Last night, as I was coming home from my writers’ group meeting (yes, I’m still a member of a writers’ group; no matter where one is on the publication trail, mutual support is always nice), I stumbled upon a sight that struck me as emblematic of conference season: on my porch, I found a minuscule baby raccoon tap-dancing in my outdoor cat’s food bowl, while Kitty watched with incredulous disapproval. The little one was having a whale of a good time, apparently.
You might want to try to keep this image in my head for the next few months, as a visual metaphor for how confusing the plethora of advice one typically receives at a conference can be. As Kitty can tell you, there’s a proper way to treat cat food, and she doesn’t think it’s at all funny when kibble is put to any other purpose. But the baby raccoon, although comparatively inexperienced with cat bowls, discovered that kibble emits a pretty fabulous sound when scuffled upon, not to mention bouncing gratifyingly when flung at nearby doors, walls, writers, what have you. It was great, chaotic fun while it lasted, but ultimately, most of the food was unfit for critter consumption.
Why did this dynamic remind me of a writers’ conference, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: your book is the kibble. Kitty is the battle-hardened writer/editor/writing teacher/contest judge who has been haunting conferences for years, preaching the gospel of avoiding flashy, trendy pitching and submission techniques in favor of the solid basics that have worked for decades. Place food in bowl, clear way for cat: in her mind, it’s that simple.
The raccoon is the purveyor of the newest ideas about how to beat the system. He doesn’t always appear as a teacher at the conference, but boy, is he compelling to watch. Sometimes, he’s an agent who decides to present his personal preferences for literature as inviolable rules for the industry. Sometimes, he’s the guy selling the latest book on how to market your book, whose success depends upon coming up with something new to say about a very written-about system. And sometimes, he’s the guy sitting next to you at lunch, passing on rumors about non-existent agent conspiracies to agree to reject any book that’s been submitted to more than five of them and warning you never to submit to more than one agent at once.
He’s definitely more fun to watch than Kitty, I’ll give him that. It’s tempting to believe him. Only two problems: what he’s saying isn’t always 100% accurate, and like raccoons, one tends to encounter a whole bunch of ‘em at once. Since they all contradict one another, which should you believe?
That’s up to you, of course. But perhaps thinking of such types as baby raccoons, rather than as authority figures, will prompt you to ask the requisite questions to discover whether this raccoon is the one to be trusted: “Have you ever sold/acquired a book using this technique? Can you tell me about it?”
My tendency, I must admit, is to distrust pretty much any one-size-fits-all solution to getting published, and my suspicion rises markedly the more often its promoter swears it will always work. Take the ubiquitous 3-line pitch, for instance. I once asked a screenplay agent who habitually taught a class on how three-line pitches were the answer to every sales situation for creative work 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 for years on end? 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.
And, contrary to what vast majority of pitching advice out there dictates, it shows that what might work in a screenplay pitch (which is where the 3-line pitch comes from; it’s not indigenous to the publishing world) does not always work in pitching a novel.
Or any book, for that matter. Especially in those swift thirty seconds when you and the agent of your dreams are both bending over the pasta bar at lunch, or you happen to run into her in a conference hallway. And that, my friends, is when having a keynote prepared pays off in spades.
But don’t prep it because I told you so; I might be just another tap-dancing raccoon with a good agent, for all you know. Make me tell you why it might help you.
Okay, since you twisted my arm: 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, ready-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, incidentally. Since agents routinely have to boil 400-page novels down to just a line or two, these are attributes they genuinely respect.
Especially the last benefit on the list, interestingly enough. 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 like:
(Enormous sigh, as if even thinking about it were a chore) “Well, I guess it’s a coming-of-age story about a boy whose father works in a steel mill and whose mother is a maid and his older sister is a tramp and…” (Insert 15 minutes’ worth of description here.) “…and it’s partially autobiographical.”
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.
And if the auditor says, “That sounds interesting, but I don’t represent that book category,” the professional writer thanks him quickly and moves on, feelings unhurt, to see if anyone else in the room DOES handle her kind of book.
Apart from the fact that such urbane behavior tends to strike other writers as enviably cool, agents and editors really, really like to see unpublished writers exhibit the latter behavior. Why? Because they are acutely, even exaggeratedly, aware of how busy they are.
Try not to take this personally. In their native habitat, recall, 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 regions of the country or the world for a few days doesn’t mean that they shed that Manhattanite resentment of people who waste entire nanoseconds of their precious time. To quote those immortal social philosophers, the Bee Gees, all we can do is “try to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”
Get to the point as fast as you can without actually being impolite.
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, displays of winsome insecurity are just not cute. Certainly not on a scale of baby raccoons to waddling ducks, anyway.
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, even less appetizing 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 did time in the Yard choose not to share our educational background 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?”
To which directness there is no possible response other than a winsome blush and a nod. Modesty preserved, at the expense of five minutes of everyone’s all-too-short life.
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 seeing a music video of STAYING ALIVE lip-synced by dancing raccoons playing in the back of your head on a continuous loop. Surely, any sane person will be willing to go to virtually any length to avoid that dreadful fate…so don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to USE your newly-constructed keynote to wow not all and sundry at a writers’ conference, or to insert it willy-nilly into your next query letter, but rather to pull it out of your pocket at the time and place where it’s going to do you the most good. Because this is one kitty who prefers to be prepared for anything.
Keep up the good work!