The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part V: Hitting the Keynote

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on building a persuasive pitch. Shout hallelujah, citizens, for today, we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously with envy. (Did you know that when he gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain. They always added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?

Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT. What is it, you ask? The keynote is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or meeting your dream agent coming out of the bathroom (hey, this is a glamorous business). Since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half of that time, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds?

Seriously, there are several reasons that you might want to come up with a keynote statement for your book (other than that I told you to, of course). A keynote will allow you to be able to sound out someone in a hallway about interest in your book, to give an agent or editor an instant, read-made hook to sell your work, and to be able to sound like a professional writer on a moment’s notice. None of these are abilities at which you should be sneezing, smarty-pants.

Let me pause for a moment and focus on the last benefit on the list. One of the biggest differences between a professional writer and one who is new to the biz is how she answers the ubiquitous question, “So, what do you write?” Almost invariably, those unused to the question will betray their inexperience by shilly-shallying, giving evasive answers. A professional, on the other hand, will promptly tell the questioner in a couple of brief sentences the book category in which she writes, along with a quick quip or two about her most recent project. Not a long-winded speech, or boasts about her own writing talent, just a snippet about the book itself, to see if her auditor is interested before moving into more detail.

Agents and editors really, really like to see unpublished writers exhibit the latter behavior. They are acutely, even exaggeratedly, aware of how busy they are. (To quote those immortal social philosophers, the Bee Gees, all we can do is “try to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”) In their native habitat, these are people who fly into a fury if the woman in front of them in the deli line hesitates for fifteen seconds between pastrami or roast beef on her sandwich; just because they are our guests in the more laid-back PNW for a few days doesn’t mean that they shed that Manhattanite resentment of people who waste entire nanoseconds of their precious time.

Some writers don’t like to be perceived as tooting their own horns, which is understandable. But to someone trying to get a quick impression of whether a writer’s work might be worth sampling, demurrals do not come across as charming self-deprecation, but as an annoying disregard of the industry’s unspoken limit to how long a writer gets to take up an agent or editor’s time. No matter what anyone tells you, if you are over the age of 10, it’s just not cute.

Let me give you a non-writing example to demonstrate how irritating such waffling can be. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, something I do not tell people lightly, as they either take an instantaneous dislike to me, assuming that I must be a snob, or glom onto me, assuming that I have the private ears of kings and presidents alike, having gone to college with them. (The old university joke illustrates the third unappetizing possibility: How does a pretty woman get men to leave her alone in a bar? She starts a rumor that she went to Harvard.) For these reasons, many of us who do not habitually go around wearing our institutional affiliations on our chests in the form of sweatshirts choose not to share our educational backgrounds in social settings.

So when you ask many of my classmates where they went to school, they will respond evasively, “In the Boston area.” Now, to any Harvardian, that automatically declares that the speaker went to Harvard; people who went to MIT or Tufts tend to say so. But to anyone who doesn’t know the code, it sounds like an invitation to further questions, doesn’t it? So all too often, the subsequent conversation degenerates into a cutesy guessing game, with the Harvardian giving more and more evasive answers until the questioner loses all patience and shouts, “What — did you go to Harvard or something?”

This is precisely what it sounds like to people in the publishing industry when you equivocate about what you write. They don’t like guessing games, as a rule.

Okay, out comes my fairy godmother wand again: the next time you hear yourself start to equivocate about what you write, I decree that you will start hearing STAYING ALIVE playing in the back of your head on a continuous loop. Surely, any sane person will be willing to go to any length to avoid that dreadful fate…so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Okay, back to the keynote itself. What is its goal? To pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a BRIEF sentence or two.

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

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together. For instance, a Hollywood Hook for a book that teaches children the essentials of the electoral college system might be: “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!” A book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!” A novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

Didja notice how they all ended in exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together logically.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? On the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey. (Use the Force, Luke!)

I once asked a screenplay agent who favored pitch compression how he would pitch THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, a book light on plot but strong on character development. What would one say? A butler butles quietly? Hardly a grabber. Without missing a beat, the agent answered, “I would just pitch it as, ‘based on the bestselling book.’”

I love this answer, because it illustrates the point of the keynote so beautifully: the message itself is less important than the fact that you get your hearer’s eyebrows to shoot up.

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

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but she could not automatically assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from yesterday: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.) So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

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

The main point is to make it — say it with me now — MEMORABLE. Don’t be afraid to use strong imagery (as in, “The earth is about to be covered thirty feet deep in lichen in three days. What would you do?”) If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp, all the better. Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your BOOK memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Whatever you do, please do not confuse good delivery with book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that shall remain nameless because it got flooded out last year. A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked in and read, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend (and then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them). Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader. To make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. (I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me, lest our webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap.) By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and remembered his performance.

Notice what happened here — he made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is, but did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the proverbial plague? Yes.

This is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they’re all about delivery, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone. Even if you’re the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to USE your newly-constructed keynote to wow all and sundry at a writers’ conference. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet signed up for pitching meetings at the conference, please check out my archived blogs of April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find information on who is representing and buying what these days, to help you make your appointment rankings wisely.

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