your book.

Writer: The protagonist of my fiction novel –

Agent (under her breath): All novels are fiction.

Writer: — is a singer who lives in a retirement home where people die all the time, only now, they are dying really close together; the manager is so scared of being sued by people’s relatives that he keeps threatening to close the place — that’s okay with the town officials, though, because they want to condemn the place, anyway, so greedy developers can snap up the land that’s very valuable since it’s right next to the vacant lot that the corrupt mayor knows is about to be bought by a major movie star who, like Greta Garbo, just wants to be alone. The people in the retirement home get very scared, because they have nowhere to go, so she –

Agent: Your protagonist, you mean?

Writer (jarred into losing her place in her memorized speech): What?

Agent: Is your protagonist the one who does something about it?

Writer (frantically shuffling through pages of notes to find the latest draft of her pitch): Um, sorry. (All she turns up are drafts 2 and 3. Decides to wing it.) So my protagonist — yeah, she’s the one — decides to organize the old people into a posse, but there’s this other woman doesn’t like her and opposes it. And oh, I forgot to mention, in this town, there’s a law that states that everyone must be armed at all times. So it’s not like going against the town’s elders isn’t dangerous. And then there’s this subplot about the mayor’s niece, who’s really a good person, and she’s in love with the grandson of one of the people in the old folks’ home, and they want to run away together, but they don’t have the money. So when she gets pregnant –

Agent (glancing at wristwatch): Okay, I’m getting a general sense. I’m afraid I don’t represent cozy mysteries?

Writer (turning crimson): Oh, no, I don’t write genre fiction. This is literary. Your blurb in the conference guide said…

Agent: Well, it doesn’t really sound like the kind of book I can sell in this market.

Frozen with empathetic horror yet? You’d be astonished at how often nervous pitchers sound like this, especially if they have not taken the time to prepare. Or when they do, they misapply their time, believing that an agent will be more impressed by a memorized pitch than one read off an index card. (That’s seldom true, incidentally; agents know that writers tend to be shy. When in doubt, read it.) So if they get interrupted by a perfectly reasonable question, they often panic and lose all sense of their planned structure.

See now why I have devoted so many posts to drilling you to be able to answer questions about your book? If you prepare for a conversation, rather than lecture, you’re less likely to be thrown.

Admittedly, even well-prepared pitchers often feel disoriented in impromptu pitching situations. Are you up for another harrowing example?

Writer (to fellow attendee): Isn’t that Emma Perfectagentforyou walking into the women’s room? I loved her speech at the agents’ forum, but I couldn’t get an appointment with her. Maybe I can catch her…

(Dashes down lengthy hallway, bowling over several prominent memoirists. She tracks down the agent of her dreams waiting in a long line.)

Writer (grabbing her arm): Emma? I want to give you my pitch. Emma lives in a retirement home, and her friends are dying around her. Normal, you say? Not nearly. It turns out that the corrupt mayor has been bribing the manager to poison the water supply –

Agent (sidling away): Oh, it’s my turn. Bye!

(Writer turns away, crestfallen, and returns to the hallway. Several minutes later, Emma and another agent emerge from the restroom, chatting in confidential tones.)

Agent (veering sharply in another direction): Oh, God, there’s that rude writer I was telling you about.

“See?” those of you who have heard that agents universally hate hallway pitching crow triumphantly. “That’s why I would never pitch outside a formal meeting. Even if I accidentally got matched with an agent or editor who did not handle my kind of book, I would be terrified of offending someone!”

Well, you should never, ever, EVER try to pitch in the bathroom (or to an agent whose trajectory and worried facial expression might lead you reasonably to conclude that he might be headed in that direction), but at most conferences, there are perfectly acceptable moments to ask to give your elevator speech.

The key, however, is to ask. Unlike in a formal pitch meeting, where the agent or editor is obliged to listen to a pitch, agreeing to a hallway pitch is in fact granting a favor to a perfect stranger.

Politeness counts. Here is the same book, presented in impeccably polite elevator speech fashion.

Agent (sitting on dais immediately after teaching a seminar): Well, that was a vigorous question-and-answer session.

Writer (approaching respectfully): Excuse me, Ms. Perfectagentforyou, but Brilliant McAuthorly, and I wanted to tell you that I just loved your speech during the agents’ forum.

Agent: Why, thank you, Brilliant.

Writer: You really sound like a great fit for my book, but I could not obtain an appointment with you. Would you have thirty seconds to spare for a literary fiction pitch, either now or at any other time you say?

Agent (glancing at her watch): Sure, if it’s quick.

Writer (delighted): Thank you so much. 81-year-old Emma Trenchfoot is increasingly lonely these days, because every week, another of her friends at the Buona Notte Opera Diva Retirement Retreat dies under odd circumstances. So many have perished that the local authorities are threatening to close the place down. Can intrepid Emma save her last few beloved friends before the CONDEMNED sign swings from the front door?

Agent (astonished that for once, a 30-second pitch actually took only 30 seconds to deliver): Wow, that sounds interesting. (Digs out her business card.) I’m afraid I have to run off to a meeting now, but why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?

Writer (clutching the card as if it were the Holy Grail): Oh, of course. Thank you. (She backs away immediately.)

I’ve sensed raised hands out there in the ether since the end of Brilliant’s elevator speech. “But Anne,” meganovelists everywhere shout, “there’s so much more to the story! Why did Emma say yes, when all Brilliant did was lay out the basic premise, introducing her protagonist as an interesting person facing an interesting challenge with quirky specifics after having clearly stated what kind of book it was…oh, never mind.”

Exactly. Yes, there’s more to the plot than this — but Ms. Perfectagentforyou is just going to have to ask a follow-up question (preferably along the lines of, “Wow, that sounds interesting — tell me more,” or, better still, the aforementioned “Would you send me the first 50 pages?”) in order to find out.

The elevator speech is just a tease. To extend my meal metaphor from a few days back, if the keynote is the amuse-bouche, designed to whet the appetite of the agent or editor, the elevator speech is the first course, designed to show that the chef has talent prior to the entrée, the full-blown 2-minute pitch.

Let me pause to make absolutely sure that every human being within eyeshot of this page understands that: the elevator speech should not be confused with a formal pitch — it’s specifically designed for informal settings. However, If the elevator speech is not finely prepared and delectable, the hearer is not going to stick around for the main course.

If you wow him with the fish in round one, he’s going to clamor for the steak in round two.

That’s the theory, anyway. More commonly in a hallway pitch, an agent in a hurry is going to gobble up the fish and pass on the steak, opting to skip the 2-minute pitch altogether in favor of, well, continuing to walk down the hall.

Don’t let that outcome discourage you; it’s not always bad for the pitcher. As long as the agent hands you a business card and asks you to send pages before he moseys, why should you mind not serving the second course?

Yes, yes, I know: this runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. We’ve all heard that pitchers are allowed to say only three sentences to an agent in total and that those three sentences should summarize the entire plot, as if that were possible. (What about “Hello?”) We’ve also all been told that the purpose of the pitch is to sell the book, not to tempt an agent or editor into reading it.

Believing that is a pretty infallible means of making pitchers feel lousy about themselves, because it’s setting the performance bar almost impossibly high. Those of you who have worked your way through this series, chant it with me now: the SOLE purpose of a verbal pitch is to convince the hearer to ask to read the book in question.

Or at least a part of it. If you’re defining pitching success in any other way, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Everyone got that, or should we chant it a few hundred more times? I can stay here all day, people.

All throughout the sterling set of examples above, I could sense a certain pervasive dissatisfaction amongst writers of nonfiction. (Bloggers develop tremendously acute senses of hearing, you see. That rumble I just heard was slight settling on mile 32 of the Great Wall of China.) ”This is all very well for a novel,” memoirists and nonfiction writers grumble, “but how does all this apply to a MY book?”

Calm your grumbles, oh memoir-writers and pursuers of fact. How does all this theory apply to nonfiction?

Well, at the risk of seeming redundant, the basic principle is the same for a nonfiction book as for a novel: to intrigue the hearer into asking follow-up questions, or even the entire 2-minute pitch.

Which I am GETTING TO, people. Hold onto those proverbial horses.

But while a novelist can simply spring her premise on the nearest agent or editor within shouting distance, the nonfiction writer needs to use a little more finesse. Especially if the book in question happens to be a memoir.

Although, to be fair, a memoir’s elevator speech can be structured rather similarly to a novels. The questions it addresses are alike, after all:

(a) Who is the protagonist and what is the context in which s/he exists?

(b) What is her/his goal, and what is at stake if s/he does or does not reach it?

(c) What obstacles does s/he face in reaching it?

A good elevator speech for other kinds of nonfiction book also answers some very specific questions, but not the same ones. Here, the goal is to demonstrate the book’s importance to its target readership and the writer’s platform.

(a) What is the problem the book is seeking to solve?

(b) Why is it important to the target reader that it be solved? (Or, to put it another way: what will the reader get out of seeing it solved by this book?)

(c) Why is the writer the best possible person in the world to address this question in print?

Yes, these are pretty wide-ranging questions, but remember, the goal here is not to provide the definitive answers. In the elevator speech, you will want to say just enough to intrigue the hearer into asking either to hear the full-blown pitch or to see some pages. As with a novel, it’s not in your interest to tell so much about the book that the agent or editor to whom you are speaking feels that you have told the whole story.

In other words — and you may have heard this somewhere before — the elevator speech is the first course, not the entrée. No version of a pitch should give the impression that there’s no need to read the book.

So here’s a word to the wise: don’t try to stuff too much information into your elevator speech.

Unfortunately, this is often a much-needed bit of advice. I can tell you from long experience as a pitching coach: many, many pitches do convey precisely that impression, because they go into far, far too much detail. Heck, I’ve heard pitches that took 15 minutes to get to the action or argument on page 36.

In a manuscript with 482 pages.

Trust me, you will want to leave enough of a question hanging in the air that your listener will say, “Gee, that sounds intriguing. Send me the first 50 pages,” rather than, “God, this person has been talking for a long time; I was really hoping to grab some lunch. I wonder if room service would bring a drink and a snack to me in the appointment lounge, so I may swiftly depart this hallway, doubtless leaving this writer still talking in my wake.”

I can already feel those of you who’ve pitched nonfiction at conferences shaking your heads. “Yeah, yeah,” these weary souls point out, “obviously, I want to make the book sound like an interesting story. But as any NF writer who has ever come within 30 feet of an agent or editor can tell you, the first question anyone in the industry asks us is, So what’s your platform? If you aren’t already famous for being an expert on your subject matter, or famous for being famous, it seems as though they don’t even listen to the story you’re pitching.”

Well, in my experience, that’s not quite true — most of them will listen to the story a NF writer is pitching. But you’re quite right that they will want to know right off the bat what that writer’s platform is.

A platform, for those of you new to the term, consists of whatever in the writer’s background, experience, birth, credentials, connections, research, etc. that would enable her agent to say truthfully, “Oh, the author is an expert in this area.” Or, at any rate, to be able to claim that people in the general public will already recognize the author’s name.

Which isn’t, contrary to what many aspiring writers believe, always a matter of celebrity. Basically, your platform is the answer to the question why are you the best-qualified person in the universe to write this book?

Hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

And no, for a memoir, simply being the protagonist who lived through the events described in the book is not necessarily a sufficient platform, in the eyes of the industry. If you’re a memoirist who is planning to pitch, you’re going to need to come up with a better answer for, “So what’s your platform?” than “Well, I lived through it,” or the ever-popular, “It’s about ME.”

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. Strange but true, in the literary world, merely being the protagonist doesn’t necessarily render someone the top pick for writing the protagonist’s life story. As the pros say, it all depends on the writing.

So yes, memoirist, you should be prepared to be asked about your platform — in fact, you should work that information into your pitch. Having successfully pitched a memoir myself, I’m not a big fan of allowing an agent or editor to ask that particular question. In other words, I believe that any really good NF pitch should establish the author’s platform as the best conceivable writer of the book, BEFORE anyone thinks to ask about it.

Why? Well, in the first place, including some mention of the platform in an elevator speech (or a formal pitch, for that matter) demonstrates that the writer not only understands how the nonfiction market works, but is aware that it is different from the fiction market. Since it is significantly less time-consuming for an agent or editor to work with a writer who is already familiar with what will be expected of her, publishing savvy is a selling point in and of itself. (In the event that anyone out there doesn’t understand how it works, I would strongly recommend a quick perusal of the START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right before you prepare your pitch; it will make your task much easier.)

In the second place (and thus taking the silver medal), stating your platform up front greatly increases the probability that the hearer will take your argument seriously. Just human nature, I’m afraid, and the reality of the publishing world.

See why I made you figure out what your book’s marketing points, including your platform, before I let you anywhere near anything that remotely resembled a pitch? During a hallway meeting is a lousy time to brainstorm about your platform, after all — and not being prepared leaves you prey to nagging doubts when agents and editors say from the podium (as someone invariably does at every writers’ conference ever given atop the earth’s crust), “Well, unless a writer has a good platform, it’s not possible to sell a nonfiction book.”

I can’t imagine how aspiring writers hearing this could have derived the impression that only the already-famous need apply, can you?

The fact is, though, the vast majority of NF books are written by non-celebrities — and even by people who aren’t especially well-known in the areas in which they are experts. Literally millions of NF books are sold each and every year, and few of their authors are the Stephen Hawkings of their respective fields.

How is that possible, you ask? Let me whisper a secret to you: great platforms are constructed, not born.

If you’re not certain why you’re the best-qualified — if not the only qualified — writer currently wandering the face of the earth to tap out your NF book, you’re going to be pitching at a severe disadvantage. (If you’ve been feeling queasy for the last few paragraphs because you don’t know what your platform is, run, don’t walk to the right-hand side of the page, and check out the posts on YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS, PLATFORM, and NONFICTION MARKETING categories for a bit of inspiration.)

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in seats out there. “But Anne,” those noisy memoirists from earlier protest, “this sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work without a very clear pay-off. Obviously, my memoir is about ME — why do I have to prove that I’m the best-qualified person to write about MY life?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Yet, as I’ve pointed out many times in this blog, a memoir is always about something in addition to its protagonist.

In order to establish your platform, you will need to demonstrate that you’re qualified to write authoritatively on that background issue, too. Because, you see, it just doesn’t make sense to expect the person hearing your pitch to guess what your background is.

For example, if you grew up in a traveling circus, you would probably have some pretty interesting stories to tell — but that will not necessarily be obvious to an agent or editor to whom you’re pitching. What are they, psychic?

But if you demonstrate that your first-hand knowledge renders you a credible expert with an intriguing, unique point of view on the subject, they won’t have to guess, will they? Make it clear that your point of view is not only unusual, but one that readers who already buy books on this subject will have encountered before.

As with a novel, introducing specific, unusual details is usually the best way to achieve this. For instance, it would not necessarily establish your platform as a circus kid to say, “Look, I was the little girl watching from beneath the bleachers,” because to an outside observer, that little girl wouldn’t necessarily have seen anything different than what any audience member did. If you were more specific about how your experience was unique, however, you more or less automatically sound credible: “By the time I was five, I had graduated to riding the lion during the circus parade,” for instance, would be a real show-stopper in a pitch.

Once you’ve figured out what makes your point of view unique, making the case that you are the best person currently living to write about it will become substantially easier, no? (But please, if you love me, do not fall into the trap of describing relatively common attributes or experiences as unique just because they overwhelming majority do not share them. Unique means one of a kind.)

And please don’t wait until you’re actually in a pitching situation to ponder why your take on the larger issues in your memoir is different and better than others’, I implore you. It’s much, much smarter to think in advance about what makes your point of view unique and work it into your informal AND your formal pitches than to try to wing it in the moment. And if that’s not sufficient incentive, here’s more: by including some indication of your platform (or your book’s strongest selling point) in your elevator speech, you will forestall the automatic first question: “So what’s your platform?”

This same strategy will work with any NF book, believe it or not. What is unusual about your take on the subject — and does your special point of view offer your reader that other books in this are do not?

Don’t boast — be specific and practical. Demonstrate what the reader will learn from reading your book, or why the book is an important contribution to the literature on your subject.

With a strong grasp of your selling points to build upon, you can use your elevator speech in much the same way that a novelist might: to provide specific, vividly-drawn details to show what your book offers the reader. Make it clear in your elevator speech what your book is and why it will appeal to your target market. Here’s an example:


Swirling planets, the Milky Way, and maybe even a wandering extraterrestrial or two — all of these await the urban stargazing enthusiast. For too long, however, books on astronomy have been geared at the narrow specialist market, those readers possessing expensive telescopes. ANGELS ON YOUR BACK PORCH opens the joys of stargazing to the rest of us. Utilizing a few simple tools and a colorful fold-out star map, University of Washington cosmologist Cindy Crawford takes you on a guided tour of the fascinating star formations visible right from your backyard.

See? Strong visual imagery plus a clear statement of what the reader may expect to learn creates a compelling elevator speech for this NF book. And did you notice how Professor Crawford’s credentials just naturally fit into the speech, obviating the necessity of a cumbersome addendum about platform?

Didn’t I tell you that it was all about finesse?

Try reading Prof. Crawford’s elevator speech out loud: feels a little awkward to be tooting the author’s horn quite that much, doesn’t it? We writers tend to be rather unused to describing our own work in such unequivocal terms, so I always advise trying it out for oneself — say, a few hundred times.

There’s nothing like practice for learning the ropes, so it’s not a bad idea to buttonhole a few like-minded writers and figuring out elevator speeches for their books, too. I know it sounds wacky, but learning to pitch other people’s books is a great way to get comfortable with the style.

Remember, your elevator speech should be entertaining and memorable, but leave your hearer wanting to know more. Don’t wrap up the package so tightly that your listener doesn’t feel she needs to read the book. Questions are often useful in establishing why the book will be important to the reader:

EVERYWOMAN’S GUIDE TO MENOPAUSE: “Tired of all of the conflicting information on the news these days about the change of life? Noted clinician Dr. Sal Solbrook simplifies it all for you with her easy-to-use color-coded guide to a happy menopausal existence. From beating searing hot flashes with cool visualizations of polar icecaps to rewarding yourself for meeting goals with fun-filled vacations to the tropics, this book will show you how to embrace the rest of your life with passion, armed with knowledge.

Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who have been following this series from the beginning: what techniques did NF pitcher Solbrook borrow from novel pitching?

Give yourself at least a B if you said that the writer incorporated vivid sensual details: the frigid polar icecaps, the twin heat sources of hot flashes and tropical destinations. And make that an A if you noticed that the savvy pitcher used a rhetorical question (filched from Dr. Solbrook’s keynote, no doubt) to pique the interest of the hearer — and double points if your sharp eye spotted the keywords agents love to hear: happy, passion.

Extra credit with a cherry on top and walnut clusters if you cried out that this elevator speech sets up conflicts that the book will presumably resolve (amongst the information popularly available; the struggle between happiness and unhappiness; between simple guides and complicated ones). Dualities are tremendously effective at establishing conflict quickly.

Speaking of odd sensual details and dualities, have you come to any conclusion about the picture at the top of this post? Looks kind of like light reflected off water, doesn’t it? Or a very heavy rain falling through the air, perhaps?

Actually, it’s a photograph of a granite-tiled patio on a sunny day. Completely different level of hardness than water or air, similar effect.

Which only goes to show you: first impressions are not always accurate. Sometimes, a surface that initially appears to be wavering is as solid as stone; sometimes, an author who doesn’t at first seem to have many qualifications to write a book turns out to have precisely the right background for presenting a fascinating new take on the subject.

The world is a pretty complex place. And that a writer doesn’t have to be a celebrity to have a good platform.

More thoughts on constructing and delivering engaging elevator speeches follow anon, of course. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XII: because 30 seconds is not much time — and it will feel like less

July 31st, 2011

dali-clocks

My, it’s quiet out there in the Author! Author! community. I’ve been hearing from some of you prospective pitchers privately — although again, it honestly does make more sense for readers to post questions in the comments here, rather than e-mailing me; that way, not only I am less likely to answer the same question fifteen times in a day, but other curious souls can see the answer — but for the most part, folks have been keeping the comments to a minimum throughout this series. It’s fine just to observe, of course, but I have to say, I am starting to worry that some of you with pitching opportunities coming up might be reluctant to come forward with your concerns and fears.

Call me zany, but it concerns me. It makes me fearful.

Please, if you have questions, ask them — I would much, much rather devote a bit of extra time to responding to comments than have even a single one of you walk into a pitching session unsure what to do. Use a pseudonym in the comments, if you like, but honestly, there’s no shame in feeling insecure. Believe me, you’re not the only prospective pitcher out there overcome with worry; your speaking up might even help someone who is too shy to ask.

Of course, the silence may also be attributable to shock at just how much there is to learn about pitching. We’ve covered a tremendous amount of territory over the last couple of weeks, you must admit. We’ve discussed how to identify your book’s publishing category, identifying your target market, coming up with graceful ways of letting an agent know how big that audience might be, come up with a few strong selling points, develop a snappy keynote statement, and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words. All of that, my friends, will enable you to move gracefully and professionally into conversation with anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that.

Oh, stop groaning — this is where it starts to get exciting. Now that we have the building blocks of the pitch assembled, from here on out, we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, stalwart writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, humble scribe, and don’t forget to awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me while I was spooning wilted green salad onto my plate, you may have 30 seconds of my time. Do you mind if I finish making my way through the buffet first?”

Moments like this were just made for the elevator speech. Or, if you’re going to be polite about it — and you are, aren’t you, if only to make your mother and me proud? — the moments two minutes after a conversation like this, after the agent in question has had a chance to heap her plate to overflowing and set it down on a nearby table, were just made for this. So are the moments right after an agents’ panel, while you are waiting in line for any of the many, many conference festivities that seem for no apparent reason to require waiting in line, and fifteen minutes after the really nice first-time author with whom you’ve been chatting in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America says, “Oh, there’s my agent. Mind if he joins us for a drink?”

Trust me, you will want to be prepared for these moments. Even if you are so terrified of the prospect of pitching that you have promised yourself that you will not utter word one about your manuscript until you have actually shaken hands with the agent with whom you have a scheduled meeting, you’re going to be a much, much happier camper if you have worked up something to say if asked in any context other than a formal pitch session.

Like, say, the entire rest of the conference.

Or, to put it another way: you know those 30 seconds that seemed so short to you when you were trying to compose an elevator speech? The surest means of making them feel eternal is not to have an answer prepared when an agent you have just met socially says, “Mavis, was it? Tell me what you write.”

You’ll be glad then that you took the time to work up an elevator speech, a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense (for novels and nonfiction about current events) and the past tense (for memoir and nonfiction about the distant past). Regardless of the narrative voice of the work, the elevator should be in the third person (and not waste valuable seconds mentioning the narrative voice of the work) — unless, of course, it is for a memoir, which should be pitched in the first person. As we discussed last time, an elevator speech is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name, a brief introduction to the challenges s/he faces, and an implied invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

Then — and this is the hardest part for many nervous pitchers — you are going to stop talking. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, and definitely do not proceed to give your formal 2-minute pitch until that agent asks to hear it.

I’m serious about the invitation part: a 3-sentence elevator speech is not an automatic preamble to a pitch; it is a means of judging a stranger’s interest. Assuming that interest is, in a word, rude. You need to pause in order to allow a well-meaning agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book to tell you that — wait for it — he doesn’t represent your kind of book, and thus it would be a waste of both of your time to continue.

Stop gritting your teeth. An agent’s being willing to tell you that up front is actually a kindness: instead of plowing ahead with a pitch that is doomed from the outset for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing quality of your manuscript, you can simply thank the agent and move on. Preferably to another agent who does represent your kind of book.

How does a savvy writer know to do that? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following Pitchingpalooza from the beginning: it’s simply not worth your time to approach an agent who does not have a solid track record representing books in your category.

Remember, the single most common reason that pitches and queries get rejected is being aimed at the wrong person. There is absolutely nothing a writer can do about a mismatch other than accept gracefully that this is not going to work and move on — because agents specialize, no amount of persuasion is going to convince an agent who habitually represents nothing but memoir that your fantasy novel is the next great bestseller. He’s looking for memoir, period.

But that didn’t address your central fear about giving an elevator speech, did it? “Oh, no, it didn’t, Anne,” those of you quaking in your proverbial boots cry. “I’m not just nervous about an agent’s saying no to me — even the notion of sitting down and trying to…well, not summarize, since you said an elevator speech should not be a summary, but to talk about my book in just a few sentences makes me feel like I’m being invited to waltz on quicksand. I’ve never done anything like this before, and…”

Pardon my interrupting you, boot-quakers, but that last bit probably is not true. If you have ever queried, you actually do have some relevant experience upon which to draw.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, a 3-4 paragraph teaser for a book is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter.

That’s not too astonishing, I hope — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah, even though Oprah’s book club has been defunct for quite some time now.

Like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissenting thoughts very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice. Let’s begin with the strategy.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but panicking and self-blame are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself. Give yourself some time to get good at it.

Feeling better? Excellent. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

a) Who is your protagonist?
I’m not just looking for a name here, but characteristics relevant to the story that will make her seem like an interesting person in an interesting situation. Ermintrude is a twenty-seven-year-old North American may well be factually accurate, but you must admit that it’s a heck of a lot less memorable than Wild boar huntress and supermodel Ermintrude is struggling to complete her doctorate in particle physics.

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?
If the central conflict of the book is not about this, shouldn’t it be?

c) What’s standing in the way of her getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?
And no, “Why, it’s me!” is not a sufficient answer. Show that you are an interesting person in an interesting situation.

b) What did you want more than anything else out of that interesting situation?

c) What was standing in the way of your getting it?

Got those answers firmly in hand? Good. Now let’s mop our perspiring brows and proceed to the next step.

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people. Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t particularly accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a particular person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

How? By being specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Yes, you’re trying to give an overall sense here, but the less you generalize, the more memorable your protagonist and situation will seem. Ambrose was a florist with a dream is not uninteresting, but let’s face it, Forced into being a florist by his controlling great-uncle, Ambrose dreams daily of becoming a lion tamer is more likely to make you want to read the book.

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities. Mara was an offbeat girl with a problem is significantly less memorable than Mara learned to use her first prosthetic limb when she was three, isn’t it?

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
That loud thumping sound you just heard reverberating throughout the ether was the jaw of every pitcher who has ever said something like, “It’s THE DA VINCI CODE, but with 21rst-century sheep herding instead of multi-century religious conflict!” hitting the floor. Amongst a certain type of pitcher — typically, the type who picked up the idea somewhere that a pitch and a Hollywood hook are the same thing — drawing parallels with a bestseller, any bestseller, regardless of the aptness of the analogy, is downright common.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

Why isn’t it efficient? The elevator speech is not about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is all citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves. Besides, once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is in your magic first hundred words, referring to a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage, where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of …and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being. Or Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple and won her the mayoral election.

Or, heaven preserve us, Can they learn to live happily ever after?

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.
Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, forced by circumstances beyond their control, and are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is never a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen to them, rather than characters who do things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of those I’ve heard, I’d build three of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The sad thing is that the books being pitched this way may not actually have passive protagonists. Honestly, though, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone, language, and vocabulary of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

Oh, you smile incredulously; you think a funny premise speaks for itself, don’t you, and that it does not require a funny presentation? Au contraire. Nothing kills a funny premise faster than a deadpan delivery, just as a hilarious elevator speech for a serious book would make an agent who represents the ultra-serious think twice about asking to see pages.

Don’t believe that the wrong tone can undermine ? Okay, tell me where you would expect to see these two books shelved in a library:

A womanizing, shallow reporter becomes unstuck in time. Forced to repeat the same day over and over again, he loses hope of ever moving on with his life. In the process, he becomes a better man.

A shy woman with a past moves to Brooklyn and falls in love with her wacky neighbor. When a young Southern writer takes up residence in their offbeat apartment house, he can’t believe what he sees going on! Will he be able to win her heart before her boyfriend tires her to death with his high jinks?

Did you recognize either of those stories, devoid of the tones that characterized them? I’m guessing not, although both of these elevator speeches are factually accurate renditions of the stories in question: the first was the comedy GROUNDHOG DAY. The second was the tragedy SOPHIE’S CHOICE.

Make the tone of the elevator speech match the tone of the book. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp in the corner of your office responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but you see my point, right? You simply cannot know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you actually say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Oh, you may laugh now, but I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, do not use it in your elevator speech. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often use words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; most inveterate readers do. But do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” some perplexed souls murmur, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud eventually; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch to the agent of your dreams, or a few days before, when you still have time to fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching to an agent, or days/weeks/months before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech. Chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples of these principles in action, but that’s a task for another day — like, say, tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part X: the cat doesn’t have to get your tongue, you know

July 28th, 2011

Some interesting rumors have been flying around for the last couple of days, campers. While book lovers in general have been fretting over the demise of Borders, a lot of us have been worrying about the perhaps less sympathetic but still important to the book-moving trade Barnes & Noble’s future. There’s been quite a bit of speculation that Apple might step in and buy up the latter for its immense book catalog; there has also been talk of taking on a chunk of Borders, possibly just for the retail space, possibly not.

I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true, mind you, or even probable. Such is the nature of tittle-tattle. Since folks have been flinging their hands in the air and prophesying the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as an institution so much over the last few weeks, though, I thought you might find it refreshing to hear a bit of countervailing gossip.

Back to business. So far in this series, we have been mostly talking about taking the preliminary steps to constructing a conference pitch, rather than writing the pitch itself. We’ve covered selecting a book category, the desirability of narrowing down your target audience to something more specific than the ever-popular every woman under 50 in America, finding out how big that audience might be, figuring out your book’s selling points, and coming up with a one-line book concept or keynote, as well as deciding whether pitching is right for you in the first place and what to do if you find yourself in a pitch meeting with an agent who does not now and probably will not ever represent books like yours.

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Do those loud harrumphing noises bouncing around the ether indicate a certain level of skepticism? “I get that I will need to define my work in the language and according to the logic of the publishing industry, Anne,” some of you admit, rattling your feet on the floor and glancing frequently at the door, fearful of being overheard by an agent. “I also have faith that you’re going to walk me through constructing a strong formal pitch because, well, that’s the kind of thing you do in your multi-part -Paloozas. What’s keeping me up nights, though, is the creeping fear that no matter how prepared I am, I might suddenly clam up. Heck, I’m so nervous that I might not even lose my nerve in front of an agent or editor; I live in terror that I might lose the ability to answer coherently if the writer sitting next to me in a conference seminar asks me, ‘So what kind of book are you here to pitch?’”

Oh, I am very familiar with that particular dead-of-night fearful fantasy, campers; I help aspiring writers prepare pitches all the time. It’s a very, very common concern amongst first-time pitchers.

Which is why I can tell you with relative assurance that while you currently feel as if someone asking you to talk about your writing at a conference will be as threatening as this:

If you walk into the conference prepared, it can feel a lot more like this:

Still frightening, of course — there’s no way around that, I’m afraid — but not nearly so confrontational.

How might that semi-miraculous transformation be achieved? Well, learning not to hear the question as a clarion call to justify writing at all, for one thing. Doing precisely the kind of pre-conference homework we’ve been discussing throughout this series, for another. And most effective of all, pulling the pin in the panic grenade before you walk into your first pitch meeting.

How? By approaching fellow writers at conferences and talking about your work.

Yes, on purpose — and before you start telling me that you are nowhere near ready to take such a bold step, allow me to point out that you already have the skills. How do I know? Because we’ve been adding them to your writer’s toolkit for a couple of weeks now.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already constructed together into the first hundred words you will want to say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference — and that’s including “Hello.” With these first hundred words in hand (and mouth), even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean anyone, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, the aforementioned chatty guy sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in the few lines most first-time conference-goers regard as a pitch..

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about my own tendency toward iconoclastism: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching now often makes it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy and the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?

However, as long as aspiring writers in North America are stuck with pitching and querying as the only polite means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why? Well, among other reasons, it tends to make first-time pitchers feel a little like that lion tamer in the top picture: putting so much effort into not showing perfectly rational fear in the face of what your body is quite likely to interpret as a life-threatening situation (because your psyche knows it to be a potentially ego-eviscerating one) that you can barely move. Clutching a chair and a whip, even mentally, is not the best way to begin what can be a very cordial conversation.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate, and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

I’m quite serious about that last one. Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. They flounder not merely because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books.

Why is that structure problematic? Ask those stammering pitchers: focusing solely upon brevity left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

This species of brain freeze happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. You’d be astonished at how frequently these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

That leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine. The results, I’m afraid, are relatively predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to place talented-but-inexperienced writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this ‘Palooka — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned before those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows who you are and what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard bouncing off the moon and back into the atmosphere, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I’ve never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say before a pitch. But such is my faith in your mother that I believe she did not raise you to be rude to people you want to do you professional favors.

Let’s face it: simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man.”

That’s a screenplay-type pitch for TOOTSIE, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

“That writer’s mother can’t possibly know that he acts this way,” the agent will mutter, turning away.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words.

Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that, right?

The goal of my Magic First Hundred Words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with this talisman, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering the MFHW will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same — although we can all hope — it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. Ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease. Observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical here. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations in which a professional writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy. Here’s the formula:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

The beauty of the MFHW formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn these few sentences by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance encounter at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.

Why is so important to introduce yourself urbanely — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are MAGNIFICENTLY busy people. They honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.

That’s my job, right?

Look, it’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning the actual content of her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of him has usually already mentally stamped his foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.

Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, his book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than merely good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, he might not get to pitch at all.

By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, the pros will appreciate it.

I’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I don’t know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)

Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it makes a facing a firing squad seem like a carefree social encounter?

Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed. In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.

No, but seriously, folks, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.

They want to like you, honest. But they will like you better if you meet them halfway — and observe the niceties.

Worried? I can’t say as I blame you; would it set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings? Assuming that we all already know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at a couple of other common entrance speeches. First, the super-vague:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Non-specific, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? Who are these characters, and why should I care about them? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy, the self-rejecting:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it? Let’s try the book report method on for size:

“My fiction novel is a first-person narrative from the points of view of three different narrators, all unreliable. The writing is very literary, but I’m hoping to market it to a mainstream audience. The imagery is extremely filmic, so it would be a natural to make into a movie.”

Okay, but what is this book about? At the first-introduction stage, why should an agent care about the narrative voice or the number of narrators? It’s not as though she’s going to stop the writer before he even mentions the plot and say, “Oh, fantastic — I was talking to an editor just the other day who begged me to bring her more first-person narratives from multiple perspectives. You, sir, are my new client!”

And by the way, all novels are fiction, just as all memoirs are based on true stories. So saying that your novel is fiction is just about as redundant as telling an agent that you have taken the original approach of printing words on pages; trust me, she will have assumed that.

The book report pitch is not the most common, believe it or not. That honor would go to the ever-popular book review technique:

“This is the most exciting debut novel since THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, although it’s neither written in the first person plural nor a closely-examined depiction of a dysfunctional family. Searing in its intensity, the plot builds to a climax of Cinemascope proportions. The ending will leave you breathless and eager for a sequel.

At the risk of repeating myself, what is this book about? Why is the comparison relevant? And why would an agent believe a writer’s critical assessment of his own work, rather than waiting to make that call herself after reading the manuscript?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to know — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also convey:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME) a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than presuming that you are an automaton, an industry stooge with no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you to see how you like it: (KEYNOTE).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you have done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your sweet lips smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional. It’s going to sound a bit strange and more than a little pushy the first seventy or eighty times that convenient little speech pops out of your mouth.

That’s a perfectly lovely reason not to save the MFHW for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day. In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech.

Knock yourself out. You might make a few friends.

One caveat about using these words to meet other writers: they’re a great introduction, but do remember to give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what she writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work.

Courtesy counts, remember?

So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what your listener writes. In this context, the very brevity of the MFHW will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, she will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate pretty radically how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. After plugging away in one’s literary garret for so long, it can be a huge relief. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.

Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.

It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the MFHW to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group? And who will be more thrilled to hear that you’ve landed an agent, sold your first book, or will be in town for a book signing? (Oh, you thought writers who hit the big time didn’t have support networks?)

If that’s not enough to get you chatting, consider this: there’s a distinct possibility that one of those people sitting next to you in seminars is going to be a household name someday. Every writer has to start out somewhere. Just think how cool you’ll feel saying casually, “Oh, her? Great writer. I met her at a conference years ago. Look, there’s my name in the acknowledgements of her book.”

This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who get what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze, at least not in my general vicinity.

Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re doing for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So have you finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. If they know a little — just a little — about the publishing industry, they may even joke about the day when you will hand them free copies.

Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people copies of your future books. Nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra books to fulfill all those past promises, do you?

Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even in a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually wants to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!” can be pretty overwhelming.

It’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

For that, too, you are already more prepared than you think. For your conversational convenience, the MFHW transform readily into conversation-sparking questions:

”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? What is your target audience? What’s your premise?

Sensing a theme here?

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your MFHW aloud — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you already had the e-mail addresses of a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Trust me on this one: you won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes.

Practice, practice, practice those MFHW, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They are going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Next time, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech, those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about. After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks: you honestly are building up your professional acumen. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part IX: Anne Frank and Godzilla meet cute at the Tour Eiffel, and love blossoms! Or, how to get conceptual without sounding reductionist

July 27th, 2011

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Did some of you find yourself getting just a trifle antsy when I didn’t post yesterday, campers? I couldn’t really blame you, especially if you happen to be in a great big hurry to polish a pitch — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area the weekend after this. It’s eight days away — can you hear Washington State’s collective blood pressure rising at the very thought of it? — and frankly, I have about twice that many posts’ worth of observations to make about pitching.

There goes that blood pressure again. Take some nice, deep breaths, local pitchers-to-be, and let’s think about our options.

First, if you are planning to pitch next week, please feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through the basics at record speed. (I know — how do I come up with those esoteric category names?)

Second, I could ramp up the pace, in the manner of ‘Paloozas past. I’m reluctant to start posting twice per day (and thrice on Sunday!) in mid-summer, because I assume that most of you who are not planning to pitch as early as next week might conceivably want to engage in some leisure activities, get some work done, and/or spend enough time with your families that your kith and kin could pick you out of a police lineup (“That’s she, officer — or that’s what Mom looked like before she took up writing.”) In the midst of one of my hectic ‘Palooza marathons, any of those things could in theory take a back seat to furious reading.

So here is what I propose: let’s take a poll. If you’d like me to pick up the pace, gearing the rest of the series to the assumption that many of you will in fact be pitching the weekend after next, drop me a note in the comments. If, on the other hand, you would feel that boosting my already voluminous blog output would stretch your reading capacities, you need say nothing. I’ll get the hint.

And for those of you who do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever, if you can possibly avoid it — please hang tight, either way. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation. Pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, however inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.
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As in any other business, there are ropes to learn if you want to get published. No shame in that.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, that sounds interesting, but naturally, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter will often get rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Allow me to repeat that, as it’s hugely important for you to remember as you are walking nervously into a pitch meeting: giving a poor pitch will not hurt your book’s long-term publication process; like inadvertently sending a query addressed to Agenta McMarketpro to Pickyarbiter O’Taste, Jr., the worst that will happen is that you will engender some minor irritation in the person on the receiving end. There are other agents and editors, after all.

Learn what you can from the experience, then pick yourself up, dust the leaves and bracken from your ego, and move on. Doesn’t your book deserve the compliment of persistence?

Yes, yes, I know: when you’re prepping a pitch, it feels as though not only the fate of your book, but the prospects of Western civilization hang on whether you can give a coherent and appealing account of your plot or argument. “It’s not just the idea of sitting face-to-face with a real, live agent that’s so intimidating, Anne,” nail-gnawers all over the Pacific Northwest point out. “It’s the shortness of the darned pitch meeting. I’m a complex person who writes in a complex matter about complex things — how on earth am I supposed to cram several years’ worth of concentrated creative thought into just three sentences?”

Ah, you’re suffering from Pith Petrification. This dire syndrome’s tell-tale symptoms are clearly visible in the hallways of half the literary conferences in North America. Aspiring writers walk into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I am not a big fan this approach, however often conference brochures and websites tout it as the proper — or only — way to pitch a book. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions or sneeze while she’s in the midst of delivering it.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: people sneeze, and asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last time with some homework. How is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are being marketed to readers.

Yes, I know: the major chain bookstore to which you might have hied yourself a year ago may well be closed today. Try not to think about that; find another brick-and-mortar purveyor of books. Given the recent events at Borders and B&N, I’m sure the staff will be delighted to see you.

As fond as I am of public libraries, checking out the new release shelf there is no substitute for browsing at a bookstore. Neither is surfing through the offerings on your favorite online book emporium’s website — and not just because all of us who write might feel just a little bit better about our futures if more people got up from their desks, locked the doors of their respective domiciles behind them, and strolled into the nearest bookstore.

The idea here is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How is that delightful propensity manifested, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

Once you have found the general section in the bookstore where your book will sit one happy day, try to find stories that share characteristics with yours. Is the voice similar? Is the subject matter roughly equivalent? Do your book and the one in front of you both contain long sections of historical flashback?

I don’t mean to tout my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books that resemble yours, you will notice that they all seem to be aimed at a specific group of readers. They will all have something else in common, too.

In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words. Think those words might be ones it might behoove you to consider including in your pitch?

Seriously, marketing efforts are not known for their vast vocabulary. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) When I was handed my first set of bottles, I was laboring under the impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like. As I was new to the game — and, to be completely honest, under 21 at the time, and thus not legally empowered to sample any of the wine I was supposed to be describing — I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine.

Okay, so I wasn’t actually guessing. Having grown up literally in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, I had a certain amount of prior experience nailing down precisely what nuances the palette might find pleasing.

After a week or two of being on the receiving end of some frankly much too long descriptions (some of them would have had to be continued on the next bottle), the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be, honey,” he told me, “and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots to produce accurate descriptions?

He waved away my objections. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic may be productively applied to the language of a pitch or a query letter: an overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what agents and editors are hoping to hear. Since they think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book concept.

In other words, you’ve probably been working too hard, trying to shoehorn too many extraneous details into your pitch.

Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. For the rest of this post, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted.)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent, the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of wanting to discuss your marvelously intricate book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: even if the agent of your dreams is given to twenty-minute conversations with aspiring writers, sometimes, you will have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when the aforementioned agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite mutual introduction will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch — where politeness doesn’t preclude it, of course. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk this morning. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

I feel the shy quailing, but here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so he will ask to hear more, not to pitch the book all by itself.

And you are going to do that charmingly, professionally, and most of all, courteously. (You didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript. Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE within a swift single sentence. The keynote is not a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he will ask to hear the entire pitch.

Think of the keynote as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into longing to hear your formal pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more.

It is not — and I cannot stress this enough — a pitch proper for a book. No matter how clever a single-sentence keynote is, you will still need to write a pitch (if you are successful in piquing an agent or editor’s interest, anyway). Naturally, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print; the keynote is designed to help open doors so that you may create pitching opportunities.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point at the moment. The point is that in an impromptu first contact with a publishing professional, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy.

And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood hook should not be — but often is — confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks her into the story. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms mixed up all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY — on Mars!”

“It’s JAWS, but on dry land and with turtledoves!”

“Queen Elizabeth II finds herself suddenly deposed, penniless, and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day aliens invade!”

It’s no accident that each of the examples above ends in an exclamation point: you want your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? Remember, the whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more.

Think about it: if someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Starting to get the picture? The point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about my book, not demonstrating my encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey would like us to believe. (Use the Force, Luke!)

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from earlier in the series: you can’t presume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your particular subject matter.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could never eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book sets out to solve vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue. Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch.

So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, I imagine the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand why pith that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to luxurious, page-long descriptions of individual dust motes floating in beams of light pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?”

That’s a great question, mote-lovers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

To put it bluntly, if you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony, not how likable your protagonist is.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound positively conflict-ridden. How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch, sunshine.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book overall is to be soothing. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights? Reach for this book!” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

Did some eyebrows hit some hairlines just then? Weren’t you aware that both pitching and querying are species of seduction?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing art as you’re going to find.

Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before. Another effective method for constructing a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution to it.

This works especially well for nonfiction books on depressing subjects. A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and this book will tell you what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a few years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults; a crucial scene in the memoir I was hawking took place at the height of the Ethiopian famine. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounded like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. Oh, and the book’s subject apparently gave up the fight. These things happen.

My point, should you care to know it: if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbored an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believed they could sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, interesting hearers in heavy subject matter tends to be harder than attracting them with comedy, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year or two, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and absolutely original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is unique, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, so much the better. Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your book memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to get them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. realistically, neither could be true.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: if a pitcher is extremely rude to the pitchee, the latter won’t ask to see pages. But logically, no assessment of a VERBAL pitch could possibly be construed as a MANUSCRIPT critique.

They can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose. While I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good verbal delivery is not the same thing as book concept memorability. I once went to a poetry reading that still haunts my nightmares.

A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked into a well-attended reading and declaimed, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. Yet to make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me — I was a sweet young thing at the time — lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone in the room was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, years later, everyone there seems to remember his, ahem, performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time. But then, we were all busy getting out of the guy’s line of sight.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his performance memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing.

Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who wrote an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if somebody ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.) But did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

And, like an agent or editor who has been the object of an inappropriate pitch in a conference bathroom, do I share the horror story on a regular basis? Need I answer that?

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a lot of pitches, and even more Hollywood hooks: too many one-line pitchers concentrate merely on delivery or sounding clever, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you are the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at her already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part V: feeling a trifle hemmed in by those length restrictions, are we?

September 29th, 2010

centurians in bondage

For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis. A 1-page synopsis should be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book. Or, to cast it in terms that those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series should find very familiar, an extended version of the descriptive paragraph in a query letter.

So hey, all of you queriers who have been clutching your temples and moaning about the incredible difficulty of describing your 400-page manuscript in a single, pithy paragraph: I’ve got some good news. There are agencies out there who will give you a whole page to do it!

Does that deafening collective groan mean that you’re not grateful for triple or even quadruple the page space in which to describe your book? Is there no pleasing you people?

Okay, okay — so it may not be a piece o’ proverbial cake to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the boo within a single page in standard format, but by this point in the series, I hope the prospect at least seems preferable to, say, confronting an angry cobra or trying to reason with pack of wolves. Constructing an eye-catching 1-page synopsis is more of a weeding-the-back-yard level of annoyance, really: a necessarily-but-tedious chore.

Seriously, successfully producing a 1-page synopsis is largely a matter of strategy, not creativity, and not even necessarily talent. As long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of one of the most common short synopsis-writing mistakes — trying to replicate each twist and turn of the plot/argument; generalizing so much that the book sounds generic; writing book jacket promotional copy rather than introducing the story — it’s simply a matter of telling Millicent what your book is ABOUT.

Preferably in a tone and at a vocabulary level at least vaguely reminiscent of the manuscript. Is that really so much — or so little, depending upon how you chose to look at it — to ask?

By contrast, the 5-page synopsis – which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages. Preferably by describing actual scenes, rather than simply summarizing general plot trends, in language that is both reflective of the manuscript’s and is enjoyable to read.

Why concentrate upon how you tell the story here, you ask, rather than merely cramming the entire plot onto a few scant pages? Why, to cause the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller,” obviously.

Again, piece of cake to pull off in just a few pages, right?

Well, no, but don’t avert your eyes, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready well before you anticipate needing it. As I MAY have mentioned before, even if you do not intend to approach an agent whose website or agency guide listing asks for a synopsis to be tucked into your query packet, you will be substantially happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

In fact, you take nothing else away from Synopsispalooza, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it. Forcing yourself to do it at the last minute may allow you to meet the technical requirement, but it is not conducive to producing a synopsis that will do what you want it to do and sound like you want it to sound.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. Even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot.

Yes, even if the agency or contest of your desires asks for an 8- or 10-page synopsis. Trust me, people who work with manuscripts for a living are fully aware that cutting down a 370-page book to the length of a standard college term paper is not only impossible, but undesirable. So don’t even try.

What should you aim for instead? Glad you asked: in a 3-8 page synopsis, just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic summary of the primary plot, rather than all of the subplots. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should; it’s an extension of our list of goals for the 1-page synopsis. Let’s revisit those, shall we?

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.)

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “am I missing something here? You’ve just told us not to try to summarize the entire book — yet what you’re suggesting here sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and doing just that!”

Actually, I’m not doing any such thing, summary-resisters. The distinction lies in the details: I’m advising you to winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens.

Yes, of course, there’s a difference. What an appallingly cynical thought.

If you’re having serious difficulty separating the essential from the merely really, really important or decorative in your storyline, you may be staring too closely at it. Try to think of your story as a reader would — if a prospective reader asked you what your book was about and you had only a couple of minutes to answer, what would you say?

And no, I’m not talking about that ubiquitous writerly response that begins with a gigantic sigh and includes a fifteen-minute digression on what scenes in the novel are based on real life. I’m talking about how you would describe it if you were trying to sound like a professional writer trying to get published — or, if it helps to think of it this way, like an agent describing a terrific new client’s work to an editor.

You wouldn’t waste the editor’s time rhapsodizing about the quality of the writing or what a major bestseller it was destined to be, would you? No, that would be a waste of energy: pretty much every agent thinks his own clients’ work is well-written and marketable. Instead, you would relate the story or argument in the terms most likely to appeal to readers who already buy similar books.

If you absolutely can’t get that account down to 5 minutes or so, try giving the 20-minute version to a good listener who hasn’t read a syllable of your manuscript, then asking her to tell the plot of the book back to you. The elements she remembers to include are probably — wait for it — the most memorable.

Or, if you don’t want to go out on a limb by recruiting others to help you, sit down all by your lonesome, picture your favorite English teacher standing over you, set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment, and write a brief summary of the book’s themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

No, the result will almost certainly not be a professional synopsis; this is an exercise intended to help you identify the essential of your storyline. It will also help you separate the plot or argument’s essentials from the secondary issues.

Why is that a necessary step? Well, lest we forget, a synopsis is a writing sample. It would hardly show off your scintillating literary voice or world-class storytelling acumen to provide Millicent with a simple laundry list of events, would it?

Please at least shake your head, if you cannot provide me with a ringing, “No, by jingo!” If you can’t even muster that, take a gander at how such a list might read:

SUZIE MILQUETOAST (34) arrives at work one day to find her desk occupied by a 300-pound gorilla (MR. BUBBLES, 10). She goes and asks her supervisor, VERLANDA MCFUNNYNAME (47) what is going on. Verlanda isn’t sure, but she calls Human Resources, to find out if Suzie has been replaced. She has not, but who is going to ask a 300-pound gorilla to give up his seat to a lady? Next, Verlanda asks her boss, JAMES SPADER (52), what to do, and he advises calling the local zoo to see if any primates might by any chance have escaped. Well, that seems like a good idea, but the zoo’s number seems to have been disconnected, so Suzie and Verlanda traipse to Highlander Park, only to discover…

Well, you get the picture: it reads as though the writer had no idea what to leave out. Not entirely coincidentally, it reads like a transcript of what most aspiring writers do when asked, “So what’s your book about?”

How does a seasoned author answer that question? As though she’s just been asked to give a pitch:

GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST is a humorous novel about how rumors get out of hand — and how power structures tend to cater to our fears, not our desires. It’s aimed at the 58 million office workers in the US, because who understands how frustrating it can be to get a bureaucracy to move than someone who actually works within one? See how this grabs you: Suzie Milquetoast arrives at work one day to find a 300-pound gorilla sitting at her desk. Is the zoo missing an inmate, or did HR make another hideously inappropriate hire?

A full synopsis? Of course not — but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good elevator pitch. It also wouldn’t be a bad centerpiece for a query letter, would it?

Which means, by the way, that it could easily be fleshed out with juicy, interesting, unique details lifted from the book itself. Add a couple of paragraphs’ worth, and you’ve got yourself a 1-page synopsis. Add more of the story arc, including the ending, toss in a few scene descriptions, stir, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a 3-page synopsis.

And how might you turn that into a recipe for a 5-page synopsis? Get a bigger bowl and add more ingredients, naturally.

But in order to select your ingredients effectively, you’re going to have to figure out what is essential to include and what merely optional. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.)

To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh? What about this story will a Millicent who screens submissions in this book category not have seen within the last week?

(b) What does my protagonist want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of her/his getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist go about achieving this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…hey, wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

Again, they should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

I told you: piece of cake.

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the story’s ending in the synopsis. Too many aspiring writers omit this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away. Besides, how do I know that someone won’t steal my plot and write it as their own?”

To professional eyes, leaving out the ending is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page. In fact, it’s frowned-upon enough that some Millicents have been known to reject projects on this basis alone.

Half of you who currently have synopses out circulating just went pale, didn’t you?

Perhaps I should have broken it to you a bit more gently. Here goes: from a professional point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. They are left to surmise that:

a) the synopsis’ writer isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, having confused it with back jacket copy, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little.

In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is simply not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied here as well.

Again, next!

c) the synopsis’ author is one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market.

The wily fiend! Next!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel.

All together now: next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it. They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

Does that monumental gusty sigh I just heard out there in the ether mean that I have convinced you on that point? “All right, Anne,” synopsizers everywhere murmur with resignation, “I’ll give away the goods. But I have a lingering question about #4 on your list above, the one about writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. I get that a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth. But I keep getting so wrapped up in the necessity of swift summarization that my synopsis ends up sounding nothing like the book! How should I remedy this — by pretending I’m the protagonist and writing it from his point of view?”

Um, no. Nor should you even consider writing it in the first person, unless you happen to have written a memoir.

Nor is there any need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is absolutely identical to the book’s — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of book you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Piece of — oh, never mind.

There’s a practical reason for demonstrating this skill at the querying and submission stages: it’s a minor selling point for a new writer. Increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance. Or a blog, like yours truly.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not. Let’s move on.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers attempt — is to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself, cramming them indiscriminately into the synopsis. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

Trust me, they recall what they’ve read. When I was teaching at a university, I was notorious for spotting verbiage lifted from papers I’d graded in previous terms; the fraternities that maintained A paper files actively told their members to avoid my classes.

Similarly, a really on-the-ball Millicent might recognize a sentence she read a year ago — and certainly one that she scanned ten minutes ago in a synopsis if it turns up on page 1 of the attached manuscript.

See the problem? No? What if I tell you that in a submission packet, the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are often read back-to-back?

Ditto with query packets. And good 30% of contest entries make this mistake, reproducing in the synopsis entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry. Invariably, the practice ends up costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” some of you point out huffily, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just yesterday that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent, Maury , and/or Mehitabel will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers: the operative word here is necessarily. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to counter that impulse by asking this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers, it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics. So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length in a separate post), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions amid the general wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices cry from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard. Here’s a useful litmus test.


(1) Print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.

(2) Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines.

(3) Ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague generalities. Think about it from Millicent’s perspective — to someone who reads 100 synopses per week, wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile?

But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?

Uh-huh. So would Millicent.

It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long (like, I must admit, today’s post), you can also employ the method I described above, but with an editorial twist:

(1) Sit down and read your synopsis over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot or argument of the book.

(2) Go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones.

(3) Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

(4) If so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this question upsetting – do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

If you’ve strenuously applied the steps above and your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Sounds wacky, I know, but the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

So why not be original and trim that part down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot?

This is an especially good strategy if you’re constructing a synopsis to accompany requested pages or even unrequested pages that an agency’s website or agency guide listing says to tuck into your query packet, or contest entry. Think about it: if you’re sending Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission or query packet (its usual location), the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book before stumbling upon the synopsis.

So I ask you: since space is at a premium on the synopsis page, how is it in your interest to be repetitious?

Allow me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.) Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off, Jane.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. (Our Jane’s very into 21st-century technology.) In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Don’t just ignore that 300-pound gorilla; work with him. And, of course, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: INDOMITVS, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson

September 16th, 2010

Cole Casperson author photo

Have everyone’s brains unscrambled after the intensive query-and-submission fest that was Querypalooza? Please enjoy the down time, because next week (Saturday, September 25, to be precise) we shall be hurling ourselves head-first (literally) into Synopsispalooza, a celebration of all things…well, I’m sure you can extrapolate.

In the meantime, I have a real treat in store for you: close Millicent-the-agency-screener-eye-views of some genuinely wonderful reader first pages. That’s right, gang: it’s time once again for yours truly to whip out her multicolored editing pens.

I’m genuinely excited to introduce you to today’s writer, 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson, pictured above. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Cole also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest last June. To render that dual win even more impressive, the first page of INDOMITVS garnered a distinction that no other entry did: the judges agreed that it was a contender for top honors in two categories: Adult Fiction (the category in which it was actually entered) and YA.

How is that possible? Well, for the reason that the judges were unanimous in their eagerness to see me evaluate this entry in a blog post: the voice and plot would have worked for either.

Don’t keep parroting, “How is that possible?” I’m about to let you see for yourself — and please, if the type is too small or too fuzzy on your screen, do yourself a favor and enlarge the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + a couple of times. You’re going to want to say in future that you were among the first to read this promising new voice.

Cole's entry

Compelling, isn’t it? By the bottom of the page, it’s easy to care about these characters; we already are inhabiting their lifeworld.

That’s not easy to do in that few lines, obviously. So what’s the secret? All of those gorgeous specific details, combined with that lovely narrative rhythm: when farmers could step away from their crops and line up in angry rows of bronze…surveying the noisy rotting tree-stump…the drone of the fat midsummer bees reached out and enveloped him in a sphere of frenzied harmony.

That’s some nice writing, eh? Especially coming hard on the heels of a genuinely terrific first line that both flings the reader directly into our hero’s mindset and sets the time period: Marcus Furius would kill a man in six days.

Cole’s brief description in his contest entry also makes the book sound like a heck of a lot of fun:

No novel has focused on a nascent Rome’s most exciting period: the Early Republic. Rome had to start somewhere, and I write about the man responsible, Camillus. In a market where Anakin Skywalker is a kid and Batman Begins, why not explore the prequel to Caesar, Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc?

About half of the judges drew in their breath sharply at that surely exaggerated first sentence: there have most assuredly been novels set in that time period before, a few of them recent releases. And that could be very problematic at query time, because if Millicent happened to work at an agency that had represented such a novel within the last decade (or even if she had read one during that period), she would be likely to mutter under her breath, “Well, this one didn’t do his market research,” and reject the query.

So why, given how negatively Millicents as a group tend to respond to all-or-nothing statements in descriptive paragraphs, did I, alone amongst the judges, cry, “Hooray!” when I spotted this description amongst the winning contest entries?

Quite simply, I knew it would make a terrific example. Those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series might already have guessed why: queriers and pitchers make this sort of black-and-white claim all the time.

In fact, nearly every entrant in this particular contest included one or more overstatement in her book description — not all that astonishing, given how often such statements turn up in queries. Mistakenly, many queriers seem to believe that the use of superlatives will make their claims to originality, writing quality, and/or marketability stronger and more convincing. But like any other claim made in a query letter, Millicent is unlikely to believe it unless the querier provides some evidence. It is always better to show her that your book is original, well-written, and/or marketable than just to assert it.

To be fair, this description may not have been written for inclusion in a query letter: the contest rules did specify that the descriptive paragraph should explain what is original about the manuscript in question. What, we asked, will this book add to its chosen book category?

Cole’s description satisfies that brief rather well. But I ask you: based on this first page alone, what is the book category, and who is the target audience?

Not immediately obvious, is it?

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, the judges were split about placing this in the Adult Fiction or YA category: the voice, the vocabulary, and the story so far could in fact place it in either, right? Yet being judges, they were in a position to do what a perplexed Millicent scanning a writing sample in a query packet might not necessarily do — ask the writer to produce, as all of the winners and placers were asked to do, a page-length book description.

Take a gander at INDOMITVS’ longer description. Fair warning: I shall be asking you to consider the question of book category again afterward.

INDOMITVS blurb

If you said, “Why, this sounds like historical fiction,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Cole did indeed enter this first page and the description above as historical fiction.

If I know the quick eyes of my hardcore readership, however, a forest of hands was already in the air by the end of the first sentence. “But Anne,” those of you who have followed past discussions of both standard format and Millicent’s pet peeves point out, “wouldn’t some Millicents — or, indeed, many contest judges — not have read this description in its entirety? It’s not in standard format, as I understood that everything that went into a query packet should be, and I thought that it was fairly normal for professional readers simply to skip over openings in italics. So wouldn’t today’s winner be much more likely to make friends and influence people in agencies if he made these relatively small cosmetic changes?”

Why, yes, clever and incisive long-time readers, he almost certainly would. However, it’s a pretty good back jacket blurb, isn’t it? For the purposes of this contest, that’s perfectly okay, italics and all. (It would also make quite a good verbal pitch as is, come to think of it.)

Which is not to say that it couldn’t be improved — or would fly as a 1-page synopsis in a query or submission packet. One of the things I love about this particular contest: in awarding the prizes, I have a genuine opportunity not only to give my readers fine examples of how to do a first page right, but also to help our winners make — wait for it — their great first pages even better.

In that spirit, I’m going to go ahead and give some tips on improving this description, just in case our winner should ever like to tuck it into a query envelope. I also suspect that this feedback might be helpful to anyone out there querying an agency that expects a 1-page synopsis to be tucked into the query packet.

Okay: let’s start with expectations: everything, but everything, that an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample, and should be treated accordingly. Proofread closely, under the assumption that Millicent will probably turn green at even a single typo; adhere to the strictest standards of grammar and style, on the same principle; use standard format in promotional materials (as opposed to the query letter itself), assuming that Millicent is used to seeing writing samples formatted that way. (And if you weren’t aware that manuscripts and books are not supposed to look alike, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider mailing any pages at all to an agency.)

Would something as simple as a typo or a non-doubled dash in a synopsis be enough to trigger rejection? Not always, but remember, a querier or submitter can have absolutely no idea what has just happened immediately before Millicent opens his packet. For all you know, Millie’s boss might just have finished a tirade on how e-mail and social media have caused the general standards of spelling and grammar to decline, or just yelled at a client for a formatting gaffe.

Yes, both happen. Make sure your materials — all of them — are impeccable.

Then, too, as we saw throughout the summer and in the post on our last winning entry, professional readers are HARSH. Even more so on writing they like than writing they don’t, typically: close scrutiny is the compliment the pros pay writing that they consider publishable; no writer in her right mind would actually want her book to go to press with lingering typos or logic problems, right?

So in not pulling their punches, they honestly believe they are being helpful. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is often a matter of experience, pure and simple. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly. And when Millicent grows up, she wants to be just like us.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s wonderful anecdote about being solicited by her neighbors to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came knocking on Fisher’s door in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher genuinely wanted to help them, so she very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, hard, professional look through the patched-together manuscript. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional readers would automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if you start developing it as part of your tool kit before you start working with an agent or editor.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being other than your spouse, best friend, or mother to set eyes on your manuscript.

All of which is to say: I am cruel here only to be kind. Here is how Millicent would see the book description above.

blurb edit

Startling, isn’t it? At the risk of repeating myself: every syllable an aspiring writer allows to pass under Millicent’s scrutiny is a writing sample. It’s in your best interest to assume an uncharitable reader, rather than — as most queriers and submitters assume — one that will be predisposed to overlook small faux pass in a manuscript that shows real promise.

As this one most assuredly does, by the way. But that doesn’t mean that even a Millicent who fell in love with the strong narrative voice, the interesting and unexpected protagonist, and/or the unusual story would not respond to that first page we all admired so much like this:

Cole edit

And yes, in response to what a good two-thirds of you just thought: this is how a professional reader reacts to a first page she likes. I didn’t spend all summer yammering about first page troubleshooting just because I happen to like book openings, after all.

The good news is that not only are all of the problems here easily fixable; they are easily fixable in under an hour. Certainly a worthwhile investment in improving an opening as compelling as this one’s agent-seeking chances, eh?

Let’s begin with the formatting problems, starting at the very top of the page. Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have been complaining for the last year and a half or so that all of a sudden, we’ve been seeing slug lines — that author-identifying bit at the top of each and every page of a professionally-formatted manuscript — with extra spaces in them, a relative rarity before. Abruptly, aspiring writers were showing up with this:

CASPERSON / INDOMITVS / 1

Rather than this:

CASPERSON/INDOMITVS/1

Or, even more properly — and effectively, given this particular title — this:

Casperson/INDOMITVS/1

The extra spaces on either side of the dashes may look cool to aspiring writers, but to anyone who stares at professionally-formatted manuscripts day in and day out, they will just look wrong. Ditto with the all-caps chapter title seen here:

CHAPTER 1

To writer, this capitalization choice may seem like purely a matter of personal style, but to Millicent, it’s a matter of formatting. In a manuscript, chapter designations are in title case:

Chapter 1

Or, if you prefer:

Chapter One

Several other issues might have been less obvious to the eye unaccustomed to the rigors of standard format, but to a professional reader, they would leap off the page. First, the page is not consistent about having two spaces or one after a period. As we’ve discussed in the past, there is actually some debate amongst agents on this subject, so ALWAYS check agency guidelines before you submit: two spaces is the standard format default, but if an agent has a strong preference for one, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.

Whichever you choose, though, be consistent. Professional readers are specifically trained to catch inconsistencies.

Another problem that would have caught Millicent’s eye is the run-on sentence in line -6:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up, even the horse is bored.”

There is no real narrative benefit to running two sentences together here, which renders this rule-break a risk without a clear pay-off. While run-on sentences have become much more acceptable in dialogue in recent years than in the Thou Shalt Not decades of the 20th century, they are still grammatically incorrect. It should read:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up. Even the horse is bored.”

Another often-overlooked rule — or, indeed, one of which many aspiring writers do not seem even to be aware — is the single-sentence narrative paragraph. Here, we see it in line -7:

A thrown acorn clattered off a branch near his head.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that sentence per se. (Although a Point-of-View Nazi might be tempted to ask how precisely, given that the narrative appears to be in the tight third person for the rest of the page, the protagonist could possibly have told the difference between an acorn that was thrown and one that simply fell on him. One suspects that the trajectory might have provided the necessary clue, but the narrative does not discuss it.) Standing alone in its own paragraph, however, it would jar a professional fiction reader: outside of dialogue, a proper narrative paragraph consists of at least TWO sentences.

I specified a fiction-reading pro, because these days, pretty much all U.S. newspaper and magazine writing abounds in single-sentence paragraphs. And, of course, the entire opus of Joan Didion, who popularized the single-line paragraph. Yet more evidence that aspiring writers are held to a significantly higher literary standard than famous ones — and that the AP style embraced by newspapers is not identical to the expectations for book manuscripts.

As Cole is obviously aware, there’s quite a bit of fiction out there right now that breaks this rule. However, the generally-accepted rule of thumb is that the rule should be broken ONLY for emphasis. Like, for instance, when the information divulged in that single line is in some way a surprise. For example, while this would be technically correct:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side? Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

A writer might conceivably want to underscore the twist by setting the final sentence off by itself:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side?

Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

Reads surprisingly differently, doesn’t it? Yet like any narrative device, the single-sentence paragraph loses its power if used too often. Reserve the single-sentence sentence for when the information is genuinely startling, to set it off from the rest of the text.

As I said, though, all of these problems are easily and practically instantly fixable, the type of things that could have been caught right away by a talented proofreader. There is one danger, however, that a non-professional reader would have been extremely unlikely to catch.

Unfortunately, it is also something that could result in instant (and, I think, entirely undeserved) rejection at many agencies. Care to guess what might press Millicent’s buttons?

No? Let me give you a hint: it is integrally related to the judges’ primary concern about this first page.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, waving your arms and screaming, “I know, Anne! Millicent is likely to cast her eyes over this page, say, ‘Wait, this is YA; my boss doesn’t represent that. Next!’” take 14 gold stars out of petty cash. This is, believe it or not, the single most likely reason that this first page might be rejected.

Yes, really. If a story opens with a pre-voting age protagonist, many a Millicent at an adult fiction-representing agency has been known to leap to the conclusion that the writer has miscategorized a YA book or (and this is, alas, the more likely surmise if this page comes in a query packet) that the writer just didn’t bother to check whether the agency represents YA or not. Since no query or submission is easier to reject than one in a category Millicent’s boss does not sell, either of these situations would be no-brainer rejections.

Oh, I can tell from here that a lot of you hate that. “But Anne,” writers of stories that begin in the protagonist’s youth and follow him through time protest, “that isn’t fair. If Millicent is confused about the book category, why wouldn’t she just go back and check the query letter or synopsis? Heck, in a submission, she could just check the title page; the book category would be in the upper right-hand corner.”

Good question, linear time-lovers, but I suspect that you won’t like the answer much: because she has a lot of first pages to read today, and her job is to reject 98% of them.

So how can a savvy writer protect her manuscript from this ugly fate? Well, I’m afraid my solution is pretty cynical: even if the book follows the protagonist throughout a lifetime, consider opening the submission version of the manuscript with a scene from her adult life, then jump backward in time.

Hey, you can always cut that opening scene prior to publication, right? Your goal here is to get past Millicent.

A less cynical approach, and one that might work better for Cole’s page, would be to rid the page of any elements other than the protagonist’s age that could be giving off a YA vibe. In this first page, there are several. The use of the historical future in the first sentence, for instance: while historians and other nonfiction writers are fond of this tense (so dramatic!), in fiction, it’s most closely associated with fairy tales (unbeknownst to Hansel and Gretel, that gingerbread house was to be their downfall). In most adult fiction, even if the overall plot is not told in chronological order, the action in an individual scene usually is.

Or, to pony up an old favorite from last summer, the percussive use of and:

Such a thing was not a rarity amongst the Italiots, particularly in the summer months, when farmers could step away from their crops AND line up in angry rows of bronze. This summer had proved to be no exception, AND a single killing would not normally raise eyebrows. But Marcus lived far from the Etruscan border, AND he was only ten years old.

Or, still more YA-like, its repetitive use within a single sentence, to echo a common pattern in childish speech:

Spurius was a year older AND much bigger AND quick with his fists.

While a 10-year-old might legitimately think like this, here, in a narrative that otherwise has an adult tone –heck, it even sports a semicolon in line 6 — it seems to convey an expectation about the audience, as well as information about the protagonist. This structure — technically a run-on — is far more common in YA than in most adult fiction categories. It’s also much more frequently used in first-person narratives (particularly YA first-person narratives), in order to give a (false) impression of a chatty, conversational tone.

The final element that might lead Millicent — and did lead half of the judges — to conclude that the story to follow was YA lies in the name choices. You must admit in any ahistorical novel, featuring a protagonist who apparently has the last name Furius would constitute a bit of a character development give-away: you’d hardly be surprised if this guy turned out to be a trifle on the impatient side, would you?

True, we know from the blurb that this book is about someone who really lived, so his name would not be easy to change. What is completely under the writer’s control, however, is what the character is called in the narrative — and certainly what he is called in the first line of the book. Remember, readers’ first impressions are formed very quickly.

But Marcus’ name isn’t really the part that screams YA here. His brother, a winning tyke apparently named Spurius Furius, does.

Actually, in real life, the guy’s name was Spurius Camillus — our protagonist was, as we know from the book description, Marcus Furius Camillus — but that’s not the point. It would be hard to make a name like this to work on page 1, unless the voice was clearly comedic beginning in the first paragraph.

And don’t suggest that a reader has an obligation to read the back jacket blurb before starting page 1. Even in a published novel, that would be a dangerous presumption; at the query and submission stages, an assumption that Millicent would already know historical characters’ actual names could be fatal.

How so? Well, go back and re-read page 1: is there anything there to indicate that Furius isn’t the boys’ last name? And since a reader of adult fiction must be presumed to be familiar with the term spurious, why wouldn’t Millicent leap to the conclusion that the brother’s name was a joke intended to fly slightly over young readers’ heads, an inducement to beef up their vocabularies, especially in a manuscript where the protagonist is (at least at first) ten years old?

So how should Cole rectify this problem, given that he can’t exactly rechristen people who lived over 2,000 years ago? At the risk of seeming cynical…well, you know what I was about to suggest. Or — and this was what a good half of the judges thought he should do — he could turn the book into YA.

Those are calls that only he can make, of course. Everybody here at Author! Author! is awfully darned excited to see what he decides; the judges were unanimous that they want to be told well in advance when this book is going to be available for sale, so they may pre-order it.

If the rest of you take nothing away from this post, let it be this: even a wonderful first page can almost always be improved. A grabber of a hook, nicely-written sentences, engaging characters, a sense of place — all of these Cole’s opener has in spades. But as a professional reader, that only renders me more excited to read the revised version to come.

Congratulations, Cole — this really does sound like one heck of a book. Keep up the good work!

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