Some interesting rumors have been flying around for the last couple of days, campers. While book lovers in general have been fretting over the demise of Borders, a lot of us have been worrying about the perhaps less sympathetic but still important to the book-moving trade Barnes & Noble’s future. There’s been quite a bit of speculation that Apple might step in and buy up the latter for its immense book catalog; there has also been talk of taking on a chunk of Borders, possibly just for the retail space, possibly not.
I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true, mind you, or even probable. Such is the nature of tittle-tattle. Since folks have been flinging their hands in the air and prophesying the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as an institution so much over the last few weeks, though, I thought you might find it refreshing to hear a bit of countervailing gossip.
Back to business. So far in this series, we have been mostly talking about taking the preliminary steps to constructing a conference pitch, rather than writing the pitch itself. We’ve covered selecting a book category, the desirability of narrowing down your target audience to something more specific than the ever-popular every woman under 50 in America, finding out how big that audience might be, figuring out your book’s selling points, and coming up with a one-line book concept or keynote, as well as deciding whether pitching is right for you in the first place and what to do if you find yourself in a pitch meeting with an agent who does not now and probably will not ever represent books like yours.
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.
Do those loud harrumphing noises bouncing around the ether indicate a certain level of skepticism? “I get that I will need to define my work in the language and according to the logic of the publishing industry, Anne,” some of you admit, rattling your feet on the floor and glancing frequently at the door, fearful of being overheard by an agent. “I also have faith that you’re going to walk me through constructing a strong formal pitch because, well, that’s the kind of thing you do in your multi-part -Paloozas. What’s keeping me up nights, though, is the creeping fear that no matter how prepared I am, I might suddenly clam up. Heck, I’m so nervous that I might not even lose my nerve in front of an agent or editor; I live in terror that I might lose the ability to answer coherently if the writer sitting next to me in a conference seminar asks me, ‘So what kind of book are you here to pitch?’”
Oh, I am very familiar with that particular dead-of-night fearful fantasy, campers; I help aspiring writers prepare pitches all the time. It’s a very, very common concern amongst first-time pitchers.
Which is why I can tell you with relative assurance that while you currently feel as if someone asking you to talk about your writing at a conference will be as threatening as this:
If you walk into the conference prepared, it can feel a lot more like this:
Still frightening, of course — there’s no way around that, I’m afraid — but not nearly so confrontational.
How might that semi-miraculous transformation be achieved? Well, learning not to hear the question as a clarion call to justify writing at all, for one thing. Doing precisely the kind of pre-conference homework we’ve been discussing throughout this series, for another. And most effective of all, pulling the pin in the panic grenade before you walk into your first pitch meeting.
How? By approaching fellow writers at conferences and talking about your work.
Yes, on purpose — and before you start telling me that you are nowhere near ready to take such a bold step, allow me to point out that you already have the skills. How do I know? Because we’ve been adding them to your writer’s toolkit for a couple of weeks now.
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 will want to say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference — and that’s including “Hello.” With these first hundred words in hand (and mouth), 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, the aforementioned chatty guy 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 the few lines most first-time conference-goers regard as a pitch..
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 now often makes 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 stuck with pitching and querying as the only polite means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.
Why? Well, among other reasons, it tends to make first-time pitchers feel a little like that lion tamer in the top picture: putting so much effort into not showing perfectly rational fear in the face of what your body is quite likely to interpret as a life-threatening situation (because your psyche knows it to be a potentially ego-eviscerating one) that you can barely move. Clutching a chair and a whip, even mentally, is not the best way to begin what can be a very cordial conversation.
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; flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.
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. They flounder not merely 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.
Why is that structure problematic? Ask those stammering pitchers: focusing solely upon brevity 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. You’d be astonished at how 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.
That leaves 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 place talented-but-inexperienced 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 ‘Palooka — 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 bouncing off the moon and back into the atmosphere, 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. But such is my faith in your mother that I believe she did not raise you to be rude to people you want to do you professional favors.
Let’s face it: 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.
“That writer’s mother can’t possibly know that he acts this way,” the agent will mutter, turning away.
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, right?
The goal of my Magic 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 this talisman, 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 the MFHW will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same — although we can all hope — 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 here. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations in which a professional 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. Here’s the formula:
”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”
Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.
The beauty of the MFHW formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn these few sentences 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 encounter 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 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?
Look, 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 the actual content of her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of him has usually already mentally stamped his foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.
Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, his book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than merely good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, he 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, the pros 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 makes a facing a firing squad seem like a carefree social encounter?
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.
No, but seriously, folks, 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 — and observe the niceties.
Worried? I can’t say as I blame you; would it set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings? Assuming that we all already know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at a couple of other common entrance speeches. First, the super-vague:
”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.”
Non-specific, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? Who are these characters, and why should I care about them? 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, the self-rejecting:
”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? Let’s try the book report method on for size:
“My fiction novel is a first-person narrative from the points of view of three different narrators, all unreliable. The writing is very literary, but I’m hoping to market it to a mainstream audience. The imagery is extremely filmic, so it would be a natural to make into a movie.”
Okay, but what is this book about? At the first-introduction stage, why should an agent care about the narrative voice or the number of narrators? It’s not as though she’s going to stop the writer before he even mentions the plot and say, “Oh, fantastic — I was talking to an editor just the other day who begged me to bring her more first-person narratives from multiple perspectives. You, sir, are my new client!”
And by the way, all novels are fiction, just as all memoirs are based on true stories. So saying that your novel is fiction is just about as redundant as telling an agent that you have taken the original approach of printing words on pages; trust me, she will have assumed that.
The book report pitch is not the most common, believe it or not. That honor would go to the ever-popular book review technique:
“This is the most exciting debut novel since THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, although it’s neither written in the first person plural nor a closely-examined depiction of a dysfunctional family. Searing in its intensity, the plot builds to a climax of Cinemascope proportions. The ending will leave you breathless and eager for a sequel.
At the risk of repeating myself, what is this book about? Why is the comparison relevant? And why would an agent believe a writer’s critical assessment of his own work, rather than waiting to make that call herself after reading the manuscript?
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 convey:
”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME) 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 presuming that you are an automaton, an industry stooge with no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you to see how you like it: (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 sweet lips 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. It’s going to sound a bit strange and more than a little pushy the first seventy or eighty times that convenient little speech pops out of your mouth.
That’s a perfectly lovely reason not to save the MFHW 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: they’re a great introduction, but do remember to give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what she 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 your listener writes. In this context, the very brevity of the MFHW will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, she 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 pretty radically how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. After plugging away in one’s literary garret for so long, it can be a huge relief. 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 MFHW 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? And who will be more thrilled to hear that you’ve landed an agent, sold your first book, or will be in town for a book signing? (Oh, you thought writers who hit the big time didn’t have support networks?)
If that’s not enough to get you chatting, consider this: there’s a distinct possibility that one of those people sitting next to you in seminars is going to be a household name someday. Every writer has to start out somewhere. Just think how cool you’ll feel saying casually, “Oh, her? Great writer. I met her at a conference years ago. Look, there’s my name in the acknowledgements of her book.”
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 least 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 have you finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. If they know a little — just a little — about the publishing industry, they may even joke about the day when you will hand them free copies.
Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people copies of your future books. Nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra books to fulfill all those past promises, do you?
Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even in 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!” can be pretty overwhelming.
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 that, too, you are already more prepared than you think. For your conversational convenience, the MFHW transform readily into conversation-sparking questions:
”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? What 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 MFHW aloud — 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 already had the e-mail addresses of 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.
Practice, practice, practice those MFHW, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They are going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.
Next time, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech, those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about. 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: you honestly are building up your professional acumen. Keep up the good work!