Okay, today is where this series starts to get exciting: if you’ve been following my lightning-fast 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.
I’m quite serious about this. By now, you have faced some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching (June 20, 21, 24), determined your book’s category (June 26-27), identified your target market and figured out how to describe it to folks in the industry (June 27-28), figured out what about it is fresh (June 19, July 1), come up with a few strong selling points (June 29-30), and developed a snappy keynote statement (July 1).
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 constructed 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 my own tendency toward iconoclastism: 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 the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?
However, 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.
In fact, I think that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate — and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation.
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 species of brain freeze 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 walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.
Leaving the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine.
The results, I’m afraid, are relatively 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 over 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. But I have literally never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say BEFORE a pitch.
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 Hollywood-style 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.
The beauty of the first hundred words formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn them by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance meeting at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.
Why is so important to introduce yourself gracefully — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are (as I believe I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before) MAGNIFICENTLY busy people; they honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.
(That’s my job, right?)
It’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of her has usually already mentally stamped her foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.
Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, her book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than just good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, she might not get to pitch at all.
By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, they will appreciate it.
I’m sensing some insecurity out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I DON’T know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)
Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it can seem downright life-threatening?
Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed. In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.
Seriously, most genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights. A pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, is not an exercise in an agent or editor’s trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.
They want to like you, honest.
But they will like you better if you meet them halfway. Let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far they can bridge that gap:
”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).”
Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to KNOW — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also say:
”Hi, I’m a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than assuming that you have no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you: (KEYNOTE).”
What’s to see through? Over the past couple of weeks, you HAVE done all these things, right?
Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your smoothly, without an initial pause. And not just in your mind: OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself say them. Only repetition will make them feel natural.
Which is a perfectly lovely reason not to save the magic first hundred words for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day.
In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech. Knock yourself out.
One caveat about using these words to meet other writers at a conference: they’re a great introduction, but do give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what HE writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work. So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer, without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what the other writer writes.
In this context, the very brevity of the first 100 words will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, he will ask for more details about your book.
I mention this, because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.
Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.
It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the magic first hundred words to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group?
Not to mention the distinct possibility that some of those people sitting next to you in seminars are going to be household names someday.
This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who GET what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze.
Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re DOING for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So, finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out.
(Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people free copies of your future books: nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra copies to fulfill all those vague past promises, do you?)
Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even at a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually WANTS to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!”
Well, let’s just say it’s easy to get carried away.
For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk. For your conversational convenience, the magic first hundred words transform readily into questions about what concerns writers:
”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? Who is your target audience? What’s your premise?
Senseing a theme here?
By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your first hundred words — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you knew a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?
Trust me on this one: you don’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes.
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.
Starting tomorrow, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech (that’s those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about), so do plan to take some time off from barbequing and watching fireworks to join us here.
After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?
You’re doing really, really well — keep up the good work!