Writers’ conferences 101, part VII: telling the difference between a kind soul, a helping hand, and a career-long commitment


No, it’s not time to start humming that march from Lohengrin. Today, we’re going to be talking not about a semi-permanent commitment between two consenting adults for mutual benefit — which the writer-agent relationship is, ideally; contracts between agents and writers who happen to be minors can be a trifle more complicated — but about instances where aspiring writers THINK an agent has committed to something she hasn’t.

Yes, it happens all the time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the enlightenment of those of you tuning in late in this series, I should explain that since most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the unwritten rules of the industry, this weekend I have been taking rounding off my Pitching 101 series by offering a few concrete examples of common pitching faux pas.

Admittedly, these little homilies may be a touch on the depressing side, since my fictional exemplars do EVERYTHING wrong, but hey, better them than you, right?

Today’s first melodrama concerns that ubiquitous conference misapprehension: not being versed enough in the ways of publishing folk to tell the difference between a nice conversation at a conference, an offer of help, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Sometimes, they can look awfully similar. But as the international relations folks say, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing series on how to recognize and avoid common faux pas writers make in their initial encounters with agents, I introduced exemplar Lorenzo, an intrepid soul who believed that arguing with the agent who rejected him would cause her to change her mind and take him on as a client. Instead, he merely impressed her as an ill-mannered boor and unprofessional writer who could not deal with rejection well.

Um, bad idea.

In an industry where even ultimately very successful books are often rejected dozens of times before being picked up by an editor or publishing house, that latter quality is NOT one any agent is likely to be eager to embrace in a client. Because, contrary to common expectation amongst the pre-agented, those of us lucky enough to have signed with someone terrific tend to spend a LOT of time gnawing on our nails, waiting for the phone to ring.

(Yes, it IS a lot like dating in high school. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

A writer does not necessarily need to go over the top to bug an agent with over-persistence. Sometimes, the trick is knowing when to stop following up. Take, for example, the case of Mina:

Pesky persistence scenario 1: After several years of unsuccessful querying, Mina goes to her first writers’ conference. There, her learning curve is sharp: much to her astonishment, she learns that the ostensibly tried-and-true querying and submission techniques she had been using are seriously out of date; as a result, her submissions may not even have been read for more than a paragraph or two before being rejected.

“What?!?” she scrawls all over the conference program. “Why didn’t anyone mention this possibility before? I had thought that they were reading every syllable twice before rejecting me!

Like many writers when first faced with an accurate realization of just how hard it is to land an agent, Mina reacts with depression. Fortunately, she has made friends with a couple of more experienced writers at the conference, one of whom introduces her over drinks to Simon & Schuster editor Maxine.

After having spent many, many years trolling for clients at conferences, Maxine instantly recognizes the source of Mina’s despair, and takes the time to speak to her encouragingly. At the end of their chat, seeing that Mina is still a little blue, Maxine hands her a card and tells her to go ahead and send the first chapter of her novel.

For the rest of the conference, Mina chatters excitedly about her new friend Maxine. (To Lorenzo, as it happens, but he is too busy boasting about his new BFF Loretta to hear her.) Since they clicked so well, Mina reasons, there doesn’t seem to be all that much point in pitching to anyone else.

But hey, she paid for those appointments, so she goes ahead and pitches to a couple of agents and an editor. Two of the three ask for pages.

Mina is feeling terrific about herself and her work — but as soon as the conference is over, when she sits down again to pull together her post-pitching packets, her former depression returns, even more strongly. Why even try, she wonders, when she now knows that it’s so easy to get rejected?

So she seeks out the help that worked before: she sends a friendly, chatty e-mail to her new buddy. Maxine never replies. Wondering what went wrong, Mina tries again — and again, no response.

Mina is shattered, deciding that since Maxine’s friendliness had obviously been a sham, she must also have been utterly insincere in her request for pages. But wait – since Maxine was so much nicer than everybody else, and she turned out not to want the pages, doesn’t that mean that the other agents and editors who requested submissions wanted it even less? Why bother?

Having talked herself out of the possibility of ever succeeding, Mina ultimately never sends out any packets at all.

Okay, where did Mina do wrong?

She made that oh-so-common conference mistake: like Lauren and Lorenzo, she did not understand that a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not necessarily the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Heck, given the current volatility of the literary market, having been someone’s client for several years does not necessarily guarantee a lifetime bond.

Nor was a lack of effusiveness an indication that the other agents were not going to read her work carefully – the behavior of one person, however well connected in the industry, is just the behavior of one person.

Yet, like about 40% of writers asked at conferences to submit materials, Mina managed to convince herself that she shouldn’t bother to place her ego on the line further. It was easier to decide instead that all of these people were too mean, too self-centered, too hostile to writers, etc.

Yes, you read that correctly: almost half of requested materials are never submitted. You might well wonder why someone would go to all the trouble of pitching and/or querying and THEN give up, but anteing up is genuinely scary. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that it’s probably going to be quite a bit more painful to have a manuscript rejected than a query or pitch.

So why, the Minas of the world conclude, take the risk? Especially when people at that conference were so mean, hostile, self-centered…

You know the words to the tune by now, don’t you?

Do I see a few hands raised out there? “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, “this train of thought (which is a common one, unfortunately) followed Maxine’s non-response, rather than prompted it. So what was Mina’s INITIAL mistake?”

Good question. Anyone out there want to take a guess?

If you shouted out that it was not knowing Simon & Schuster’s policy on picking up unagented authors, give yourself partial marks: being aware of that would have helped her here. But Mina’s primary mistake was not so much a professional lapse in judgment as an interpersonal one: she mistook someone in the industry’s being nice to her as an invitation to take advantage of similar kindness in the future.

This, I assure you, happens ALL the time, not only to agents and editors, but to anyone who speaks at conferences, teaches writing classes, publishes a book, or even – I must say it — writes a reasonably informative blog.

Doubt this? Okay, the next time you’re at a conference, wander into the bar that’s never more than 100 yards away, stand on a chair, and offer to buy a drink for anyone in the industry who will tell you about the time that some aspiring writer mistook friendliness for a commitment. You may well go bankrupt before you run out of takers.

The sad part is, from the writer’s perspective, it almost always begins fairly innocuously: after an initial contact, a writer will e-mail or call with a question. Then e-mail or call again — and again, and again, until soon, it starts to look to the industry professional as though the writer is inventing excuses for contact, for precisely the same reason Mina did: to try to evoke a human response from an industry that from the outside appears monolithic, cold, and hostile to new writers.

That’s nonsense, of course: the industry’s not monolithic; it’s polychromatically cold and hostile.

From the encroaching writer’s perspective, though, the progression of contact doesn’t look out of line at all. Mina merely thinks that she has a friend on the inside who can help her retain hope; most of the time, writers who e-mail or call speakers at conferences have legitimate questions.

But it’s a slippery slope: there’s a big difference between calling on a resource person who is happy to help out with the occasional quick question, starting to regard that person as one’s FIRST stop for any publishing-related question — and e-mailing four times a day simply because one enjoys having contact with someone in the industry.

All of the above are real examples, by the way, and all have happened many times to every conference speaker I know.

By all means, seek expert advice, but tread lightly: remember, by definition, people involved in the publishing industry are trying to make a living at it — and as my agent keeps hinting, no one has ever made a living dispensing free advice.

Except Dear Abby.

“Wait just a minute!” a protesting cry emerges from cyberspace. “Maxine gave Mina her card! Why would she do that, if not to encourage future contact?”

For precisely the reason Maxine said: so Mina could send the first chapter to her.

While handing over a card may well have seemed like the heavens opening and St. Peter reaching out his staff to a writer who has been buffeted for a long time by rejection, it was actually a fairly low-commitment (and certainly low-effort) thing for Maxine to do. Simon & Schuster, like all of the major US publishers, has an absolute policy against picking up unagented writers: even if Maxine fell in love with Mina’s work at the first paragraph, the best assistance she could have offered would be a recommendation to an agent, not a publication contract.

In that case, what was so wrong with Mina dropping a friendly line?

Well, as I hope any long-time reader of this blog now parrots in her sleep, there is NOTHING that people in the publishing industry hate more than having a nanosecond of their time wasted. There’s a pretty good reason for that: this business runs on deadlines. Since any reasonably successful agent is constantly juggling not only her own deadlines, but those of her entire client list as well, the chances that an unsolicited call or e-mail is going to catch her when she is busy are very high indeed.

Perhaps it’s unfair, but the vast majority of agents expect every writer who approaches them to be aware of that. Any aspiring writer who has taken the time to learn how the business works — an absolute prerequisite for being an agent’s dream client, right? — would know that acquiring new clients is only a small part of what an agent does for a living; it’s not as though a new client will bring income to the agency right away, after all. (If you don’t understand why, you might want to take a pick at the TIME BETWEEN SUBMISSION AND PUBLICATION category at right.) In order to stay in business, an agent has to sell the manuscripts her already-signed clients give her.

Since all too many aspiring writers seem unaware of these facts, approaching agents as though responding to queries, pitches, and submissions were their ONLY jobs — hands up, everyone who has ever met a submitter who acts surprised that a requesting agent didn’t drop everything in order to read requested pages the day they arrived at the agency — lack of courtesy about taking up an agent’s time is widely regarded as symptoms of unprofessionalism in a writer. So are extraneous e-mails, letters (beyond queries, cover letters for requested materials, and perhaps a simple thank-you note), and virtually any phone call that is not initiated by the agent.

Yes, even if it’s just to ask a question. Agents are pretty tenacious of their time.

That can be confusing to writers new to the game; a neophyte, by definition, is going to have a lot of questions to ask, after all. That’s fine, if they’re intelligent, thoughtful questions.

But the next time you’re at a conference, ask any agent you happen to meet for a definition of their nightmare client, and I can assure you that it will include a shuddering reference to someone who contacts them so often that they can’t get on with their work.

So was it unfair for Maxine to assume that Mina is one of these fearsome types based upon a single chatty e-mail? Probably. But Mina made one other mistake: she sent the e-mail INSTEAD of mailing (or e-mailing) the chapter Maxine requested.

Even if she requested it only to be nice (as seems probable here), a professional request is a professional request; by not complying with it, Mina announced to Maxine as effectively as if she had used it as the subject line of her e-mail that she’s not industry-savvy enough to be likely to break into the industry very soon. So, professionally speaking, Maxine would lose nothing by brushing her off.

Beggars, the old adage goes, can’t be choosers, and aspiring writers, as we all know to our cost, cannot set the terms of engagement with prospective agents. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, these terms are unfair; certainly, agents have set the rules to their own advantage.

Which means, perversely, that there is a fail-safe fallback rule governing your interactions with them: let the agent determine the level of intimacy between you.

Within reason, of course. Obviously, it makes sense for you to take the initiative to pitch and query your work; equally obviously, it is to your advantage to send out your work promptly after it is requested.

Perhaps less obviously, it behooves you to follow up if an agent has sat on a project of yours too long without responding.

Beyond that, however, let the agent set the pace of your progressing relationship. Save the chatty e-mails for after she has started to send them to you; call only after she has established that she welcomes your calls. And keep the contact professionally courteous until you have solid, ongoing evidence that your agent regards you as a friend as well.

Trust me on this one: agents are not typically shy people; habitual reticence would be a serious professional impediment. If an agent has decided to make you a lifelong friend, she’s going to let you know about it.

I’m sensing quite a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Okay, Anne,” some readers who aren’t entirely happy in retrospect about their last conferences after having read the last couple of days’ worth of posts, “it’s helpful to know what NOT to do — although it would have been nice to hear about some of this before I attended a conference. How about telling us what would be an appropriate response to a successful pitch meeting?’

I’ll do better than that, less-than-content conference attendees. I’ll run you through a quick series of dos and don’ts. (And for those whose schedules don’t coincide well with the timing of my various series: you can usually find quite a few posts on the topics relevant to most major stages of the writer’s life on the category list on the lower right-hand side of this page. 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. How’s that for anticipating your needs?)

This may be old hat to some of you, especially those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, but this is precisely the sort of wisdom that tends to be passed only by word of mouth amongst writers. Take good notes — and if any of this doesn’t make sense to you, please ask questions.

DO write REQUESTED MATERIALS — (CONFERENCE NAME) in big, thick pen strokes on the outside of the envelope. As you probably know, agents and editors receive literally hundreds of missives from aspiring writers per week. If they asked for your work, it belongs in a different pile from the five hundred unsolicited manuscripts and query letters.

DON’T write REQUESTED MATERIALS if they did not actually request your work. Instead, write the conference’s name with the same big, fat pen on the outside of the envelope, so they know you’ve been professional enough to attend a conference and have heard them speak.

DO write (CONFERENCE NAME) – FINALIST/PLACE WINNER (CATEGORY) on the outside of the envelope if you did get honored in the contest. When I won my first major contest, both the fiction winner and I (the NF winner) did this in 2004, and every single agent thanked us for it. It kept our work from getting lost in the piles on their desks.

DON’T send more material than the agent/editor asked to see. (A big pet peeve for a lot of ‘em.) This is not like a college application, where sending brownies, an accompanying video, or a purple envelope will get you noticed amongst the multitudes: to agents and editors, wacky tends to equal unprofessional, which is the last label you want affixed to your work. And don’t spend the money to overnight it; it will not get your work read any faster.

DO send a polite cover letter with your submission. It’s a good chance to show that you have appropriate boundaries, and that you are professionally seasoned enough to realize that even a very enthusiastic conversation at a conference does not mean you’ve established an intimate personal relationship with an agent or editor.

DON’T quote other people’s opinions about your work in the query letter, unless those people happen to be well-known writers. If David Sedaris has said in writing that you’re the funniest writer since, well, him, feel free to mention that, but if your best friend from work called your novel “the funniest book since CATCH-22,” trust me, it will not impress the agent.

DO mention in the FIRST LINE of your cover letter either (a) that the agent/editor asked to see your work (adding a thank-you here is a nice touch) or (b) that you heard the agent/editor speak at the conference (mention it by name). Again, this helps separate your work from the unsolicited stuff.

DON’T assume that the agent will recall the conversation you had with her about your work. Remember, they meet scores of writers; you may not spring to mind immediately. If you had met 500 people who all wanted you to read their work over the course of three days, names and titles might start to blur for you, too.

DO mention in your cover letter if the agent/editor asked for an exclusive look at your work. If an agent or editor asked for an exclusive, politely set a time limit, say, three weeks or a month. Don’t worry that setting limits will offend them: this is a standard, professional thing to do. That way, if you haven’t heard back by your stated deadline, you can perfectly legitimately send out simultaneous submissions.

DON’T give any agent or editor an exclusive if they didn’t ask for it — and DON’T feel that you have to limit yourself to querying only one agent at a time. I’ve heard rumors at every conference that I have ever attended that agents always get angry about multiple submissions, but truthfully, I’ve only ever heard ONE story about an agent’s throwing a tantrum about it – and that only because she hadn’t realized she was competing with another agent for this particular book.

Your time is valuable. Check a reliable agents’ guide to make sure that none of the folks you are dealing with demand exclusives (it’s actually pretty rare), and if not, go ahead and send out your work to as many agents and editors who asked to see it.

DO consider querying agents and editors with whom you did not have a meeting at the conference — and tell them that you heard them speak. (Mention it by name, either in the first paragraph of your query or the subject line of a query e-mail.) Just because you couldn’t get an appointment with the perfect person at the conference doesn’t mean that the writing gods have decreed that s/he should never see your work.

DON’T call to make sure they got your work. This is another common agenting pet peeve: writers who do it tend to get labeled as difficult almost immediately, whereas you want to impress everyone at the agency as a clean-cut, hard-working kid ready to hit the big time.

If you are very nervous about your work going astray, send your submission with delivery confirmation or enclosed a stamped, self-addressed postcard that they can mail when they receive your package. Don’t telephone.

DO send an appropriate SASE for the return of your manuscript – with stamps, not metered postage. I always like to include an additional business-size envelope as well, so they can request further pages with ease. Again, you’re trying to demonstrate that you are going to be a breeze to work with if they sign you.

DON’T just ask them to recycle the manuscript if they don’t want it. There are many NYC offices where this will seem like a bizarre request, bordering on Druidism. Include the SASE unless the agency specifically says on its website that it will not return manuscripts.

DO make sure that your manuscript is in standard format: at least 1-inch margins, double-spaced, every page numbered, everything in the same 12-point typeface. (Most writing professionals use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier; screenwriters use exclusively Courier. And yes, there ARE agents and editors who will not read non-standard typefaces. Don’t tempt them to toss your work aside.)

If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, send it in a nice black or dark blue file folder –this is not the time to bring out your hot pink polka-dotted stationary and tuck it into a folder that looks like something out of Jerry Garcia’s wardrobe. Think of it like a job interview: a black or blue suit is not going to offend anyone; make your work look as professional as you are.

DON’T forget to spell-check AND proofread in hard copy, not only the manuscript, but also your cover letter for the submission. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers are notoriously unreliable, so do double-check. When in doubt, have a writing buddy or a professional proof it all for you.

DO give them time to read your work – and use that time to get your next flight of queries ready, not in calling them every day.

DON’T panic if you don’t hear back right away, especially if you sent out your work in late July or August. A HUGE percentage of the publishing industry goes on vacation between August 1 and Labor Day, so the few who stick around are overworked. Cut them some slack, and be patient.

DO remember to be pleased that a real, live agent or editor liked your pitch well enough to ask for your work! Well done!

DON’T be too upset if your dream agent or editor turns out not to be interested in your project, and don’t write that person off permanently; s/he may be wild about your next. Keep your work moving, rather than letting it sit in a drawer. Yes, it’s hard emotional work to keep sending out queries, but you can’t get discovered if you don’t try.

DO take seriously any thoughtful feedback you receive. As you may already know, boilerplate rejection letters are now the norm. If an agent or editor has taken the time to hand-write a note on a form letter or to write you a personalized rejection, you should take this as a positive sign – they don’t do that for everybody. Treasure your rave rejections, and learn from them.

Puzzled by the speed of this overview? Don’t worry — I’m going to be talking in greater depth next time about how to handle a “Yes, please do send pages” response to your pitch or query.

In the week to come, I’m going to be talking about the ins and outs of query letters, to get everyone ready to send ‘em out just after Labor Day; shortly thereafter, I had planned on covering the basics of submission packets before wending my way back to the large pile of craft questions that have piled up over the course of the summer.

In short, it’s going to be a busy few weeks here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Writers’ Conferences 101, part VI: keeping the pitch-hearer from hitting the fast-forward button, or, does this boundary look blurry to you?


Last time, I pointed out that while many, many nice writers’ conference attendees fret away pre-pitching hours in worry over whether they might inadvertently offend an agent or editor. While a reasonably considerate writer can usually avoid this dreadful fate if s/he bears in mind that the goal of pitching is not to impress the pro with one’s enthusiasm, but with one’s professionalism and great presentation, there are, I must admit, quite a few common faux pas writers stumble into without realizing.

So while we’re on the entrancing subjects of conferences and conference pitching, I thought it might be a good time to re-run a couple of situationally-appropriate scenarios from my ever-popular Industry Faux Pas series (collected under the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page). The manners expected of an aspiring writer at such events are not always intuitively apparent, after all.

Why darken a perfectly pleasant weekend day with this, you cry in horror? Glad you asked: most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the rules of the game. Better that my fictional exemplars make these mistakes than my readers, I say.

Think of it as educational soap opera.

Today’s little dramas are excerpted from three of my earlier posts, combined because all deal with the differential between what writers often expect to happen at a literary conference (meet the perfect agent instantly, get signed within the hour, sell the book within the week, Oprah and literary luncheons within the year) and what actually occurs.

Our first heroine falls prey to an extremely common impulse amongst pitchers and queriers, to tell the agent or editor all about the difficulties the book has met so far on the road to publication. While that urge is certainly understandable, to the pros, such a litany tends to make the book seem, at best, less marketable than it would have seemed without such a recital.

This coming example is the one that most consistently breaks my heart, because it is almost always merely a side effect of the nervousness most writers feel the first few times they pitch their work — and, as such, seems to me disproportionately frowned-upon in the industry.

Misguided approach #1: Betsy has been querying her excellent first novel unsuccessfully for some years. Having read that it is easier to make contact with an agent at a literary conference than through cold querying (which is quite true, generally speaking), she plunks down a significant amount of cash to attend a major regional conference.

Once there, however, she becomes intimidated by both the enormity of pitching her beloved novel to a powerful stranger and the sheer number of confident-seeming writers around her, all geared up to pitch successfully. Since she knows no one there, she does not have an opportunity to talk through her fears before her appointment; she walks into her pitch meeting with agent Bertrand shaking visibly.

Fortunately, Bertrand is a nice guy underneath that NYC-cool veneer: seeing that (check his appointment sheet) Betsy is nervous, he does his best not to be any more intimidating than their relative positions dictate. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, not unreasonably, “So, what is your book about?”

His kindness is the last blow to her already tenuous composure. Staring down at the tabletop between her and the agent of her dreams, Betsy is horrified to hear herself begin to babble not about the book, but about how difficult it has been to try to find a home for it.

About her years of querying. About her frantic total revisions of the book after every 20th rejection or so. About how she has gotten to the submission stage a few times, but was never given any reason why her book was rejected – so when she sat down to revise again, she was doing it essentially in the dark.

She has become, in fact, the complete anti-salesperson for her book. Every so often, Bertrand tries to steer her back toward the book’s content and why it would appeal to her target audience, but by now, it feels so good to talk to someone, anyone, in the industry about how hard it’s been for her that she just can’t stop. Her every third sentence seems to begin, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be interested, because…”

After awhile, Bertrand stops asking questions, letting her ramble. When she finally works up nerve to glance up at his face, her throat contracts: his eyes are distinctly glazed over, as though he were thinking about something else. At that point, all Betsy wants to do is run away.

“So,” Bertrand says when she finally runs out of steam, “what is your book actually about?”

This situation is so sad that I hesitate to ask this, but what did Betsy do wrong? Not from a writer’s point of view, but from Bertrand’s?

Surprised that the mistake might be different, depending upon perspective? Oh, heavens, yes. From a writer’s point of view, Betsy’s problem was lack of confidence that led her to go off on a tangent unrelated to her pitch, right?

But Bertrand is an agent well used to dealing with nervous pitchers: her fear alone would not necessarily have put him off. Her real faux pas was let him know — indirectly, of course, but quite immistakably — that she would be an extremely time-consuming client.

How did she make that clear? Through her apparent inability to talk about her manuscript professionally.

Lest that seem like an unfair conclusion, consider what information she neglected to include in her pitch: what the book was about, the book category, at what target market it aimed, who the characters are, what the premise is. Essentially, by airing her fears of rejection at such great length, Betsy turned the pitch meeting into a guessing game for Bertrand.

I’m sensing some discomfort out there with this level judgment, am I not? “But Anne,” some fair-minded folks point out, “Betsy didn’t plan to break down; she was just nervous. Or maybe she had waited so long to talk to a real, live professional about her work that she became overwhelmed in the moment. Where does Bertrand get off, assuming that she’s always like that, and therefore would not be a good client?”

Your assessment of why Betsy went off on a tangent is probably accurate oh pointer-outers, but I didn’t say that she wouldn’t be a good client; I said that she would be an unusually time-consuming one.

Bertrand’s likely to be right about that, you know. She has, after all, already expected him to help her make her pitch. How so? Well, if he wanted to hear about her book project — which is, ostensibly, the primary reason they are having this conversation at all — he was going to have drag the story out of her.

Even if he manages to pull that off successfully, he’s going to wonder: was she unprepared, or did she not do the necessary homework to know what a pitch entails? If it’s the latter, how likely is it that she will have been sufficiently professional to find out how to format a manuscript or to submit it properly? Does she know not to call him every other day while he’s considering her manuscript? Will she fall apart if he gives her feedback on her writing — and if so, how much extra time will that take out of his busy day?

See how she might strike him as a potentially demanding client? Or why it might seem easier to him to say, “Sorry, I’m just not handling that kind of book right now,” and move on to the next pitcher than to assume that she’s a good writer who is having a bad day?

Which is in fact what happened here. (Omniscient narrators know hidden facts like this, you see.) Regardless of why it happened, the result of Betsy’s loss of focus was that Bertrand never got an opportunity to read her book, which was actually very well written.

Try not to judge either Betsy or Bertrand too harshly, please — she fell into a very common panic spiral, and he reacted self-protectively. Both completely understandable reactions, especially Betsy’s. It may seem odd to those of you who have never pitched your work verbally, but in the moment, it’s amazingly common for pitchers to take five or ten minutes to calm down before they are able to talk about the book at all.

This, in case you had been wondering, is why every conference guide ever printed will tell you to prepare your pitch in advance: to maximize the probability that you will actually be able to talk about the book.

Advance preparation can substantially reduce the probability of falling into a panic spiral – or into the other form Betsy’s faux pas often takes. I am re-using Betsy here, to give her a second chance and Bertrand another opportunity to win your heart.

Misguided approach 2: Betsy has signed up to pitch her excellent novel to agent Bertrand. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, “So,” he checks his schedule here, “Betsy, tell me what your book is about?”

Delighted by his interest, Betsy tells him her title, then proceeds to tell him the entire plot of the book, beginning on page 1. Ten minutes later, she has reached the end of Chapter 4.

Bertrand looks shell-shocked, but that might just be effects of the day’s cumulative pitch fatigue. “Um, that sounds very interesting,” he says, standing to lead her back to the appointment desk, “but a trifle complicated for us. You might have better luck with another agent, though.”

This version of Betsy reached the same result — convincing Bertrand that she would be hard to help — by completely opposite means. By presenting a kitchen-sink pitch, replicating the entire storyline rather than concentrating on the primary themes of the book, she told him — again, indirectly — that he would need to put in a lot of effort to make her work market-worthy.

Any guesses why Bertrand didn’t ask her to submit pages?

Betsy’s second faux pas can teach us an important lesson: by prepping your pitch in advance, you are telling the agent to whom you pitch, “Here I am, making it as easy as humanly possible to help me. I am more than prepared to meet you halfway, and together, let’s walk the path to publication.”

These two examples turned on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries – which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not mean to overstep; he merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If he doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:

Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. In fact, of the agents on the panel, she sounds like the only one who regards her job as the promotion of art, rather than finding marketable work and selling it.

This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.

Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.

“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”

My apparent twin frowns briefly. “She’s a good first choice, but are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years, and she very seldom represents first-time writers. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”

Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, saying many encouraging things about the novel. Even better, she seems genuinely interested in Lauren as a writer and as a person; they seem to click, and are soon chatting away like old friends. Loretta asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel.

Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else. Obviously, she thinks, the agent would not have been so encouraging unless she were already more or less decided to take on the book.

The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.

What did Lauren do wrong? And how did that wise, wise woman at the Pitch Practicing Palace know what was likely to go awry.

Actually, Lauren didn’t step far off the prescribed path for pitchers: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately (in this case, none), and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference.

Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference. Or simply asked a follow-up question or two.

If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents – and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.

While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense – I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer – it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.

And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta, professionally speaking? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.

Those of you who followed the Pitching 101 series closely shout along with me now: a nice conversation at a conference does NOT a commitment make.

Unfortunately, it’s very, very common for writers to interpret this as something more than it is. A writer is a free agent until a representation contract is signed, and there are agents out there who feel it’s their duty to be nice to aspiring writers.

So what could Lauren have done differently? Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her — as it turned out, false — first impressions of her. Even if Loretta HAD actually wanted to sign her on the spot, no reputable agent is going to made a decision about representation without reading the book in question. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.

The good news is that Lauren did not need to give up her hopes for continuing her connection with Loretta in order to protect herself here: all she had to do was keep on pitching her book to other agents at the conference. That way, she would have hedged her bets.

True, it would have cost her a bit of extra effort and bravery, but on the off chance that she really had made a once-in-a-lifetime connection with Loretta, continuing to pitch would not have had an adverse affect. Realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference.

How do I know that Loretta didn’t expect it? Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

Learn from Lauren’s example: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart — and other valuable pitching opportunities — to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.

To give Lauren her props: she was awfully well-behaved about it all, and thus did not offend agent Loretta with her misconceptions. For the sake of argument, let’s meet another of Loretta’s pitch appointments, Lauren’s twin brother Lorenzo, to see how someone less knowledgeable about industry norms might have responded to the same situation:

Blurry boundary scenario 2: Lorenzo attends the same conference as his sister, and like Lauren, has an almost unbelievably positive pitch meeting with agent Loretta. Pleased, he too stops pitching, boasting in the bar that is inevitably located no more than 100 yards from ground zero at any writers’ conference that he has found the agent of his dreams. From here on in, he has it made.

So, naturally, Lorenzo goes home, spends the usual panicked week or two frantically revising his novel, and sends it off to Loretta. Like Lauren, he too receives a beautifully sympathetic rejection letter a few weeks later, detailing what Loretta feels are the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Unlike Lauren, however, Lorenzo unwisely picked conference week in order to go off his anti-anxiety medication. His self-confidence suffers a serious meltdown, and in order to save his ego from sinking altogether, he is inspired to fight back. So he sits down and writes Loretta a lengthy e-mail, arguing with her about the merits of his manuscript.

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

He sends it again, suitably embellished with reproaches for not having replied to his last, and attaching an article about how the publishing industry rejected some major bestseller 27 times before it was picked up.

Still no answer.

Perplexed and angry, Lorenzo alters his first 50 pages as Loretta advised, scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope, as he had the first time, and sends it off.

Within days, the manuscript is returned to him, accompanied by a curt note stating that it is the practice of Loretta’s agency not to accept unrequested submissions from previously unpublished authors. If Lorenzo would like to query…

Okay, what did Lorenzo do wrong? Where do we even start?

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did: he did not check Loretta’s track record for taking on previously unpublished writers — hardly difficult information to dig up; it’s a question that both of the standard agents’ guides ask every agency listed to answer. He also assumed that a nice conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching.

Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

But no, our Lorenzo pressed ahead: he decided to contest with Loretta’s decision, adopting the always people-pleasing strategy of questioning her literary judgment. In order to insult her knowledge of the book-buying public more thoroughly, his follow-up included an article implying that no one in the industry knew a book from the proverbial hole in the ground.

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever.

Seriously — it may be satisfying emotionally, but at the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read. At best, an agent will tend to conclude that she’s got another Betsy on her hands: perhaps this person writes well, but it’s going to be a heck of a lot of trouble to find out.

In other words: next!

You’re all too savvy to follow in Lorenzo’s footsteps, aren’t you? You would never be so blunt, I’m sure, nor would you ever be so dishonest as to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on materials that had not, in fact, been requested. (Since Loretta had not asked Lorenzo to revise and resubmit, her request ended when she stuffed his initial 50 pages into his SASE.)

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top right away to bug an agent with over-persistence. Give some thought to how you can present yourself as easy for an agent to help.

And remember, it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to pitch or query to more than one agent at a time, no matter how ideal any given agent seems to be. Always, always, always.

Another set of conference-related object lessons follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXV and Writers’ Conferences 101, part V: surviving a conference with your sanity — and energy — in one piece, or, if a stone can smile, so can you

That’s an actual stone in my yard, believe it or not, one that apparently went out of its way to anthropomorphize itself for my illustrative pleasure. If rocks can be that friendly and helpful, it gives me great hope for human beings.

Which is my subtle way of leading into asking: after these last few weeks of posts, have you start to have dreams about pitching? If they’re not nightmares, and you’re scheduled to pitch at a conference anytime soon, you’re either a paragon of mental health, a born salesperson, or simply haven’t been paying very close attention. Either that, or I’ve seriously underemphasized the potential pitfalls.

For the next couple of days, I’m going to assume that you either ARE waking up in the night screaming or that I haven’t yet explained this adequately. So fasten your seatbelts — I’m going to be taking you on a guided tour of false expectations, avoidable missteps, and just plain disasters.

Hey, forewarned is forearmed. Or at least less surprised.

One of the fears first-time pitchers often harbor is inadvertently making a poor impression upon an agent or editor, thereby nullifying their chances of being able to wow ‘em with a pitch. I wish I could say that this is an unfounded fear, but actually, it’s pretty reasonable: one doesn’t have to spend much time hanging around that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America to hear a few horror stories about jaw-droppingly rude writers.

Before anybody out there begins to panic, let me hasten to add that jaw-droppingly is the operative term here. These anecdotes are almost invariably about genuinely outrageous approach attempts — and not just because “You’re not going to believe this, but a pitcher just forgot to tell me whether is book is fiction or nonfiction” isn’t nearly as likely to garner sympathy from fellow bar denizens as “This insane writer just grabbed my arm as I was rushing into the bathroom and refused to stop talking for 20 minutes.”

For one thing, the former is too common a phenomenon to excite much of a response from other agents. Unfortunately, though, the latter happens often enough that some agents turn against hallway pitching for life.

However — and this is a BIG however — the aspiring writers who sit around and fret about being the objects of such anecdotes are virtually never the folks who ought to be worrying about it, in my experience. These are not the kind of faux pas that your garden-variety well-mannered person is likely to commit, if you catch my drift.

The result: polite people end up tiptoeing around conferences, terrified of doing the wrong thing, while the rude stomp around like the football star at the homecoming dance.

Case in point: technologically-savvy reader wrote in to ask if it was considered appropriate to take notes on a laptop or Blackberry during conference seminars. It’s still not very common — surprising, given how computer-bound most of us are these days — but yes, it is acceptable, under two conditions.

First, if you do not sit in a very prominent space in the audience — and not solely because of the tap-tap-tap sound you’ll be making. Believe it or not, it’s actually rather demoralizing for a lecturer to look out at a sea of faces that are all staring at their laps: are these people bored out of their minds, the worried speaker wonders, or just taking notes very intensely?

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a class of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes, your Blackberry, or that Octavia Butler novel you’ve hidden in your lap because you can’t believe that your boss is making you sit through a talk on the importance of conserving paper clips for the third time this year.

I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual in a lecture environment. The bigger the class, the more quickly she will focus upon the one audience member who is visibly interested in what she is saying.

In the university department where I used to teach, active listening was so rare that occasionally, one or another of my colleagues would get so carried away with appreciation that he would marry a particularly attentive student. One trembles to think what these men would have done had they been gripping enough lecturers to animate an entire room.

Back to the Blackberry issue. It’s also considered, well, considerate to ask the speaker before the class if it is all right to use any electronic device during the seminar, be it computer or recording device.

Why? Think about it: if your head happens to be apparently focused upon your screen, how is the speaker to know that you’re not just checking your e-mail?

Enough about the presenters’ problems; let’s move on to yours. Do be aware that attending a conference, particularly your first, can be a bit overwhelming. You’re going to want to pace yourself.

“But Anne!” I hear conference brochure-clutching writers out there crying, “The schedule is jam-packed with offerings, many of which overlap temporally! I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take every single class and listen to every speaker, but frankly, you’re going to be a better pitcher if you allow yourself to take occasional breaks. Cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time.

Why? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather be babbling incoherently during the last seminar of the weekend, or raising your hand to ask a coherent question?

Before you answer that, let me add: since most attendees’ brains are mush by the end of the conference, it’s generally easier to get close to an agent or editor who teaches a class on the final day. Fewer lines, less competition.

Do make a point of doing something other than lingering in the conference center. Go walk around the block. Sit in the sun. Grab a cup of coffee with that fabulous SF writer you just met. Hang out in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference; that tends to be where the already-agented and already-published hang out, anyway.

Skipping the occasional seminar is NOT being lax about pursuing professional opportunities: it is smart strategy, to make sure you’re fresh for your pitches. If you can’t tear yourself away, take a few moments to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, to reset your internal pace from PANIC! to I’m-Doing-Fine.

I know that I sound like an over-eager Lamaze coach on this point, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to keep taking deep breaths throughout the conference. A particularly good time for one is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor.

Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then, and it will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.

And at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, please, please, PLEASE don’t expect a conference miracle. Writing almost never sells on pitches alone. You are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it.

Translation: it’s almost unheard-of for an agent to sign up a client during a conference. (And no, I have no idea why so many conference-organizers blithely hand out feedback forms asking if you found an agent at the event. Even the most successful conference pitchers generally don’t receive an offer for weeks.)

Remember, your goal here is NOT to be discovered on the spot, but to get the industry pro in front of you to ask to read your writing. Period.

Yes, I know: I’ve said this before. And I’m going to keep saying it as long as there are aspiring writers out there who walk into pitch meetings expecting to hear the agent cry, “My God, that’s the best premise since OLIVER TWIST. Here’s a representation contract — and look, here’s my favorite editor now. Let’s see if he’s interested.”

Then, of course, the editor falls equally in love with it, offers an advance large enough to cover New Hampshire in $20 bills, and the book is out by Christmas. As an Oprah’s Book Club selection, naturally.

Long-time readers, chant along with me now: this is not how the publishing industry works.

The point of pitching is to skip the querying stage and pass directly to the submission stage. So being asked to send pages is a terrific outcome for this situation, not a distant second place to an imaginary reality.

Admittedly, though, that is SO easy to forget in the throes of a pitch meeting. Almost as easy as forgetting that a request to submit is not a promise to represent or publish.

To reiterate: whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.

This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely.

Try to maintain perspective.

Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for eons. But it IS vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job as a marketer, because regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it.

So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DON’T STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.

I’m serious about this. No matter who says yes to you first, you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.

Also, it is VERY much in your interest to send out submissions to several agents at once, rather than one at a time. If several asked, thank your lucky stars and mail those manuscripts to all of them at the same time.

I heard that gasp, but no, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless (a) one of the agencies has a policy precluding multiple submissions (rare) or (b) you promised one agent an exclusive. (I would EMPHATICALLY discourage you from granting (b), by the way — and if you don’t know why, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right before you even CONSIDER pitching at a conference.)

Just mention in your cover letter to each that other agents are also reading it; trust me, that’s not going to annoy anyone. That old saw about agents’ getting insulted if you don’t submit one at a time is absolutely untrue; unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive look at your work, it’s neither expected nor in your interest to act as if s/he has.

So there.

Back to why you should keep on pitching in those hallways: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are easier.

Why? For one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you:

(a) regard it as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length?

(b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” and go on to give details about how mean he was?

(c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project?

(d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke so you may both pitch again and read the requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you submit them?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the Pitching 101 series — and the entirety of the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right as well. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) Again, the reason is time. In a ten-minute meeting, there is actual leisure to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now.

Why might this seem desirable to them? Well, think about it: if you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right? By rejecting it on the pitch alone, they’ve just saved Millicent the screener 5 or 10 minutes.

Also, sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book can be quite a bit more intimidating than giving a hallway pitch — it helps to be aware of that in advance, I find. In a perverse way, a formal pitch can be significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

So get out there and pitch, pitch, pitch! Think of it this way: every time you buttonhole an agent and say those magic first hundred words is one less query letter you’re going to need to send out.

Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour? Good; I’ll move on.

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother probably said to you when you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Oops, slipped too far into Mom mode. Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question. For my senior prom, she cranked out a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley.

It was, to put it mildly, not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear she hastened to alter it. Even with the alterations, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long. The last time I bumped into my old chorus teacher, he spontaneously recalled the dress. “A shame that you didn’t dress like that all the time,” he said wistfully.

Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.

Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).

I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in an earlier post, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.

And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?

To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to eat. but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, this is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint. (I’ve seen it happen, believe it or not.)

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings; this is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed. As I pointed out yesterday, you will also be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them.

Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand. Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.

I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So, what do you write?”

To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.

In fact, the first people I told about my first book deal — after my SO and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them before my college roommate? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

Case in point: the FIRST words by mother-in-law uttered after hearing that my book had sold: “What do you mean, it’s not coming out for another couple of years? Why the delay?”

This kind of response is, unfortunately, common. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.

Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout.

Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience is a terrific way to blow off steam, I find.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.

And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a newfound chum than alone?

Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless.

To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world fell warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book! And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.

This can be a very lonely business; I can tell you from experience, nothing brightens your day like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU’ve just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.”

But the other is still awfully darned good. Start laying the groundwork for it now.

One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings.

So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.

I would advise writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!

Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put yourself on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.

In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as nice or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.

The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will stand a better chance of making it big on the pop charts, includes the PERFECT lyric to hum walking into a pitch meeting:

And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too.

If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)

The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:

So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter.
I don’t want to turn cruel.

I hum that one a LOT during conferences, I’ll admit. Helpful, I find, when a bestselling author whose agent is her college roommate’s cousin tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing always finds a home.

Perhaps, but certainly not easily.

What you’re trying to do certainly is not easy, or fun, but you can do it. You’re your book’s best advocate. And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing. No more, no less.

It’s a perfectly reasonable request, and you’re going to be terrific at making it, because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.

Take a deep breath on me, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIV and Writers’ Conferences 101, part IIII: working up the nerve to pitch — or to ask pointed questions, for that matter

At the opera the other night, I saw something I’d never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call — and at a rather specific point, too, when the singer playing the lead was walking out for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show.) Why would they have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? I cannot say for sure, but my guess would be that it was for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in golf claps when she appeared.

It wasn’t because she didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she had demonstrated in Act III. She’s world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had not sung full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

Did she have a sore throat? Had she lost her nerve? Or did she merely figure that this was Seattle, not New York or Berlin, so she could afford to phone in half of her performance?

Performance anxiety, medical excuse, or apathy — we in the audience will never know. All we can judge her by is how she sang.

Performance anxiety is on my mind today, campers, because I’m going to be concentrating in this post upon the delicate art of working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.

Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a face-to-face meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers — and queriers, for that matter — seem to do.

Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable — undoubtedly, it is. In the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Before an army of Valkyries shouts, “Well, duh!” at me at a volume certain divas would have done well to emulate, allow me to add a spin to that observation that may not have occurred to some pitchers: since a pitch meeting is a professional encounter, not a social event, it is very much in your interests to consider whether the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.

There’s more to an agent-writer relationship than friendship, you know. In fact, that’s often a relatively small element. Obviously, you’re going to want to be able to trust your agent, but whether the two of you clicked during your ten-minute chat is far less important to how well you will work together than your ability to communicate — and, yes, the agent’s contacts with editors who happen to publish books in your category.

So the common writerly fantasy that a friendly pitch meeting automatically equals a long-term personal connection is not only seldom true in actual practice; it can lead aspiring writers do make foolish choices. “Oh, but I really clicked with Agent Z,” they will protest. “I couldn’t possibly submit those pages Agent Q requested until I hear back from Z.” Or: “Since I had such a great pitch session with Agent R, why should I bother to pitch to anyone else at this conference? He’s sure to sign me.” Or even: “Yeah, it’s been 10 months since I submitted those pages Agent B requested, but I’m not going to keep querying or contact the agency to see if they have lost my submission packet. She seemed to like me; I don’t want to mess that up.”

All of these are poor strategic choices, based upon a misunderstanding of the pitching relationship. Successful pitchers’ hopes often rise sky-high, leading them to confuse a request for pages for an implied commitment. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be interpreted as such.

Far too few pitchers seem to understand that. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: until an actual offer is on the table, a good pitch meeting is just a nice conversation at a conference.

But even if a smiling request for materials did imply more (which it doesn’t), the mere fact of liking an agent personally is not the best determinant of whether this is the right person to represent your manuscript. Or even whether the two of you can work well together under stressful conditions.

Yes, I said work together, because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. It’s rare that a manuscript or proposal does not go through at least some revisions after the agency contract is signed, generally at the new agent’s request. So before you think about committing your manuscript or proposal to anyone’s hands, you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.

Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is CRUCIAL information.

Why? Well, agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it. Some want their authors to check in regularly, while others roll their eyes if a client has the temerity to inquire whether the manuscript the agent sent out six months ago has met with any results yet.

It really does behoove everyone concerned, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: a pitch meeting is an intimidating situation, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions. Hey, I was merely being honest about the kind of client I would be.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most writers’ conferences feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama: here’s a risk-free chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity, yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch. “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but that’s not really the issue here: this guy is trying to give a mass pitch to everyone on the panel. Universally, this kind of approach-disguised-as-question falls flat on its face.

Why? Manners, my dears, manners. Question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching.

Let me repeat that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the fingertips of the queen of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should NOT be construed as pitch sessions. You may, if you can work up the nerve, walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

Still not convinced? Okay, let’s take a gander at what happens when our misguided friend above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does at every major conference. If the agents are feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward (some other focus entirely)…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience. Like hallway pitching, the response all depends upon the mood and generosity level of the agents approached — and how politely the writer has made the request.

Even if you are Emily Post personified, however, don’t bother with the broadcast pitch approach: it’s not worth the risk. Most likely, the only result will be your getting talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident to the pros? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about how deal memos are constructed: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. (If you have no idea what a deal memo is, you might want to take a gander at the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right. Even aspiring writers who have done their homework often harbor misconceptions about how the process works.)

Second, a manuscript that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now. So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”

Again: not the best idea.

So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for critique.

Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: this type of question will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification. Human nature, I’m afraid.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’, who even at the height of her blog’s popularity enjoyed at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although should you happen to bump into MY agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved. As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us before is wrong.”

Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described; darned useful information.

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” This is a question agents tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names, nodding vigorously to indicate that you either believe that the author mentioned is the best thing to happen to literature since Homer first got the idea of telling the story of the Trojan war or that you are intending to rush to the nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore the instant the conference is over and buy all of that author’s books.

Hey, agents make a living from their clients’ royalties. You think they DON’T mention their clients at conferences partially in order to stimulate some book sales?

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project that was hard to place, but eventually succeeded.

Word to the wise: while it’s tempting to be impressed by the story about how the agent showed a particular manuscript to 43 agents before it got picked up, it’s worth asking the follow-up question, “Is that your regular practice, or did you especially love that book?” It’s not unheard-of for an established agent to recycle a single heroic incident from the very beginning of his career throughout a couple of decades’ worth of writers’ conference panels. What he was willing to do for the best manuscript he ever read back in 1982 isn’t necessarily indicative of how he might handle your book now.

“If I were looking to understand what a great first novel (or first book in your chosen category) would read like from an agent’s point of view, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” Another question that tends to be popular with panelists — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” They’ll like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” This last varies a LOT, but in the last year or so, many fiction agents have been on the look-out for career writers, rather than those with only one great book in them. Asking panelists this question will let you know to whom to mention the other three manuscripts you have sitting in a drawer.

“How much feedback do you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately. Translation: they don’t like to take on unpolished manuscripts, even if they have great market potential.

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.

What was the last book you picked up from a conference pitch and why? What made that pitch stand out to you? The benefits of this question are twofold: it will enable agents to gush about clients whose books have not yet been released (always fun for them), and you might just glean a pitching tip or two.

Do be aware, however, that some agents will respond defensively to this type of question, disliking the implication that they might EVER sign a writer without having read the manuscript in question. The usual deflecting response: “Well, I don’t really judge by the pitch; it all depends upon the writing.”

“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk — and what kinds of comments to you like to see from them?” It can be difficult to get an answer to this question — some agents who normally employ screeners pride themselves on reading requested materials from pitchers themselves — but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.

“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. (Beginning your query, naturally, with the magic words, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XYZ conference…) The responses are usually pretty colorful.

Do you have any automatic red flags for submissions? Any pet peeves we all should avoid? You are well within your rights to ask this one — and everyone in the room will bless you for it. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

Fair warning about the response to this one: it’s very, very common for agents to imply that their individual pet peeves are shared by every other agent currently walking the earth’s crust. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it isn’t.

However, should you EVER hear an agent mention a pet peeve on a panel, scour your work for that problem before you send that agent anything. If an agent makes the effort to warn you, s/he means it.

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, all of the major US publishing houses currently have policies forbidding editors from signing unrepresented writers — a policy of which editors tend to assume that pitchers are already aware. So much so that editors new to conferences are sometimes surprised that writers want to pitch to them. Often, senior editors are at the conference merely to give a class, network, or make connections with the already-established authors that often hang out at their local conferences; they may only have agreed to participate in pitch meetings to fill the time in between. (Hey, it happens.)

Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts. Generally speaking, an editor from a small publishing house is more likely to be able to say yes to a manuscript, but if, for instance, an editor at HarperCollins is given to perusing its online competitive submission site, asking about direct submissions will probably elicit that information.

These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch (in the hallways, probably) on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:

(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with them; your first impression might not be an accurate one.

(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people (see conclusion on previous point).

(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually conducive to popularity, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?

(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients.

Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?

Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?

Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them.

Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this practice does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. Also, many conferences lay down rules barring signing up for extra appointments (unless you pay for them). However, even at such conferences, the eager beaver who happens to be standing by the desk when someone cancels can sometimes nab the extra slot.

A great, great time to do this: immediately after the agents’ forum. Would-be pitchers who have just heard their assigned agents declare from the dais that the appointment was a mismatch are often overjoyed to switch appointments with someone else, or even just cancel their own.

If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to your likely candidates in the hallways. Again, immediately after the agents’ forum is an opportune moment for this.

I felt your chest seize up, but please, don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you.

But if you DO find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query ALL of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.

And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? (Hint: I mentioned it above.)

If you said, “By Jove, you would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query,” give yourself a gold star for the day.

Why is this a dandy idea? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.

Oh, and before I forget: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above. (Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.)

But whatever you do, don’t be a silent wallflower at a writers’ conference: take a few polite risks, and don’t be afraid to approach editors from smaller presses. The Brünnhilde who perpetually saves her voice for the final act has a hard time making a good first impression.

Sing out, Hildy. This could be your big break.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part III: the bare necessities of pitching — and no, I’m not just talking about 3 lines scrawled on the back of a business card


I honestly am trying to wrap up our weeks-long series on formal and informal pitching, but the fact is, if I’m going to talk about getting the most out of (often quite expensive) writers’ conferences, it only makes sense to give a few more practical tips on pitching while I’m at it. So please bear with the absurdly long and complicated titles for a while: labeling discussions as series makes it easier for late-joining readers to follow them in the archives, I’ve found.

Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors? Other than good, strong nerves, an iron stomach, and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. You’ll also want to bring all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not that old.)

I’m already sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details occasionally fall through the cracks.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

All of which is to say: if you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members’ and conference presenters’ work are typically featured.)

Don’t expect to receive discounts on those books, however; because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. Generally, authors will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, if you are struck by a particular agent or editor, you can hardly ask a more flattering question than, “So, are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about horses and flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, often don’t represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day.

By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine. It’s also a great help a month or two after the conference, to help you remember which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast.

On my diagrams, the latter tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just me.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

Why? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Remember, if you find yourself stressed out:

*Take deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis.

*Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

*If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.

*Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.)

*Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

*Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

*If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

*Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Just for the karma.

Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m VERY serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers BEFORE trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.

It’s also not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy, just in case you start to feel queasy. As a fringe benefit, the generous person with the tin of Altoids tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments.

Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.

(It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me, à la Monica Lewinsky. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, we hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible – and no, in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, I think. I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that nice writer with whom you chatted about science fiction at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. (Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns; she’s a well-respected expert on the subject.)

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And no, don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

If the fact that there IS a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because s/he didn’t know what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Keep practicing those pitches, everyone, avoid dehydration like the plague, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part II: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life


I must confess something, dear readers: yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders. At this point in my long and checkered blogging career, I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was ever-so-slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”

I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert. Perhaps especially if.

Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? Of course — which is why I encourage any and all of you to pipe up with questions about pitching, querying, submitting, craft, or whatever else is on your writerly mind. Seriously, I don’t want anybody to take my advice blindly, and I would much, much rather that you asked me than run afoul of Millicent the agency screener down the line.

In case anyone reading this does not already know how to leave a question or comment: all you have to do is click on COMMENTS at the bottom of this post (or any post, for that matter). That will lead you to a simple little form, designed not to annoy you but to help me keep my comment sections spam-free for your reading pleasure. Then just type in your question and hit SUBMIT. Easy as proverbial pie.

To get you in the question-asking mood, I’m going to spend today tackling a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers over the years. (Keep ‘em coming, folks!) In that spirit, I’m going to begin by continuing my thoughts from an earlier post where I, you guessed it, answered a reader’s question.

Late last week, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs or talk about voice choices. It tends to be substantially less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of HOW the story is told, rather than what the story IS.

Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. In fact, one of the points of conference pitching is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility.

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting for a month now. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story of a book with multiple protagonists (or multiple storylines, for that matter), you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present his/her/their story/ies as the book, purely for pitching purposes.

Ooh, that suggestion generated some righteous indignation, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book: it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it.

No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech, any more than he would from a synopsis. If it were possible, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

“But Anne,” the upright whimper, “I don’t want to lie. Won’t I get in trouble for implying that my book has only two protagonists when it in fact has twelve?”

Trust me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over, because frankly, it would require the memory banks of IBM’s Big Blue for a pitch-hearer to recall everything he heard over the average conference period.

Remember last week, when I was talking about pitch fatigue? After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I know, I know: we all want to believe that our pitches are the exception to this — naturally, the agent of our dreams will remember every adjective choice and intake of breath from OUR pitches, as opposed to everyone else’s. But that, my dears, is writerly ego talking, the same ego that tries to insist that we MUST get our requested submissions out the door practically the instant the agent or editor’s request for them has entered our ears.

In practice, it just isn’t so.

And shouldn’t be, actually, in a business that rewards writing talent. Given the choice, it’s much, much better for you if the agent of your dreams remembers that the writing in your submission was brilliant than the details of what you said in your 10-minute meeting.

As to the question of being misleading…well, I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post. For now, let’s move on to the next reader question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet wrote in some time ago to ask how to handle the rather common dilemma of the writer whose local conference happens whilst she’s in mid-revision: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel?” she asked. “Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and the answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.

Chant it with me now, experienced pitchers: they’re going to be too tired to recall every detail by the time they get on the plane to return to New York, much less a month or two from now, when they get around to reading your submission.

Stop deflating, ego — this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

It’s also about our old friend, pitch fatigue. At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season, not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis, and then you can begin to understand just how difficult it would be to retain them all.

I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

But you shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of ANY book pitch is to get the agent or editor to ask to read it, not to buy the book sight unseen. Since that request generally comes within a few minutes of the writer’s uttering the pitch, if it’s going to come at all, what you need to do is wow ‘em in the moment.

Although it IS nice if yours is the pitch that causes an agent to scrawl in her notes, “Great imagery!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been harping so much throughout Pitching 101 about the desirability of including memorable details in your pitch. You have the pitch-hearer’s attention for only a few moments, and 9 times out of 10, she’s going to be tired during those moments. A vividly-rendered sensual detail or surprising situation that she’s never heard before is your best bet to wake her up.

Under the circumstances, that’s not an insignificant achievement. Don’t lessen your triumph by insisting that she be able to reproduce your pitch from memory six weeks hence — or that you need to get those requested materials to her before she forgets who you are.

Accept that she may not remember you by the time she gets on the plane to go home from the conference and trust that she has kept good notes. Then read every syllable of your submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even consider rushing it off to her.

The upside of the short memory span: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. That’s par for the course. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead.

It really is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the manuscript. The most popular proposed omissions: the book’s length and whether it is actually finished on the day of your pitching appointment.

Let me take the second one first, as it’s easier to answer. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is complete, because it would not be possible for an agent to market a partial first novel. In fact, most pitching and querying guides will tell you that you should NEVER pitch an unfinished work.

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. Agented writers pitch half-finished work to their agents all the time, for instance.

Does that mean that you should? Well, it depends. It would most definitely be frowned-upon to pitch a half-finished book that might take a year or two to polish off — unless, of course, the book in question is nonfiction, in which case you’d be marketing it as a book proposal, not as an entire manuscript, anyway.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: nonfiction books are typically sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a memoir; although some agents do prefer to see a full draft from a previously unpublished writer, the vast majority of memoirs are still sold in proposal form.

So I ask you: could you realistically have your novel in apple-pie order within the next six months? If so, that’s not an unheard-of lapse before submitting requested materials. And if you have a chapter of your memoir in terrific shape, could you pull a book proposal together within that timeframe? (For some guidance on what that might entail, please see the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

If the answers to all of those questions are a resounding “No, by gum!” you should consider holding off. Unless, of course, you’d just like to get in some pitching practice while the stakes are still low. But if you are pitching a novel just to get the hang of it (a marvelous idea, by the way), don’t make the mistake of saying that the manuscript isn’t done yet.

It’s considered rude. You’re supposed to have a fiction project completed before you pitch or query it, you know.

Confused? You’re not alone. Like so many of the orders barked at conference attendees, the expectation of market-readiness has mutated a bit in translation and over time. You’re most likely to hear it as the prevailing wisdom that maintains you should have a full draft before you pitch BECAUSE an agent or editor who is interested will ask you for the entire thing on the spot.

As in they will fly into an insensate fury if you’re not carrying it with you at the pitch meeting.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, demanding to see a full or even partial manuscript on the spot doesn’t happen all that often anymore (and the insensate fury part never happened in the first place). 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — or e-mail it.

Seriously, he’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, he’s not going to clear his schedule in anticipation of receiving your submission. I’ll bring this up again when I go over how to prep a submission packet (probably in September; I want to go over query basics first, so PLEASE, if you have pitched within the last few weeks and are impatient to send things off, read through the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET before you drop anything in the mail) but I always advise my clients and students not to overnight anything to an agency or publishing house unless the receiving party is paying the postage.

Yes, even if an agent or editor asks you to overnight it.

I heard that horrified gasp out there, but the fact is, it’s a myth that overnighted manuscripts get read faster — yes, even if the agent asked you to send it instantly. That request is extremely rare, however; most submitters simply assume that they should get it there right away — or that their work will be seem more professional if it shows up in an overnight package.

That might have been true 20 years ago, but here’s a news flash: FedEx and other overnight packaging is just too common to attract any special notice in a crowded mailroom these days.

If you’re worried about speed, Priority Mail (which gets from one location to another within the US in 2-3 days) is far cheaper — and if you write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the package, might actually get opened sooner than that spiffy-looking overnight mail packet.

Besides, even if you did go to the trouble and expense to get your manuscript onto the requester’s desk within hours of the request, it can often be months before an agent reads a manuscript, as those of you who have submitted before already know. Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away.

And that, potentially, means that a savvy writer could buy a little time that could conceivably be used for revision. Or even writing.

Catching my drift here? After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…and pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if they’ve asked for only the first three chapters…

Or, to put it in querying terms: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter…and then ask for the first 50 pages…and that has to get by a couple of screeners before they can possibly ask for the rest?

Starting to get the picture?

There’s no reason not to work those predictable delays into your pitching and querying timeline. Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but let’s face it, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent or editor in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal lesbian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is actually attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and ANNOUNCE that the book isn’t finished yet — and because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry, of the type that agented and published writers employ all the time: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you? And you aren’t completely happy with that, right?

I’m sensing that the hands that shot into the air a dozen paragraphs ago are waving frantically by now. “Um, Anne?” the observant owners of those hands cry. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? I’m going to a conference this weekend — surely, despite what you said above about not needing to overnight my submission, I have to send out requested materials immediately?”

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that it means that it might behoove you to tinker with them (see distinctions amongst types of doneness above) until after the mass exodus from Manhattan is over. Because, really, do you WANT your submission to be the last one Millicent needs to read before she can head out the door to someplace cooler than sweltering New York?

Naturally, there are exceptions to the closed-until-after-Labor-Day norm; many agencies arrange to have one agent remain on-site, in case of emergencies. But since editorial offices tend to clear out then, too, it would be a kind of quixotic time to be pitching a book: even if an editor loved it, it would be well-nigh impossible to gather enough bodies for the necessary editorial meeting to acquire it.

(If all that sounded like Greek to you, and you’re not particularly conversant with the tongue of ancient heroes, you might want to take a gander at the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category on the list at right, as well as the WHEN ARE THE BEST AND WORST TIME TO QUERY? sections.)

The question of whether to mention manuscript length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of submission timing. Or so I surmise, from the response to the inevitable moment at every writers’ conference I have ever attended when some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

And without fail, half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a couple of days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. Currently, first novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format. For the hows and whys of estimation vs. actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

So if your book runs much over that, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401. Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. (For more on this point, please see the rather extensive exchange in the comment section of a recent post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. And if not, you might not want to mention the length in your pitch or query letter.

And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of an instinctive response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously — and often, the pitch or query as well.

If your book IS over or under the expected estimated length for your genre, you will probably be happier if you do not volunteer length information in either your pitch or your query. This is not dishonest — neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front.

I’m not recommending that you actually lie in response to a direct question, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information. Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit. Given the current level of paranoia aimed at memoirists, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it come into fashion.

Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but as far as I know, no major agency actually rejects queries where it’s not mentioned. Some agents will say they like to see it, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — but if your book would fall into either of those categories, is it really in your interest to promote a knee-jerk rejection?

Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Well, the path to glory has never been an easy one, right?

Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXI, and Writers’ Conferences 101, part I: lingering on the right track, or, how not to drive yourself completely insane while preparing to pitch

All right, I’ll cop to it: I could have brought our ongoing series on how to construct various stripes of winning conference pitches to a close last Friday; I had, after all, covered all of the basics of writing both formal and informal pitches. So I could, as promised, launch right into a new series today, showing you how to use the lessons we’ve just learned in pulling together one heck of a query letter.

But I’m not going to do that — at least not today. Why not? Well, I visit conference pitching here on the site only once per year — a long visit, admittedly, of the type that may well make some of you long for the houseguests to go home, already, but still, I don’t talk about it that often.

Perhaps that’s a mistake, since writers’ conference attendance has been skyrocketing of late. Blame the hesitant economy; writing a book is a LOT of people’s fallback position. Interesting, given how few novelists actually make a living at it, but hey, a dream’s a dream.

The problem is, literary conferences can be pretty hard to navigate your first time around — and that’s unfortunate, because the darned things tend not to be inexpensive. Like pitching and querying, there are some secret handshakes that enable some aspiring writers to hobnob more effectively than others, as well as norms of behavior that may seem downright perplexing to the first-time attendee.

Up to and including the fact that there’s more to getting the most out of a conference than just showing up, or even showing up and pitching.

For the next week or so, then, I’m going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of conference attendance, with an eye to helping you not only pitch more successfully, but also take advantage of the often amazing array of resources available to aspiring writers at a good conference. Not to mention feeling more comfortable in your skin while you’re there.

So it’s out with the old series and in with the new. Everybody ready? Goo.

Last week, I brought up a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches. The first and most virulent, of course, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all — in other words, to begin to think of it not just as one’s baby, but as a product you’re trying to sell.

Half of you just tensed up, didn’t you?

I’m not all that surprised. From an artistic perspective, the only criterion for whether an agent or editor picks up a manuscript should be the quality of the writing, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story. For many writers, the burning question of whether a market for the book already demonstrably exists doesn’t even crop up during the composition process; they write because they are writers.

Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to learn that books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. The sad fact is, an aspiring writer must make the case that this is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly, BEFORE anyone in the industry is willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned 1700 times before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers; I merely try to cast them in comprehensible terms for all of you.

If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I evidently still don’t, as nearly as I can tell — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would get thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. Heck, I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue.

I would be THAT generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, however, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry remain mysteries eternal. (Would it kill him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if a writer hopes to get published, the marketing step is a necessity, NO MATTER HOW TALENTED YOU ARE. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would still need to approach many, many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work.

And even if you approach an agent who does in fact ask writers to send pages along with the initial query, instead of by special request afterward (as used to be universal), if the marketing approach is not professionally crafted, chances are slim that those pages will even get read. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1200 queries per week; if Millicent the agency screener isn’t wowed by the letter, she simply doesn’t have time to cast her eyes over those 5 or 10 or 50 pages the agency’s website said that you could send.

No, that’s not being mean; that’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the same imperative to save time usually also dictates form-letter rejections that the querier entirely in the dark about whether the rejection trigger was in the query or the pages. (Speaking of realistic expectations, please tell me that you didn’t waste even thirty seconds of YOUR precious time trying to read actual content into it didn’t grab me, I just didn’t fall in love with it, it doesn’t meet our needs that this time, or any of the other standard rejection generalities. By definition, one-size-fits-all reasons cannot possibly tell you how to improve your submission.)

All of which is to say: please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were REALLY well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Everyone clear on that?

Why am I bringing this up now, at the end of a long, difficult series on cobbling together a pitch? Because unfortunately, unrealistic expectations about the pitching — and querying — process can and do not only routinely make aspiring writers unhappy at conferences the world over, but frequently also prevent good writers from pitching well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Misinformation can really hurt a writer — as can a fearful or resentful attitude. Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD.

Not, as the vast majority of writers believe, and with good reason, a piece of one’s soul ripped off without anesthesia.

So it is a TEENY bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that they should be able to talk about their books in market-oriented terms as evidence that they are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

To clear up any possible confusion: you’re not, and they don’t.

That doesn’t mean the situation doesn’t beg certain questions, however. Why, for instance, do so many pitchers respond to the pros as though they were evil demons sent to earth for the sole purpose of tormenting the talented and rewarding the illiterate? Or why even mention in a pitch or query that the book has been rejected before, or that its author has submitted 700 queries for it already?

Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they HAVE to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering. They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, MOST of them are not just being shallow. My point is, a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

And yes, in response to that question your brain just shouted, aspiring writers DO bring that up in their pitches and queries. All the time. Don’t emulate their example.

This isn’t just poor strategy, I suspect — it’s symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes an author successful. Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

C’mon — you know what I’m talking about; if not, just bring up the issue over a sandwich at your next writers’ conference.

When aspiring writers speak of marketing amongst themselves, it tends to be with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process. But that doesn’t mean it is inherently deadly to artistic integrity — and it doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. Or the query letter.

I know, I know: if you’ve been hanging out at conferences for a while, deep-dyed cynicism about the book market can start to sound a whole lot like the lingua franca. One can get a lot of mileage, typically, out of being the battle-scarred submission veteran who tells the new recruits war stories — or the pitcher in the group meeting with an editor who prefaces his comments with, “Well, this probably isn’t the right market for this book concept, but…”

But to those who actually work in the industry, complaining about the current market’s artistic paucity will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly. Instead, it’s likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage.

Yes, you may well gulp. To an agent’s ears, such complaints tend to sound more like a lack of understanding of how books actually get published than well-founded critique of a genuinely difficult-to-navigate system.

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really: they’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

Yes, you read that correctly — and out comes the broken record again: contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is NOT to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your WRITING, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ASK to see the written pages.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious — especially to those of you who read my comments-in-passing on the subject earlier in this series — outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write.

It’s just not true — but by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing.

But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next on your list.

Does all of that that make you feel any better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it, at any rate, permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

Did I just sense some eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” I hear some chronically sleep-deprived preppers cry, “can’t you read a calendar? I’ve been working on my pitch for WEEKS now. I keep tinkering with it; I know I have the perfect pitch in me, but I can’t seem to bring it out.”

I know precisely what you mean — after staring for so long at a single page of text (which is, after all, what a formal pitch ends up being, at most), it can feel like it’s taken over one’s life.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. As with any revision process, either on one’s own work or others’, one can become a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Let me share an anecdote of the illustrative variety.

A couple of years ago, I went on a week-long writing retreat in another state in order to make a small handful of revisions to a novel of mine. Small stuff, really, but my agent was new to the project and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. (He had taken it over from another agent within my agency — and for the benefit of those of you who just clutched your chests and whimpered that you thought you were getting into a life-long relationship: authors get reassigned within agencies all the time, especially if they write within more than one book category.)

Basically, he wanted it to sound a bit more like his type of book, the kind editors had grown to expect from his submissions. Perfectly legitimate, of course (if it doesn’t sound like that to you, please see both the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK and HOW TO BE AN AGENT’S DREAM CLIENT categories on the list at right before you even consider getting involved with an agent), and I’m glad to report that the revisions went smoothly.

At the end of my week of intensive revision, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many empty bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all, and the retreat did not offer glass recycling, believe it or not) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing truly soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, her daughter pointed out, correctly, that her mother had just broken a commandment and should be ashamed of herself. (Apparently, her school hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I subsequently learned generated a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeated it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t technically correct, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

That’s true in pitching, too, you know. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to the topic at hand, weren’t you?) Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well.

In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to grasp desperately at what few guidelines they are given, following them to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out throughout this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the situation at hand can actually be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result: the causalities of hyper-literalism abound.

Let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on.

Take a nice deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it IS trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. While some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: at a conference, try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally. (Except that one about keeping your query letter down to a single page.)

So those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly.

Yes, you read that one correctly, to: no agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than he will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To recast that in graphic terms, the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words.

Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so. While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

But DO NOT, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

I’m not going to be standing there with a stopwatch, after all, any more than an agent is — and no matter what any writing guru tells you, none of us advice-givers is right 100% of the time. Don’t treat any rule that any of us give you as inviolable.

Seriously, not even mine. While I am fortunate enough to enjoy a large acquaintance in the industry, until I rule the universe, I can pretty much guarantee that no agent or editor, even my own, is ever going to say, “Well, that WOULD have been a great pitch, but unfortunately, it was 17.4 seconds longer than Anne Mini says it should be, so I’m going to have to pass.”

Even if I DID rule the universe (will someone get on that, please?), no one would ever say that to you. It’s in your best interest to adhere to the spirit of my advice on the pitch — or anyone else’s — not necessarily the letter.

How might one go about doing that? Well, remember that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? No? Okay, here it is again:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: sixty- two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance.

That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper, I would go ahead and add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls of the Conference-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for instance, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I would have tried to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds, if I were pinched for time. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the ONLY virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

Pull out your hymnals, everybody, and sing along: if you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the world’s best person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their books), so I can tell you with authority:

Far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

As the song says, spirits high, pulses low. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XX: getting from ho-hum to “Interesting. I’ve never heard that before.”


After yesterday’s post on how to pull everything we’ve learned throughout this series into a formal 2-minute pitch, couldn’t you feel the excitement crackling in the air? The moment nearly brought a tear to the eye: the public rejoiced, the heavens opened, lions and lambs lay down together, and agents all over New York spontaneously flung their arms around the nearest aspiring writer, gurgling with joy.

What, you missed all that? Even the good folks cleaning up the ticker tape parade?

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a trifle. And maybe those of you who aren’t planning to attend a conference and pitch anytime soon didn’t find it all that goosebump-inducing. “Let’s get on with it, Anne,” some nonambulant writers scoffed. “Let’s get back to the type of stuff that writers do at home in the solitude of their lonely studios: writing, rewriting, querying, rewriting some more…”

Patience, oh scoffers: as I MAY have mentioned once or twice in the course of this admittedly rather extensive series, learning to pitch is going to make you a better querier. And perhaps even a better writer, at least as far as marketing is concerned.

Did I just hear the scoffers snort derisively again? Okay, allow me to ask a clarifying question: hands up, every querying veteran out there who now wishes devoutly that s/he had known more about how the publishing industry thinks about books before querying for the first time.

That’s quite a response. Keep ‘em up if you sent out more than five queries before you figured out what your book’s selling points were.


Or, heaven forfend, your book category.

That last one is so common that I decided to spare you the artistic representation, so there would still be room on the page for today’s post. The very idea of querying without knowing makes me cringe: can you even guess which agents to query before you’ve come up with that?

See my point? Not only are many of the same skills required to construct a winning pitch and a successful query letter, but many of the actual building blocks are the same. So I hope those of you who are intending to send out anything remotely resembling a query anytime soon have been paying attention for the last few weeks.

And yes, of course I’m going to walk you through it; would I leave you to apply those lessons on your own?

Rest assured, it’s all part of my evil plan. By the end of Labor Day week, if you’re all very good and do your homework diligently, you should have a niftily revised query letter in hand.

Why are we aiming for the week after Labor Day, you ask? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty hunk of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation from the second week of August through Labor Day. And when they get back, guess what’s piled up high on their already-cluttered desks?

Uh-huh. Might as well hold off until they’ve had a chance to dig through those thousands of piled-up queries.

“But Anne,” I hear some reformed scoffers point out, “why shouldn’t I add my letter to the pile? Won’t they answer them in the order received?”

Well, more or less. However, Millicent the agency screener’s been known to be a mite grumpy until she has cleared enough desk space to set down her latte. Any guesses what the quickest way to clear a desk of queries is?

Wait until the second week of September.

Okay, back to the topic du jour. Last time, I went over the basic format of a 2-minute pitch, the kind a writer is expected to give within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting. Unlike the shorter elevator speech or hallway pitch (and if you remain unclear on those, please see the appropriate categories at right), the formal pitch is intended not merely to pique the hearer’s interest in the book, but to convey that the writer is one heck of a storyteller, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

In case that’s too subtle for anyone, I shall throw a brick through the nearest window and shout: no matter what kind of prose you write, your storytelling skills are part of what you are selling here.

How might a trembling author-to-be pull that off? Basically, by dolling up one’s elevator speech with simply fascinating details and fresh twists that will hold the hearer in thrall.

At least for two minutes.

Because this is a genuinely tall order, it is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by buttonholing like-minded writers at the conference for mutual practice. Otherwise, as I mentioned n passing last time, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes — a fairly standard length for such an appointment — doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association.

This can dangerous, and not just because you may run out of time before you finish your story.

Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of artistic-critical (“What do you think of multiple protagonists in general?”), literary-philosophical (“I wanted to experiment with a double identity in my romance novel, because I feel that Descartian dualism forms the underpinnings of the modern Western love relationship.”), and autobiographical points (“I spent 17 years writing this novel. Please love it, or I shall impale myself on the nearest sharp object.”) that he might bring up talking with another writer.

Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art and theory can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with these people. (A great rule of thumb, incidentally, even if you happen to feel an instant personal rapport with the person across the pitching table. However simpatico this person may be, a pitching situation is not primarily about making friends).

Don’t forget that that the formal pitch is, in fact, is an extended, spoken query letter, and it should contain, at minimum, the same information. And, like any good promotional speech, it needs to present the book as both unique and memorable.

Glad you asked. Time to whip out one of my famous lists of tips.

(1) Emphasize the most original parts of your story or argument
One great way to increase the probability of its seeming both is to include beautifully-phrased telling details from the book, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else. What specifics can you use to describe your protagonist’s personality, the challenges he faces, the environment in which he functions, that render each different from any other book currently on the market?

See why I suggested earlier in this series that you might want to gain some familiarity with what is being published NOW in your book category? Unless you know what’s out there, how can you draw a vibrant comparison?

I sense a touch of annoyance out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” a disgruntled soul or two protests, “I understand that part of the point here is to present my book concept as FRESH, but I’m going to be talking about my book for two minutes, at best. Do I really want to waste my time on a compare-and-contrast when I could be showing (not telling) that my book is in fact unique?”

Well, I wasn’t precisely envisioning that you embark upon a master’s thesis on the literary merits of the current thriller market; what I had in mind was your becoming aware enough of the current offerings to know what about your project is going to seem MOST unique to someone who has been marinating in the present offerings for the last couple of years.

Regardless of HOW your book is fresh, however, you’re going to want to be as specific as possible about it. Which leads me to…

(2) Include details that the hearer won’t be expecting.
Think back to the elevator speech I developed earlier in this series for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: how likely is it that anybody else at the conference will be pitching a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met?

Not very — which means that including these details in the pitch is going to surprise the hearer a little. And that, in turn, will render the pitch more memorable.

(3) Broaden your scope a little.

In a hallway pitch, of course, you don’t have the luxury of including more than a couple of rich details, but the 2-minute pitch is another kettle of proverbial fish. You can afford the time to flesh out the skeleton of your premise and story arc. You can, in fact, include a small scene.

So here’s a wacky suggestion: take fifteen or twenty seconds of those two minutes to tell the story of ONE scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief AND fresh.

Yes, even if the book in question is a memoir — or a nonfiction book about an incident that took place in 512 BC, for that matter. To make any subject interesting to a reader, you’re going to need to introduce an anecdote or two, right? This is a fabulous opportunity to flex your show-don’t-tell muscles.

Which is, if you think about it, why a gripping story draws us in: good storytelling creates the illusion of BEING THERE. By placing the pitch-hearer in the middle of a vividly-realized scene, you make him more than a listener to a summary — you let him feel a PART of the story.

(4) Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story.
Remember, your job is not to summarize the plot or argument; it’s to present it in a fascinating manner.

Leaving the hearer wanting to learn more is a great strategy, because, after all, the point of the pitch is to convince the agent or editor to ask to read the manuscript, right? So focusing on making the premise sound irresistible is usually a better plan than trying to tell the entire story arc.

Don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger at the end of your pitch– scenarios that leave the hearer wondering how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation? work very, very well in this context.

(5) Axe the jargon.
Many pitchers (and queriers) assume, wrongly, that if their manuscripts are about people who habitually use an industry-based jargon, it will make their pitches more credible if that language permeated the 2-minute speech. In fact, the opposite is generally true: terminology that excludes outsiders usually merely perplexes the pitch hearer.

Remember, it’s never safe to assume that any given agent or editor (or Millicent, for that matter) has any background in your chosen subject matter. Use language in your pitch that everybody in the publishing industry can understand (unless, of course, your book is about the publishing industry, in which case you may be as jargon-ridden as you like in your pitch.)

(6) Delve into the realm of the senses.
Another technique that helps elevate memorability is to include as many sensual words as you can. Not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the operation of the senses. As anyone who has spent even a couple of weeks reading submissions or contest entries can tell you, the vast majority of writing out there sticks to the most obvious senses — sight and sound — probably because these are the two to which TV and movie scripts are limited.

So a uniquely-described scent, taste, skin sensation, or pricking of the sixth sense does tend to be memorable. I just mention.

How might you go about this, you ask? Comb the text itself. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some fois gras.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and ask to read the book.

Which leads me to ask those of you whose works are still in the writing phase: are there places in your manuscript where you could beef up the comic elements, sensual details, elegant environmental descriptions, etc., to strengthen the narrative and to render the book easier to pitch when its day comes?

Just something to ponder.

(7) Make sure that your pitch contains at least one detailed, memorable image.
There is a terrific example of such a pitch in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is an executive at a motion picture studio, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell him the film in 25 words or less.

Rather than launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting: he spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

“That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Pitching success!

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free! Give some thought to where your book might offer up the scene, sensual detail, or magnificently evocative sentence that will make ’em do a double-take.

Or a spit-take, if your book is a comedy.

(8) Let the tone of the pitch reflect the tone of the book.
It’s just common sense, really: an agent or editor who likes a particular kind of book enough to handle it routinely may reasonably be expected to admire that kind of writing, right? So why not write the pitch in the tone and language you already know has pleased this person in the past?

A good pitch for a funny book makes it seem entertaining; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer. Similarly, while a good pitch for a romance would make it seem like a fun read, a great pitch might prompt the hearer to say, “Is it getting hot in here?”

Getting the picture?

I’m tempted to sign off for the day to allow all of you to rush off to stuff your pitches to the gills with indelible imagery, sensual details, and book category-appropriate mood-enhancers, but I know from long experience teaching writers to pitch that some of your manuscripts will not necessarily fit comfortably into the template I’ve laid out over the last couple of posts. To head off one of the more common problems at the pass, I’m going to revive a reader’s excellent question about the pitch proper from years past. (Keep ’em coming, folks!)

Somewhere back in the dim mists of time, sharp-eyed reader Colleen wrote in to ask how one adapts the 2-minute pitch format to stories with multiple protagonists — a more difficult task than it might appear at first glance. By definition, it would be pretty hard to pitch it as just one of the characters’ being an interesting person in an interesting situation; in theory, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

So what’s the writer to do? Tell the story of the book in the pitch, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — it has to be, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your pitch, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward pitch brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable pitching time in telling an agent that your book was written in the third person, would you? (In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript.) Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant, concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it?

That something should be the subject of your pitch. Why? Because any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it.

“Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see that, if we want to reduce the discussion to marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my pitch.”

Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, they will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to pitch a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in two minutes doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only pitch that agent or editor has heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re NOT trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone in the pitching session ASK about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important fact about your novel?

Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told. Thus, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your pitch.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to ANY complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the elevator speech above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use the speech above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, they may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place. (Yes, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but nobody in the publishing industry is likely to care about why you wrote a book until AFTER they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: POV choices are a WRITING issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Which is why, in case you are curious, so many agents seem to zone out when a writer begins a pitch (and believe me, many do) with, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

I have a bit more to say on this subject, but I’ve already run long for today. Dig deep for those memorable details, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XIX: now that you have all the building blocks, how about stacking them up into a formal pitch?


No, I didn’t pose that pigeon; she volunteered to be today’s illustration of a book happily inhabiting a niche market atop a well-constructed pitch. It would be a better illustration if there weren’t also bricks above her, of course, but you focus on a medieval bridge, you take your chances, right?

Last time, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you brand-new to pitching appointments to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety pitching room. Why on earth would a sane person do such a thing, you ask? Well, I think it’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.

Why, you ask again? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things waiting for us on the other side of the pitching table. Like, for instance, a pitch meeting’s rocketing us to instant fame within the week, or an agent who says, “I hate your plot, your hairdo, AND your tie!”

Please believe me when I say that in years and years and years of attending conferences as both would-be pitcher and presenter, I have not even heard of either of these extremes coming true in real life. Honest.

As I MAY have hinted a few times over the last couple of weeks, adhering to the common fantasies about what can happen in such meetings both raise expectations and increase fright. Knowledge really is power, at least in this instance. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively — and psych yourself out less in the process.

All of which is to say: if the prospect of pitch preparation appalls you, take heart, my friends — if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.

How is that possible, you cry? Well, for starters, you’ve already wrestled some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching until they lay panting (July 14-16; August 10, gone over how to narrow down your book’s category (July 17, 20, 21), figured out who your target market is (July 21-23), brainstormed selling points for your book (July 23 and 27; August 5) and a platform for you (July 20-22; August 4), and constructed a snappy keynote statement (July 27). We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words (July 28), to keep it pithy with the elevator speech (July 29-August 4), and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a hallway pitch (August 6-7).

Today, with all that under your proverbial belt, we’re going to begin to pull it all together into a two-pronged strategy for a stellar formal pitch: first, you’re going to impress ’em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ’em with your storytelling ability.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Actually, it’s a heck of a lot easier than it sounds, once you understand what a formal pitch is and what you’re trying to achieve with it. To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book, nor is it a summary of the plot, or even a statement of the platform for a NF book.

A formal book pitch is A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also precisely how and why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand this — and once you accept that, within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET FOR YOU — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch is a much, much less frightening moment to contemplate. It’s not an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed BOOK CONCEPT.

Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not. And your hair is fine, I tell you.

What a formal pitch can and should be is the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would.

Why, what a coincidence: if you will be so kind as to cast your eye back over my breakdown of this series above, you will see that you have already defined your work in those terms. Clever you, to be so prepared.

Really, you’re almost there. If it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional short pitch from these elements alone.

Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch (August 6-7), which I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound have already begun practicing on everyone you meet. Out comes the broken record again: it takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a writer talking to other writers.

Why shouldn’t you talk about your work to the pros the way we talk about amongst ourselves? Well, when we’re in creative mode, we speak with other writers about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer? But when we’re in marketing mode, as in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.

It’s time, to put it bluntly, to speak of your book as a commodity that you might conceivably want someone to buy.

Recognizing that is not the first sign of selling out, as so many aspiring writers seem to believe: it’s an absolutely necessary step along the undiscovered (and unpaid) artist’s road to fame, fortune, and large readerships. Or even small ones.

Walking into a conference believing that agencies and publishing houses are primarily institutions devoted to the charitable promotion of good art tends to lead to poor pitching. A savvy pitcher understands that good marketing and good art can are not natural enemies.

How might one go about satisfying the demands of both in a formal pitch meeting? I’m so glad you asked. I feel a theoretical structure about to emerge.

Step I: First, begin with the magic first hundred words:

“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).”

As in a query letter, if you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,

“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult information! That sounds like a jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”

If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,

“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, building upon that expertise. My latest project…”

Everyone on board with that? Good. Let’s press ahead.

Step II: After you finish Step I, with nary a pause for breath, launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc or argument of the book. The resulting equation would look like this:

“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

Again, do NOT tell the entire plot: your goal here, remember, is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels he’s already read it.

Make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. Yes, yes, I know that you learned in English class that it’s spiffy to speak in terms of protagonists and antagonists, as well as to say things like, “At the climax of the book…”, but a verbal pitch is the wrong context to talk about a book as if you were writing an essay about it. It’s distancing, and many pros find it more than a bit pretentious. (True in query letters as well, by the way.)

Here’s an even better reason to identify your protagonist by name: it’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it.

(And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right before your next pitch appointment.)

Step III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell to your intended readership.

If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it:

“I’m excited about this project, because of its (SELLING POINTS). Currently, there are # (TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Voilà : the two-minute pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Now, you could manage those three steps in two minutes, right?

Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, all you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.

I see some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some confused souls point out, “didn’t you say that most scheduled pitch meetings are around 10 minutes long? If that’s the case, why do I have to limit myself to a 2-minute pitch? Couldn’t it be, you know, 3? Or 8?”

Good question, oh confused ones, and here’s the answer: no, because if you went over, there would not be time for subsequent conversation. Or for the agent of your dreams to interrupt you in the course of your speech in order to ask trenchant and enlightening questions.

Or to allow for time for panicking pitchers to take a moment to compose themselves. Aspiring writers aren’t tape recorders, you know, and most agents and editors honestly do want to give ‘em a chance to give their pitches.

So if you will harken back to the description of the average pitch meeting in Monday’s post, the 2-minute pitch usually takes place at the beginning of a pitch meeting. See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?

No? Was there so much going on my account on Monday and above that you forgot to look for a moral hidden in the midst of it all?

Excellent, if so — because that IS the moral: there’s going to be so much going on during your pitch appointment that it’s going to be darned difficult to make even the most elegant story sound fresh and pithy.

Especially if you find yourself, as so many pitchers do, having a meeting under ear-splitting conditions. Remember, a high probability that you — and the agent sitting across the table from you — will be able to hear the other pitches and conversations. It’s easy for a hearer to get distracted, especially after pitch fatigue — the inevitable numbing effect on the mind of hearing many pitches over a short period of time — has started to set in.

Heck, you may find it hard to concentrate on your storyline — and you won’t even be the one who has already heard fifty pitches that day. Counterintuitive as it may seem, buttonholing an agent at a crowded luncheon or after a well-attended seminar for a hallway pitch is often a QUIETER option than giving a 2-minute pitch during a scheduled appointment.

Sad but true, conference organizers are not typically trying to weed out the shy, the agoraphobic, and the noise-sensitive — although that is often the effect of a well-stocked pitching room. It’s just that space is often at a premium at a literary conference — and many conference centers have really lousy acoustics.

Or really good acoustics, depending upon how badly you want to hear the pitcher 20 feet away from you describe his thriller.

So your goal is not merely to make the case that your book is a good one — it is to tell a story so original, in such interesting language, and with such great imagery that it will seem fresh in a pitching environment. (Equally true for fiction and nonfiction, by the way.)

In a frequently chaotic-feeling pitching situation, including vivid, surprising details is the best way I know for a good storyteller to make an exhausted agent sit up and say, “Wait a minute — I’ve never heard a tale like THAT before!”

Does this advice seem just a TOUCH familiar? It should — it’s that old saw show, don’t tell, transplanted off the page and into the pitching environment. The essence of good storytelling, after all, is evocative specifics, not one-size-fits-all generalities. The higher the ratio of one-of-a-kind details to summary in your pitch, the greater the probability of its being memorable.

And terrific.

A forest of hands just shot up in the air again. “But Anne,” some of these wavers protest, “I’m likely to be too nervous to remember the name of my book during my pitch meeting, much less any brilliantly vivid and pithy details I might have thought up in the solitude of my quiet room. Isn’t it just a touch unreasonable to expect me to be able to blurt ‘em out on command?”

Not really — as long as you don’t rely solely on your memory to help you through. There’s no earthly reason not to write out your 2-minute pitch on an index card or piece of paper and have it in front of you throughout the meeting. As I mentioned last time, reading a formal pitch is completely acceptable; if you remember to look up occasionally, no one will fault you for reading your pitch, rather than blurting it out from memory.

That way, you will be sure to hit all of those important points. And to include each and every memorable detail.

And no, you will not get Brownie points for reciting it from memory. This isn’t your 5th grade class’ Americana pageant, and this isn’t the Gettysburg Address — which, incidentally, Abraham Lincoln was too experienced a public speaker to attempt to give from memory.

Actually, at 267 words, the Gettysburg Address is a pretty good length guideline for a formal pitch. It’s also proof positive that it is indeed possible to work expressive language and strong imagery into a 2-minute speech:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Great speech, eh? Ever heard the story about why it’s so short? It wasn’t that Lincoln didn’t have a lot to say — he was scheduled to speak immediately after one of the greatest of living orators, Edward Everett. His light-hearted little lecture lasted for two solid hours.

Who could compete? Lincoln knew better. Rather than fight fire with fire, he did one of the smartest things someone making a speech can do if he wants to be remembered fondly by his hearers: he made his point, and then he stopped talking.

In memory of that excellent strategic choice, let’s add another step to our formula for a formal pitch:

Step IV: once you have gone through all of the steps above, SHUT UP and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.

Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Or even after the agent or editor has said, “Great; send me the first chapter.”

Don’t keep trying to sell your book; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.

It’s in your self-interest, you know. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT?”

A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more — and a good salesperson knows when to take yes for an answer.

Most of us have been turned off by a too-hard sell in other contexts, right? If your primary concern in choosing a vehicle is the gas mileage, you’re going to start to feel impatient if the car dealer keeps rattling off details about how many bags of groceries you could fit in the trunk.

Besides, by rambling, you’ll be missing out on a golden opportunity to demonstrate what a good listener you are. Remember, you’re not only trying to convince the agent or editor that your book is well-written and interesting — you’re also, if you’re smart (and I know you are), attempting to convey that you’d be an absolute dream to work with if they signed you.

I don’t know why this point so seldom comes up in pitching classes or in agent and editor Q&As at conferences, but being a considerate, careful listener is a definite selling point for a writer. So is the ability to ask thoughtful questions and an understanding that agents and editors in fact have jobs that are extraordinarily difficult to do well.

Treating them with respect during your pitch session will go a long way toward demonstrating that you have been working those delightful skills.

Why, there’s yet another coincidence: if you’ve been following this series from the very beginning, you have been building the knowledge base to handle your pitch encounters as professional meetings, not as Hail Mary shots at a nearly impossible target to hit. You’ve done your homework about the people to whom you are intending to pitch (or query), so you may speak to them intelligently about their work; you have performed a little market research, so you may discuss your target market and sales trends for your type of book; you have figured out why people out there will want to buy your book and no other.

Okay, you’ve caught me: I’ve been pursuing a dual agenda here. I’ve not only been helping you prepare to pitch, but I’ve been pushing you to develop the skills that will make you a great client for an agency and a wonderful writer for a publishing house.

Call me zany, but I like win-win outcomes.

Next time, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XVIII: we’re winding up for the pitch — wait, watch out for that tree!


Gather around, ladies and gentlemen, and a drum droll, please: here comes the attraction for which you have all been waiting so patiently. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch itself, the full 2-minute marketing statement a writer is expected to give in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor.

Goosebump-inducing, isn’t it?

Don’t worry; you’re up for it. So far in this series, we’ve been learning how to describe our work in terms that make sense to the publishing industry, as well as how to benefit from an impromptu pitch opportunity. Now, we’re going to wade hip-deep into the construction of the industry standard pitch, the 2-minute variety.

As in the kind you are going to want to give at an honest-to-goodness, meet-’em-in-the-flesh appointment with an agent or editor at a conference.

True to form in this series, I’m going to begin today not by telling you immediately how to do a pitch right, but by pointing out what the vast majority of 2-minute pitchers do wrong. Here’s the most popular faux pas — or, to echo the title of this post, WATCH OUT FOR THAT TREE!

crooked-tree(1) As with the keynote and the elevator speech, most pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot.

A tough job, for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level, as any experienced pitcher can tell you. No wonder so many pitchers just start at page one and keep retailing details of the plot until the agent says gently, “Um, your appointment time is up.”

By which point, naturally, the pitcher has made it all the way to page 42. Which leads me to another low-hanging branch to avoid:

lonely-tree(2) Most pitchers don’t stop talking when their pitches are done.

A 2-minute pitch means just that: the pitcher talks for two minutes about her manuscript. Possibly a bit more, if the agent or editor interrupts to ask questions (which is a GOOD sign, people — don’t freeze up if it happens), but the pitch itself should not run longer.

Why? Well, among other things, to keep a writer from rambling. And why do writers tend to ramble, other than pure, unadulterated nervousness?

trees-without-leaves(3) The vast majority of conference pitchers neither prepare adequately nor practice enough.

Now, if you have been working diligently through this series, you shouldn’t fall prey to the first problem, but I’ve noticed over the years that my magic wand seems to have lost the ability to compel my students to say their pitches out loud to 25 non-threatening human beings before they even dream of trying it out on a big, scary, Bigfoot-like agent.

Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating about the Bigfoot part. Or maybe I wasn’t: having spent years holding first-time pitchers’ hands at writers’ conferences, I’m not entirely sure that some of them would have been more terrified if they were about to be trapped in a room with a yeti.

Why? Well…

negative-tree(4) Most pitchers harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of memorizing their pitches, and thus do not bring a written copy with them into the pitch meeting.

This one drives me nuts, because it is 100% unnecessary; no reasonable human being, much less an agent, is going to fault a writer for consulting his notes in a pitch meeting. Or even reading the pitch outright.

This is not an exercise in rote memorization, people; it’s a communication between two individuals about a manuscript. Everyone concerned loves books — so why on earth would an agent or editor object to a demonstration that you can read?

More to the point, having the text (or at least an outline) of what you want to say is not only acceptable — it’s a grand idea. It’s smart. Its time has come.

It’s also a good idea to invest some pre-pitching energy in ramping down the terror level, because, let’s face it, this is a scary thing to do. Not because a writer might muff any of the technical aspects of pitching, but because of what’s at stake.

green-tree(5) Most pitchers don’t realize until they are actually in the meeting that part of what they are demonstrating in the 2-minute pitch is their acumen as a storyteller. If, indeed, they realize it at all.

Raises the stakes something awful, doesn’t it? Relax — it isn’t as hard as it sounds, as long as you avoid Tree #1, the temptation to summarize.

Rightly understood, the 2-minute pitch is substantially more intriguing than a mere summary: it’s an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are a gifted storyteller.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?

I’m going to assume that giant gasp I just heard was the prelude to a yes. Let’s get to work.

While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (a good secondary use for an elevator speech, as I mentioned a few days back), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book.

Wait — is that another tree I see heading straight for us?

joshua-tree(6) Few pitches capture the voice of the manuscript they ostensibly represent.

Often, running afoul of Tree #6 is the result of getting bonked on the head of Tree #1: most pitchers become so obsessed with trying to stuff as many plot points as humanly possible into their limited time face-to-face with the agent that they abandon voice altogether. As is often (unfortunately) true of synopses, summary for its own sake is seldom conducive to graceful sentence.

Here’s an idea: rather than talking about the book, why not use the 2-minute pitch as your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it?

To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.

Hey, look out for that –

desert-trees(7) Very few pitches include intriguing, one-of-a-kind details.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right. Why not instruct me to tap-dance, wave sparklers, and paint an oil painting at the same time? In two minutes, I’ll barely have time to brush the edges of my plot with generalities!”

That’s an understandable response, but actually, cramming a pitch with generalities is a rather poor strategy. It’s the unholy fruit of tangling with Tree #1.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, especially within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches that are pretty much all going to be told chronologically.

Strong imagery, on the other hand, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”

To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, come with me now into a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room. For the benefit of those of you who have never experienced one first-hand, let this serve as a warning: if you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.

If not actually stunned, because…

snowscape-tree(8) Most pitchers assume that a pitch-hearer will hear — and digest — every word they say, yet the combination of pitch fatigue and hectic pitch environments virtually guarantee that will not be the case.

Don’t take it personally. It honestly is the nature of the beast.

In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, more and more so as the day goes on. But while it’s not at all uncommon for an appointment booked for 4 PM not to commence until 5:23, obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest his agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales.

The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed people. Not typically an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.

Eventually, the writer will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where s/he is expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who in all probability has drunk FAR more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand, possibly to counteract the lingering effects of that big party the conference’s organizers were kind enough to throw for them the night before.

I don’t mean to frighten the timid by bringing that last detail up, but it’s actually not beyond belief that you might be seated close enough to the pitch recipient to smell the coffee on her breath. Or the vodka leaching out of her pores.

Heck, you might be close enough to take a whiff of all kinds of people. At a big conference, other pitchers may be close enough for our hero/ine to reach out and touch; one may need to speak in a near-shout to be audible; indeed, at some conferences, the pitchers simply move one seat to the right (or left, depending upon how the room is set up) to pitch to the next agent or editor.

It’s rather like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. In this relaxing environment, the writer introduces him or herself to the agent(if s/he remembers to, that is), and then spends approximately two minutes talking about the book. Then — brace yourself for this — the agent responds to what the writer has said.

Possibly even while the writer was saying it. Which leads us right into the path of another tree — or perhaps a thicket.

white-trees(9) Few pitchers are comfortable enough with their pitches not feel thrown off course by follow-up questions.

Oh, you thought it was an accident that I’ve kept bringing up this possibility every few days throughout this series? Au contraire, mon frère: I was inoculating you against shock.

If a writer is prepared to have an actual conversation about her book, this part of the pitch meeting can be, if not actually pleasant, than at least informative. The agent might ask a question or two, to try to figure out how the manuscript might fit into his agency’s current needs; at this point, a writer may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.

But sometimes — I’m not going to lie to you — the first response is to say that she doesn’t handle that type of book, or that kind of story isn’t selling well right now, or any of a million other reasons that she isn’t going to ask to see pages. (Yes, they will usually tell you why; generic pitch rejections are not as common as form-letter rejections.)

Either way, at some point in the meeting, the agent is going to tell the writer whether the book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. She’s NOT saying whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can SELL it.

You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually thirsty leech. In fact…

fruit-tree(10) Far too many pitchers labor under the false impression that if an agent or editor likes a pitch, s/he will snap up the book on the spot. In reality, they’re going to want to read the manuscript first.

Believing otherwise only makes aspiring writers unhappy. Realistic expectations are the most important things you can carry into a pitch meeting.

In that spirit, let me alert you to two things that will NOT happen under any circumstances during your pitch meeting, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just on the strength of the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing, period. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until a contract is actually signed documenting it.

Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you have ever thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.

The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.

It just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. The purpose of the pitch is NOT to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see what a good writer you are.

Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: nice to be offered, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.

So once again, I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting.

Here is a realistic best-case scenario:

cakeIf the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her business card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for nonfiction, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

MAIL is the operative term here. A request to see pages should NEVER be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot.

Seriously. Not even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed or e-mailed) rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)

Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago, for the most part, or who have not tried to land an agent recently — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. This is WILDLY outdated advice, sort of like advising a 16-year-old nervous about taking her driver’s license test to bring along a buggy whip, in case the horse gets restless.

Just say neigh.

At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, she will have a few pages in mind, not 300. (If you’d like to be prepared for this eventuality, the first five pages of a book is a fairly standard writing sample. You could also use the first few pages of a favorite scene.)

In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by her interest, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail as soon as it’s feasible.

In the interests of covering the gamut of reasonable expectations, I’m afraid I must, at least briefly, take us on a walking tour of the other logical possibility: it’s imperative to understand what a no means as well.

(I’d number that, too, but I’ve run out of tree pictures. What, you thought they just grew on…oh, never mind.)

When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is NOT always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely hear both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…

Getting the picture? Rejection is very, very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower.

Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.)

If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work. (For more tips on handling a mismatched meeting, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Is your mind reeling, trying to picture this situation in full and vivid detail? Good; that means you’re grasping its complexity.

Don’t panic; you can avoid the wicked trees with relative ease. Over the next few days, I am going to give you a template for presenting your story — fictional or not — in a vivid, exciting, memorable manner. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.

Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XV: originality, moxie, and other traits exhibited by the successful hallway pitcher


For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the dreaded elevator speech, a.k.a. the heart of the kind of informal pitch a writer might give for her book outside of a formal meeting at a conference. She might have an opportunity to say it at a luncheon, for instance, when an off-duty agent or editor sitting across the table asks, “So what do you write?” Or just after the agent of her dreams gives a talk, after waiting patiently until the crowds of other informal pitchers die down around her. Or, as I have had to do, at 4 am while fending off the not-at-all professional advances of a senior editor at a major NYC publishing house.

Hey, when one’s agent is at one’s elbow, hissing, “Give him your pitch,” one obeys. Then one gets the heck out of there.

Since informal pitches are generally given on the fly and under less-than-ideal circumstances, they take some guts to give. Let’s face it, not every writer has the pure, unadulterated moxie to stop a well-known agent in a conference hallway and say, “Excuse me, but I’ve been trying for two days to get an appointment with you. I’m sorry to bug you, but could you possibly spare thirty seconds to hear my pitch?” And, frankly, not every conference organizer is going to be thoroughly pleased with the writers who do it.

Allow me to let you in on a little professional secret, though: if you did an anonymous poll of agented writers who found representation by pitching at conferences, most of them would tell you that they’ve engaged in hallway pitching. Statistically, it makes perfect sense: the more agents to whom one pitches, the greater one’s probability of being picked up — in the signed-by-an-agent sense, mind you; stop thinking about that editor at that nameless publishing house — and at most conferences that offer pitch meetings, writers are given only one or two appointments. Simple math.

Next time, I shall be talking about how to make the actual approach for a hallway pitch, because it requires a certain amount of finesse not to end up as the subject of an anecdote about how pushy aspiring writers can be. Today, however, I want to bring up another common trait of the successful hallway pitcher: originality.

As I pointed out a couple of days ago, the first commandment of a winning elevator speech is THOU SHALL NOT BORE. Actually, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any pitch, query letter, or submission, but if a hallway pitch is snore-inducing, the results are instantly fatal.

Not boring is a while lot harder than it sounds, you know. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most 3-line pitches sound a great deal alike, at least to someone who has been hearing them for three days straight. The structure is, as you may have noticed, awfully darned restrictive. No wonder the people who hear them for a living tend to remember my students: the mere fact of their introducing themselves is out of the ordinary.

Add to that all of the pitches for books that sound suspiciously like the big bestseller from two years ago, as well as the ones that lift plots, character traits, and situations from movies, TV shows, pop culture, and good, old-fashioned clichés, and is it still surprising that pitches start to blur together in the hearer’s mind after a startlingly short while?

Hands up, anyone who still doesn’t understand why that agent who requested the first fifty pages of a manuscript last Saturday might not recall the details of the pitch today.

Is that abject terror I’m sensing creeping around out there, or have the trees outside my window suddenly taken up moaning for fun and profit? “Gee, Anne,” the newly nervous pipe up, “I had no idea that part of the goal of my pitch — 3-line or otherwise — was to strike the agent or editor as original. Now I’m quaking in my boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and cry, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath. Remember, no agent or editor can possibly judge the quality of your writing solely through a verbal pitch, so even in the unlikely event that a pro said something like that to your face, it would be a response to your book’s premise or plot as you have just presented it, not to the book itself. As practically everybody in the industry is fond of saying, it all depends on the writing.

And I have even more good news: if you can make your elevator speech resemble your narrative voice, it is far, far more likely to strike the hearer as original.

Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advising you to work with your elevator speech or pitch until it sounds like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. Or like a pitch for a book that’s already on the bestseller list.

Was that giant thud I just heard the sound of the jaws of all of you who have attended conferences before hitting the floor? “But Anne,” these astonished souls protest, cradling their sore mandibles, “you’re got that backwards, don’t you? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard agents and editors say at conferences, ‘Oh, THAT kind of book isn’t selling anymore.’ Wouldn’t it be better strategy for me to imply that my book is just like something that is selling well right now?”

Well, yes, if your manuscript actually is similar to a current bestseller. Even if you find yourself in this position, though, you’re going to want to figure out what makes your book original — any agent who represents those types of books will have been inundated with carbon copies of that bestseller since about a month after it hit the big time.

Seriously, do you have the slightest idea how many YA vampire books Millicent the agency screener currently sees in any given week?

In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else — to be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually AT LEAST a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY? Or even the next DA VINCI CODE?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

That’s as true of a pitch as it is for a novel or memoir, you know. A generic pitch isn’t going to show off an honestly original voice, or even a fresh story — it’s just going to sound like two-thirds of the other pitches an agent or editor has heard that day.

See why I so discourage writers I like from embracing the ubiquitous 3-line pitch formula? The way that new pitchers are typically encouraged to do it tends to flatten original stories. Squashes some of ‘em flat as pancakes, it does.

“Wait just a minute,” the chorus of conference-goers pipes up again. “I’m confused. We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks here about making my book project sound marketable. So if I make it sound like something that’s already a bestseller, why won’t that give my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is going to come across as derivative. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is why those periodic experiments where some wag tries to query and submit the first five pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in order to demonstrate that good writing no longer stands a chance are not actually measuring agents’ responses to high-quality writing. At this point in literary history, the first five pages of any Jane Austen novel would strike any literate Millicent as being derivative of Jane Austen.

Not that quite a few authors haven’t made a killing in recent years being derivative of Jane Austen, mind you. So much so that even copying her style has been done.

The second answer is that what is already in print isn’t necessarily indicative of what agents and editors are looking for NOW. (If you’re not sure why, I refer you back to that section above where I talked about the usual lapse between acquisition and publication.) The third answer — I’ll throw this one in for free — is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice, so copying it is going to seem even less fresh.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers, take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing IS good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege.)

I still seem to be standing, so allow me to continue: books get published for all kinds of reasons. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction in the five years before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

To have a voice is to take a SIDE. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option. In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices fit with all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write. Nor would it best serve my literary purposes to pitch my fiction in the same voice as my memoir.

For instance, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was too young to purchase alcohol legally, as it happens), for heaven’s sake, as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

I digress, however. My point is that just as there are millions of different ways to tell any given story, there are millions of different ways to pitch it. Tone, voice, vocabulary choice, rhythm — a skillful writer may play with all of these tools in order to alter how a reader or pitch hearer receives the story.

Speaking of stories, let me tell you one that you may find enlightening.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right? Not so.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name.” The combination of the rain noisily battering the phone booth and the angry mob urging me not to impinge upon their territory rendered his response inaudible. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

He had to shout his response three times before I could understand what he was saying. ”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

In other words, presenting the story in the same flat, just-the-fact voice that dogs the average conference pitch. You’d be surprised at how many pitches for interesting, imaginative books come across with all of the stylistic verve of a police report.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story, compressed into a standard 3-line pitch:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby and tells the clerk she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity, but the manager confirms the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman suspects that she might not be in the right place and telephones the editor who sent her there.

Not the pinnacle of colorful, is it? It’s the same story, essentially, but an agent or editor hearing this second account and think, “Gee, this story might have potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story. I think I’ll pass.”

Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

I might not garner precisely the same reactions if I pitched this story in the style of a well-known writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same.

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire, doesn’t it? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing over how often aspiring writers pitch and submit books that bear suspicious similarities to theirs.

To an experienced pitch-hearer, the resemblance doesn’t have to be too overt for the kinship to be obvious, if you catch my drift. You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

All that being said, I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting some agents’ and editors’ attention, at least on the Hollywood hook level:

My memoir is ANGELA’S ASHES, but without all of that pesky poverty!”

“My chick lit manuscript is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!”

“The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”

However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copycats may sell in the short term — as anyone who amused herself in the first half of this year by counting just how many YA vampire novels US publishers acquired in any given week — for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

That’s as true for a pitch as for a manuscript, you know. Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a pitch is: three days after an agent has heard it, will he remember it on the airplane back to New York? Even if the storyline escapes him, will he remember the interesting way in which the pitcher told it, the narrative voice, the details he’d ever heard before?

In 99% of 3-line pitches, the answer is no. Partially, that’s the fault of the flattening format. Partially, it isn’t.

So at the risk of boring you, allow me to repeat the advice I’ve been hawking for the last couple of posts: the best use of your pre-pitching time — or pre-querying time — is to figure out precisely how your book is different from what’s currently on the market, not trying to make it sound like the current bestseller. A fresh story told in an original manner is hard for even the most jaded pro to resist.

Provided, of course, it’s presented in a professional manner. Next time, I’ll give you some tips on how to give a hallway pitch without impinging upon the hearer’s boundaries. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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!

+ +

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!