Pitching 101, part XII: elevator speeches revisited, or, what to say when time is of the essence


Clocks are not the only thing melting out here in Seattle, friends and neighbors: so are local writers. And butchers, bakers, and cabinet makers. The city’s simply not built for this type of heat.

But enough about the weather: back to the topic at hand, the care and feeding of the elevator speech, a.k.a. the 3-line pitch.

What a lot we’ve learned in the past couple of weeks, eh? We’ve talked about how to identify your book’s category (July 17 and 20), identify your target market (July 21-23), figure out what about your book is fresh (July 23), come up with a few strong selling points (July 23 and 27), develop a snappy keynote statement (July 27), and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 28). All of that, my friends, will enable you to move gracefully and professionally into conversation with anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that. From here on out we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, Stalwart Writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, and awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So, what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me, you may have 30 seconds of my time.”

Perhaps it’s self-evident, but moments like this were just made for the elevator speech.

For those of you joining us late in the series, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense. As we discussed last time, it is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

If the idea of constructing an elevator speech makes you shake in your proverbial boots, I have some good news for you: you probably already have a fair amount of experience doing it.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, such a description is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter. That, too, may well be self-evident — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Not entirely surprisingly, then, query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah.

And like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches all too often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissent very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but these are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself.

Feeling better? Good. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

a) Who is your protagonist?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Got that firmly in hand? Excellent. Now let’s mop our perspiring brows and proceed to the next step.

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Be specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people.

Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t even accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a specific person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities.

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

Why isn’t it efficient? Because the elevator speech is NOT about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is precisely what citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves — but once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is, getting specific about a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage — here is where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of, “…and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being.” Or “Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple AND won her the election.”

Or, heaven preserve us, “Can they learn to live happily ever after?”

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.

Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of THOSE I’ve heard, I’d build THREE of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

I’m serious about this. This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

While that tone is usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book, the practice tends to undersells the book.

Particularly if the tone happens to be one of the manuscript’s primary selling points. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but my point is, you can’t know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, “Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.”

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, look it up. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often read words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” I hear some perplexed souls say, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, oh shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud sometime; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch, or before, when you can fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching, or before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech: chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples, so you may see these rules in action, but it’s time to sign off for the day. Try to avoid heat prostration, Seattleites, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XI: just in case any of you should need it this weekend, the three-line pitch! How’s this for a premise: this writer and this agent walk into an elevator…

In deference to all of the aspiring writers in my neck of the woods are going to be spending this evening nervously gnawing their nails in anticipation of pitching at the Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, I’m going to keep it relatively short today — and that’s not even the only favor I intend to do them. The CTSRN is, like so many large conferences, prone to advising — nay, ordering — attendees to adhere to the out-of-date and never-particularly-publishing-friendly practice of limiting their pitches to three lines only. While I believe in principle and know from experience that this strategy does not work especially well in practice — even at the CTSRN, agents and editors tend to expect writers to be able to have actual conversations about their work, not merely to cough up a few rigidly memorized lines — I’m also aware that sometimes, conference brochure rhetoric can scare prospective pitchers into conniption fits.

So today, I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before: I’m going to humor the organizers of the CTSRN and similar conferences; I’m going to be talking about the construction and use of the 3-line pitch.

Which is to say: I’m going to be talking about the darned thing in a context in which it might actually prove useful to the average conference-goer, as a 3-sentence elevator speech. Which is, you may be pleased to hear, is equally useful at conferences and in query letters.

Were you expecting me to follow that last statement with not at all? I can see where you might leap to that conclusion: I have, after all, spent the last couple of weeks telling you at great length that 3-sentence speeches are vastly overrated as marketing tools for books.

Which they are, in most pitching contexts. Sometimes, though, they are indeed useful; I’ll be showing you when and how over the next couple of days. So I would, contrary to what you may have been expecting, advise you to construct one prior to conference time. It’s just not going to be the primary pitching tool in your writer’s bag.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a definition of the three-line pitch, or, as I prefer to call it, the elevator speech.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. A longish paragraph, in other words. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE and IN THE THIRD PERSON, regardless of the tense and narrative voice in which the book is actually written.

Contrary to popular belief, the elevator speech should NOT be a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

Yes, you read that correctly: the 3-sentence pitch you’ve been hearing so much about in conference circles lately is NOT a standard pitch for a book. It isn’t intended to replace the fully-realized 2-minute pitch that agents and editors will expect you to deliver within the context of a formal appointment.

Like the keynote, the 3-line pitch not a substitute for a pitch proper, but a teaser for it — it’s the lead-in to the actual pitch, a chance to show off your storytelling talent in the 30 seconds you might realistically have with an agent in a hallway.

Thus the term elevator speech: it’s designed to be short enough to deliver between floors when a happy accident places you and the agent of your dreams together in the same lift. (And yes, I DO actually know writers who have given their elevator speeches to agents in elevators, appropriately enough.) Although often, an agent in a hurry — say, one you have caught immediately after he has taught a class, or on his way into lunch — will not wait to hear the 2-minute version before asking to see pages.

Which is the true mark of success for an elevator speech: it so intrigues the hearer that further pitching is rendered unnecessary.

But — and I cannot emphasize this enough — contrary to what the vast majority of pitching classes and conference brochures will tell you, the elevator speech does not work in every context: it should be reserved for informal pitching opportunities. And even then, you should always, ALWAYS ask politely if it’s okay to pitch before saying it.

For a formal pitching session, you will be better off with a 2-minute formal pitch. (And don’t worry, I’ll be getting to that next week.)

Confused? You’re far from alone. “Wait just a minute,” I hear some eager pitchers out there cry. “You’re telling me to do twice the work I would normally need to do! The conference brochure I have in my hand tells me that I MUST give a 3-4 sentence summary of my book. Obviously, then, I can just stick with that, and ignore your advice to prepare a 2-minute pitch as well. Besides, won’t agents and editors get mad at me if I break the 3-sentence rule?”

In a word, no — at least, not in a scheduled pitch meeting. That’s a rule set up by conference organizers, generally speaking; the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry, but the MOVIE industry.

And even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about it, it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s not as though goons with stopwatches will be standing behind you during your pitch appointments, shouting, “Okay — that was 3.5 sentences, buddy. Out of the pool!”

Oh, sure, if you went on for two or three minutes during a chance encounter over the dessert bar, the average agent’s plate of tiramisu might start to shake with annoyance after a minute or so. But that’s a matter of context and fallen blood sugar. In the formal appointments, agents are often actually perplexed when writers stop talking after 20 seconds or so.

Because, you see, they don’t read the conference brochures. They just know the norms of the industry.

But think about it: do you really want to waste the other 9 1/2 minutes of your appointment by having prepared only 30 seconds about your book? On the other hand, you don’t want to focus so much on the 2-minute formal pitch that you can’t take advantage of hallway pitching opportunities, do you?

In short, you’re going to want to prepare both. This is an industry that values flexibility and creativity, after all.

Did that gusty collective sigh I just heard mean that I’ve convinced at least a few of you? “Okay, Anne,” some of you shout wearily, “You win. But since brevity is the soul of both the elevator speech and the keynote, how are they different?”

Good question, tuckered-out would-be pitchers. The elevator speech is roughly three times the length of the keynote, for one thing. And while the keynote is designed to pique interest in the conflict, the elevator speech is intended to elicit a response of, “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”

That’s right: it’s intended to provoke follow-up questions.

Although the purpose of both the keynote and the 3-line pitch is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your task is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation.

Let me repeat that, slightly twisted, because it’s important: if your elevator speech does NOT present your novel or memoir’s protagonist as a fascinating person caught in a scintillating dilemma, or at any rate shown against an absorbing backdrop, you should revise it until it does.

Your elevator speech should, in other words, establish book’s premise, main character, and primary conflict.. It should answer the basic questions:

(1) Who is the protagonist?

(2) What is the problem s/he faces?

(3) How is s/he going to attack it differently than anybody else on the face of the earth?

Why stick to the premise alone, you ask? Simple: when you have someone’s attention for only thirty seconds or so, you don’t have time to explain the interesting backstory, the macabre subplot, how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, that great twist about the long-lost half-sister, or how the villain gets dissolved in a vat of acid in the basement.

You will not, in short, have the time to summarize the plot. You will have only just enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them in the book.

Was that giant slide-whistle I just heard the sound of all of you who have experienced the horror of trying to cram an entire book’s plot into three sentences realizing that you didn’t need to do it at all?

Yup. I wish someone had told me that before the first time I pitched, too.

Out comes the broken record again: an elevator speech should not be a summary. Actually, even in a screenplay pitch (which is where the 3-sentence format comes from, in case you’re curious), the writer is not expected to summarize the entire plot that quickly, merely the premise.

To tell you the truth, the only people I have ever met who have expected writers to tell an entire story in three lines are pitching teachers and the conference organizers who write the directions in brochures.

So why is the demand that you limit yourself to three sentences so ubiquitous in conference literature? Beats me. And what makes this phenomenon even stranger, at least from my perspective, is even screenplays are not really pitched in three sentences; they’re pitched in three beats. So what book writers are being told to do is not even accurate for the industry in which micro-pitches ARE the norm!

Curious about what three beats might sound like? I’m no screenwriter (nor do I play one on TV), but let me give it a try for one of the longest movies of my lifetime:

Beat one: An East Indian lawyer in South Africa

Beat two: uses nonviolence to change unjust laws

Beat three: and then takes the strategy home to fight British rule.

Recognize it? It’s GANDHI. (In case you think I’m kidding about the expected brevity of movie pitches, here is the IMDb version: “Biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British through his philosophy of non-violent protest.” Mine’s shorter.)

Of course, far more happens in the movie than this: it’s 188 minutes long, and it has a cast of — well, if not thousands, at least many hundreds filmed repeatedly. But if I had tried to summarize the entire plot, we would have been here until next Thursday.

Fortunately, an elevator speech for a book is not expected to be this terse: you actually can have 3-4 complex sentences, not just beats. But that does not mean, as is VERY common in the ostensibly 3-sentence pitches one actually hears at conferences in these dark days, three sentences with eight dependent and three independent clauses each.

We’re not talking a page here; we’re talking a paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve heard many elevator speeches that — while technically three sentences in the sense that they contained only three periods — took longer than two minutes to say. While that may meet the letter of the 3-sentence rule, it clearly violates its spirit.

Stop glaring at me. I don’t make the rules; I merely explain them to you fine people.

So while I’m at it, allow me to clear up another common misconception about the 3-line pitch: the point in keeping it brief is TO KEEP IT BRIEF, not to play rules lawyer. If you can’t say your entire elevator speech within two regular breaths, it’s too long.

Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this? Are you contemplating taking up fancy yogi breathing techniques to extend the length of your elevator speech? Are you, in fact, seriously considering avoiding hallway pitches altogether, just so you don’t have to construct both an elevator speech AND a 2-minute pitch?

All three are common reactions to meeting me, I must confess, but don’t worry — I shall give you many, many practical tips on how to pull it off with aplomb, but for now, I’m going to let those of you who are attending the CTSRN get back to your frantic pre-conference preparations.

For those of you who have not attended before, you might want to channel some of that anticipatory energy you’ve been devoting to nail-biting to taking a gander at the reader-requested WHAT TO WEAR TO A CONFERENCE and WHAT TO BRING TO A CONFERENCE categories on the archive list at right. Also, if you love me, please do not even consider sending off any requested materials to any agents and editors you might meet at said conference without at least glancing at the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET posts.

And is it too late to advise you to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it to anyone?

For the rest of you, I leave to ponder the possibilities until next time. That way, you can brainstorm unfettered. But do brainstorm about the best way to present your premise BRIEFLY, not how to cram as much information as possible into a couple of breaths’ worth of speech.

To give you a touch of additional incentive, I’ll let you in on a secret: once you have come up with an eyebrow-raising elevator speech, the process is going to help you improve your 2-minute pitch — and your queries, too. Trust me on this one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work!

PS: for those of you who are too worried about what you’ve heard about hallway pitching to get a good night’s sleep before I cover how to approach an agent outside the context of a pre-arranged pitch meeting, sharp-eyed reader Penelope has anticipated your fears: our recent exchange in the comments might help set your minds at rest.

Pitching 101, part X: becoming fluent in conference-speak, or, walking into the lion’s cage sans whip and chair

Why feel like this at a conference...

Why feel like this at a conference…

...when you could feel like this?

…when you could feel like this?

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the philosophy, strategy, and construction of an effective verbal pitch. I know that I may be covering this material in rather too great depth for those of you eyeing upcoming conference dates circled in red with PITCH HERE! written on your calendars — so for those of you wondering whether I’m going to be wrapping this all up by, say, this coming weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named (they don’t need the free publicity), the short answer is no.

The long answer is that if you’re in that much of a hurry, please run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page. Feel free to leave comments on the current posts if you have questions — believe me, I would much, much rather that you asked me to clarify things before you pitched than to hear afterward that you wished mid-pitch that you’d asked a trenchant question or two.

For those of you feeling a little less rushed, please sit back and enjoy learning how to approach pitching not as a one-time blurt of a short memorized paragraph, but as a helpful, civil conversation with an agent or editor about your book.

Lest that still seem like a far-away goal, take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for how much better prepared for that conversation you are now than you were a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve been following this series faithfully and doing your homework, you have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. (You’ve constructed several of the constituent parts of a good query letter, too, but I’ll come back to that after I’ve run all the way through the pitching cycle.)

Seriously, we’ve come a long way, babies: you’re already far more prepared to market your work than 90% of the writers who slink into pitch meetings.

Think about it: by now, you have faced some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching (July 14-16), determined your book’s category (July 17 and 20), identified your target market and figured out how to describe it to folks in the industry (July 21-23), figured out what about it is fresh (July 23), come up with a few strong selling points (July 23 and 27), and developed a snappy keynote statement (July 27).

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? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in a few memorized lines.

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, as long as aspiring writers in North America are were stuck with pitching and querying as our primary 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.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe 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. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; in my experience, flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

No, really — I’m quite serious about that last one. 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.

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 talented writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this series — 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 who you are and 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’ve 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 screenplay-type 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.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words. Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that.

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.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering my formula for the magic first hundred words will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same, it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. 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.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy:

”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.

You’re welcome.

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 urbanely — 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’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’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, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors 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.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never 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.

Worried? Can’t say as I blame you, but I suspect it might set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings. Assuming that we all know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at two other common entrance speeches:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Vague, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”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).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you HAVE done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional.

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. You might make a few friends.

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.

Courtesy counts, remember?

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, at lest not in my general vicinity.

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?

Sensing 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 won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes; you will want to have those numbers on speed-dial.

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?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part IX: getting all conceptual, or, Anne Frank meets Godzilla at the Eiffel Tower and love blooms!

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Did you enjoy your weekend, readers, or were you too busy racking your brains, trying to come up with a list of your book’s selling points? Here in Seattle, where a writers’ organization to which I used to donate a tremendous amount of time is gearing up for its annual Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, aspiring writers are walking into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of the brighter wits among you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I eschew this approach. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last Thursday with some homework. So I ask again: how is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are marketed to readers.

Don’t try this at your local library — the idea is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

I don’t mean to alarm any of you with my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books aimed at a specific group of readers, you may well notice that they all have something in common. In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words.

That’s not only true of book marketing, by the way. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) Since I was new to the game, I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine, in the apparently mistaken impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like.

After a week or two, the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be — and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots, to assure an accurate description?

He waved away my objection. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic holds true for the language of a pitch or a query letter: since agents and editors think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book. An overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what they’re hoping to hear.

So let’s turn our attention to pith, shall we? Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. But I digress)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It 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.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted agency screener.

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 when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be READY to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

Here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly ARE going to take up only a few seconds of her time. (Hey, you didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

But there I go, digressing again. Back to the business at hand.

The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript.

Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift single sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more. Just in case anyone is still confused, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at literally every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the entire pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be both 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. (Note: the Hollywood Hook should not be confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms confused all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:


It’s JAWS, but on dry land and with turtledoves!

“Paris Hilton is suddenly penniless and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day Martians invade!”

It’s no accident that the example above ends in an exclamation point: you WANT your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. 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!”

See all those 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 automatically in the mind.

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? If, 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?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that 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.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. 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!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is 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 presumably 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 (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately 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 last week: 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?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book solves vividly to the hearer.

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 innocent 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?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue.

Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand WHY that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?

That’s a great question, disgruntled murmurers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden.

How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

You WERE aware that both pitching and querying were species of seduction, right?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.

Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects.

A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a couple of years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. These things happen.

My point is, if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believe they can sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, 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.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. Logically, neither could be true.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: if a pitcher is extremely rude to the pitchee, the latter usually won’t ask to see pages. But logically, no assessment of a VERBAL pitch could possibly be construed as a MANUSCRIPT critique.

In other words, they can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. 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. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. 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 my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, almost a decade later, everyone there remembers his performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)

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 aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they tend to be merely 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.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Onion loaf, OCD, and other indispensable accoutrements of the comedy writer: an interview with AND HERE’S THE KICKER author Mike Sacks

Hello, campers —

Since we’ve all been working so hard throughout this series on pitching, I have a treat for you today — or at any rate, I had planned a treat: an interview between Mike Sacks, author of the recently-released AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT and legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe.

I was excited about this, because the book is a good one, full of the kind of serious analysis the craft of comedy writing seldom receives, performed by writers who have spent years honing their craft.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was even more excited, because quite a lot of the interviews speak very directly to our pet subject of the moment: AND HERE’S THE KICKER contains some amazing anecdotes about the difficulty of pitching comedy to the humorless — or to funny people who are just bad listeners.

Who among us couldn’t use some advice from the pros on that?

To render it even more useful for those of you out there who write comedy, the interviews are bookended with sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

You’re starting to feel the excitement now, too, aren’t you?

Seriously, ever since I’ve had the book in the house, I’ve been picking it up every time I start to feel even the vaguest twinge of depression. Nothing cheers me up like learning something new about my art form, you see — and frankly, I’ve been pretty astonished at how much solid information about craft and marketing is crammed into these relatively brief interviews.

We often hear super-serious authors discussing the inspiration and difficulties underlying their craft, but comedy writing is usually treated like magic: all the audience really knows is whether the bit works. How it is done remains a mystery. Here, however, the pros actually do talk about the tricks o’ the trade, sometimes in quite extensive detail.

How much detail, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s always a good sign, I think, when I pick up a book aimed at aspiring writers and exclaim ten pages in, “Wow, why hasn’t someone written this before?”

I have to admit, though, that as a reader, much of what I’ve enjoyed about AND HERE’S THE KICKER has had little to do with insights into craft or illuminating marketing tips. I’ve been getting a big kick out of some of the behind-the-scenes peeks into pitch sessions and writers’ meetings.

Who’d have thought, for instance, that the catchphrase-based humor that took over skits at Saturday Night Live would annoy some former SNL writers as much as it does yours truly? (Catchphrases are antithetical to genuine humor, in my opinion: the laugh comes merely because the line is expected.) Or that an actor/director/writer whose work I’ve always felt was hugely overrated would strike me as similarly full of himself in the context of a serious interview about the far, far more talented artists with whom he’s had the good fortune to work?

Hey, I’m only human; I enjoy having my prejudices confirmed as much as the next person.

In short, I was pretty psyched at the prospect of bringing Mike here to Author! Author! to talk about his book. So, as I always do when I’m considering introducing an author of a new book to you fine people, I tracked down the publisher’s blurb:

Every great joke has a punch line, and every great humor writer has an arsenal of experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions that were the inspiration for that humor. In fact, those who make a career out of entertaining strangers with words are a notoriously intelligent and quirky lot. And boy, do they have some stories.

In this entertaining and inspirational book, you’ll hear from 21 top humor writers as they discuss the comedy-writing process, their influences, their likes and dislikes, and their experiences in the industry. You’ll also learn some less useful but equally amusing things, such as:

* How screenwriter Buck Henry came up with the famous “plastics” line for The Graduate.
* How many times the cops were called on co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen and Dan Mazer during the shooting of Borat.
* What David Sedaris thinks of his critics.
* What creator Paul Feig thinks would have happened to the Freaks & Geeks crew if the show had had another season.
* What Jack Handey considers his favorite “Deep Thoughts.”
* How Todd Hanson and the staff of The Onion managed to face the aftermath of 9/11 with the perfect dose of humor.
* How Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais created the original version of The Office.
* What it’s really like in the writers’ room at SNL.

Funny and informative, And Here’s the Kicker is a must-have resource – whether you’re an aspiring humor writer, a fan of the genre, or someone who just likes to laugh.

And that, my friends, is how a not-very-stirring pitch can undersell a marvelous book. Oh, it drops the relevant names well enough, but does that very mainstream list tell you that this book is filled with insights that will startle you? Or educate you as a comedy writer?

Did it, in short, stir in you excitement to rush out and read this book?

For me, it didn’t, and that’s a real shame — the interviews with Bob Odenkirk and Dick Cavett alone offer more genuine insight into figuring out what is and isn’t going to be funny to an audience than anything else I’ve seen on the subject in years.

Call me zany, but when a reader already in love with a book takes a gander at the blurb and thinks, “Wow, that certainly undersells what’s between the covers,” I suspect that it might not be doing its job as well as it should.

Ditto with a pitch, whether it is given verbally or in a query letter: if it doesn’t make the hearer or reader long to read the manuscript in question, it’s not an effective pitch, by definition. As we’ve just seen, simply listing a book’s attributes — a strategy embraced by many a pitcher — isn’t always the best means of grabbing potential readers.

So eschew the blurb above, which also, I notice from the book at my elbow, happens to be the back jacket copy. I suspect that the interview below will give you greater insight into why AND HERE’S THE KICKER might be the book for you. As would flipping through it in a bookstore — which, contrary to the dire moans we keep hearing from the general direction of the publishing industry, inveterate readers still do on a regular basis.

For those of you who prefer the new-fangled, less-browsable route, AND HERE’S THE KICKER is also available on Amazon, naturally. And for those of you who like to support independent bookstores but don’t happen to live near any, you can always pick it up at Powell’s.

As for me, I’ve depressed myself into a stupor, thinking about all of the great books out there that are languishing, under-pitched. I’m just going to have to read another interview to cheer myself up.



My name is Mike Sacks. I have a new book out this month from Writers Digest Press called “And Here’s the Kicker.” The book contains full-length interviews that I conducted over the past two years with 21 famous humor writers.

One of those writers is the great Merrill Markoe, who was a huge influence not only on me, but on my entire generation. Merrill was the first head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and she’s also published a ton of great articles and seven fantastic humor books that every comedy fan should own.

I asked Merrill if she’d be willing to talk with me about my book, exclusively for Author! Author!, and she said yes. Last month, in a private room in the Santa Monica Outback Steakhouse, over a giant onion loaf and two orders of sweet-glazed roast pork tenderloins, we sat down to talk about various subjects, including what it really takes to become a humor writer, beyond merely depression and OCD…

Hope you enjoy…

MERRILL: Mike, did you know I was a vegetarian when I agreed to do this interview with you?

SACKS: Onion loaf is a vegetable, is it not?

MERRILL: Moving on…What did you do at the Washington Post?

SACKS: I worked in the Washington Postsyndicate office. We edited and then sent out the work of various blow-hard columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, EJ Dionne, etc. I’m from the DC area originally, but I don’t miss the bowties, lawyers in suspenders, and self-important vice-presidents of do-nothing associations.

Can you tell I didn’t fit in?

MERRILL: What do you on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair?

SACKS: Mostly what I do is editorial, although I also write for the magazine. Also, and I’m not thrilled about this, I’m in charge of Dominick Dunne’s ever-changing hairdo.

MERRILL: You’ve freelanced for various magazines, such as The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Time, Radar and Vice. Were those freelance pieces that you submitted or did you contact them and pitch?

SACKS: Most of those pieces were the result of me coming up with an idea and sending it to someone on staff, usually someone I knew.

It’s up to you to make a pitch, and (this is important) you should never send your pitch to the editor-in-chief. They just don’t care. Send it to either someone you know or someone further down the editorial ladder, who might have time to read a query and help you through the process.

I’d say that most of the younger editorial staffers prefer email. So, make your pitch very short, no longer than four paragraphs. You can always add details later.

MERRILL: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SACKS: I wanted to be a pilot and then a brain surgeon, but I got dizzy easily and I nearly flunked high school biology. No joke.

Failing that, I really wanted to work in a record store in suburban Maryland, as a clerk making $5.65 an hour . . . and I did so, off and on, for the next ten years! A dream come true!

MERRILL: Where did the idea for doing the KICKER book begin? Were there things you wanted to know about the comedy writing process, or were you just aware that there wasn’t a book like this and you wanted to read one?

SACKS: Both, really. I could never find a contemporary book of interviews with today’s humor writers. The only books I found dealt with shows from the 50s through 70s, such as Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. Those programs are great, but how much can you read about them already?

Another problem with a lot of humor books is that they tend to be written by people who have not made a living in comedy (at least at the highest level). I wanted to ask successful humor writers what to do and (just as importantly) what NOT to do.

For instance, if you want to get a humor piece published in a magazine, don’t try to be funny in the cover letter. It just annoys the editor.

Here’s another bit of advice from the pros: when you apply to become a writer at a late-night show, never include with your submission the funny T-shirt you created, or bumper sticker you printed up, or Rupert Pupkin–style tape you made of yourself telling jokes in your bedroom. I’m sure you can concur. It just doesn’t help your chances.

The book is filled with such advice that will hopefully help younger writers navigate the system to becoming a success.

MERRILL: When you interviewed me, you seemed to have a lot of information about things I’d done. Did you just Google people and read or what?

SACKS: I try to read as much as possible about each of the interviewees. It shows the interview subjects that you’ve done your homework and that you respect them enough to have done the hard work of preparation. Second, and most importantly, the interview will turn out better for it. It will be more comprehensive and, most likely, a lot more interesting.

MERRILL: How long did the book take to write?

SACKS: Two years, every night after work, and on every weekend. My wife just loved it.

MERRILL: Who turned out to be the least like you thought they would be?

SACKS: Truthfully, I did so much research for each interview (up to 30 hours) that I could basically predict how it was going to go. Of course, there are exceptions to that. I conducted a total of 40 interviews and I would say that three or four subjects were either very, very busy or very, very rude.

MERRILL: Did any interview turn out so badly that you didn’t end up using it? Does that happen much with interviews?

SACKS: Yes, sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs. And sometimes you think an interview has gone beautifully, but when you begin to edit the interview and put it together, you realize that it’s kind of weak. You can then perform follow-up interviews, but sometimes you just realize that you’re never going to get what you want no matter how many questions you ask. It might just be a bad fit between you and the interviewee.

MERRILL: A lot of writers like attention because writing is so damn solitary. But were there some who were reluctant? Hard to interview?

SACKS: Sure, there were many who didn’t want to be interviewed, and most of them were (for some strange reason) women. I asked about 15 top female humor writers, and all said no (or never got back to me). I don’t know why this was the case, although I’m guessing two reasons: one, a lack of ego, and two, there are so few top women humor writers that they are constantly being asked to give interviews and are tired of it already.

Do you find this to be the case, Ms. Top Woman Humor Writer?

MERRILL: No. That doesn’t make any sense to me and certainly doesn’t sound like a typical gender trait. Or I’m such an egomaniac that I can’t recognize it. Maybe between work and home life, they were all just too busy . Or maybe their OCD was kicked off by mere proximity to you and they had to wash their hands.

Who was the hardest one to get to agree that he/she would do the interview?

SACKS: No one was really too hard to pin down, but I found that the older generation (Larry Gelbart, Al Jaffee, Irv Brecher) was the easiest to get a hold of. I think it took Larry Gelbart five minutes to get back to me by email (and not from an assistant, mind you). All these senior guys were incredibly classy. I’m sure Al Jaffee had other things to be doing, and yet he could not have been more gracious and more of a sweetheart.

Irv Brecher was 93 when I interviewed him, and he spoke to me for hours. It was one of the last interviews he conducted before he died at the age of 94.

MERRILL: You mentioned a high incidence of OCD among comedy writers. I have never been especially aware of this among writers, although comedians are so insane that I don’t know if there is any mental disabilities that they DONT have. OCD stands for Original Comedian Disorder. But what indications did you have that the people you were interviewing had OCD?

SACKS: Well, for the simple reason that I came right out and asked. And I only asked because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that 70% of those I interviewed said they had it.

I emailed Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness factor) and asked if there was a connection. He said he wasn’t aware of one. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know.

I just found it all to be, at the very least, a strange coincidence.

MERRILL: Seventy percent is NO coincidence.

Are you comfortable talking about your OCD in this interview? What are your symptoms and do they keep you from writing or force you to write?

SACKS: I don’t mind talking about it, as long as I can talk about it for exactly three minutes and forty seconds. My symptoms are excessive thoughts, hand washing and the urge to kiss the homeless on the subway.

I would say that the OCD does absolutely help with the writing, if only because I literally think about the writing all day and most of the night. And I feel I have to get it perfect, even though that’s an impossible trick. If I don’t write every day, I get nervous.

MERRILL: Oh my God. I definitely do that. I also do it about going to the gym. Maybe I should give hand-washing a shot and see if it takes.

On an unrelated topic: whither The Freedonian?

SACKS: The Freedonian was a humor website that I ran with some friends in the early 2000s. We published a lot of writers who went on to have great careers, like Neal Pollack and a few writers for The Daily Show.

But we got burned out, and, truthfully, it was too difficult to consistently find good pieces. We were thinking of putting the best pieces out in a book compilation…

MERRILL: When you were Nerve’s Crush of the Week, did you get a lot of interest? Didn’t your wife freak out?

SACKS: My wife couldn’t have cared less, truthfully. She thought it was ridiculous. I did hear from some women, but they mostly wanted to talk about splitting infinitives. Dirty, dirty women writers…

MERRILL: Of the writers you talked to, what advice or approach did you come away thinking about? Did anyone have a method you hadn’t considered before?

SACKS: Larry Gelbart talked about how one’s writing style is formed by what you can’t write. I thought this was really interesting, and I think it’s a good lesson for beginning writers.

In other words, if you want to write comics, write comics. If you want to write short humor pieces, that’s fine, too. You should be content writing whatever works for you and whatever interests you. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t want (or can’t) write short stories like Hemingway. Not everyone has to do that; there are plenty of other niches to fill.

MERRILL: Was there a common denominator among the writers in terms of approach to writing?

SACKS: The common denominator was to just keep working, day after day, even though the writing may not be going well. Just keep at it. Everyone, even the writers at the top of their game, struggle from time to time. The trick is to remain consistent; sit yourexpletive deleted down and keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.

MERRILL: Was there any one thing besides OCD that these people all had in common?

SACKS: Just this inability to feel content. All of the writers, no matter how popular or famous, still want to achieve a lot more. They each have a tremendous hunger to keep going and to keep writing and to keep achieving.

MERRILL: Did anyone actually LIKE writing?

SACKS: It seems as if the great writers have no choice BUT to write, even if they don’t necessarily love the day-to-day process. But all seem to love having accomplished something that they’re proud of, even if getting there was brutally difficult.

MERRILL: Do you have a favorite quote? I shouldn’t ask this because you will piss off all the writers you overlook, but…what the hell. You don’t have to see them now, do you?

SACKS: I liked Harold Ramis’ quote: find the smartest person in the room, and if isn’t you, go stand next to them.

I think this is great advice. Find like-minded people with similar goals who are also talented and try to make it together. It’s very important to network and to have support, rather than making a go of it alone. It’s tough enough as it is…

Thank you, Merrill. Now let’s get back to our onion loaf, shall we?

MERRILL: Do you mind if we put a napkin over the dismembered pig carcasses?

SACKS: I do not. Pass the hot sauce.

sacks-pizza-coney-island-1Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

Pitching 101, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch for your work doesn’t hurt, either


“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Welcome back to my fourth annual series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. While I’m taking my time this year, walking you through the essential elements, if you happen to be in a great big hurry — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area weekend after next — feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through this process at record speed.

How do I come up with those esoteric category names?

Even if you do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever — I would strongly encourage you to work through this series as if you were. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation.

Which is, in fact, learned. As in any other business, there are ropes to learn. No shame in that.

Stop shaking your head in disbelief: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, no matter how inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter is often rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers, at least for the few weeks immediately prior to attending a literary conference or sending out a flotilla of queries.

Okay, that’s enough justification for one day. Back to the business at hand.

Last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Why? Well, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book; contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s WANTING to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly — sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, these pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Sadly, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the pitchers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the description), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this. Whenever I teach pitching classes, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the seventeen pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we?

Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of fiction pitches include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter.

Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2008 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles.

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed earlier in the week, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2009, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a NF book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
Remember a few weeks back, when I was talking about the distinction between a fresh book concept and a weird one? Well, this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. (And if you missed that discussion, you might want to check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

I like to see EVERY list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific.

Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next week, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech.

But since you’ve all been working so hard, I have a treat in store for you this weekend. Be sure to tune in; it’s going to be a good one. (Hint: those of you who write comedy are going to be really, really happy.)

So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VII: identifying why precisely the world needs YOUR book, as opposed to any other, or, how to make it plain to even a pitch-fatigued Mr. Magoo what you’re holding out to him


A few hours after I posted yesterday, I ran into a local author who drops by Author! Author! on a fairly regular basis. (Appropriately enough, I bumped into him in a bookstore.) “I loved your blog this morning,” he told me, chuckling. “You really made the poor souls who hear pitches sound out-of-touch with reality.” Since it has been his considered professional opinion for years that the version of reality as understood by the business side of writing and the version in which the rest of us live have little in common but a shared respect for the force of gravity, he was, he said, pretty psyched to forward the link to that post to half of the writers he knew.

Flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey yesterday.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of yesterday’s post to the concept of a niche market, the publishing industry’s term for a target readership that really isn’t big enough to buy significant numbers of books. Agents tend to be leery of manuscripts that they think will appeal to only a niche market, since the book sales are unlikely to yield much in the way of commission.

And lest we forget, few agencies are non-profit organizations, at least intentionally. Contrary to what far too many aspiring writers believe, the business of selling art is in fact a business, not a charitable enterprise devoted to seeking out and publishing the best writing currently on the planet. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes he can sell.

So when an agent dismisses a pitch with an airy, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” she’s not saying that it’s a bad idea for a book; she’s saying that it would be difficult for her to convince an editor at a major publishing house that there are very many readers out there who will spot it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it to the cash register.

See the difference? I hope so, because understanding that subtle distinction can often mean ending a pitch meeting on a cordial note, rather than with the writer weeping into the hallway, feeling as though he’s just been told his book concept is terrible.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from the agent or editor’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, they just aren’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of these preferences are years or even decades out of date. “Soccer?” they scoff, wrinkling their collective noses. “Nobody in the United States is interested in that.

Except, of course, for the 18.2 million Americans who played soccer at least once in 1998. (Speaking of outdated statistics; it just happened to be the one I had at my fingertips, but it’s really too old to be of much use in a pitch or query letter. Do as I say, not as I do: try to stick to statistics for the last five years. )

Thus, as I pointed out last time, it’s a really, really good idea to do a bit of homework on your target demographic before walking into a pitch appointment, so you may point out — politely and preemptively — just how immense it actually is.

However, please do not fall into the same trap that my author friend did: don’t automatically assume that any agent or editor unfamiliar with your subject matter is out-of-touch or (as all too many conference-goers are apt to conclude) just not very bright. Actually, the opposite is usually true — both agencies and publishing houses tend to attract genuinely smart people.

Very smart English majors. See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming?

As I’ve pointed out before, no agent or editor works with every kind of book. They’re specialists, and once a writer lands a contract with them, that’s good for everybody. However, one side effect of that praiseworthy concentration on a particular type of book can be myopia.

And I’m not just talking about needing to wear glasses because they read too much, if you catch my drift.

But to be fair, let’s put that particular stripe of myopia in perspective: hands up, everyone who is an expert in a whole lot of subjects that don’t interest him. In the world outside the publishing industry, we don’t generally expect a pipelayer to be conversant with the ins and outs of oral surgery, or an oral surgeon to know much about floral arrangement, or a florist to be an expert in particle physics. Yet at conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are shocked to discover that agents and editors aren’t all that up on the subject matters of their books.

Go figure. If it makes you feel better about having to go to the trouble to prove just how many potential readers are demonstrably interested in the subject matter of your book, pretend that you are going to be pitching to an optometrist, not an agent. (Unless your book happens to be intimately concerned with the workings of the eye, that is.)

One more reason that it would behoove you to compile a few statistics before you write your pitch or query: any number in the hundreds of thousands or millions will jump out at the hearer, a serious advantage when addressing an agent or editor suffering from pitch fatigue.

Or anyone else, for that matter. After the tenth pitch, even rather dissimilar books can start to sound kind of similar.

Again, I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on the fine folks who inhabit the publishing industry: tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Heck, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

So make it as easy as possible for the pitch-fatigued (or, in the case of a query, a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. Quantify it.

Oh, before I forget, one more tip before I move on: because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the numbers, wherever possible; they will sound more impressive. More to the point, citing the numbers rather than the percentages allows for the possibility that your listener might not be up on the latest headcounts of the citizenry.

Or, to put it another way: quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 306,972,221. How can you make that number work for you? Well, if you happened to be writing a ghost story, you might be thinking of bringing up in your pitch that oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 Americans believes in ghosts. You could state it that way, or you could mention that according to that survey (which makes one wonder how the surveyors asked the question, doesn’t it?), 33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your subject matter.

Mighty impressive, right? But to a former English major, which is likely to sound larger, a third of the population or 102.3 million people?

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could be, I suppose I should throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings by pointing out that nobody in the publishing industry will seriously believe that 102.3 million Americans will actually rush out and buy every ghost book on the market. The last time I checked, the entire Harry Potter series collectively had accounted for only 27.7 million sales in this country.

But your books should be so lucky, right?

You don’t need to argue that all of those people will buy your book — just that they are predisposed to be interested in a ghost story. Trust the intelligence of the pitch hearer to be able to conclude that if even a tiny fraction of the believers in ghosts act upon that initial interest, you could have a runaway bestseller on your hands.

I’m sensing some synapses firing out there in the ether; are those light bulbs I see appearing over my readers’ heads? “But Anne,” some of you newly-eager book marketers exclaim, “how do I get those millions of people to act upon that wholly admirable impulse and buy my book? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I pitching that my book has a genuine shot at attracting those readers?

Glad you asked, oh pitchers. Next, I am — surprise, surprise — going to talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be asking you to work on developing a list of selling points for the book to be pitched or queried. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

In other words, so you won’t forget any of the reasons that your book will appeal to readers, even if you should happen — heaven forbid!– to have a panic attack during your pitch appointment.

Already, I can sense that some of you who have attended pitching classes are feeling a trifle skeptical about this suggestion. “Yeah, right, Anne,” these already-instructed few are scoffing, “I should put in still more effort into preparing to prepare to write my pitch. If having selling points at the ready is so darned useful, why doesn’t every pitching teacher out there advise it? Or why isn’t doesn’t that list pop up in every how-to for writing a good query letter? Isn’t this in fact just another manifestation of your overwhelming desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, it works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my proposal-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their book proposal. True, it’s unusual to include, but both times I’ve sold nonfiction books, the editors have raved about how much they wished every proposer would include a similar page.

A really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose manuscript couldn’t benefit from that?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely NEED to prepare before you pitch or query, merely a really, really good idea. It’s unlikely to the point of hilarity, though, that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into a pitch meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list of selling points?” (Unless, of course, you happen to be pitching to my agent after having identified yourself as one of my blog’s readers.)

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, it is still worth constructing your list of selling points. Pulling together such a document forces you to come up with SPECIFIC reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book.

Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about that last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard NF book proposal, even.

Yet ask a fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will act insulted. Why the discrepancy? Well, as I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about THIS book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick up a book. As a long-time pitching coach, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Not only will constructing a list help you avoid this very common pitfall — it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos emit from you, dear readers? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Um, no — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are a common indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. One very, very common follow-up question, as it happens, is “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time we finish this series, you will be prepared — nay, HAPPY — to answer it.

But you will have to prepare, I’m afraid. What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is EITHER to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching. “Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent.

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). They also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with its not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace.

A writer’s having thought in advance about what REALISTIC claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

In short, the selling point sheet prevents you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! There is a list of concrete facts about you and your book.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, oh scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts.

How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story (or to put it as the nonfiction agents do: what’s your platform?), and why will people want to read it?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Yes, list these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to the agent or editor is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning. Yes, it would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of a NF platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples:

Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

In the meantime, keep brainstorming about your book’s selling points — and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VI: the dreaded niche market, or, the book market’s a banquet of possibilities, and most poor pitchers are starving to death


Still hanging in there, campers? In this series, I’m expecting you to swallow a whole lot of rather unpleasant truths about marketing in great big gulps. Shall I slow down a bit today, to give your mental digestive processes time to catch up?

Hark — do I hear a chorus of small voices out there in the ether? “Heck, no, Anne!” my plucky readers chirp. “I want to learn to pitch! Bring it on, and keep it coming!”

How gratifying. Let us press on, then.

For those of you who did not shout hosannas in response, or who think that my spending so many posts on pitching is sort of a waste of time, since the vast majority of aspiring writers will never do it (specifically, the vast majority who never attend writers’ conferences or literary parties), please, for your own sakes, do not simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon. Learning how to give a verbal pitch well will improve your ability to write query letters and synopses — all three are built, after all, out of the same essential components, based upon a firm understanding of how the industry does and doesn’t work.

To that end, I urged you last time to embrace the industry’s practice of thinking about the target reader for your book– and why that reader really wants to read your book, rather than any other book currently on the market. I asked all of you out there — and not, as the question is usually framed, merely the nonfiction writers — to figure out why the world NEEDS your book.

I felt some of you cringing at the grandiloquence of that last statement, but please don’t be afraid to think of your little book in those terms. Doesn’t a good book leave the world a better place? Doesn’t it add to human knowledge, to human insight, to how much human beings enjoy the weary journey from cradle to grave, at least the part that occurs after they learn to read?

Feeling just a little bit better about yourself, aren’t you? Well, you should: writers are indispensable to humanity’s health, happiness, and welfare.

But that’s not the primary reason you should walk into any pitching situation having already identified your target readership. Not only is this useful information to include in your pitch (yes, yes, we’re getting to how to do it) and query letter, but it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential.

Remember, your goal in preparing to pitch is not to compress the plot into a single breath’s worth of sentences, to be gasped out as quickly as possible before you fall in a dead faint at the agent’s feet: it’s to be able to present your work intelligently and professionally in a variety of promotional contexts.

(And yes, I’m aware that most conference brochures will tell you the opposite. They’re wrong, for reasons I detailed in the first couple of posts in this series.)

Let’s face it: if you’re going to be talking about your book to people you want to sell it for you, “Who is your target audience?” is not, after all, an unreasonable question for them to ask. Telling them up front shows that you understand what they do for a living.

Which, at most literary conferences, will render you something of a novelty.

So let’s get back to practicalities. Yesterday, I suggested in passing that one good way to identify your book’s target market is to seek out how many people are already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. Not the good folks who are already out there buying novels like yours, bless ‘em, but potential readers with an interest in some aspect of the story you are telling.

What do I mean? Well, in even the most personal literary fiction, even the most intimate memoir is about something other than the writing in the book, right? A sensitive novel about a professional mah-jongg player who falls in love with a bricklayer she meets in her Morris dancing class is arguably not only going to be of interest to inveterate readers of women’s fiction; potentially, those who already participate in mah-jongg, bricklaying, and Morris dancing might well find your book absolutely fascinating.

If you doubt that such interests translate into book sales, take a gander at how many books only marginally related to golf there are: quite a few, probably disproportionate to the percentage of the reading population who actually plays the game. But think about Christmas and Father’s Day: these books answer the perennial question, “What do you give the golfer who has everything BUT a thriller about a 5 iron-wielding maniac?”

People who are interested in your novel’s or memoir’s underlying subject matter are as legitimately your book’s target market as readers who regularly buy books in your chosen category. Declare them as such.

It’s not enough just to tell agents and editors that these additional demographics exist, however. For this information to help you market your book, you’re going to have to get specific. To build upon yesterday’s example, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about Tina, a Gen X woman who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12.

As the better-prepared incarnations of Suzette informed us yesterday (you had to be there), there are 47 Gen Xers currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. And half of them are, like Tina, female.
So without reaching at all, you could safely say that almost 12 million Americans already have life experience that would incline them to identify with Tina.

That’s a heck of a lot more persuasive, from an agent’s point of view, than merely pointing out that daughters of divorced parents might conceivably find resonance in Suzette’s book.

Nor need you limit yourself, you clever marketer, to the demographic closest to your protagonist’s; you could consider the vocations and avocations of minor characters as well. If Tina’s father is a collector of classic cars, do you think he’s the only one in the country? If her best friend has a child with Down syndrome, wouldn’t your book be interesting to parents dealing with similar issues?

And given that one of the greatest gifts the internet has bestowed upon us all is the ability to create interest-based communities amongst far-flung people, what’s the probability that a simple web search will turn up a support group or an article containing statistics about just how many of these fine people are currently navigating their way across the earth’s crust?

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater practical means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do ALL of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh Lord, when will it end?”

Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you get angry?

Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even ten years ago, no one, but no one, would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been standard for NF book proposals.)

And even now, you could get away with not quoting actual statistics in your pitch, as long as you are very specific about whom your ideal reader will be. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching underestimating how big your potential market is.

And when I say underestimating, I’m not talking about a merely imprecise ballpark estimate. I’m talking about an extremely busy publishing professional who hears a pitch or reads a query and thinks, “This would be really appealing to readers who’ve recently experienced deaths in their immediate families, but realistically, how many of them could there be in the United States in any given year? Maybe a hundred thousand? That’s a niche market.”

Niche market, incidentally, is the industry’s polite term for any group of people too small to deserve its own floor-to-ceiling shelf at Barnes & Noble. If the agent or editor to whom you’re pitching says, “Well, your book would appeal to only a niche market,” that’s his way of telling you there just isn’t a market for you type of book right now.

A couple of problems with this response, logically speaking. First, the literary market changes all the time; what’s considered niche market fodder today may well be the hot trend of next year. (I don’t advise telling that to an agent or editor who has just rejected your pitch on that basis; I just thought you might like to know.)

Second — and more pertinent to the construction of a successful pitch — the agent/editor is radically underestimating the size of the potential market: the book described above has millions of readers with direct personal experience of dealing with a loved one’s death.

How do I know this? The old-fashioned way; I did some research. In 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Furthermore, widows and widowers make up 7% of the U.S. population; 45% of women over the age of 65 have been widowed at least once.

If that’s a niche in the book-buying market, I’d hate to see a cave.

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a little industry secret: people in the industry have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN. And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES.

My point is, it might be worth taking some of the prevailing wisdom floating around writers’ conferences with a grain of salt. Acquiring a book is ALWAYS a speculation.

Historically, a book’s getting rejected quite a bit hasn’t necessarily proven a very good predictor of its eventual success. In fact, as long-time readers of this blog are already well aware, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author.

Get a load of what got turned down as appealing to only a niche market:

mash-coverRichard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses. {“How many Army doctors could there possibly be?” they must have scoffed. “And who else would care?”)

kon-tiki-coverThor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki. “This might appeal to people who sail for pleasure, but can we afford a novel for the yacht-owning niche?”)

mulberry-street-coverDr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses. (“Do we really want to confuse children?”)

jonathan-livingston-seagull-coverRichard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses. (“The only person I have ever known who cared about seagulls was my mad great-aunt Kate, who spent her last years wandering down to the beach to offer them caviar on crackers. Next!”)

auntie-mame-coverPatrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses. (I have no idea what they were thinking here; perhaps that it was really a memoir?)

To render these rejections more impressive, these first books were passed upon back when it was significantly easier to get published than it is now. How much easier, you ask? Well, back then, the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work; it was before the computer explosion multiplied submissions exponentially, and before the array of major publishing houses consolidated into just a few.

With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find an agent today, let alone a publisher? And yet can you even picture the publishing world without any of them?

Aren’t you glad these five authors didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom and give up on their manuscripts?

But if you were Richard Hooker today, wouldn’t you take a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) BEFORE you composed your first query letter? If for no other reason than to make it easier for your agent to pitch the book to editors, for your editor to pitch it in-house, and the marketing department to pitch it to distributors.

The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding such statistics, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible.

How can you verify the numbers? Call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff is amazing. Send them flowers.) They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction.

One caveat about information line etiquette: every time I have ever given this advice in a class, at least one writer has come stomping back to me. “I called and asked,” this earnest soul will cry with ire, “but they said they couldn’t help me.”

When prodded, they all turn out to have made the same mistake: they called up an information line and said something on the order of, “I am marketing a YA novel about a serial killer. What statistics can you give me?” Naturally, the info line folks demurred; it’s not their job, after all, to come up with marketing insights for aspiring writers’ books.

What their job does render them eminently qualified to do, on the other hand, is to answer questions like, “Can you tell me, please, how many US high schools offer gun safety classes? And how many students take these classes each year?”

The moral: make your questions as specific as possible, and don’t ask more than three in any given call. (You can always call back tomorrow, right?)

And please, don’t waste their time by telling them WHY you want to know, or you’re likely to end up with statistics about how many first novels on coal-mining beauty queens were sold within the last five years. Keep it short and to the point.

I think I’ll pause here for the day, to give all of you a chance to give some deep, serious thought to what your book has to offer readers — and how you might quantify the mobs of readers you envision. Think creatively, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part V: talking about your book’s market appeal in terms the entire industry can understand, or, there’s still no fool like a fool playing hooky


Welcome back to my annual series on the conception, construction, and delivery of a good verbal pitch for a book manuscript or nonfiction proposal. I’ve been worrying all weekend, campers, that I overwhelmed some of you last time by cramming everything you have ever wanted to know about book categories but were afraid to ask into a single post. Believe it or not, I’ve written far, far more extensively on the subject in the past: you’ll find an entire series about it under the BOOK CATEGORIES section in the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Before we move on to the next building block of a successful pitch, I suppose I should say a few words to those of you who spent the weekend not just figuring out your respective book categories, but wondering why in the heck I went to such great lengths in my last post to defend the necessity of having to pick one at all. One of the great advantages — and great liabilities — of having taught so many aspiring writers to pitch (in every context from one-on-one tutoring to conducting classes for a couple of hundred people to running mass pitching practice sessions to working with small writers’ groups via Skype or conference call) is that over the years, I have heard legions of writers complain bitterly about the process.

Leaving aside for the moment the undeniable fact that a successful conference pitch allows the pitcher to skip the querying step of landing an agent entirely — not a benefit at which anyone looking for an agent should be turning up his perky little nose — the source of the bitterness is not all that mysterious. Many, if not most, agent-seeking writers (and plenty of already-agented ones) resent, hate, or at minimum fear paying a lot (or even a little) money to conference organizers in exchange for the opportunity to sit across a table from an agent or editor and try to convince her that your premise is fresh enough and a good enough fit with the current market in your book’s category to render it worth her while to take a gander at the first few pages of the manuscript or proposal.

(Which, in case any of you have been wondering, is the goal of a pitch — or a query, for that matter: enticing the agent or editor to ask to read your work. Not, as too many pitchers and queriers assume, to induce a spontaneous cry of, “I love this book! I don’t need to read a syllable of it — I’m going to get this writers name on a contract this very day!”)

Given the level of pressure inherent to pitching, the resentment, etc. are certainly understandable — and not just because we all know that judging the quality of writing by how the writer talks about it is a little like judging a singer’s voice by looking at the sheet music he’s planning to sing.

Ever since the first caveperson chiseled the first sentence on cave wall and called the rest of the clan to admire it, writers have been pretty sensitive to critique. No matter how many times a writer tells herself, rightly, that a rejection based solely upon how she talks about her writing could not possibly mean that the rejecter hates the writing he hasn’t read, it sure can feel like it in the moment.

So I really can’t blame first-time pitchers — or even experienced ones — for fearing the prospect of pitching. What puzzles me is the extreme distaste so many first-time pitchers display toward even the concept of talking about their books as products that they are trying to market.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what anyone who pitches or queries an agent is doing.

A surprisingly hefty percentage of aspiring writers seem to find that hard to accept. I hate to stick a pin in anyone’s illusions, but unless a writer of books plans to post his writing for free on the internet or print up copies at his own expense and hand them out gratis on street corners, he’s thinking in terms of getting paid.

So in what sense is his manuscript or NF book proposal not a product he’s trying to sell to a publishing house? And by what stretch of the imagination is the relationship he’s attempting to establish with an agent not primarily a business one?

For that reason, we’ve already learned the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book. Learning to describe your work in the same terms that the publishing industry would is a far, far more effective strategy for meeting those goals than folding your arms and pouting about how unfair it is that art has to be shoved into a marketing category.

Not only is the latter a waste of energy for most writers (some honestly do find resentment motivating, but most merely find it enervating), but refusing to speak the language of the industry in a pitch or query is self-defeating; all insisting upon eschewing any discussion of marketability does, typically, is make the agent or editor on the receiving end think, “Oh, dear, here’s another one who doesn’t know how publishing works.”

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. So today, we’re going to be focusing closely on marketing your art.

As Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Last time, I broached the subject of the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, the book category. The more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among pitchers is in the opposite direction. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

While it may feel like writing your own tombstone, it’s just better marketing strategy to commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer try to glean a category after hearing five minutes of exposition on the plot. Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

By contrast, a manuscript or proposal with a category already assigned to it requires less energy to market. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the TITLE PAGES category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Okay, now that we have one tool in our writerly toolkit, let’s work on adding a more sophisticated marketing instrument, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional.

I refer, of course, to identifying your target market. Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group.

And yes, Virginia, that can mean adding a few — dare I say it? — statistics to your pitch or query letter.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter.

But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is. Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs to read your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that nonfiction writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah — even if your book is in fact a natural for her show. Agents in North America hear that all the time, applied to a jaw-droppingly broad array of books.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard that particular cliché, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects. (For an interesting discussion amongst Author! Author! readers about the effects of the Oprah Book Club on book sales in this country, please see the comments on this post from last year.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that folks in the publishing industry are not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your pitch, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is will make it MUCH simpler for them to talk about your book to higher-ups.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my pitch or query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things.”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.”

So what’s the moral here? That as scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. As always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part IV, in which I finally stop giving preliminary cautions and start talking about the building blocks of a terrific pitch. Oh, and you’re going to have to pick a book category.


Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

For fiction: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Adult Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

For nonfiction: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But I even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: Wah wah wah wah waagh…

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:


You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:


Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this postthis one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” — this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories. Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part III: blind trust and why it has no place in the pitching or querying processes

Last time, I raised the scary, scary specter of the mismatched pitch meeting, the not uncommon conference nightmare scenario where a writer walks into a scheduled pitching appointment, only to discover to her horror that the agent won’t even consider representing her kind of book. (Not because he’s mean or hates literature, mind you; it just means that he specializes in some other kind of literature.) The writer sits through the appointment, fighting back tears, wondering what on earth she’s done in a past life to deserve missing out on her one conference pitching opportunity — and stomps out breathing fire, cursing the conference’s organizers for having enticed her to the conference with the promise of pitching to an agent, then not providing a contact that could possibly do her any good.

Horribly nightmarish, isn’t it? Would it frighten you to know that I’ve seldom attended a large conference where it didn’t happen to at least a handful of attendees?

Which is why I can assure you that those who are most likely to succumb to this terrible fate are aspiring writers who rely blindly upon conference schedulers to hook them up with the perfect agent for their work. As I have suggested in my last couple of posts, this level of trust may not pay off for the writer.

Specifically, it may result in an agent’s stopping a pitcher half a sentence in with one of the hardest-to-hear sentences in the English language: “Oh, I’m sorry — I don’t represent that kind of book.”

I can feel some of you shying away from reading the rest of this post. “What a bummer, Anne,” some of you are sniffing, “go ahead and leap to the worst-case scenario. Way to scare me out of wanting to pitch at all.”

Sniff away, oh cynics, but actually, I have some really, really good reasons for bringing this up at the beginning of this series, rather than after I go over its nuts and bolts. First, obviously, now that I have brought up the possibility that all of you conference-goers might not be assigned to meet with the best agent for your book, I didn’t want you to be waking up in the dead of night, hyperventilating over the prospect of a mismatched meeting. Let’s exorcise that poltergeist as soon as possible.

The second and far more important reason: so you may be prepared if it ever happens to you. Heaven forbid, of course, but think about it: would you rather learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver BEFORE the person next to you at the rubber chicken banquet, or during?

Some mismatches are unavoidable, after all — and much of the time, they are the result of simple bad luck. Agents get the flu and cancel their appearances at the last minute, for instance. Or get embroiled in the details a client’s deal, so the agency sends an alternate representative.

Who, being a different individual will inevitably have different literary tastes than the first. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: there is no such thing as a manuscript or book proposal that every agent in the industry will love. Agents specialize — and they have personal preferences, like anyone else.

At the risk of pointing out that the emperor’s garments are a tad scanty as he dodges behind that great big elephant in the room, agents and editors’ preferences sometimes switch rather abruptly and without a whole lot of publicity. So do market trends. It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime.

What does this mean for a pitching writer, in practical terms? Often, that the person whose conference brochure blurb burbled excitedly about chick lit will shock half a conference crowd by announcing that she’s no longer accepting chick lit submissions.

That sound you heard was all of the writers who signed up for a session with her SPECIFICALLY because of her stated interests keeling over in a dead collective faint.

In short, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection, no matter how great the book concept or writing may be. Isn’t it better that you hear it from me now, rather than having it come as a stunning mid-conference surprise?

Since most of you were a trifle slow in responding, allow me to provide the answer: yes, it is. In fact, being aware of the possibility is the only way you can arm yourself against it. Preparation, and lots of it, is your best defense.

Did half of you just go pale with dread? “Good heavens, Anne,” the newly-wan stammer, “is it really so bad as that? Can’t I, you know, just wing it if I find myself in that unfortunate situation?”

Well, you could, but long conference experience tells me that it’s usually not the best idea. Most pitchers, not having anticipated this particular possibility, will either:

a) freeze, unsure what to do, and end up pitching to the now-inappropriate agent or editor anyway,

b) assume that it’s a waste of time to pitch to that agent or editor, and just not show up for the scheduled appointment, or

c) assume that the agent or editor is lying about not being open to certain types of book and pitch it anyway — because if it were a really great book, he would cast ten years of marketing experience aside and grab it on the spot, right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.. Agents represent what they represent; as I mentioned last time, a rejection based on book category has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book, or even of the pitch. It’s no reflection upon you or your writing. It can’t be, logically: by definition, a pitch-hearer is judging a verbal presentation, not words on a page.

“Okay,” the pale concede nervously. “So what should I do if I end up in an inappropriate meeting? Run away screaming?”

No, of course not. Nor should you shoulder the quixotic task of trying to convince an industry professional to change utterly how s/he has decided to do business — which is what pitching to an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book amounts to, incidentally. Yet conference after conference, year after year, writers will bullheadedly insist upon acting as though every agent represents every conceivable type of book — and responding to the practically inevitable rejection by concluding that their books simply aren’t of interest to the publishing industry.

That’s poppycock, of course: the only rejection that means anything at all about your book’s marketability is one that comes from someone who specializes in your chosen book category.

But you already know that you’re looking for Ms. or Mr. Right Agent. Let’s get back to the practical issue of what you should do if you end up with Mr. or Ms. Wrong. (And for those of you new to the game who’ve been shaking your heads and muttering, “What the heck is a book category?” please either hold that question for a few days or see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

You could, of course, just thank the agent and walk away immediately. This is, in fact, what most agents in this situation are hoping you will do (more on that below), but better than that, it preserves your dignity far better than the usual writer’s reaction, to argue about whether the book would be a good fit for the agency. (Which never, ever works, in case you were wondering.)

However, you’ve got time booked with a seasoned industry professional — why not use it productively? Why not ask some questions?

Stop that guffawing and hear me out. You decided to attend the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better, right? Yes, you will be disappointed if you end up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour afterward, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, feeling miserable and helpless, until it ended.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “If you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch for my kind of book?”

Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?”

Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area per se, but who do you think are the top five agents who DO handle this sort of book?”

If the agent or editor seems approachable, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes.

Seriously, it’s true. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend ten or fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if he comes back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can pull yourself together enough to move away from the fact that you two shouldn’t have been assigned to meet in the first place and on to topics that you’re both comfortable discussing, trust me, the agent will appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

And don’t underestimate how helpful that may be down the line: both agents and editors move around a LOT. Just because the guy in front of you isn’t interested in your current project doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be interested in your next.

Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Besides, agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find.

There’s such a thing as human nature, you know: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

So it’s worth your while prepping a few questions in advance, as bad match insurance. Remember, though, that when you ask for advice, you are requesting a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite — and grateful.

Particularly the latter, if you want to win friends and influence people.

As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the VERY common ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes super-demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, stalking is illegal, and no amount of friendly helpfulness means that a “I’m sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” into a “In your case, I’ll be delighted to make an exception.”

And regardless of the agent’s level of interest in your work, try to make it a nice conversation, rather than a confrontation or a referendum on your prospects as a writer — an excellent plan regardless of whether your assigned pitch meeting is a good fit or not, actually.

Here again, background research helps: knowing something about the agent or editor will not only minimize the probability of ending up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work.

For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower.

Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less than hardback.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this season, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This can be a serious advantage when you’re asking a favor.

Why? Well, think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person — or a jerk who happened to be talented?

I heard all of you who just thought, “I don’t care, as long as he signs me.” Go stand in the corner until your attitude problem improves; impolite writers make all of us look bad.

Being conversant with the books they have handled is flattering: we all like to be recognized for our achievements, after all. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up.

And let’s face it: if you’ve paid hundreds of dollars to attend a literary conference (and possibly travel expenses on top of that), it doesn’t make sense to limit your pitching to a single, pre-scheduled pitching appointment. It’s in your best interest to find out in advance who ALL of the agents and editors who deal with your type of book are, so you may buttonhole them in the hallways and pitch.

Don’t worry: later in this series, I shall be giving you some tips on how to do that without coming across like a stalker. (Which is both illegal and a bad idea, no matter how badly you want a particular agent to hear about your book.)

Boning up on the facts can also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Lynne Rosetto Casper, don’t you? I just loved her last cookbook.”

Trust me, she will be pleased to meet someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books, even if that someone happens to want to pitch her a kind of manuscript she doesn’t represent.

As usual, I would like to add one caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t make the common mistake of praising a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Everyone feeling a bit better? Good. Let’s avert our eyes from the worst-case scenario and glide quickly on to — well, not really a happier one, but at least a different kind of disaster, a problem that has nearly paralyzed legions of first-time pitchers.

I refer, of course, to the bizarrely ubiquitous conference advice that insists a book pitch must be three sentences long, not a syllable longer. It’s printed in most conference guides. And because most writers just aren’t very experienced in speaking or even thinking about their work as people on the business side of the industry do, they believe that three sentences is in fact the norm for a book pitch.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the disadvantages of blindly trusting conference organizers? Well…

I’ll start out gently: while the three-line pitch certainly has brevity on its side — not an insignificant plus, form the point of view of an agent or editor who has had to sit through a meeting with a writer who talks non-stop for twenty minutes and only makes it up to page 72 of his book — but It has some under-advertised drawbacks. Chief among which: the assumption that the ability to create a three-sentence teaser well is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case. The super-short pitch format also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage — and every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?

Hey, I asked you first. But if I must give my opinion (“You must! You must!” my readers cry), in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear.

At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. Perhaps someone could ask the NYT bestselling author his opinion; it seems to be well-informed.

Fair warning: what you’re going to be seeing me spell out over the next couple of weeks is MY opinion about what does and doesn’t work in various types of conference pitch. Please don’t bother to inform me that other so-called experts on the web are equally vehement that the pros will stop listening after three sentences; that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture. I’ve heard all of the objections. As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!)

The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now. And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract.

Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old. My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly — and it’s not always clear immediately whether each individual change is helpful or hurtful to the aspiring writer’s chances.

If you doubt that, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.) Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 3+ years to alter the standard memoir contract’s provisions, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that a couple of years back, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.

Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble or Googling your own name compulsively, checking out your own publicity?

Yet such is the prevailing level of concern that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies. I ask you: good for writers, or not?

Perhaps this will help you decide: since the MILLION LITTLE PIECES incident, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.

You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?

As a matter of fact, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.

Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books. Because, you see, the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise — and there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — as I mentioned above, this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only about 20 seconds’ worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

Because, trust me, if you pitch your book will, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).

“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point.

That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch.

To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both the programmers of Microsoft Word and editors at publishing houses are concerned with word count, both sets of people in entirely unrelated industries must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.

Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Several years ago, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ — which is why I no longer organize this benefit for attendees of that particular conference, which happens to be my local one.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend. My ability to listen well deteriorates markedly after the fifth or sixth pitch in a row.”

Part of the problem is environmental, of course: agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

In fact, let’s do some role-playing. Summon up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.

Even to a New York Times bestselling writer, should you happen to bump into one.

In short, my goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

The first building block of fluency follows next time. I know you’re up for it.

But I cannot urge you strongly enough not to take my word for any of this blindly: if anything I suggest does not make sense to you or seem like the best way to promote your book, PLEASE leave a comment, asking me for clarification. There honestly is a great deal of conflicting advice out there, and to be completely honest, not everyone out there (or even at my local writers’ conference) agrees with my take on this process. I could be catty and point out that unlike many of the advice-givers out there, I have personally landed an agent by pitching.

But don’t follow my advice for that reason. Follow my advice if — and only if — I have explained why you should to your satisfaction. As I hope anyone who has been hanging around Author! Author! could attest, I work very hard to provide extensive explanations for everything I advise.

Why take the trouble? Because lindly following anyone’s dictates on how to handle your writing career just isn’t wise. Make up your own minds, my friends — and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part II: okay, before anyone starts to panic…


Within mere seconds of posting the first in my annual series on pitching — the much-feared practice of approaching an agent face-to-face to try to interest her in your manuscript, rather than via the far less intimidating query letter or e-mail — I felt the ether fill with two discordant emotions rising in a cloud from my readers: extreme panic and terrible annoyance. (Actually, there was a third, gratitude from those of you who aren’t scheduled to pitch anytime soon, but the other two smogs were so virulent that it took me a while to notice #3.)

I can easily understand both the panicked and annoyed reactions, of course: the prospect of sitting down with an agent who may very well reject you on the spot, much less stopping her in a conference hallway, is monumentally frightening. Rejection’s bad enough when it comes in the mail, right? And believe me, I can certainly identify with the annoyance of learning that connecting successfully with an agent or editor in a pitch appointment often requires substantial advance homework; conference brochures and websites tend to imply that all a writer has to do in order to impress the agent of his dreams is to show up ready to talk about his book. Albeit briefly.

Honestly, I’ve been blogging and teaching about pitching long enough to expect both of these reactions — and to know that there is only one thing I can say that will help the panicked and annoyed see why I’m so committed to making absolutely certain that all of my readers learn the basic skills of pitching, rather than just the ones who have appointments with agents at conferences in the weeks to come. It’s this:

A good 90% of pitch rejections have nothing to do with the quality of the book being pitched.

Yes, really: the vast majority of the time, pitch recipients say, “I’m sorry,” because of other factors, such as bad fit, a book category that the agent does not represent, an insufficient platform (that’s for nonfiction; don’t worry, we’re getting to that), an incoherent pitch (a common side effect of panic), lack of freshness in the story, the agent’s having had no success selling a manuscript, the writer’s looking just like someone who was really, really mean to the agent in high school (hey, they’re human), and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these factors, like the coherence of the pitch, lie within the writer’s control; some, like the resemblance to the high school bully, do not.

Throughout this series, we’re going to talk about how to tell the difference — and to prepare to handle the parts of the process you can control beautifully.

There, that made those of you who’ve pitched before feel a whole lot better, didn’t it? And for the rest of you, does it make more sense that I want to talk you through how to avoid the pitfalls that scuttle the average pitch?

Excellent. Let’s get back to business and talk about the single most common reason agents give for rejecting both pitches and queries: they just don’t represent that book category.

Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on an must-follow piece of advice — if you are looking for an agent (as the vast majority of writers willing to shell out the dosh to attend major conferences are), it makes sense only to invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure. Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, ONLY pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it? Yet every year, literally millions of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

Please don’t do that to yourself; as I pointed out last time, it can only end in tears.

I cannot say this often enough: you do not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly very easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want the agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Good agents don’t like hurting aspiring writers’ feelings, after all; they merely want to sign authors of books they know they can sell — and believe me, they walk into pitch meetings quite aware of what the editors to whom they have already successfully sold books are looking to buy at the moment.

Being intimately familiar with the publishing market is, after all, part of their job.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have pitched before (an improvement on panic and annoyance, certainly, but still). “But Anne,” these veterans of the conference wars protest, “that doesn’t always seem to be true. There are plenty of books like mine on bookstore shelves right now, but I’ve had agents tell me that there’s no market for a book like mine. What gives?”

I’m very glad you brought this up, disgruntled protestors: many, many aspiring writers aren’t aware of the distinction between the current publishing market (what editors are looking to buy right now) and the current literary market (what’s occupying the shelves at Barnes & Noble). Books for sale to consumers right now were on the publishing market at least a year ago — in most cases, more like two years — and since agents are seldom able to sell new clients’ books within a few days of signing them to an agency contract, any of those books by first-time authors were probably making the rounds of conferences and/or being queried three or more years ago.

Thus, what’s on the shelves right now isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the needs of the current publishing market. An agent who is good at her job has to aware of both.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why they tend to be so quick to reject what doesn’t fall within their sphere of influence. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible — and although it may not feel like it at the time, in yours as well.

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a year or two in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens. Far more often than either the agented or agents themselves like to admit.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens at a conference or via query — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It might just be a bad fit with that agent, or the agent’s current connections may not be looking for your kind of book.

Yes, no matter how beautifully it’s written. This part of the process is as much about practicality as about art.

I know it’s hard to accept this philosophically when your baby is rejected out of hand, but it is vital for your professional mental health that you bear the issue of fit constantly in mind while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a book’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is NOT a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do.

Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it. Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

The same logic applies to pitch meetings with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just one or two types of book.

So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right? Right?

Check before you pitch. Fortunately, at most conferences, gleaning this information is almost absurdly simple: virtually every conference that hosts pitching sessions will schedule an agents’ forum before the pitch meetings start, so attendees can hear from the agents’ very lips what they are there looking to acquire. If you intend to pitch at the conference, do not, under any circumstances, skip this forum.

Yes, even if you were my rare prize student who went to the trouble of finding out prior to registering for the conference what the attending agents have been selling lately. Even for you, gold-star winner, attending the forum may have tangible benefits: since the publishing market mutates so often and so rapidly, the agent of your dreams may well be looking for a different kind of book today than last week. If so, he’s going to announce it at the forum.

Another solid reason to go hear the agents speak is — brace yourselves; this one is a trifle disillusioning — just because an agent is scheduled to attend a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that he will show up, particularly if the conference is a large one. Crises come up at agencies all the time, so last-minute changes to the roster of pitchable agents attending a conference are common enough that veteran conference attendees regard it as the norm, rather than the exception.

Try not to think of this as rude; regard it as an opportunity. Chances are, someone on that panel is going to represent your kind of book.

Speaking of pitching to editors, here’s another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

Don’t believe me? Check their websites. For the adult book market, the policy is uniform. (Some YA imprints have different policies; again, it’s in your interests to check.)

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. Although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, an editor at a smaller or regional house might have more leeway to pick up your book.

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it?

I’m bringing this up because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or somewhere similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely.

We all know the tune by now, right? Conference today, contract tomorrow, Oprah on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book, but you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor.

In other words, pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. Sorry.

Frankly, I think it’s really, really unfair to the editors from these houses that more writers’ conference promotional materials are not up front about this policy, considering that it’s hardly a secret — it’s common knowledge, at least amongst those already intimately familiar with the publishing market. Which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked for your work as though they intended to pick you up regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly NOT the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive.

There’s a reason for this: unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking at an editors’ forum, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice.

But how are we to explain the fact that few conference brochures or websites are honest enough to feature the major houses’ policies next to the appropriate attending editors’ listings? Quite the opposite, in fact: most conference rhetoric surrounding pitch appointments with editors directly states the opposite, encouraging pitchers to believe that this meeting could be their big break.

I don’t think that conference organizers do this in order to be mean or misleading — I just think many of them are not hip to the current conditions of the industry. Trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time — but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. They just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next major bestseller.

That’s right: no editor wants to be the one who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author DID pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first.

Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it, so there cannot possibly be competitive bidding over the book.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers, as I believe I have pointed out a couple of hundred times before, can get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

But deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller or regional house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively. Everyone — agents, editors, and writers alike — are happier when you do.

Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously; it’s would be a waste of their scant bestseller-seeking time.

Getting a trifle depressed? Don’t worry — I’m almost through with the don’t list. In the meantime, keep repeating to yourself: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Trust me: after you do hook up with the right agent for your book, you’re going to be happy that they’re so selective. Honest.

More balm to the troubled pre-pitching soul follows next time, of course. Keep up the good work!

What do you mean, I have to describe my 400-page novel in under two minutes? Or: how to stop worrying and learn to love to pitch


Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for me to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript!

Try to contain your excitement — or at any rate, don’t start cheering until I tell you that this year’s series will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon, answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find it on the category list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

But soft! Do I hear some grumbling out there? “But Anne,” a few scattered grumblers point out, “I’m a WRITER; I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

I must admit, oh grumblers, that you make a pretty good point. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer should give very serious thought to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if she were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage entirely — in fact, it could be said that a pitch is an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft. It can give you an edge.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it. Sorry.

So perhaps the title’s suggestion that you would learn to love doing it was a bit of an exaggeration. Survive it with your dignity intact may be closer to the truth — but hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, today we launch into the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. Writers tend to waltz into conferences with high expectations and nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Could the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions. (And for those of you seeking guidance in how to put together a submission packet, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right before you seal that envelope.)

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally good; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

However, truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but don’t tense up. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching. (Again, sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they?

See why I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams?

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides (for some tips on how to use these, please consult the AGENCY GUIDES category at right). Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do what they’re representing these days.

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come. Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Keep those expectations realistic and those hopes high. You can do this, honest. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part IX: fox-trotting with squids and other less-than-stellar argumentative techniques deployed by your garden-variety protagonist


Okay, okay, I guess it’s finally time to admit it: I was overly-optimistic in predicting that I’d get to the basics of pitching to an agent this week. Mea culpa. That series, always popular during literary conference season, will start Monday, barring hell, high water, or the kind of deadline that both agented authors and book doctors like yours truly know so well, the kind that is announced with the phrase, “I know I should have told you about this months ago, but I need it next week!”

Take heart, however, good people: I’ll be wrapping up my ongoing series on effective interview scenes today.

We’ve talked about quite a number of ways that a protagonist can (and so often does) annoy Millicent by being a bad interviewer — that is, by thwarting the reader’s desire to know what’s going on by failing to ask good questions, omitting to ask logical follow-up questions, and generally not stepping fully into his role as the audience’s surrogate detective. Since these flaws are so very pervasive in manuscripts, professional readers tend to feel that scenes that contain them drag.

“Pick up the pace, already,” Millicent mutters darkly into her latte. “Don’t just sit there, waiting for something to happen.”

Millicent doesn’t have much patience for passive protagonists in general, as all of us here at Author! Author! are only too sorrowfully aware. (And if you’re not, you might want to check out the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page, to learn precisely why a slow-moving hero irritates her so.) Even in a submission stuffed to the gills with conflict, a protagonist who doesn’t invest much energy into an interview, even for a half a page, is likely to raise her hackles.

The professional reader’s distaste for low-conflict dialogue often comes as a great big shock to novelists (and memoirists, for that matter), especially those who write literary fiction. In trying to avoid spending the entire narrative inside the protagonist’s head, they tend to regard dialogue as action — there’s exchange between the characters, right? But if the stakes aren’t very high in the discussion, or if the protagonist doesn’t take a definite side, dialogue is not necessarily conflictual, in the literary sense.

Or, to put it another way: after reading literally thousands of manuscript submissions, Millicent no longer believes that a protagonist is active just because her lips happen to be moving. Talk is as cheap on the page as it is in real life.

In fact, a protagonist can become more passive by talking. Let’s revisit one of my all-time favorite examples of a classic bad interview scene, a rather lengthy excerpt from the 1625 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini. (Hey, I told you it was a classic.)

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

Try not to be distracted by the squid for the moment. (Although would you believe that I wrote the line about squid-jiggery first, then found the antique postcard image above? The Internet is a weird and wonderful place.) Concentrate on how too-easy agreement scuttles what could be some interesting argument.

Or, as Millicent might put it, a scene that might keep her reading.

This type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone TELLS him he’s wrong, without engaging in convincing argument — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book becomes positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

And that, unfortunately, makes the conflict seem much less important than if the characters argue the pros and cons at least a little. Usually, the result is a more compelling scene — and better character development for the arguers.

Oh, heck, I’ll go out on a limb here: it’s almost always better storytelling.

Why? Everybody haul out your hymnals and sing along with me now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement. As we discovered last time, unending harmony, as delightful (and rare) as it may be in real life, can be a real snooze-fest on the page.

Even the injection of just a little good, old-fashioned passive-aggression can ginger up a scene no end. (Stop speculating about that squid, I tell you. We’ve moved on.)

Nor does being easily persuaded, non-confrontational, or generally — brace yourself — nice necessarily render a protagonist (or any other character) more likeable to the reader. No, not even if the reader happens to enjoy the company of such sterling souls in real life.

Why, you cry? Because endlessly making nice tends to kill dramatic tension dead, dead, dead.

That seems to come as a surprise to many aspiring writers, judging by the number of first novels and memoirs where the protagonist bends over backwards never to offend anyone — especially common in manuscripts where the protagonist happens to be female, I notice. Butter wouldn’t melt in some of these ladies’ mouths, as the saying goes. Which pretty much inevitably results in either a relatively conflict-free plot or a passive protagonist who stands on the sidelines while the less scrupulous (and more interesting) characters act.

Make something happen: let your characters disagree, equivocate, be downright obstructionist. Interpersonal conflict will usually bring a smile to Millicent’s over-caffeinated face faster than agreement. (Conflict on the page, at least; don’t argue )

And while you’re at it, here’s a radical thought: why not have more going on in a dialogue scene than just the dialogue?

Ooh, that one raised as many hackles as confused eyebrows, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised — many, many novelists (and, again, memoirists are not exempt from the practice) cling tenaciously to that old warhorse of writerly advice, the notion the dialogue should show absolutely everything necessary for the reader to know about a situation, without the added distraction of commentary, insight into thought processes, or physical reactions.

Oh, dear, how to break the realities of professional writing gently to those of you fond of this classic piece of 11th-grade writing guidance? Here’s the best I can do: Millicent would be far, far happier if far, far fewer 11th-grade English teachers had given this advice.

Why? Because approximately 95% of novel submissions contain extensive sections that might as well be written as plays. And while dialogue-only scenes can convey all the reader needs to know, they have a nasty tendency to minimize nuance.

Or, as Millicent has been known to put it, to produce scenes where all that’s going on is what’s going on.

To be fair, chucking all the narrative out of an interview scene is a strategy we’ve all seen work brilliantly, particularly for comedy. Sticking solely to dialogue enables the reader to move quickly through banter, without having her attention drawn away by side comments from the narrator. To haul out yet another of my favorite examples (hey, I had to do something to get your mind off that squid), take a gander at this bit of self-sufficient dialogue from Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22:

“What’s your name, son?” asked Major — de Coverley.

“My name is Milo Minderbinder, sir. I am twenty-seven years old.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“I’m not the mess officer, sir.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do everything in my power to be a good mess officer.”

“Bless you, my boy. Have a horseshoe.”

“Thank you, sir. What should I do with it?”

“Throw it.”


“At that peg there. Then pick it up and throw it at this peg. It’s a game, see? You get the horseshoe back.”

“Yes, sir, I see. How much are horseshoes selling for?”

This is a pretty admirable use of pure dialogue, isn’t it? It tells us everything we need to know about characters that the book is not going to explore in much depth: Major — de Coverley is a whimsical commander who regards his own word as law, and Milo is obsessed with the art of the deal.

Not bad character development, for only thirteen lines of dialogue. As a technique, no-frills dialogue can undoubtedly be extremely useful, and I applaud its use in moderation. However — and this is one of my patented BIG howevers — like the rule about perspective in third-person narration, a lot of writers and writing teachers get carried away with it.

In fact, you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who will tell you, with an absolutely straight face, that dialogue should NEVER be encumbered by non-spoken information.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for awhile should be able to predict my reaction to this: I’m no fan of the hard-and-fast stylistic rule, generally speaking. The rules of grammar I can respect as immutable (as I wish more writers, particularly those who crank out copy for magazines and newspapers, did), but I am always mistrustful of any rule that tells me that I must dismiss a particular piece of writing automatically, without really reading it, on the basis of a stern stylistic preference.

Perversely, so does Millicent, usually, at least in this particular case. Yes, I know that’s a bit odd in someone whose job is to dismiss many pieces of writing automatically, often based on rather cursory readings, on the basis of stern preconceived notions of, say, how a professional manuscript should be formatted (if you’re not absolutely positive, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before you even dream of passing your pages under her bloodshot eyes) or current conceptions of style within her boss agent’s chosen genre.

But believe me, if you read manuscripts for a living, you might start resenting dialogue-only scenes as well. I must admit it: like Millicent, I often find long stretches of pure dialogue rather boring.

Yet despite the pervasiveness of this attitude amongst professional readers — yes, including contest judges — aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts crammed with lengthy dialogue-only scenes, probably for much the same reason that the other dialogue weaknesses we’ve discussed in this series are so incredibly common. Movies and television have accustomed us to stories told entirely by dialogue, visuals, and background music, after all.

Is this the right time to remind everybody that novels and memoirs are not limited to those storytelling techniques? Would it be too cruel to suggest that utilizing only those means in a manuscript is rather like an orchestra conductor’s telling the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections that they might as well go home, since the tune’s going to be carried entirely by the strings?

There’s nothing wrong with violin music, of course — but if you’re going to the symphony, is that all you want to hear?

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have been hanging out at writers’ conferences lately — particularly conferences that feature those ever-popular speakers, screenwriters eager to share the tricks of their trade with book writers. If you took that same piece of bread you were trying to fling above and cast it at the speakers’ table at the same average conference, you might well hit some expert who had come to tell novelists that their work would be best served by embracing screenwriting techniques with vigor, and keeping thought and physical sensation reportage to a minimum.

I can tell you the source of this advice: a very common fledgling writer tendency to get so bogged down in reporting every thought the protagonist has that the text slows down to the rate of molasses flowing uphill. It is definitely possible to stay too much in a character’s head.

Yes, yes, we all know about Proust and Dostoyevsky’s characters who languish in bed for scores of pages at a stretch, contemplating their lives. It was fresh when they did it, but it’s been done so many times now that it’s bound to seem derivative.

For my sins, I once sat through a five-hour version of HAMLET that so catered to the title character that the actor (who, since he is now a rather famous political blogger and former editor-in-chief of THE NEW REPUBLIC, shall remain nameless) was allowed to take FIFTEEN MINUTES to get from “To be or not to be” to “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia” — a mere 33 lines of text, according to the Riverside Shakespeare that every college student of my generation owns.

And this for a speech that, as any Shakespearian actor can tell you, half the audience knows well enough by heart to chant softly along with the actor. It was a bit de trop. (Truth compels me to own that since it was the late 1980s, the audience of this particular production of HAMLET was also plagued by repeated playings of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s dubious hit, RELAX, DON’T DO IT. I’ve witnessed more subtle directorial symbolism.)

From the reader’s perspective, a too-long sojourn into any character’s thoughts, feelings, and doubts (a particular favorite for writers of literary fiction, perhaps due to too many viewings of HAMLET in their early youths) can feel interminable. I am not necessarily an advocate of the hard-and-fast rule that some conflict should occur on every single page (although it’s not a bad rule for a first-time self-editor to follow), but most readers do tend to get a bit restive after the fourth or fifth page of a character’s sitting around and thinking.

And we already know how Millicent tends to react to it, right?

If you are not of the sit-and-ponder school, but are still wondering if you are staying too much in a character’s head in a third-person narrative, here’s a self-editing tip: go through the text and note every time the reader is given information outside dialogue by the protagonist’s specifically NOTICING something. Pay attention to whether the text lets the narration mention that the truck stop waitress has red hair, or whether Joe Protagonist SEES her have red hair.

If you find that more than about a tenth of the information is conveyed as protagonist sensation, you should think about moving the perspective outside him more. Or consider switching to first-person narration, where thought may be intermingled seamlessly with narration.

All that being said, I am still a fan of exposition alternated with dialogue, particularly in emotionally-charged scenes. We writers live so much in our heads that we tend to create characters who do so, too. However, in real life, people have physical reactions to things: discomfort in their guts when meeting someone smarmy, tightness in the chest when yelled at by the boss, slumping of the shoulders when receiving the news of the death of a friend.

These are legitimate pieces of information to include in characterization; they often add depth to dialogue-based scenes. Not to mention being a great way to introduce more to the scene than is apparent in the words spoken. Because, let’s face it, there are plenty of human interactions that cannot be adequately conveyed in all of their nuanced glory by dialogue alone.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the idea that dialogue can ALWAYS convey everything that is going on in a scene, either emotionally or factually. People very frequently do not say what they are thinking, and Freudian slips, though common in post-war literature, actually do not occur with great frequency in real life. Frequently, what a character is NOT saying can be as telling as what she is. Even in comedy, where speed of exchange is most desirable, adding exposition amid the verbal exchanges of wit can considerably heighten the tension of a scene.

Since I’m trotting out so many of my pet exemplars today, let’s take a look at this excerpt from E.F. Benson’s LUCIA IN LONDON, the second installment in Benson’s brilliantly funny Mapp and Lucia series. Here, social climber Lucia is sitting in the boudoir of duchess Marcia, chatting with her newly-acquired friends about lovers; she has been pretending to be having an affair with fey Stephen, to make herself appear more interesting, and Marcia et alia are trying to grill her about it. Lucia has just finished saying:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

Marcia longed, with almost the imperativeness of a longing to sneeze, to allude directly to Stephen. She raised her eyes for a half second to Adele, the priestess of this cult in which she knew she was rapidly becoming a worshipper, but if ever an emphatic negative was wordlessly bawled at a tentative enquirer, it was bawled now. If Lucia chose to say anything about Stephen, it would be manna, but to ask — never! Aggie, seated sideways to them, had not seen this telegraphy, and unwisely spoke with her lips.

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” she said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

Nothing could have been more unfortunate. Adele could have hurled the entire six rows of Whitby pearls at Aggie’s face…The effect of her carelessness was that Lucia became visibly embarrassed, looked at the clock, and got up in a violent hurry.

“Good gracious me!” she said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

There is a LOT of information conveyed in this excerpt, and all of it contributes to Benson’s comic effect. Now look at the same passage after the dialogue-only rule has been applied to it:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” Aggie said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

“Good gracious me!” Lucia said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

Quite a bit flatter, isn’t it? Aggie’s fluke and Lucia’s reaction are still there, but the other two women might as well not have been in the room. We have entirely lost the delicious sense of conspiracy between Marcia and Adele, and Aggie’s blunder has been reduced to simple gaucherie. As a direct result, it’s substantially less funny — and less nuanced.

Again, the enriched dialogue method should be used in moderation, just as the dialogue-only method should be. Like profanity, stylistic restrictions are far more effective when used sparingly than constantly; who pays attention to the profanity of a constant swearer? Select the time when your dialogue choice will have the greatest effect.

And that, thank heavens, is my last word on dialogue, at least for the moment. Brace yourself for our giddy, headlong upcoming plunge into pitching — and, as always, keep up the good work!

PS: when’s the last time you made a back-up of your computerized writing files? If you haven’t done it within the last week, humor me, please, and do it as soon as possible; I’d hate to think of any of you losing pages or chapters in the event of a hard disk crash. If you’re unclear on what your backing-up options are, please rush post-haste to the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.

Constructing effective interview scenes, part VIII: like I said, yeah, and other snore-inducing perils of dialogue lifted from real life

Waiting for the next pile of submissions to hit the editorial desk

Waiting for the next pile of submissions to hit the editorial desk


Much like the career writer’s life, the life of a professional reader like me is singularly devoid of holidays. The struggling economy sure is pulling a lot of dusty manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers, so this summer, even the nicest weather seldom pulls me away from my editorial desk. At best, I move it outside.

All of that intensive reading leaves me with an unusually high level of sympathy for our old friend, the infamous Millicent agency screener. You remember her, right? She’s the luckless soul employed by an agency to sift through the hundreds of query letters they receive every week — and, more often than not, to read requested submissions to see if they should be passed along to the agent who requested them.

Was that giant sucking noise I just heard all of you who are approaching agents for the first time gasping at the notion that the agent to whom you addressed your query — or worked up nerve to give a pitch at a conference — might not be the one making the decision whether to reject your manuscript? Sorry to disillusion anyone, but at a large agency, and even most of the small ones, the agent is seldom the first reader.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: time. If the average agent read every single incoming letter, e-mail, and manuscript sent by an aspiring writer, she’d never have time to sell any books. Millicent’s eagle eye assures that she will see only the submission that she might realistically end up representing.

Try not to resent that too much: folks in agencies tend to work exceptionally long hours. Heck, Millicent’s boss is probably reading her existing clients’ next books on the subway on her way home to Brooklyn, or after she tucks her kids into bed at night; she has to squeeze work by potential clients into her schedule wherever she can.

Which means, incidentally, that she’s every bit as likely to be bleary-eyed and grumpy when her pupils hit a manuscript’s first few pages as the submission-inundated Millicent is. Remember that, the next time you’re tempted to complain that agency screeners — who are, after all, employed primarily in order to reject manuscripts, since any agent can only take on a tiny fraction of the writers that approach it in any given year — are too harsh in their expectations. She was very likely instructed to be that touchy about manuscript megaproblems.

Why, what a remarkable coincidence — we’ve just been talking about one of the most pernicious manuscript megaproblems, poorly-constructed interview scenes, haven’t we? Let’s get back to it by examining one of my –and Millicent’s — perennial least-favorites, repetitious dialogue.

Yes, it does turn up all the time in interview scenes, especially in that annoying species of unrealistic dialogue that consists of lightly-disguised monologue with a monosyllabic second character thrown in. These sterling specimens of prose tend to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization for Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”


“You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No,” Jeff said, crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of entirely colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. And, lest we forget, a rather poor interview scene, because it’s not actually a conversation; all Jeff has to do to obtain Sandy’s opinion (of a scene he’s apparently just witnessed, no less) is to be there.

Stop jumping up and down — I see all of those raised hands out there. “But Anne!” the first realism-lover I call upon protests. “Isn’t this a common type of real-life conversation? Mightn’t Jeff just be a monosyllabic guy, and couldn’t the fact that he’s basically not participating in this scene be indicative of something about his relationship with Sandy? Couldn’t it, in fact, be justified as character development?”

Yes, yes, yes, and maybe. But let me ask you something: are you planning to be sitting next to Millicent when she reads this particular piece of dialogue, in order to explain why Jeff’s being so darned uninteresting?

I didn’t think so, but you’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers believe that if an authorial choice can be explained — even if it needs to be explained, when the text itself doesn’t reward the choice — then it’s perfectly fine. The fact is, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that the author will be in the room when an agent, editor, or contest judge first encounters a scene like this, so when precisely is the writer going to defend it? After the manuscript’s already been rejected?

If you don’t like that answer, you’ll be happy to hear that I can suggest another, even better reason not to reproduce this type of dialogue on the page: it’s usually boring for the reader. Never forget that part of the novelist’s goal is to entertain.

Trust me: Millicent never forgets it. A submission that bores her is going to end up in the rejection pile, inevitably.

But you do indeed have a point, reality-huggers: in life as we know it on a quotidian basis, people really do talk like this. Sometimes, it isn’t even deliberate. I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

In a single two-minute anecdote.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.”

Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample. Don’t they know that I make my living from growing them?”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual human beings actually say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would all be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this shining piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) “Could be. Must be visiting family. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) “Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

A: And how’s your mother?

Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.

B: Give my regards to your mother.

Me: I will. (Wheeling cart away.) Remember me to Bobby, his third wife, and his eighteen children from various marriages.

A: Well?

B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is more or less a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Award yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the characters as human beings, or their relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’ life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “speaking of boring one’s readers, haven’t we already talked about this, and relatively recently? I get it, already: just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is SELDOM character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as they sometimes expect.

Or, to put it less gently, Millicent couldn’t care less whether the dialogue on the page actually happened, unless the manuscript is nonfiction; what concerns her in a novel submission is whether it’s entertaining.

In fact, you’d have to search long and hard to find a Millicent who wouldn’t argue that novel dialogue should specifically not be like real speech — it should be much, much better. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.)

To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as transcripts of reality:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”


“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response — and fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Yet without reader feedback, most aspiring writers wouldn’t notice this narrative problem — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that the writer’s memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, thank you, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read. And, dare I say it, entertaining.

Stop scowling at me; expecting writing to be interesting and entertaining is not a Philistine’s objection. Of course, writers want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a character on the printed page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes to the four winds and the tides. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah.”

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

Since it’s my job as a book doctor to be irritated by exchanges that might irritate Millicent, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words. “Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it wholesale.

Because, like I said, if it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there? Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part VII: spicing up the dialogue with conflict, or, keeping the reader from dozing off in the midst of all of that loving harmony

\"If you call me darling ONE more time, I\'ll turn you into lover tartare.\"

In my last post, I clued you in to the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different problem.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers ROUTINELY engage in this sort of banter: people in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

“Wow, your eyes are SO blue, Snuggums!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?”

Or the ever-popular:

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. Do YOU love ME?”

“How can you even doubt it? I love you twice as much every time I blink. You can’t possibly love me even half as much as I love you.”

“That can’t be true, because I already love you five times more than anyone has ever loved anyone else.”

“Oh, darling, what a wonderful thing to say. I love you so much.”

“And you know what? I love you.”

Zzzz…oh, pardon me; I must have been indulging in a well-deserved nap while waiting for something interesting to happen during this love scene.

Do I sound cynical? Actually, I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, and most of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Snuggums and Muffin themselves.

Why? Well, it’s just a TAD conceptually repetitious, is it not? Not to mention the fact that entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other and count the seconds until the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads.

News flash: it can be equally deadly on the page — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation.

Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

“Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition — when we swam beneath skies of azure…”

True, someone MIGHT conceivably say something like this in real life, but let’s not kid ourselves here: you’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull off a speech like this without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. And snores from Millicent the agency screener.

Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue. Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty (anyone? anyone?), one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6″ (“Ooh, darling, I love all 66 inches of your length!”), even if that is indeed the case.

In fact, mentioning the latter fact in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors the average person is most likely to fudge. Lopping 20 pounds off your weight in casual conversation isn’t usually considered lying, precisely — after all, you’re not standing on a scale at that very moment, are you? It’s not completely inconceivable that you’ve shrunk radically since breakfast — but it’s not precisely court testimony, either.

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application — but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form?

While we’re on the subject of doubting self-serving statements, aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, two years older at the time of her first real hit, and yet asserts that she has now, a long, full career behind her, aged at about half the normal human rate?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer — he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes for romantic effect?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other? Such a scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

If a writer REALLY wanted to get tricky, the narrative might not even make it clear in the moment precisely how and why Lover A is choosing to lie to Lover B. Conveying a subtle sense that there’s something more going on in this scene than meets the enamored eye is a great to increase tension.

Provided, of course, that the narrative doesn’t immediately stab the rising conflict in the heart by explaining in minute detail precisely what’s going on. This has been the death blow to many a promising love scene.

What do I mean by this, you ask? Let’s take a look at a scene where mixed motives have been handled with restraint.

Angelica backed off slightly, instinctively when Desmond kissed her, but lips pressed to hers, he failed to notice. Or if he did, any qualms he may have had were soon quelled by her enthusiastic embraces.

After a few minutes’ slurping passion, she loosed her lips enough to ask, “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

He toyed with the come-hither straps of her meter maid uniform. “Not until half-past one. And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule.”

Angelica sighed, pulling him closer. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security.” She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Gives a pretty strong impression that Angelica’s motives in pursuing the tryst might not be completely identical to his, doesn’t it? The slight tension between her actions and her words convey that easily, without a lot of heavy-handed justification or acres of internal monologue.

Which, alas, is how many manuscript submissions would have approached it. Here’s a sample — note all of the named emotions, explanations through thought, and just how quickly the reader’s ability to speculate about what might be going on evaporates:

Oh, God, Angelica thought, stunned by the onslaught of Desmond’s cologne, not again. Didn’t this lummox ever think of anything but sex, sex, sex? Still, she had been ordered to keep him here until after the President had been assassinated, and if a little nookie was the most pleasant way to achieve that, well, so be it.

She hoped that it would not take very long; her husband, Ivan, would be expecting her home soon.. “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

“Not until half-past one,” Desmond panted. “And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule. It’s not as though anyone out there is planning to perch atop the Washington Monument during his speech on the Mall and shoot him with a crossbow in front of 210,000 people!”

Angelica stiffened with fear. How on earth had he ferreted out the details of their plan? Had she been betrayed by a careless or treacherous fellow spy? Was Desmond merely toying with her, in order to extract further information?

She pulled him close. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security,” she whispered, shuddering inwardly at the irony of her own words. She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock; if only she could keep him here until after Reginald had charged the herd of maddened elephants into the assembled throng, all might still be well. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Kind of stops the tension dead in its tracks, doesn’t it? See how the suspense builds naturally when the narrative merely hints at the underlying plot, rather than screams it from the rooftops?

The same technique also works beautifully in anti-love scenes, by the way: if you want to ramp up the tension, try both muddying the players’ motivations a little and conveying those mixed emotions through action, rather than having them say precisely what they mean at all times.

Yes, yes, I know: your tenth-grade composition teacher told you that good dialogue should be able to convey all of the emotional nuances of a scene without additional narration. Let me guess — s/he came up with that pearl of wisdom while either trying get you to read Hemingway or to stop relying so heavily upon adverbs to express a character’s feelings, right?

I tend to doubt that s/he intended it as a lifetime embargo upon certain parts of speech. Adults don’t let ten-year-olds drive Mac trucks, either; one needs to be trained to use dangerous tools safely before running amok with them. In case you’re curious, the kind of writing s/he was trying to avoid with her prohibition probably ran a little something like this:

“I can’t pay the rent!” Polly exclaimed distressedly.

“But you must pay the rent,” dastardly Donald declaimed determinedly.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she wailed helplessly.

“But you must pay the rent,” Donald insisted violently.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she sobbed unhappily.

“I’ll pay the rent!” nattily-dressed Nathan called helpfully.

“My hero!” Polly cried relievedly.

“Curses,” Donald said morosely, “foiled again.”

I seriously doubt that s/he was hoping you would never use another adverb as long as you lived, just that you would use them with discretion.

But as with so many of the old writing saws, the creaky old chestnut has mutated over time in the conversation of the literal-minded from don’t use adverbs to describe how every speech was said; how about letting the dialogue itself show tone? to it’s bad writing to use an adverb ever, under any circumstances. Purge your manuscript NOW of all -ly verbs, or you’ll tumble into a pit of burning pitch.

Just a SLIGHT difference between those two iterations of that rule of thumb.

I know I’m going out on an editorial limb here, but I suspect you’ve progressed enough as a writer to be trusted not to over-use adverbs, haven’t you? There, I absolve you: from now on, you’re allowed to use all available parts of speech, if you do it with discretion. Fly on your merry way, allowing your shackles to fall to the ground.

Just don’t start using adverbs to describe how every character says every speech, okay?

Oh, and while you’re at it, you don’t need to add a tag line (he said, she avered, they bellowed) to every line with quotation marks. Use them sparingly, just enough to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking when.

Which means, in case your tenth-grade composition teacher forgot to mention it to you, that in a two-person exchange where the opinions expressed are not identical, simply alternating speeches after the text identifies who is saying what initially is usually sufficient.

If you feel ready to implement a more advanced writing technique, try varying the tone a little throughout confrontation scenes; watching two characters spit vitriol at each other unceasingly can get a little old rather fast. For instance:

“I hate you, Ted Fairfax, more than any human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you, Tammy: I haven’t been able to stand you since high school.”

“But you and I dated in high school!”


“Ooh, you’re a jerk, Ted.”

Perhaps I’m an overly-critical reader (actually, I’d better be, or I wouldn’t be good at my job), but a little bit of barb-trading goes a long way for me. Call me zany, but I would rather be shown Tammy and Ted’s mutual loathing through action, rather than merely hearing it in their words.

Or, to put it as your crusty old writing teacher might have, by showing, rather than telling.

Ted could, for instance, be lying about his feelings in high school. That would automatically render their relationship more complex — and thus more interesting — than simple mutual hatred. In fact, mixed emotions are almost always more intriguing on the page than simple, straightforward feelings.

Especially if, as we’ve seen in pretty much all of today’s examples, the characters are going around bellowing about their feelings as if they were traipsing about in the last act of La Bohème — and expressing those emotions with a pinpoint accuracy that would make living and dead poets alike turn bright green with envy.

Allow me to make a subversive suggestion: people aren’t always telling the truth when they say that they’re in love.

Or in hate, for that matter. Occasionally, they have been known to change their minds on the subject. Some are reluctant to name their emotions at all, and still others are prone to aping the emotion that they believe the person sitting across from them expects them to be feeling.

Here’s a shocker of a revelation: human beings are complex critters, far more so than they appear in the average interview scene in a manuscript submission. Individuals have even been known — sacre bleu! — to mislead total strangers who show up, demanding information about that set of sextuplets who fell down the well thirty years ago.

Or DID they?

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you,” or “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his once-lucrative sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

After all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers regularly show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what certain well-known deceased writers were REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions just accept that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Yet in an interview scene — especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There;s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, despite the success of the Greek chorus first person plural narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: interpersonal conflict is, generally speaking, far more interesting than pages at a time of harmonious agreement.

Let your characters disagree; let them quibble. And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

More thoughts on dialogue follow next time — and after that, on to pitching. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part VI: professor, how can I make my dialogue more realistic?


Did everyone have a nice Fourth of July? In order to teach me a lesson about realistic dialogue, apparently, Someone Up There arranged for me to spend it with a bevy of college professors. Nice people, all, full of charming chat about…

Wait a minute; I’ll bet I can read your minds. 90% of you have already decided that the conversation was stuffy, learned, and generally uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t happen to be conversant with particle physics, James Joyce, and/or the Bourbon Dynasty, haven’t you?

What makes me leap to that (in your case, possibly unwarranted) conclusion? Reading manuscripts for a living, that’s what. Rare is the professorial character who walks into a bar, sits down, and doesn’t immediately start spouting the greatest hits from his latest lecture. Usually right before he does something spectacularly absent-minded.

Seriously, the prating professor is one of the great unsung stereotypes of the literary world. Just ask any professional reader (agent, editor, contest judge, writing teacher, Millicent the agency screener) who happens to hold an advanced degree herself: it’s bound to be her pet peeve.

And with good reason: even manuscripts that conscientiously eschew the sulky teenager, the ditsy flight attendant, the corrupt politician, and the unattractive computer genius have been known to embrace the ever-lecturing lecturer with a vim that makes one wonder just how many aspiring writers were bored to death in college. Or high school. Or merely have never had the good fortune to hobnob with doctorate-holders at a social function.

The ugly, ugly result: like many a reader before her, a Millicent with a master’s degree is fated to roll her eyes over unrealistic dialogue.

Why, we were talking about that just the other day, weren’t we? If memory serves — and I’m quite positive that it does — just before I elected to ski down the slippery slope of dissecting all of the problems Hollywood narration can bestow upon a manuscript, I was already perched upon a soapbox, pointing out the pacing, voice, and storytelling dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission.

Today, I’m clambering back up on that soapbox. Because, honestly, I’m reading as fast as I can, but I’m just not going to be able to read every manuscript in the English language before it lands upon the always-crowded desk of our old pal Millicent.

No doubt spilling her too-hot latte on her master’s hood, like the ones depicted above. Because, naturally, like everyone who has ever earned an advanced degree, she never takes off her robes, right?

While I’m adjusting my purple velvet doctoral tam — yes, really — allow me to recap a bit for those of you who missed the earlier posts in this series: an interview scene is one where a character, generally the protagonist, obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue. An inefficient interview scene is one in which, as is all too often the case in submissions, the narrator is not a particularly good interviewer. Or thinks that s/he is being clever by not just coming out and demanding the information s/he has ostensibly walked into the scene to collect.

Can you blame a reader for becoming a tad impatient with an interviewer who NEVER ASKS THE LOGICAL FOLLOW-UP QUESTION or JUST SITS THERE WITHOUT ASKING ANYTHING, waiting for the interview subject to spill his guts spontaneously?

If the reader in question happens to be Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or her Aunt Mehitabel the noted contest judge (hey, they’re a literary-minded family; advanced degree-holders, all), the consequences are usually even more serious: if s/he loses interest in the manuscript before her, she tends to stop reading.

In other words, “Next!”

How may a writer avoid this grisly fate? Here’s a good rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person MIGHT say.

And here’s a secondary rule of thumb — a rule of forefinger, so to speak: that goes double for any dialogue that sounds anything remotely like Hollywood narration. Yes, if you have heard with your own tiny, shell-like ears a real person speak that way.

Remember, please, that dialogue is not automatically realistic just because a real person has at some point uttered it. As I have been pointing out none too gently throughout this series, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except, of course, about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”), the relative progress of sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), and tidbits from the latest celebrity death scandal (in the interests of moving this along, I’ll spare you all my eulogistic renditions of Ben and I’ll Be There, despite the fact that they happen to fall smack in the middle of my flute-like soprano range).

In print, such iterations of mundane issues are notably primarily for their soporific value. (Translation: zzzzz.) As storytelling, such homely gems just tend to slow down the action of the scene.

Interestingly enough, adhering to these two rules while revising almost always results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that provide the opening conflict in novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed to the gills with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage.

I sense some shifting in seats out there. “Yeah, yeah,” the impatient are murmuring. “You already yammered at us about this last week, Anne. Cut to the chase, already.”

Funny, that last sentence is precisely what Millicent is often heard muttering over interview scenes. Without the last week part, that is.

But you have a legitimate point, impatient mutterers. However, in my earlier discussion of the phenomenon, I left out one of the primary reasons Millicent tends to have that particular knee-jerk reaction: if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners, contest judges, and other professional readers usually leap to the conclusion that the ENTIRE text reads the same way.

An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie and her ilk to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.

I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned a few days back, is very, very frequently an interview scene. My editing antennae perk up particularly strongly if the opening scene relies far more heavily upon dialogue than narration.

Why, all of you interview-writers ask in trembling tone? Well, see for yourself, in this piece of purple-tinted prose:

“Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”

Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”

Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this moderately snipped version on for size:

Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even ensconced in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.

Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moué of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night; still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”

Same information, but more naturally presented, right? By having the narration take over the bulk of the descriptive burden, a rather amusing narrative voice has emerged, conveying a point of view distinct from either Marcel or Thelma’s.

I can hear my mutterers muttering again, can I not? “Okay, so the second version has a stronger narrative voice,” they concede. “But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?”

Yes, and that brings me back to my closing question from earlier in this series: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?

I’ll go ahead and answer that one myself: no, there isn’t; TV and movies have simply accustomed us to the notion that our first impressions of any character should be visual, just as in radio, we first hear him speak.

In a visual medium, there’s plenty of reason to give the audience a snapshot, but books are not visual media; narratives can appeal to all of the senses. So the next time you sit down to ponder revising the first few pages of a novel, it’s worth investing a moment or two in pondering the possibility that there is no such reason.

Consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description in your opening dialogue that could come more gradually, later in the chapter — or even later in the book?

Or – and this is a possibility that occurs frequently to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?

I hope that didn’t make anyone out there faint; my kind of doctorate doesn’t allow me to resuscitate the fallen with impunity.

Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?

Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.

Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text – combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that too-extensive physical descriptions in the narrative are dull. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking.

Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.

Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant plugging through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.

And we all want that, don’t we?

I sense more impatient shifting in the peanut gallery. “Um, Anne?” these fed-up folks say. “Isn’t this the same point you made above? I get it, already: don’t use dialogue to have characters describe one another. Have you considered that there might not be a reason to keep telling us this?”

Ah, but you’re assuming that I’ve already made my primary point. Far from it; like other doctors, we book medicos bill for our advice by the hour. Relax; we’ve still got some time left in our session.

So here comes some professional wisdom: after a screener has had the privilege of scanning a thousand manuscripts or so, it becomes pretty clear that many aspiring writers don’t really understand what the writing gurus mean when they urge us all to open with a hook.

A hook, for those of you new to the term, is a grabber located within the first paragraph of a story or book — preferably within the first sentence, according to some writing teachers — that so intrigues the reader that s/he is instantly sucked into the story. (This is not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a one- or two-sentence pitch for a script or book. See the so-named category on the list at right, if you are curious about the care and feeding of the latter.)

Often, aspiring writers will interpret the advice to open with a hook to mean that a storyline must open with violent or even bloody action, a mystery that the reader will want to solve, or a conflict-ridden scene. While admittedly Millicent sees a whole lot of manuscripts that open with a bang (with or without gushes of blood), all of these strategic choices can indeed work, if handled well.

Although let me tell you, they are such common choices that it’s a downright relief to most professional readers when a writer elects to open with a powerful visual or sensual image instead.

What’s even more common than the book that kicks off with conflict? An beginning that insists that the reader must be 100% up to speed on the plot and characters by the bottom of page 1 — or page 5 at the latest.

Again, that vexing question rears its ugly head: is this strictly necessary?

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to suggest a revision technique that may shock some of you: just as an experiment, try removing the first scene of your book.

Not permanently, mind you — and certainly not without having made a backup copy of the original first, in case you decide after mature and careful consideration that what I’m about to suggest next was a stupid idea: cut it just long enough to find out whether the story would make sense to the reader without it. If it can fly that way, consider cutting the scene entirely and starting fresh slightly later in the plot.

I’m quite serious about this — you wouldn’t believe how many good manuscripts don’t actually begin until a couple of scenes in, or that allow absolutely gorgeous opening sentences or images to languish on page 4. Or page 15.

Or the beginning of Chapter Three.

Yes, I know: what I’m suggesting is potentially pretty painful; as we discussed in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series (still conveniently accessible in the category list at right, in case you missed it), many, many aspiring writers regard the approach of the reviser’s pen with every bit of the fear and loathing that the published writer feels for governmental censorship. But it’s just a fact that when we’re first constructing a narrative, we writers are not always right about where the story should begin and end.

If you don’t believe this, I can only suggest that you take a gander at THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, an undoubted masterpiece that could have lost most of the first 200 pages without bugging the reader much at all.

(That’s a professional opinion, by the way. One of the great fringe benefits of having walls lined with diplomas from prestigious institutions is the ability make sweeping judgments like that about classics without fear of sounding ignorant. While I’m at it, allow me to add: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a stupid play, and I found A TALE OF TWO CITIES far-fetched. So there.)

Try to keep an open mind while you’re revising. Be willing to consider the possibility that your story might be more effective — and hook the reader better — if you began it at a different point. Or at least do a little field testing to rule it out.

Believe me, you’ll sleep better at night if you do.

How do I know this, you ask? Because now, I’ve planted the doubt in your mind. As much as you might pooh-pooh the idea that all or part of your opening could be snipped away without fundamental harm to the storyline, you can’t be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s a stupid suggestion without going back over it pretty rigorously, can you?

You’re welcome — and I mean that very seriously, because an aspiring writer who is willing to examine and reexamine her writing before she submits it is going to have a much, much easier time coping with editorial feedback later on in the process.

Trust me; I’m a doctor. That diploma over there says so.

By the way, what the group of professors were discussing when I walked into the Fourth of July party was Charles Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE. After I laughed and told them that this was precisely the type of conversation people who didn’t know any professors would write for them, one of them said, “Yes, and the funny thing is, this is a conversation we normally wouldn’t have outside a Dickens conference.”

I rest my case. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part V: Hollywood Narration, poor public communication, and what’s the difference between a narrative voice and a voice-over, anyway?

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll. Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results.

Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess what they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, it’s important in an interview scene to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen — happy Fourth of July, by the way — as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and my candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejector that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood Narration — when one character tells another something that both parties already know, purely in the interests of bringing the reader up to speed — in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood Narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood Narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including IMPLAUSIBLE movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood Narration, I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past. If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the way; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but then, it was the ‘70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a fledgling writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

”Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

”Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

In a book, there’s PLENTY odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe.

I can’t make screenwriters –or political operatives — do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.)

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood Narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that an over-reliance upon Hollywood narration is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know. There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

To professional readers, humor is a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny doesn’t mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood Narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood Narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least get you into the habit of spotting them. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, OTHER than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered “By gum, no!” to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader REALLY need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework to ponder over a holiday weekend, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part IV: the interview on film, or, why mentally casting Johnny Depp as your protagonist might not be the best idea at the composition stage


Last time, I bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood Narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, there’s a national holiday coming up; I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jello-O molds, and similar American pursuits), Hollywood Narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.

How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.

The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt this? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood Narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.

Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.

C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood Narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood Narration sound just fine in the mind.

As I mentioned yesterday, it can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughs,a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.
It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.

You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is NOTORIOUS for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my favorite examples of Hollywood Narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a GHOST STORY; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can remember it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled, THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dead. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood Narration have abounded still more in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood Narrator, more below.

There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling — and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins.

Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning PRECISELY what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance. We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject.

How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Here’s a very common gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes think such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.

A few more tips on eschewing Hollywood Narration follow next time. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part III, in which I stop resisting the urge to nag novelists about Hollywood narration and just get on with it, already


Last time, I introduced you to that most pervasive killer of dialogue realism, Hollywood Narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. To save you confusion in future critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should hasten to add that the term Hollywood Narration is mine; due to the phenomenon’s widespread unpopularity, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is an interview scene with no interviewer but the author. Leaving the reader to wonder: why the heck is that character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it?”

As we discussed yesterday, the reason’s usually quite simple: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood Narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show the phenomenon in action, wouldn’t it?

It isn’t always easy to catch in revision, you know. Hollywood Narration can be very subtle, as in this dialogue excerpt:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it? Clark is telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for five years?

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Roger pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Sandra shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Tina came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Martha managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after old Doc Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Arnold said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Arnold didn’t ask Sandra for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue — nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Don’t all shout the answer at once; the narrative itself gave a major clue here. To a professional reader, the fact that Arnold said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once. This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information.

In other words, the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s pitch. (And if the logical beauty of that statement didn’t make you smack your head with wonder, don’t worry: we’ll start talking about pitching next week.) Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that advice? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “yesterday, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader?”

Good question, up fronters. How about by placing them in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot of the book — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a thought.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel like a satisfying way to cram a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, it’s actually one of the weakest kind of openings — so much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he dislikes manuscripts to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing all week, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

How do I know that, those of you currently clutching your chests demand? One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that exaggeration and sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see that open with this type of dialogue. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common. The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first page:

”So, Arnold, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Bertha asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man chuckled ruefully. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Penelope, fell off the handlebars of Arnold Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Andrews, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Andrews’ rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Bertha sighed. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers — for our Christmas tree.”

Tim shook his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Betty, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Selma, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Arnold put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Arnold, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Arnold did not respond; he was kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Gladys, all sixty-four years of her, always points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen Hollywood Narration almost this bald. Make no mistake: this is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood Narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership just spontaneously decided to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Next time, I’ll give you a few pointers on ferreting out Hollywood narration, bad laughter, and other inadvertent dialogue mishaps. In the meantime, keep up the good work!