Hello, readers —
Thanks to those of you who attended my Saturday pitching class! It was a great success — but, as I kept warning people beforehand, like Cassandra uttering woe and not being believed, since not everybody who ended up coming pre-registered, the cookies ran out woefully early. You have only yourselves to blame.
At least, I think it was a success — by the time I checked my messages the evening after the class, I had received 40 e-mails from class attendees (out of roughly 65), with thank-yous and follow-up questions. I had not expected the class to have this particular side effect; responding to this slew of individual questions has more than taken up the hours I had budgeted for writing the blog today. So the rest of you will have to pardon me if this is mostly a housekeeping blog.
A reminder to those of you who have been writing in with questions through this website: IF YOU DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS, I CANNOT REPLY. It is literally impossible. The e-mails you send to me are filtered through the PNWA, so I have NO access to your address unless you send it within the body of the message. (An aside to Janis: I cannot send you an answer to your question when your e-mail blocks my address as unknown. Send another e-mail when you have corrected this problem, and I’ll be happy to resend the multiply-bouncing reply.)
While I’m on a spate of requests, for the literally dozens of blog readers who have written in asking either (a) how you can quit your job and have your writing support you (in that order) or (b) how you can get your poetry books published, I’m afraid you are barking up the wrong tree. I have been racking my brains to come up with kind-yet-useful responses to these questions, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to come up with any. Except to say: if you are seeking to accomplish (a), it is probably not prudent to pursue that goal through (b).
I know, I know, that sounds flippant, but listen: I hate to be the one to break the news, but there are a heck of a lot of published authors out there, and good ones, who have NEVER been able to afford to quit their day jobs. First-time authors, particularly novelists, seldom attract large enough advances for them to write full-time — and you will be much, much happier if you do not walk into a pitch meeting with your dream agent expecting otherwise.
Please do not be crushed by this — yes, there are authors who hit the big time with their first books. But generally, these cases are the proverbial overnight successes who spent a decade or two preparing for it. And even then, it is extremely rare: we’ve all heard stories of the person who put a single dollar into a single slot machine and suddenly found himself a millionaire, too. It’s not impossible, but even a cursory glance at the probabilities involved should lead one to believe that these instances are the flukes, not the rule.
But hey, no one will be more thrilled than I if your book turns out to be the fluke. Knock ’em dead, tiger!
On to (b). There is plenty of poetry published in magazines around the country, and POETS & WRITERS always lists a dozen or so chapbook competitions in every issue, but other than that… usually, in this country, poets gain notoriety one poem at a time, one contest win at a time, one publication at a time. There may be some shortcuts of which I am not aware, however. Since I am not a poet by trade, I would urge you to seek out poetry-specific websites and direct your questions there.
Another housekeeping issue: I’ve received several requests from readers who could not make the pitching class on Saturday for a written version of it. Um, written version? As opposed to what I post here five times per week? I used to be a professor at a quite prominent local university (which shall remain nameless, but rhymes with Boo Scrub), and I can tell you, neither my colleagues nor I ever wrote our lectures out verbatim beforehand, merely notes. I certainly did not for this class (which I was teaching as a volunteer, incidentally).
Honeys, do not panic: I am very committed to covering as many aspects of pitching here in this forum as I possibly can. Starting tomorrow, and all the way until the first day of the conference. Trust me, we have more than enough time to cover the basics. You’ll just be getting it in smaller installments — which, if you could have seen how tired we all were by the end of the pitch class, you might well consider an advantage!
But I do have a treat in store for each and every one of you who is attending the conference: I have begged, cajoled, and promised fabulous karmic rewards (because there are no tangible ones in this instance) with three wonders PNWA members who have successfully landed agents within the last few years — two of us AT PNWA, in exactly the kind of pitch meeting you will be attending, so we know whereat we speak — and the four of us shall be manning the Pitch Practicing Palace at PNWA. So please plan to stop by our booth before your pitch meeting to try our your spiel on some kind, sympathetic professional writers who can help you polish off the rough edges of your pitch.
Please, don’t drop by RIGHT before your scheduled appointments; try for at least an hour before. If you are particularly nervous, I would urge you to drop by the PPP on Thursday afternoon, on the first half-day of the conference. The actual agent and editor meetings will not start until Friday, so you will have lots of time to incorporate our feedback.
See? I really do want all of you to do well.
The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed that I have mentioned good intentions, volunteerism, and writers who also carry day jobs throughout this post. That was not accidental. As conference time approaches, I know people start to panic a little, but please remember, the PNWA is a volunteer organization, staffed by devoted people who sincerely want to help you succeed as a writer — people who, by and large, are writing books themselves AND hold full-time jobs. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is not a task to enter into lightheartedly, with a martini in one hand and a whiffleball racquet in the other. It is a whole lot of very hard, very extensive work. For your benefit.
Please, do me two favors, those of you who will be attending the conference: first, take advantage of as many learning and pitching opportunities there as you can. (I actually made everyone at my class on Saturday raise their paws and swear to pitch to at least three people with whom they did NOT have scheduled appointments. Don’t make me come after the rest of you, too.) Second, improve your own karma by thanking every conference volunteer you see. Your mother would approve, and so will I.
I bring this up in part because I know many of you entered this year’s PNWA contest. The finalists have all been notified already, and each entrant will receive two written critiques after the conference. Why not before the conference, you ask? First, because it would totally give away who amongst the finalists had an edge, and second — had I mentioned that organizing a conference is a heck of a lot of work?
Believe me, no one wants to keep you in suspense, but we here at the PNWA have to be realistic about turn-around times, in order to make sure that the conference comes together every year. But please rest assured that this most emphatically does NOT mean that you will not receive solid feedback in a timely manner.
As my long-term readers already know, the PNWA’s fine volunteers (translation: working for the good karma alone) thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of contest entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts. You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary. That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year — so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)
I know, it’s frustrating to wait for the feedback. But the turn-around time is a reflection of a serious effort to provide a good service.
To that end, I learned something very exciting recently: due to feedback from past conference attendees, the PNWA has REORGANIZED this year’s editor meetings. Instead of ten or a dozen writers pitching simultaneously, there will be ONLY FIVE WRITERS scheduled for each half-hour meeting with an editor. So each writer will have more time than ever before to make a good impression. Isn’t that great news?
In this spirit of helpfulness, on to a couple of lingering questions from readers. Intrepid and insightful reader Dave wrote in to ask: “On the first page of a chapter, should the chapter number be in Roman, Arabic numerals, or spelled out? Can or how would one include both the chapter name and number on that first line? Could you mention something about the first page of the first chapter? Isn’t it supposed to have info on it akin to what is on the title page?”
Good questions, Dave — and you’re not the only one to wonder about this. Thoughtful and talented reader Julie also wrote in to ask about the title page: “I read in your blog that the text should appear 1/3 of the way down after “Chapter (X).” This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. Is it fairly standard format with agents and editors alike? Could you tell me the reasoning behind it?”
Dave and Julie, I have been hearing this kind of question for years, I think largely because many writers’ publications simply assume that aspiring writers already know what standard format is for first pages of chapters. I think this, because I see SO many incorrectly-formatted first pages that there must be an overarching reason for it, rather than merely misinformed individuals, right? Perhaps there’s an evil First Page Fairy. Or maybe I would just like to blame someone for this phenomenon, which makes a LOT of submissions look unprofessional to agents and editors. Bad fairy! No cookie!
First off: no, the first page should NOT have the kind of information that’s on the title page (which I shall recap again within the next few days). The title page contains contact information; the only conceivable reason to include it on the first page of the chapter would be if there were no title page. And, frankly, a submission without a title page might as well have NEW TO THE BIZ stamped in red on it.
The first page of ANY chapter should have “Chapter (X)” on the first line of the page, centered, with the chapter title, if any, on the line beneath it. Do not put them on the same line.
The chapter should begin on line 14. What is the rationale behind this, Julie asks? I have always been told — and as a freelance editor, I have certainly been grateful for this convention — that the purpose having all that white space at the beginning of each chapter is to make it easier for an editor to flip through the manuscript quickly and find a particular chapter. All that white leaps out the pile visually.
Which is why, to get back to Dave’s question, the first page of the first chapter should not be cluttered up with too much information. It interferes with the desirable white.
As to whether the chapter number should be written out, in Roman numerals, or in Arabic numeral… I have heard many things over the years. I always write out the chapter number in full (Chapter One), simply because the 1, in this case, is a number under 100 appearing in a manuscript. Standard format, you know. I know many published authors who use Arabic numerals (Chapter 1), and they don’t seem to have been eaten by the publishing wolves yet. Roman numerals are less common, so I would avoid them altogether; they bring to mind outlines, not fully-realized prose.
Okay, the house is now relatively clean. Tomorrow, on to some pitching elements. In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini