Okay, today is where it starts to get exciting. If you’ve been following my posts for the past couple of weeks, and doing your homework, you have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. (You’ve constructed quite a bit of a good query letter, too, but I’ll come back to that after I’ve run all the way through the pitching cycle.)
Really, you’re to be congratulated; you’re already far more prepared to market your work than 90% of the writers who slink into pitch meetings. By now, you have determined your book’s category (June 15-19), identified your target market (June 20-21), come up with a few strong selling points (June 22, 23, and 25), and developed a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28).
To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.
Impossible, you say? Read on.
Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already perfected together into the first hundred words you say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference. With these first hundred words, even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.
And I do mean ANYONE, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, a writer who is sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.
Nifty trick, eh?
Once again, I must add a disclaimer about being an iconoclast: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching has made it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy, and doesn’t truly answer the question that agents and editors most need to know about an author: not can he speak, but can he write?
But since we’re stuck with pitching and querying as our two means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.
Why do I think so? Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. Not just because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books. Which left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.
Seriously, this happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. Frequently, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.
Which leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated. The results, I’m afraid, are predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.
Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to put well-meaning people in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, about which I will tell you in the next few days — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned BEFORE those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows what the heck you are talking about.
In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I have literally never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say BEFORE a pitch.
But the fact is, simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man,”
That’s a pitch for Tootsie, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.
Mastering the magic first hundred words will transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same. Urbanity is key here, people: ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease; observing the niceties is conducive to that.
And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations where a writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.
So take it away, Cary.
The goal of my first hundred words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with these magic words, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.
Whetted your appetite yet? Ready to learn what they are? Here goes:
”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”
Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.
I have quite a bit more to say about when and where you might find yourself glad to have prepared the magic first hundred words, but I’m going to stop for today, to give it all a chance to sink in. More urbanity pointers follow, of course.
In the meantime, practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They’re going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.
Keep up the good work!
P.S.: Are there any Spokane-area residents out there planning to attend PNWA next month? If so, would you be interested in carpooling with another fine reader of this blog? Drop me a note via the comments function (don’t worry; I won’t post your e-mail address), and I’ll hook you up.