Pitchingpalooza, part XXIII: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life

lie-detector

Remember back at the beginning of this series, when I introduced you to the world’s worst salesman, that genial soul who evinced continual exasperation because consumers insisted upon wandering into his flooring emporium and demanding, well, flooring? If only all of the benighted souls pursuing Marmoleum and carpet would leave him alone for a while, perhaps he could get some real work done — like, say, selling some flooring.

I may have met his match over the weekend: a delightful gentleman whom Home Depot had, perhaps unwisely, entrusted with the task of translating the customer’s choice of paint chip into a bucket of something that might conceivably resemble that hue if applied judiciously to a wall. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly match that,” he told me in a tone that implied I was a mad scientist, bent upon world domination through vicious color manipulation. “I’d have to special-order the base for something like that. Might take weeks.”

The color in question was, should you care to know it, royal blue. The wall behind him was painted approximately the same color as my proffered paint chip. I could, had I been so inclined, simply reached onto the shelf immediately behind his head and grabbed a can of spray paint in the shade I was requesting.

Besides, he had said something quite similar to the beige-loving lady in front of me in line. I waved paint chips from three different manufacturers under his nose, suggesting that if he did not have the base for my first choice in stock, he might conceivably be able to try one of the others.

He snorted derisively. “Yeah, but I’d have to go into the back for either of those.” He was visibly surprised when this piece of sterling logic did not instantly dissuade me from wanting to paint anything, ever. He pointed out that he would actually have to walk all the way to the back of the store in order to fulfill my madcap request, but I remained adamant. “Maybe you could come back tomorrow,” he suggested.

Eventually, I cajoled him into attempting to mix some royal blue for my trim, just to see if it was possible. If it turned out not to be, I assured him, I would follow his advice and paint the room in question flat white. But at least the question of whether royal blue was a color extant only in theory would have been resolved for the ages.

Mirabile dictu, it is in fact feasible for a well-equipped hardware store to produce a can of non-white paint. Feeling that the paint gods were on my side, I recklessly requested a couple of gallons of light blue paint for the rest of the room.

He sighed so gustily that customers in adjacent aisles wheeled around to see who had been punched in the gut. “Lady, if you want colors like that, you should go to a specialty store. Now, if you could pick something more reasonable…”

“Well, I could gold-leaf the room, but that might be a trifle hard on the eyes.”

He appeared pleased with the suggestion. “That would be beautiful. Of course, we don’t carry anything like that here.”

Clearly, the man was a minion of the wallpaper industry. By dint of persistent cross-examination, however, I did manage to elicit an admission that a light blue could in fact be produced by — I hope I’m not giving away an artist’s secret here — mixing a blue tint with white paint. Who knew?

Not wanting to press my luck, I apprehended my paint cans and fled. I was halfway through turning the third wall light blue before I was forced to resort to the second gallon. The paint within appeared to be a brilliant orange.

“Well, that happens,” my hero informed me when I returned. “Some of these tints are unstable.”

Why am I sharing this story of woe and disillusionment toward the end of Pitchingpalooza, you ask? Because like this paint-monger, many a conference pitcher seems to believe, wrongly, that communicating his resentment about having to pitch at all will not fundamentally color his hearer’s perception of whether he knows what he is talking about. Judging by the tone and speed of many conference pitches, quite a few pitchers’ primary goal is just to get the agent or editor listening to it to decamp as swiftly as possible.

But we know better, right? Pop quiz: what’s the actual purpose of a conference pitch?

Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash if you instantly shouted, “Why, to convince the agent or editor to ask to see pages!” But if your first instinct was to say, “Um, to survive my pitch meeting without dying of fright?” we need to talk.

Conference pitching was not invented by sadists in order to torture innocent writers, you know — in theory, it’s intended to save aspiring writers some time. Instead of having to proceed through a tedious and often protracted querying process that does not always result in requests for pages, a writer can approach several agents at a conference, present her book’s premise convincingly, and walk out with one or more materials requests.

But that doesn’t mean that the people hearing your pitch won’t notice if you appear to be hurried, hostile, or just plain petrified; how you present yourself and your book does matter. It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re nervous; it’s not okay to act as though the agent or editor harbors a grudge against writers in general and you in particular, simply because she asks what category would most comfortably fit your book.

Resentment of the process shows up beautifully within the context of a tense pitching appointment, and for good reason. Just as a query that begins Since agents like you have set yourself up as the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, I guess I have to go through you to get published is much less likely to succeed than on that introduces one’s book politely, a pitch accompanied by a bitter denunciation of the business that keeps the hearer shod, fed, and with a roof over her head is substantially less likely to engender a request to see pages than one that doesn’t.

Go figure. Remember, it’s human nature to prefer to work with upbeat, friendly people, rather than angry, sullen ones. A good agent will expect to have a lot of contact with his clients; you’re going to want to come across as easy to work with on a long-term basis.

You don’t have to smile constantly, naturally, or heap the agent with compliments on her attire. (“A blue suit — well, I can certainly see that you live in the fashion capital of North America.”) Just be pleasant, will ya?

I sense some disgruntlement out there. Go ahead, get it out — far better that you air it here than in a pitch meeting. “But Anne,” the annoyed many cry, “that’s not fair! I want my book to be judged on its writing and my great premise, not how likable I am.”

Seriously? If the agent of your dreams asks to see the first 50 pages of your manuscript, you’re going to quibble about why?

But okay, if you insist: logically, it is impossible for an agent or editor to assess anyone’s writing based upon a verbal pitch alone. The pro can glean quite a bit of information about whether he is likely to be a good fit for a particular book project from a pitch — the book’s category, for instance, or its target audience, the inherent excitement of its central conflict, whether the intended reader will sympathize with the protagonist’s dilemma — but if the only way that you will accept representation is if the agent reads your first two sentences and falls in love with your voice, pitching is not going to produce the outcome you want. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

If, however, you are the kind of writer who approaches conference pitching as a means of leap-frogging over the query stage and straight to submission, it’s in your best interest to be as pleasant as possible. It will get your great premise a more hospitable hearing.

Is everyone clear on that? If not, please speak up; that’s what the comments section is for, people.

Remember, too, that in addition to maintaining a positive attitude, striving for clarity, rather than mere accuracy of description, will help you win friends for your book. Aspiring writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. Your agent will be pitching it to editors; the editor that picks it up will be pitching it to an editorial committee.

Indeed, it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that one of the main points of conference pitching is to render pitching a book someone else’s responsibility. Making it pellucidly clear what your book is about will go a long way toward convincing an agent that it would be worth her time to take a gander at your pages.

Obviously, clarity of presentation is especially challenging for writers of multiple-protagonist novels. Earlier in this series, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple-perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs or talk about voice choices. It tends to be substantially less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is.

So please, I implore you, do not open your pitch with, “My novel is a multi-perspective first-person narrative, alternating between the point of view of a color-blind house painter, a tone-deaf piano teacher, and a pianist who has entirely lost the sense of touch.” It’s not that these characters are uninteresting; your hearer will want to hear the story.

Don’t make that face at me, multiple perspective-lovers. Presumably, you chose the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story you want to tell, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting for a month now. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags. It really does behoove you, then, not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view. If you get stuck about how to tell the overarching story of a book with multiple protagonists (or multiple storylines, for that matter), you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present his/her/their story/ies as the book, purely for pitching purposes.

Ooh, that suggestion generated some righteous indignation, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is not to distill the essence of the book: it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to read it.

No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech, any more than he would from a synopsis. If it were possible, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

“But Anne,” the upright whimper, “I don’t want to lie. Won’t I get in trouble for implying that my book has only two protagonists when it in fact has twelve?”

Trust me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over. What makes me so sure of that? Frankly, it would require the memory banks of IBM’s Big Blue for a pitch-hearer to recall everything he heard over the average conference period.

Blame it on pitch fatigue. After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I know, I know: we all want to believe that our pitches are the exception to this — naturally, the agent of our dreams will remember every adjective choice and intake of breath from OUR pitches, as opposed to everyone else’s. But that, my dears, is writerly ego talking, the same ego that tries to insist that we must get our requested submissions out the door practically the instant the agent or editor’s request for them has entered our ears.

In practice, it just isn’t so.

And shouldn’t be, actually, in a business that rewards writing talent. Given the choice, it’s much, much better for you if the agent of your dreams remembers that the writing in your submission was brilliant than the details of what you said in your 10-minute meeting.

As to the question of being misleading…well, I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post. For now, let’s move on to the next reader’s question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet wrote in some time ago to ask how to handle the rather common dilemma of the writer whose local conference occurs whilst she’s in mid-revision: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel?” she asked. “Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet. The answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book. But realistically, they’re going to be too tired to recall every detail by the time they get on the plane to return to New York, much less a month or two from now, when they get around to reading your submission.

Stop deflating, ego — this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches per day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — and multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season, not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis, and then you can begin to understand just how difficult it would be to retain them all.

I hate to bruise anyone’s feelings, but now that you’ve done the math, I ask you: how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

You shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of a book pitch is to get the agent or editor to ask to read it, not to buy the book sight unseen. Since that request generally comes within a few minutes of the writer’s uttering the pitch, if it’s going to come at all, what you need to do is wow ‘em in the moment.

Although it is nice, admittedly, if yours is the pitch that causes an agent to scrawl in her notes, “Great imagery!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been harping so much throughout Pitchingpalooza about the desirability of including memorable details in your pitch. You have the pitch-hearer’s attention for only a few moments, and 9 times out of 10, she’s going to be tired during those moments. A vividly-rendered sensual detail or surprising situation that she’s never heard before is your best bet to wake her up.

Under the circumstances, that’s not an insignificant achievement. Don’t lessen your triumph by insisting that she be able to reproduce your pitch from memory six weeks hence — or that you need to get those requested materials to her before she forgets who you are. Accept that she may not remember you by the time she gets on the plane to go home from the conference, and take the time to whip your manuscript into shape before submission.

The upside of short memory spans: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. That’s par for the course. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead.

It honestly is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the manuscript. The most popular proposed omissions: the book’s length and whether it is actually finished on the day of the pitching appointment.

Let me take the second one first, as it’s easier to answer. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until she has a complete draft in hand, because it would not be possible for an agent to market a partial first novel. In fact, most pitching and querying guides will tell you that you should NEVER pitch an unfinished work.

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. Agented writers pitch half-finished work to their agents all the time, for instance.

Does that mean that you should? Well, it depends. It would most definitely be frowned-upon to pitch a half-finished book that might take a year or two to polish off — unless, of course, the book in question is nonfiction, in which case you’d be marketing it as a book proposal, not as an entire manuscript, anyway.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: nonfiction books are typically sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a memoir; although some agents do prefer to see a full draft from a previously unpublished writer, the vast majority of memoirs are still sold in proposal form.

So I ask you: could you realistically have your novel in apple-pie order within the next six months?

If so, that’s not an unheard-of lapse before submitting requested materials. And if you have a chapter of your memoir in terrific shape, could you pull a book proposal together within that timeframe? (For some guidance on what that might entail, please see the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

If the answers to all of those questions are a resounding “No, by gum!” you should consider holding off. Unless, of course, you’d just like to get in some pitching practice while the stakes are still low. But if you are pitching a novel just to get the hang of it (a marvelous idea, by the way), don’t make the mistake of saying that the manuscript isn’t done yet.

It’s considered rude. You’re supposed to have a fiction project completed before you pitch or query it, you know.

Confused? You’re not alone. Like so many of the orders barked at conference attendees, the expectation of market-readiness has mutated a bit in translation and over time. Take, for instance, the prevailing wisdom that maintains you should have a full draft before you pitch because an agent or editor who is interested will ask you for the entire thing on the spot.

As in they will fly into an insensate fury if you’re not carrying it with you at the pitch meeting.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, demanding to see a full or even partial manuscript on the spot doesn’t happen all that often anymore (and the insensate fury part never happened in the first place). 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — or e-mail it.

Seriously, she’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, she’s not going to clear his schedule in anticipation of receiving your submission. I’ll bring this up again when I go over how to prep a submission packet (probably in September; I want to go over query basics first, so PLEASE, if you have pitched within the last few weeks and are impatient to send things off, read through the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category before you drop anything in the mail) but I always advise my clients and students not to overnight anything to an agency or publishing house unless the receiving party is paying the postage.

Yes, even if an agent or editor asks you to overnight it.

I heard that horrified gasp out there, but the fact is, it’s a myth that overnighted manuscripts get read faster — yes, even if the agent asked you to send it instantly. That request is extremely rare, however; most submitters simply assume that they should get it there right away — or that their work will be seem more professional if it shows up in an overnight package.

That might have been true 20 years ago, when overnighting a manuscript would have been a rarity but here’s a news flash: FedEx and other overnight packaging is just too common to attract any special notice in a crowded mailroom these days.

If you’re worried about speed, Priority Mail (which gets from one location to another within the US in 2-3 days) is far cheaper — and if you write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the package, might actually get opened sooner than that spiffy-looking overnight mail packet.

Besides, even if you did go to the trouble and expense to get your manuscript onto the requester’s desk within hours of the request, it can often be months before an agent reads a manuscript, as those of you who have submitted before already know.

Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away. And that, potentially, means that a savvy writer could buy a little time that could conceivably be used for revision. Or even writing.

Catching my drift here? After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…and the agent is going to be on vacation until after Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if the agent has asked for only the first three chapters…

Or, to put it in querying terms: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to the letter…and then ask for the first 50 pages…and that has to get by a couple of screeners before they can possibly ask for the rest?

Starting to get the picture?

There’s no reason not to work those predictable delays into your pitching and querying timeline. Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but let’s face it, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then. If you can get requested materials out the door within a few months, you should be fine.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent or editor in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal librarian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is actually attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and announce that the book isn’t finished yet — in a word, don’t. Because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry, of the type that agented and published writers employ all the time: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you? And you aren’t completely happy about every syllable of the current text, right?

The question of whether to mention manuscript length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of submission timing. Or so I surmise, from the response to the inevitable moment at every writers’ conference I have ever attended when some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

Without fail, half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a couple of days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. Currently, first novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format. For the hows and whys of estimation vs. actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

If your book runs much over 400 pages, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Or just don’t mention the length in your pitch; it’s not a required element.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401. Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. (For more on this point, please see the rather extensive exchange in the comment section of a past post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. If you have not, don’t mention the length in your pitch or query.

Not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not merely to preclude the possibility of an instinctive response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously — and often, the pitch or query as well.

If your book is over or under the expected estimated length for your genre, you will probably be happier if you do not volunteer length information in either your pitch or your query. This is not dishonest — neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front.

I’m not recommending that you actually lie in response to a direct question, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information. Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit. Given the current level of distrust aimed at memoirists these days, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it come into fashion.

Yes, I know: many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but as far as I know, no major agency has a policy requiring Millicent to reject queries where it’s not mentioned. Some agents will say they like to see it, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — but if your book would fall into either of those categories, is it really in your interest to promote a knee-jerk rejection?

I’ll answer that one for you: no, it isn’t. For any reason.

Keep up the good work!

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

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 XIII: who is this watery woman, and what is she doing to that fish?

fountain-in-carcassonne

Before I launch into a rather necessary explanation of the rather odd picture above, allow me to send out a quick word of advice to any of you out there who might happen to be planning to spend this coming weekend at a literary conference in my general geographical area: no matter what every fiber of your being may feel in the moments just after a successful pitch, you do not need to send requested pages to agents and editors right away. In fact, acting on that impulse is generally a really bad idea — especially if you, like so many well-intentioned aspiring writers before you, are in such a rush that you spring for overnight postage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Unless an agent asks you point-blank to overnight something, just don’t do it; it won’t speed up the reading process. So why shell out the quite substantial extra dosh?

Yet saving money, while in itself nice for a writer, is not the only reason that obeying that first hyper-excited impulse is not a good idea. Any guesses why?

That’s right, campers: almost without exception, aspiring writers who pop requested materials into the mail or e-mail them right after the request don’t have time to read their submissions IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ideally, OUT LOUD.

And why might that be a very, very costly choice? Because this is the single best way to weed out any gaffes that might get the submission shifted into the reject pile.

Some of you conference-goers are huffing at the very idea of delay, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those who are just itching to get that manuscript out the door protest, “I whipped my submission into apple-pie order before the conference, and I’m terrified that the requesting agent will forget who I am if I wait. All I have to do now is stuff it in an envelope or hit the SEND key, and I’m on my way to fame and fortune!”

Legitimate concerns all, but listen: if you pitched at a large conference, chances are that the agent or editor is not going to remember the details of your pitch, anyway; that’s why they take notes, so they know why submissions are landing on their desks two months from now. Requests for materials take months and months to expire.

So since you have time, why not make sure your submission is buffed to a high gloss? You get only one chance to impress that agent, you know.

Reading every syllable of it out loud is far and away the best means of catching the little problems that might dull the shine, such as typos, logic problems, and missing words. Not to mention that pet peeve that the requesting agent specifically mentioned at the conference as an automatic rejection offense. Proofing your work on a computer screen is not an adequate substitute, as all the typos that keep cropping up in newspapers and magazines attest: since most people read a backlit screen about 70% faster than words on a printed page, it’s just too easy for the eye to glide right past a fixable problem.

When you’re excited and in a hurry, of course, that’s even more likely to happen. And lest any of you doubt that, here’s a discussion amongst some very savvy writers about the manuscript-killers they’ve let slip by in their rush to get requested materials to agents.

Whether you heed this advice — and I know from experience that a hefty proportion of you won’t — make sure to follow this part: send precisely what the agent or editor asked to see — no more, no less. I don’t care if the cliffhanger of the century falls two lines into page 51; if the requester asked to see the first 50 pages, that’s all you get to send. Agents are wise to the ways of manuscripts, after all: they won’t be shocked to see that page 50 isn’t the end of a chapter. Heck, stopping there may well cut off the tale in mid-sentence.

Oh, and don’t forget to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the submission packet or in the subject line of the submission e-mail. That will help prevent your pages from ending up in the wrong stack. For a few more salient tips on how to polish and package your work, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the archive list at right. For those of you stymied by logistics, the posts in the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category might prove enlightening.

But enough of this frivolity. On to the marble lady and companions.

While flipping through my photos from my writing retreat in southwestern France — yes, I shall be continuing to rub that one in for the foreseeable future; thanks for asking — I stumbled across this photo of a genuinely strange fountain in Carcassonne. Leaving aside for the moment the question of why that astoundingly well-fed pigeon is attacking the mermaid, I ask you: when’s the last time you saw a mermaid who didn’t have to ride sidesaddle?

Seriously, wouldn’t you have thought that was logistically impossible? What does she have, a bifurcated tail like the mysteriously frond-like stems on the siren in the old Starbucks logo?

original-starbucks-logo

Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, I’m not merely alerting you to the tail enigma out of the fevered musings of a sleep-deprived mind. No, the watery trollops above are illustrating a point crucial to our ongoing series: the ordinary presented with a twist is inherently more memorable than the ordinary.

Bear that little nugget in mind as we continue to make our way through the mysteries of pitching. It will serve you well, I assure you. In the meantime, I promised you examples of good elevator speeches, and examples you shall have.

Frankly, I wish those conference brochures that advise writers not to dream of speaking more than three consecutive sentences about their manuscripts would deign to include a few concrete examples. Just as it’s more difficult to write a winning query letter if you’ve never seen a well-crafted one before than if you have, it’s pretty hard to construct a pitch in a vacuum. Since good elevator speeches vary as much as good books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes one work without showing a few of ‘em in action.

To get the ball rolling, here is an elevator speech for a book you may already know:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Okay, okay, I know that was far, far longer than three beats, and you would probably be gasping like a goldfish that tumbled out of its bowl if you attempted to speak it out loud in only three breaths. It IS three sentences, though, by jingo, albeit lengthy ones.

Which, by the way, makes it precisely the kind of pitch that those tutored by conference brochures tend to give. 90% of three-line pitch constructors seem to operate under the assumption that the hearer will be counting the number of periods in the pitch, not the amount of time it takes to say. I’ve seen pitches with seven semicolons and two colons per sentence blithely presented as adhering to the length restriction.

Pull out your hymnals, everyone, and sing along: for a book pitch, the three-sentence guideline is intended to limit the amount of time it will take for the reader to say it, not to demonstrate how much minutiae she can cram into three innocent sentences. If you can say your elevator speech in under 20 seconds and it’s memorable, call it good.

By that measure, the pitch above is perfectly acceptable — that 18 seconds of murmuring you just heard was me double-checking that it could be said quickly enough. But let’s move beyond the brevity that, unfortunately, is usually the only metric aspiring writers apply to a 3-sentence pitch and get down to what actually matters.

Tell me: is this example a successful elevator speech for this book?

If your first impulse was to reply, “Well, I don’t know — did the agent or editor hearing it ask to see pages?”, give yourself seven gold stars; you’ve been paying attention. Pitches do not sell books; writing does. Your goal is to get the hearer to want to READ your writing.

So do you think this is likely to work? To answer, don’t tell me whether you think this is a good elevator speech, or whether you believe it really could be said in three breaths.

Instead, tell me: based upon this pitch alone, would you read this book?

The fact that you probably already have — it’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and anyone who intends to write novels in English should read it to learn a thing or two about timing from its unparalleled mistress — is beside the point here. Even a story that we all know very well indeed can be presented as fresh by focusing on the details that make the story unique.

Would you read this book? is the question you should be asking when you practice your elevator speech upon your kith, kin, and the guy sitting next to you on the subway in the time between now and when you are planning to attend a conference. Why is it so important? Because if the elevator speech doesn’t make the book sound compelling enough to sit down with the first 50 pages or so, it needs work.

Let’s take that elevator speech apart, and see why it grabs the attention. First, it’s clear about both who the protagonist is and what she wants. It establishes the context within which she operates.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you snort, “give us some credit. About whom would the elevator speech be OTHER than the protagonist?”

Laugh if you like, but as a long-time pitching teacher, I can tell you from experience that elevator speeches for novels and memoirs alike frequently focus on what’s going on around the protagonist, rather than what the poor thing is doing. In fact, you’d be surprised (at least I hope you would) at how often elevator speeches focus on everyone BUT the protagonist — it’s far from uncommon for the hearer to be astonished to learn, upon further inquiry, that the daughter mentioned in passing at the end of the second sentence of a paragraph about a troubled father is actually the book’s lead.

“Wait just an agent-tempting minute, Anne,” some of you protest, “the elevator speech you gave for PRIDE & PREJUDICE is mostly about people other than Elizabeth, isn’t it? If the goal here is to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, shouldn’t you have talked only about her?

Actually, the speech above is about her, even though it mentions other people. It depicts her as the central actor in a complicated situation that other quirky characters also inhabit.

How so? Take another gander at the elevator speech, and notice that establishes right away a few important things about our Elizabeth: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many foibles). And it does so with specifics that are delightfully memorable. (No credit to me for that; the specifics are all Aunt Jane’s.)

Still more importantly for introducing Elizabeth as the protagonist, this description also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, our girl is actively struggling to determine her own destiny. To North American readers, this is going to make her a more attractive protagonist than, say, her sister Jane, whose virtues lie primarily in being nice to everybody and thinking good thoughts while waiting for the man she loves to come to his not very complicated senses.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: while polite cheeriness is delightful in person, it’s often deadly dull on the page. Give me an active protagonist to a well-mannered bore any day.

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements — and it does so by SHOWING, not TELLING, that it’s funny. The big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections.

“Okay, okay,” you sigh, “I can see where Aunt Jane might be able to give that pitch successfully. But PRIDE & PREJUDICE is a masterpiece, and I’m just trying to find an agent for an ordinary book, albeit one that I think is well-written. Any tips on how those of us who don’t happen to be comic geniuses might want to go about it?”

Ooh, that’s a great question, but frankly, I’m hesitant to give a precise formula for deriving an elevator speech, lest agents and editors suddenly become inundated with tens of thousands of iterations of it. Like everything else, there are fashions in pitching and querying styles, and I’m not out to set a new one. (Although I have had agents say to me at conferences, “I met three of your pitching students today. They were the only ones who introduced themselves before telling me about their books.” For years, I seem to have been the only coach out there advising it.)

If you really find yourself stumped, however, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) three-step formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie, and build from there.

(1) Name the comparison, and say how your book is similar: “For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis.”

(2) Next, add a sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her: “Concert pianist Claire’s promising career is cut short when armies invade her beloved Amsterdam, smashing the hall where she played.”

(3) Show the central challenge she faces in escaping that oppression: “But how can she pursue her passion to bring the joys of music to her sightless fiancé Roderick, when every aspect of the world she navigates for him is being swept away before her comparatively perfect eyes?”

This format works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper, as we will see in a few days’ time), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours. Basically, you don’t need to fill in as many details.

I just sensed 5,000 hands shooting up in my virtual audience. “But Anne!” these bright souls cry, “didn’t you tell us in a recent post that comparing our books to bestsellers makes ours sound less original and, you know, FRESH?”

Well caught, sharp-witted 5,000: I did in fact say that, and I stand by it as pitch-construction advice. A writer usually is better off weaving her own tale, rather than relying upon the artistic output of others.

Note, however, that I suggested this method for would-be pitchers who are genuinely stuck — or those who are covering already well-worn literary territory. Sometimes, a great book does consist of a fresh twist on much-traveled material. As with a Hollywood hook, this formula enables a writer to capitalize on the very popularity of the subject matter by co-opting it as shorthand.

Or, to put it another way, if your novel is set in Oz, you could use your entire elevator speech explaining what that famous land is like — or you could simply say that it takes place in Oz and use the extra two sentences to show what’s new and fresh about your take on the legendary land.

It’s entirely up to you. But tick, tick. (Or Tick Tock, for those of you familiar with the later books in the Oz series.)

Do bear the freshness problem in mind, however. The real risk of this sort of elevator speech is that from the hearer’s point of view, it’s very easy for the protagonist to get lost in front of that very memorable backdrop. To prevent this horrible fate, you need to provide enough personal specifics to establish your protagonist firmly as — wait for it — an interesting person in an interesting situation.

To pull that off with aplomb, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which you protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Magenta O’Sullivan loves Ashby Filks, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, and the other half falls down an inconveniently placed well, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own alpaca farming business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?

Getting the picture? In an elevator speech, a writer needs first and foremost not to count periods, but to present an interesting, fresh protagonist embroiled in a fascinating conflict — ideally, garnished with a twist that the hearer is not expecting.

Predictability is not pretty, my friends, no matter how you dress it up. At least not in a pitch — and especially not in an elevator speech, where you have so little time to create a good impression. As a result, you’re more likely to catch a pitch-fatigued agent’s attention with the story about the mermaid who can ride a fish than the tale of one who can only swim. (That darned tail!)

The first commandment of a successful elevator speech is, after all, THOU SHALL NOT BORE.

Don’t worry; we’ll be talking at some length about how to avoid that pitfall before I’m through with the elevator pitch. First, however, I shall delve next time into how to construct an elevator speech for a nonfiction book or memoir. Then we’ll be all set to run barefoot through the fields of originality, as well as how and when to give your elevator speech without mortally insulting anybody. Then it’s (gulp!) the pitch proper.

Don’t tense up — you can do this. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part III: the horror, the horror

I had originally intended to keep pressing forward into the wild and wooly world of pitching your book to agents over the last couple of days, campers, but something about the quality of the horrified silence that greeted Part II prompted me to pause and let it sink in for a little while. This is stressful stuff for writers, even when discussed in the abstract.

Just acknowledging that pitching is frightening for every writer the first time around can be very helpful, but do I spot a few thousand newly raised hands?

“Um, Anne?” those of you joining us in mid-series inquire nervously. “That last paragraph scared the heck out of me, and I’m not even sure why! I’ve only just shown up because I heard an online rumor that you were doing an in-depth pitching series. I’m gearing up to attend a conference this summer, and I’m pretty nervous about being face-to-face with the agent of my dreams. Since I’m already jumpy, may I please read your introduction as permission to skip the earlier posts in this series? And may I assume that you’re only going to concentrate upon the happy, upbeat parts of pitching from here on out?”

I’m afraid not, nervous ones: part of what makes this process so intimidating to aspiring writers is its mystery. It may be distressing to ponder worst-case scenarios, but trust me, it’s in your best interest. Far, far better for us to talk about them here than for you to walk into a conference unprepared — and walk out laboring under the unfortunately common impression that a difficult or unsuccessful pitch meeting is a sign that you should just give up on the book.

Besides, even the grimmest actual pitch meeting typically does not rise to anywhere near the terror level of what writers picture might happen. The entire horror oeuvre of Vincent Price pales in comparison to what the average first-time pitcher fears might jump out at her after hello.

Oh, the prospect of being dunked into boiling wax doesn’t seem ever so slightly preferable to a high-powered agent laughing unkindly as soon as you begin to pitch?

That’s not particularly likely to happen, you know. Or don’t you know?

Since the overwhelming majority of first-time pitchers actually don’t know what to expect, I like to pull a few more realistic bogeymen out from under the bed, so my readers can get used to what they look like in captivity before facing them in the wild. To that end, last time, I raised the scary, scary specter of the mismatched pitch meeting, the not uncommon conference nightmare scenario where a writer walks into a scheduled pitching appointment, only to discover to her horror that the agent won’t even consider representing her kind of book.

Not in a Vincent Price-toned “You think anyone in the publishing industry would be interested in THAT? Mwahahaha!” sort of way, but in a “Gee, I’m going to have to stop you there, I’m afraid, because I can already tell that this book wouldn’t fit comfortably on my client list” sort of way.

Yes, it could happen. Not because the agent is mean or hates literature, mind you; usually, a response like this just means that he specializes in some other kind of literature.

That doesn’t make it less horrifying in the moment, though. The writer sits through the appointment, fighting back tears, wondering what on earth she’s done in a past life to deserve missing out on her one conference pitching opportunity — and stomps out breathing fire, cursing the conference’s organizers for having enticed her to the conference with the promise of pitching to an agent, then not providing a contact that could possibly do her any good.

Hideously nightmarish, isn’t it? Would it frighten you to know that I’ve seldom attended a large conference where it didn’t happen to at least a handful of attendees?

Before you scream in terror, let me hasten to add: I can tell you from long experience that those who are most likely to succumb to this terrible fate are aspiring writers who rely blindly upon conference schedulers to hook them up with the perfect agent for their work. As I have suggested in my last couple of posts, this level of trust may not pay off for the writer.

Specifically, it may result in an agent’s stopping a pitcher half a sentence in with one of the hardest-to-hear sentences in the English language: “Oh, I’m sorry — I don’t represent that kind of book.”

I can feel some of you shying away from reading the rest of this post — or even from signing up to pitch at a conference at all. “What a bummer, Anne. Way to scare me out of wanting to pitch at all.”

Actually, I have some really, really good reasons for bringing this up at the beginning of this series, rather than after I go over its nuts and bolts. First, obviously, now that I have brought up the possibility that all of you conference-goers might not be assigned to meet with the best agent for your book, I didn’t want you to be waking up in the dead of night, hyperventilating over the prospect of a mismatched meeting. Let’s exorcise that poltergeist as soon as possible.

The second and far more important reason: so you may be prepared if it ever happens to you. Heaven forbid, of course, but think about it: would you rather learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver BEFORE the person next to you at the rubber chicken banquet, or during?

Some mismatches are unavoidable, after all — and much of the time, they are the result of simple bad luck. Agents get the flu and cancel their appearances at the last minute, for instance. Or get embroiled in the details a client’s deal, so the agency sends an alternate representative.

Who, being a different individual, will inevitably have different literary tastes than the first. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: there is no such thing as a manuscript or book proposal that every agent in the industry will love. Agents specialize — and they have personal preferences, like anyone else.

At the risk of pointing out that the emperor’s garments are a tad scanty as he dodges around that great big elephant in the room, agents and editors’ preferences sometimes switch rather abruptly and without a whole lot of publicity. So do market trends. It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime.

What does this mean for a pitching writer, in practical terms? Often, that the person whose conference brochure blurb burbled excitedly about paranormal romance will shock half a conference crowd by announcing that she’s no longer accepting paranormal submissions.

That sound you heard was all of the writers who signed up for a session with her specifically because of her stated interests keeling over in a dead collective faint.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection, no matter how great the book concept or writing may be. Isn’t it better that you hear it from me now, rather than having it come as a stunning mid-conference surprise?

Most of you were a trifle slow in responding. Allow me to provide the answer: yes, it is. In fact, being aware of the possibility is the only way you can arm yourself against it. Preparation, and lots of it, is your best defense.

Did half of you just go pale with dread? “Good heavens, Anne,” the newly-wan stammer, “is it really so bad as that? Can’t I, you know, just wing it if I find myself in that unfortunate situation?”

Well, you could, but it’s usually not the best option. Most pitchers, not having anticipated this particular possibility, will either:

a) freeze, unsure what to do, and end up pitching to the now-inappropriate agent or editor anyway,

b) assume that it’s a waste of time to pitch to that agent or editor, and just not show up for the scheduled appointment, or

c) assume that the agent or editor is lying about not being open to certain types of book and pitch it anyway — because if it were a really great book, he would cast ten years of marketing experience aside and grab it on the spot, right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.. Agents represent what they represent; as I mentioned last time, a rejection based on book category has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book, or even of the pitch. It’s no reflection upon you or your writing. It can’t be, logically: by definition, a pitch-hearer is judging a verbal presentation, not words on a page.

“Okay,” the pale concede nervously. “So what should I do if I end up in an inappropriate meeting? Run away screaming, clutching my heaving bosom?”

No, of course not. Nor should you shoulder the quixotic task of trying to convince an industry professional to change utterly how s/he has decided to do business — which is what pitching to an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book amounts to, incidentally. Yet conference after conference, year after year, writers will bullheadedly insist upon acting as though every agent represents every conceivable type of book — and responding to the practically inevitable rejection by concluding that their books simply aren’t of interest to the publishing industry.

That’s poppycock, of course. The only rejection that means anything at all about your book’s marketability is one that comes from someone who specializes in your chosen book category.

But you already know that you’re looking for Ms. or Mr. Right Agent, don’t you? Let’s get back to the practical issue of what you should do if you end up with Mr. or Ms. Wrong. (And for those of you new to the game who’ve been shaking your heads and muttering, “What the heck is a book category?” please either hold that question for a few days or see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

You could, of course, just thank the agent and walk away immediately. This is, in fact, what most agents in this situation are hoping you will do (more on that below), but better than that, it preserves your dignity far better than the usual writer’s reaction, to argue about whether the book would be a good fit for the agency. (Which never, ever works, in case you were wondering.)

However, you’ve got time booked with a seasoned industry professional — why not use it productively? Why not ask some questions?

Stop that embittered guffawing and hear me out. You decided to attend the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better, right? Yes, you will be disappointed if you end up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour afterward, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, feeling miserable and helpless, until it ended.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “If you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch for my kind of book?”

Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?”

Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area per se, but who do you think are the top five agents who do handle this sort of book?”

If the agent or editor seems even remotely friendly, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes.

Seriously, it’s true; agents dislike being mismatched with pitchers almost as much as writers do. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend ten or fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if he comes back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) Many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can pull yourself together enough to get past the fact that you two shouldn’t have been assigned to meet in the first place and move on to topics that you’re both comfortable discussing, 99% of agents will appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

And don’t underestimate how helpful that may be down the line: both agents and editors move around a lot these days. Just because the guy in front of you isn’t interested in your current project doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be interested in your next. (If the first sentence in this paragraph made you gasp, please remind me after this series to blog about what happens to a relocating agent’s clients.)

Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Besides, agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find.

There’s such a thing as human nature, you know. Few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

So it’s worth your while prepping a few questions in advance, as bad match insurance. Remember, though, that when you ask for advice, you are requesting a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite — and grateful.

Particularly the latter, if you want to win friends and influence people.

As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the extremely common ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes super-demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

Hey, the pros harbor pitching-related fears, too. Often, they involve a writer who mistakenly assumes that a little well-intentioned advice is an invitation to a lifetime of friendship — and whose idea of friendship is to send 17 e-mails per day, demanding assistance getting published.

A word to the wise: remember, stalking is illegal, and no amount of friendly helpfulness means that “I’m sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” is code for “I don’t usually handle your kind of book, but because I like you personally, I’ll be delighted to make an exception if only you are pushy enough.”

Regardless of the agent’s level of interest in your work, try to make it a nice conversation, rather than a confrontation or a referendum on your prospects as a writer — an excellent plan regardless of whether your assigned pitch meeting is a good fit or not, actually.

Here again, advance research helps. Knowing something about the agent or editor will not only minimize the probability of ending up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Author McFamouson, don’t you? I just loved her last book. Will she be coming out with another soon?”

Trust me, McFamouson’s agent will be pleased to meet someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books, even if that someone happens to want to pitch her a kind of manuscript she doesn’t represent.

As usual, I would like to add one caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t make the common mistake of praising a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Boning up on the facts will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower.

Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less than hardback.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this season, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This can be a serious advantage when you’re asking a favor.

Why? Well, think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person — or a jerk who happened to be talented?

I heard all of you who just thought, “I don’t care, as long as he offers to represent me.” Go stand in the corner until your attitude problem improves; impolite writers make all of us look bad.

Being conversant with the books they have handled is flattering: we all like to be recognized for our achievements, after all. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of any agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up.

And let’s face it: if you’ve paid hundreds of dollars to attend a literary conference (and usually travel expenses on top of that), it doesn’t make sense to limit your pitching to a single, pre-scheduled pitching appointment. It’s in your best interest to find out in advance who ALL of the agents and editors who deal with your type of book are, so you may buttonhole them in the hallways and pitch.

Does that sudden bout of shrieking indicate that some of you find this notion petrifying? I’m not all that surprised; there are a lot of half-truths about informal pitching floating around the conference circuit and the Internet. The last time I did an in-depth series on pitching in this forum, I was inundated with comments on the subject. A representative sample:

I especially like the advice on what to do in the case that you’re paired with an agent who doesn’t represent your genre, which I had no idea could happen. I do find one part of this post confusing, though. I have read on the internet (agent’s blogs, mostly) of how much agents despise being cornered and pitched to in places like elevators, hallways, bars, etc, yet you seem to be saying that this is okay. Is there a certain way to go about pitching in an elevator (for example) that would help an agent be more open to the pitch?

The short answer to that last question is yes; I’m going to be covering this later in the series at my usual great length. However, because I know that some of you will be staring at your bedroom ceilings at 4 a.m., worrying about this, let me address this common concern briefly right now.

Yes, there are indeed individual agents who hate hallway pitching, and if you hear (or read about) them saying so, you should certainly avoid informal pitches to those particular individuals at all costs. Fortunately, the ones who hate it tend to be quite vocal about it — which is why, I suspect, aspiring writers who have heard little else about pitching tend to have been exposed to this particular pet peeve.

However, it’s been my experience that agents willing to attend conferences but unwilling to meet any writer with whom they do not have a pre-scheduled appointment form the minority of pitch-hearers. Usually, it’s the conference organizers who object to it. Agents go to conferences in order to pick up clients, and it honestly is a waste of everyone’s time if they only hear pitches from the 10 or 20 writers who happen to be assigned formal appointments with them, if there are 75 writers there who write what they’re looking to represent.

If a writer’s polite about approaching, it’s usually fine. That’s a big if, though — unfortunately, there are PLENTY of rude aspiring writers up there who will simply walk up to an agent they’ve never met before and start launching into a pitch, without so much as a “Hello,” “I’m pleased to meet you,” or “Could you spare me thirty seconds to tell you about my book?”

Typically, when agents complain about informal pitches, that’s the kind they’re talking about. Anyone would despise that. No one likes having total strangers bark at him or her with no preamble.

But as far as I have been able to tell in a couple of decades of going to writers’ conferences, the only UNIVERSALLY agreed-upon do-not-pitch zone is the bathroom. Other than that, it honestly is a personal preference.

The trick to approaching gently — and again, I’ll be going over this in excruciating detail later in this series, so please don’t panic at this juncture — lies in both timing and courtesy. Listening to an informal pitch is a favor, and should be treated as such. So don’t, for instance, walk up to an agent who is laughing with her friends, tap her on the shoulder, and start talking about your book. Instead, walk up to the dais after she’s given a talk, wait politely until it’s your turn, and say something along the lines of, “Excuse me, but I was enthralled by how you talked about your clients. I couldn’t get a pitch appointment with you, but based on what you said, I think you may be interested in my book. May I give you my thirty-second pitch? Or if now is not a good time, could we set up an appointment later?”

Hard to find that offensive. It clearly gives the agent the opportunity to say no, but still makes it flatteringly plain that you are taking her time seriously. Works in an elevator, too, as long as the would-be pitcher remembers that no really does mean no.

Accept it and move on. Preferably to an agent who has sold scads of books like yours within the last couple of years.

All that being said, if an agent has stated publicly (on an agent’s panel, for instance) that he hates informal pitches, it’s only basic common courtesy to steer clear; send a query letter after the conference instead, beginning, “I enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and since I was not lucky enough to obtain a pitch appointment with you…” Ditto if the conference materials state categorically that any writer who attempts to pitch outside the context of a pre-scheduled meeting will be unceremoniously thrown out on his audacious ear. But it’s not in your book’s best interest to assume that just because a few agents dislike being buttonholed doesn’t mean that all do — and it shouldn’t mean that writers are doomed to pitching to only those agents conference organizers have picked for them.

For our purposes at the moment, please just remember that the last thing on earth that’s going to win you friends and influence people in the publishing industry is coming across like a stalker. It’s illegal in most states, anyway, but it’s a bad idea, no matter how badly you want a particular agent to hear about your book.

Everyone feeling a bit better? Good. Let’s avert our eyes from the worst-case scenario and glide quickly on to — well, not really a happier one, but at least a different kind of disaster, a problem that has nearly paralyzed legions of first-time pitchers.

I refer, of course, to the bizarrely ubiquitous conference advice that insists a book pitch must be three sentences long, not a syllable longer. It’s printed in most conference guides. And because most writers just aren’t very experienced in speaking or even thinking about their work as people on the business side of the industry do, they believe that three sentences is in fact the norm for a book pitch.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the disadvantages of blind trust? Well…

I’ll start out gently: while the three-line pitch certainly has brevity on its side — not an insignificant plus, form the point of view of an agent or editor who has had to sit through a meeting with a writer who talks non-stop for twenty minutes, yet only makes it up to page 72 of his book — but It has some under-advertised drawbacks. Chief among which: the assumption that the ability to create a three-sentence teaser well is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case.

The super-short pitch format also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage. Every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?

Hey, I asked you first. But if I must give my opinion (“You must! You must!” my readers clamor), in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear. At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. The three-beat (not three-sentence) screenplay pitch is quite a different animal than a book pitch. There’s a reason for that: the practice of writers’ pitching stories verbally not indigenous to publishing, but the movie industry; writers’ conferences have simply borrowed it.

In my experience, three-beat pitches don’t work particularly well in 10-minute book pitch meetings. Like every other conference attendee, I’ve been hearing for 15 years that agents will stop listening after three sentences, but that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or of anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture, I’m sure. The problem with the assumption that the type of pitch appropriate for a screenplay must perforce be appropriate for a book is based, I have long suspected, on the simple fact that they are called the same thing. Is there another reason to leap to the conclusion that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books? Their goals are different: the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise, piquing the hearer’s interest enough to prompt a request to see pages. Yes, a book pitch is also intended to spark sufficient interest to generate a request to see the manuscript, but there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — as I mentioned above, this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 5, 10, or sometimes even 20 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only about 20 seconds’ worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

Because, trust me, if you pitch your book will, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).

“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a pretty good bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates and exchange gossip.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point. That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch. To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both the programmers of Microsoft Word and editors at publishing houses are concerned with word count, both sets of people in entirely unrelated industries must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.

Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are factually nothing alike can begin to sound alike. The hearer’s brain gets that story-numb.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Several years ago, at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up a Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ — which is why I no longer organize this benefit for attendees of that particular conference, which happens to be my local one.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. By the end of the first day, however, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend. My ability to listen well deteriorates markedly after the fifth or sixth pitch in a row.”

Part of the problem is environmental, of course: agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

Let’s do some role-playing. Summon up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a terse three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? And wouldn’t it be nice to hear enough about the protagonist and the central conflict of the book that it would be possible to differentiate them from the protagonist and central conflicts of the 30 similar books you have just heard?

Hey, if the pitchers did their homework, that’s a likely outcome. Books within the same category often contain similar elements.

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse. Preferably with an amaretto-soaked cherry on top.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential. My goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

The first building block of fluency follows next time. I know you’re up for it.

But I cannot urge you strongly enough not to take my word for any of this blindly: if anything I suggest does not make sense to you or seem like the best way to promote your book, PLEASE leave a comment on the post in which I suggest it, asking for clarification. There honestly is a great deal of conflicting advice out there, and to be completely honest, not everyone agrees with my take on this process.

Of course, I could be catty and point out that unlike many of the advice-givers out there, I have personally landed an agent by pitching, but don’t follow my advice for that reason. Follow my advice if — and only if — I have explained why you should to your satisfaction. As I hope anyone who has been hanging around Author! Author! could attest, I work very hard to provide extensive explanations for everything I advise.

Why take the trouble? Because blindly following anyone’s dictates on how to handle your writing career just isn’t wise. They might just lead you into the House of Wax or someplace similarly horrifying.

Make up your own minds, my friends — and don’t let rumors keep you up at night. The real potential problems are quite intimidating enough without embroidery, thank you very much.

Keep up the good work!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the premiere of Author! Author! Interviews: a chat about literary fiction with Bellwether Prize winner Heidi Durrow

Welcome back, campers! How was your week? Mine was, as predicted, hectic, but the niece is married, the dishes washed (no mean feat, considering the family produced a five-course sit-down dinner for the wedding reception), and we are now living on leftovers.

How stressful was it all? Well, let me put it this way: my doctor offered to write me a note to excuse me from all of this ostensible frivolity.

But off with the shackles of the past — on to a monumental new development in the ever-evolving Author! Author! community offerings. Today, I am delighted to bring you the first in what I hope will be may in-depth conversations with wonderful recently-published authors about not only their books, but also the art and craft of writing itself.

You know, the kind of chat that writers find fascinating, but disillusions non-writers and those who would prefer to believe that good writing simply falls from the heavens into the author’s mind, with no actual work involved.

In this series, I’m going to be talking with these authors about the actual work of writing. I’m very excited about this, not only because I suspect that these conversations will prove inspirational and educational to members of the Author! Author! community — and to that end, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall forward them to the authors — but also because, frankly, when a book comes out, 99% of interviewers will ask precisely the same set of questions.

All of us who read author interviews are familiar with the standards, right? So how did you get the idea for this book? Is this novel autobiographical? How did you get started writing in the first place? Did you always want to be a writer — as opposed to, say, a fireman? Are any of the characters based upon real people? What’s your next book about? No, really, what part of this novel is based upon real life?

It’s all fun and interesting for the author the first dozen or so times, but after that, one begins to feel that one’s part in the interview process could very adequately be played by a tape recorder. Nor is this phenomenon new: I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence helping science fiction author Philip K. Dick prepare for interviews — oh, you thought that established authors didn’t rehearse? In what sense is an author interview not a public performance? — and believe me, in any given year, we could count the original questions interviewers asked on the fingers of two hands.

Believe me, we longed to be able to start counting on our toes.

So part of my goal in this interview series is to allow good authors more latitude than they are generally allowed in literary interviews — because, let’s face it, what is likely to interest other writers about a book is not necessarily what will fascinate other readers. These interviews will be by writers, for writers.

Are you picturing yourselves chatting with me when your first book comes out? Excellent — you’re in the perfect mindset to enjoy my January 11, 2011 conversation with the exceptionally talented Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback.

If Heidi’s name sounds familiar, you’ve probably either been perusing Best Books of 2010 lists or were hanging out here at Author! Author! in recent months. For those of you who missed my glowing tribute to what I consider the best debut of last year, allow me to introduce you to a writer I believe is going to be remembered as one of the greats. Take a peek at the publisher’s blurb:

Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Durrow book coverRachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African-American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This searing and heartwrenching portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with society’s ideas of race and class is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.

The book has developed something of a cult following amongst lovers of serious literary fiction. How much do its fans respect it? Well, let me put it this way: when I first discovered the novel in a wee bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, the clerk nearly knocked me over, so eager was she to rush to my side to recommend the book.

Apparently, that enthusiasm was catching, for by the time my plane was over the Rockies, heading home to Seattle, was already raving about the book to everyone in the seats near me. Flight attendants will remember that as the time two of them sidled down the aisle to ask, “Um, why are all of you talking about falling from the sky? Flying is perfectly safe, you know.”

The intriguing mystery of just how and why an entire family fell from a Chicago apartment building’s roof — yes, veteran interviewers, based upon a real-life incident — may be the unusual premise of the story, but the core of the writing is centered upon the growth and development of incredibly real-feeling characters.

As I mentioned before, Heidi pursued character in a completely original manner, calculated to delight those intrigued by the interesting use of language: via punctuation in dialogue. THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY depicts social class and intellectual development through such subtle nuances in the characters’ speech patterns that at first, I kept having to re-read lines to make sure I was not imagining it.

I wasn’t; it’s one of the most brilliant uses of dialogue I’ve seen in years. (And trust me, I read a lot of dialogue in any given year.) Join me, please, for a discussion of it, conducted at the ever-fabulous Third Place Books, just north of Seattle.

A quick technical note before you click on the video: my apologies for the background noise; the Author! Author! staff did not realize that the microphone would pick it up so well, or that it should have been placed a trifle closer to Heidi. Turning up the volume on your computer before you start watching might prove helpful.