Yesterday, I tackled a reader’s question about pitching a novel that features multiple protagonists. Since I had a lot to say on the subject, I didn’t quite finish — but conveniently enough, the part I left for today dovetails nicely with a few other readers’ concerns about what should and shouldn’t make its way into the formal 2-minute pitch.
Last time, 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. Yes, it tends to be 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.
A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, 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.
Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the writer is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. 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.
So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view. If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story, you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present it as their story for pitching purposes.
“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 get 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.
If they could, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?
Believe me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over. 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’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post, but for now, let’s move on to the next reader question.
Insightful long-term reader Janet asks: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel? Pitch the old way?”
I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and 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 a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.
Remember the concept of pitch fatigue? At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a 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.
I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?
The upside: 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. 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 really is up to you.
As long as the story is a grabber.
The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the book.
I refer, of course, to the book’s length and whether it is actually finished.
Let me take the second one first. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is completed. This is most often heard as prevailing wisdom that you should have a full draft before you pitch, in case an agent or editor asks for the entire thing on the spot.
But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, that doesn’t happen all that often anymore. 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — and as those of you who have submitted before already know, it can often be months before an agent reads a requested manuscript.
Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away — and that, potentially, means some time that could conceivably be used for writing. After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…
And everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and after Labor Day…
And if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…
And if they’ve asked for the first three chapters only…
Or, to put it in terms of querying: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter… and then ask for the first 50 pages…
Starting to get the picture? Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but the fact is, 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.
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 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 lesbian 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 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 — and 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: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”
You are close to finishing it, aren’t you?
The question of 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 time. At every writers’ conference I have ever attended, some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.
And then 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 few days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. 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.)
Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in yours to get a general sense.
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. So if at all possible, you will want to stay under that benchmark.
And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of a knee-jerk 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.
Before any of you go running off madly to chop or extend your opus, do be aware that 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, 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.)
Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but if your book is longer than expected, this is not advice that will help you, is it? Although many agents say they like to see it — for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — I’ve never yet seen a good query rejected simply because it didn’t include length information.
Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Since you’ve all been so virtuous throughout this long and demanding master class on marketing, I have a great big treat for you tomorrow, my friends. Call it a reward for all of that effort over the past few weeks.
Speaking of which, keep up the good work!