Pitchingpalooza, part XXII: and then there’s the finesse part, or, the advantages of lingering on the right track

My apologies for the unexpected mid-series hiatus; I honestly had not anticipated that Pitchingpalooza would carry us into September. (Especially as I have some genuinely juicy treats in store for you over Labor Day weekend.) Blame the muses’ notoriously perverse sense of humor for arranging to have two — count ‘em, two — of my editing clients’ acquiring editors announcing that they were moving on to pastures new last week. Everyone concerned wishes them happy trails, of course, but with a certain amount of trepidation: with any changing of the editorial guard inevitably comes changed expectations for the handed-over manuscript.

Okay, I’m not entirely clear on what that massive collective gasp of horror out there in the ether meant. Were some of you unaware that in recent years, it has become not at all uncommon for the acquiring editor not to remain with the publishing house long enough to see a book she just loved as a submission all the way through the publishing process? Or was the shock — and I suspect it was — that editors will often ask for major changes in manuscripts after they have acquired them, for both fiction and nonfiction?

Oh, I’m sorry; I should have warmed all of you memoirists out there before I sprung that last bit, especially those of you who have been slaving over the Annotated Table of Contents in your book proposals in anticipation of a post-Labor Day submission blitz. I know that you have been working hard, trying to cobble together a plausible and entertaining story arc in a series of chapter summaries — so it may well be dispiriting to hear that it’s far from rare for an acquiring editor, or even an agent offering representation to a nonfiction author, to tell the point-blank that some of those chapters will need to go. Or that others should be added.

Starting to make more sense now that nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a completed manuscript? While most of the book is theoretical, it’s easier to conceive of changing it.

Yes, even if the writer believes that it is already finished. No matter how complete a memoir or nonfiction book may be in the author’s mind, from a publishing perspective, everything is up for negotiation until it is actually in print and sitting on a bookstore shelf. What is and isn’t finished is the publisher’s call, not the author’s. That assumption pervades the submission stage, and even the pitching/querying stage of a proposal’s progress. From the acquiring editor’s point of view, the proposal is essentially a job application: the writer is making the case that she is the best person currently wandering this terrestrial sphere for the publishing house to hire to write that particular book.

See why I’ve spent this series urging all of you nonfiction writers to spend this series thinking about your platform, and figuring out ways to work it into your pitch?

I sensed all of you novelists relaxing over the course of the last couple of paragraphs, but perhaps you shouldn’t have: agents and editors ask fiction writers to change their manuscripts all the time, too, even absent an editorial changing of the guard. Little things, usually, like whether the ending of the book is dramatically satisfying or whether a complex literary voice constitutes overwriting or is just right.

And while we’re massaging the text, need the protagonist’s sister be gay? Or a deep-sea fisherperson with marked propensities toward disestablishmentarianism?

Oh, you may laugh, but with the high turnover at publishing houses these days, a savvy writer needs to be prepared to be flexible. Just don’t modify your only electronic copy of your original manuscript; it’s not beyond belief that the editor who takes over tomorrow from the person who took over yesterday will like the same things about your book that the acquiring editor did.

Are your heads spinning, campers? Good: you’re in a perfect mindset to think about conference pitching.

After the last couple of Pitchingpalooza posts we talked about 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, 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? Allow me to ask a clarifying question, smarty-pantses (astute slacksers?): 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.

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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.

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Or — sacre bleu! – your book’s 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 the rest of today’s post. The very idea of querying without knowing makes me cringe: how can you even guess which agents to query before you’ve come up with that?

Which is precisely why it’s a good idea for even writers who would never dream of pitching their books in person to learn how to do it. 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.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that?

Rest assured, it’s all been part of my evil plan. After Labor Day, we are going to delve once again into the wonderful world of querying. After a few well-deserved treats and perhaps a couple of short forays into craft, of course.

Why wait until 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.

Trust me, you certainly have time to ponder the mysteries of pitching, glean a few insights, and think about your book’s selling points before our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will wade her way through the backlog. Heck, you would also have time for a mastoid operation and a trip to the Bahamas; for a good week or two into September, Millie’s going to need be rejecting at a speeded-up clip, just to get through the backlog. Not to mention the thousands of queries that will dumped on her desk just after Labor Day, because so many aspiring writers had heard that they shouldn’t query in August.

I can already feel some of you gearing up to query up a storm that weekend, but honestly, you might want to hold off for a week or two. And whatever you do, do not send an e-mailed query over a long weekend; the probability of getting rejected skyrockets.

Why, you shriek in horror? Millie’s inbox overfloweth on pretty much any Monday, because writers tend to have more time on the weekends. Labor Day weekend is especially popular, because so many of you have been tapping your toes impatiently, waiting for agencies to become populated again. By restraining yourself until, say, Wednesday, your e-mailed query

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

Well, more or less. However, Millie’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. At least.

In the meantime — which is to say: for the next few days — I want to round off Pitchingpalooza with some in-depth discussion of how to navigate a writer’s conference. Yes, yes, I know, we’ve been talking about conferences for the last month, but be fair:: I visit the topic only once per year. It’s been a long visit this time, 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.

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. So 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.

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 — and writers write.

Is anyone but me sick of that well-worn tautology, by the way? Is it actually any more profound than saying that spelunkers explore caves, or that orchard-tenders have been known to pick the occasional apple?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. An aspiring writer must make the case that her book is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly. And, as many a pitcher and querier knows to her sorrow, she will need to make that case before anyone in the industry be willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1704 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 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 receive 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 — or soy milk to the lactose-intolerant. I might even spring for wandering pixies wielding juicers, to bring orange, mango, and kale juice to a neighborhood near you.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago was so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue. And I would be able to issue all of you well-meaning aspiring writers who think unpunctuated dialogue looks nifty on the page a blanket pardon, so Millicent would not be allowed to reject you on the grounds that you evidently don’t know how to punctuate dialogue.

I would be that generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry are likely to remain mysteries eternal. (What harm would it have done 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: no matter how talented you are, if you hope to get published, the marketing step is a necessity. 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 your work would stand a much, much better chance if you talk about it in the language of the industry.

That’s true, incidentally, even if you approach an agent whose submission guidelines 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.

Oh, there you go, gasping again, but honestly, this is a simple matter of logistics. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week. If Millicent 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.

That’s not being mean. That’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the 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 of 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. 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. Operating on misinformation can genuine 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 for the high-browed: you should, and they don’t.

Why 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? 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, should you care to know it: 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. Heck, it’s not all that unusual for a pitcher to mention that the book has been rejected before, and how often.

Don’t emulate their example. Trust me on this one: it’s not going to make your book seem more market-ready to bring up that you’ve already queried it 700 times.

That isn’t just poor strategy — 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. This is a real, vitriol-stained topic in writers’ circles.

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. It also 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 social mileage 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…”

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. The pros just hear it too often. As a result, such complaints are 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, writers who complain about how much harder it is to get one’s work read than even ten years ago — it’s not your imagination — tend to sound, well, naïve. Of course it’s hard to break into the business; simple math dictates that.

“What does your perhaps well-founded critique of how the industry works have to do with whether I want to read your manuscript?” the pros murmur as writers lecture them on how it really should be easier. “I’m sitting right here — wouldn’t this time be better spent telling me what your book is about?”

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.

If your pitch convinces them that your work falls into that category, then they will ask to see pages. 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 manuscript pages or a proposal.

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 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 prospect on your list.

Does any of that that make you feel better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it at least 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. 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 (having inherited it when my original agent went on maternity leave) and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. 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) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a not entirely flattering 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 example, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being berated in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that 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. Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep. 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.

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, as I have pointed out throughout this series, is that not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable to their individual situations, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to the wrong rules can be a serious liability.

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

Since not all of you are nodding sagely, allow let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night because her prepared pitch is four sentences 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, but stress has turned his brain into Swiss cheese. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes — but has 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; naturally, the writer hears this as no one is looking to acquire your kind of book any more.

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, the truisms all of these individuals have shared will have bounced around, mutating like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone. That, combined with days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher utters being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. And if a writer has a sound analytical mind, he is apt to notice that a heck of a lot of those rules are mutually contradictory.

Take a nice, deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you. 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 will be fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

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. 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 she 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 pitchers’ 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 enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Thus the term. The elevator speech should be sufficiently brief 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 curtailed 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, put that energy to good use: 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.

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, any more than an agent is. And 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?

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 magic first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls, 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.

Brevity 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. 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-equipped 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 author around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their book — so I can tell you with authority: far more pitches 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, keep those spirits high, pulses low. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXI: learning from the masters, or, how to get to “Wow, I’ve never heard that before.”

Wouldn’t you have assumed, campers, that yesterday’s little foray into obscure editorial pet peeves would have worked some nit-picking vim out of my system? Not so, apparently. This evening, my dinner companion and I made the mistake of allowing the waitress in our neighborhood sushi place to seat us near a comely matron lecturing her rather obnoxious college-age daughters. They lectured right back at her, sometimes simultaneously. All three spoke in tones that, while perhaps not quite capable of waking the dead, would at least prompt the critically wounded to drag themselves bodily into another room, if not another county, in order to escape the non-stop barrage of chatter.

And you know how I’m always pointing out that while realistic dialogue is wonderful on the page, real-life dialogue tends to be stultifying, due to its tendency to repeat itself? Had this trio been providing the listen and repeat audio for a college language lab, they could hardly have reused phrases more. Adding to the fun, the younger daughter had such an unparalleled gift for cliché that the average greeting card would have found her observations unbearably banal.

Since carrying on a conversation at our table was hopeless, I did what any self-respecting editor would have done: toyed with my asparagus tempura and mentally trimmed entire paragraphs out of the dialogue blasting through the restaurant. I was busily engaged in running a mental red pencil line through the younger daughter’s third “you can’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins” of the evening when the mother’s monologue veered abruptly into a discussion of DON QUIXOTE.

Frankly, I thought that I was dreaming (speaking of clichés). Although the lady seemed to have trouble recalling author’s name, her analysis was surprisingly trenchant — so much so that I almost stopped editing it. (The younger daughter’s frequent observation that the book was a classic still had to go, however.) She began talking about how a young friend of hers had responded to the book. It sounded as though they might have been reading it together.

She referred to her co-reader as — oh, I tremble to relate it — her mentee. As in the person who sits at the feet of a mentor, drinking in wisdom.

I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Protégé,” I said, loudly enough to be heard over the ambient din. “You mean protégé. Unless, of course, you are referring to the Mentor of classical myth, in which case the student would be Telemachus.”

Dead silence from the other table, but several other diners spontaneously burst into applause. The mother waved frantically at the waitress for her check.

As they left, glaring at me viciously, I thought about informing them that the author of DON QUIXOTE was Miguel Cervantes. But as he wrote the immortal line, “A closed mouth catches no flies,” I thought better of it.

See to what extremes a life of editing drives otherwise perfectly reasonable people? Naturally, I was aware that the mother had not coined the term mentee on the spot; based on her highly redundant anecdotal style, she lacked the essential creativity to add a new word to the language. It’s one of those annoying business-speak terms that has somehow worked its way into everyday speech. I might have let it pass had the speaker and her progeny not spent half an hour boring me and everyone else in the restaurant to the verge of extinction.

That level of touchiness is roughly what the average pitch-hearer reaches by the tenth or twelfth similar pitch of the conference. By the fiftieth or sixtieth, she’s not only ready to correct the verbal gaffes of passersby — she’s praying that some kind muse will take pity on her and drop an anvil on her head. Anything, so she does not have to listen to yet another cliché-ridden summary of a plot that sounds suspiciously like the first TWILIGHT book.

Chant it with me now, campers: the first rule of pitching is thou shalt not bore. The second is the pitcher is there to hear your original ideas and language. Stock phrases, no matter how apt, are unlikely to make your premise shine; a description so general that your book will merge in the hearer’s mind with a dozen others is not the best way to make yours memorable.

You’re a writer, are you not? Is there a reason that your pitch should not demonstrate that you have some talent in that direction?

Why, we were just talking about that, weren’t we? 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, 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 demonstrate those skills? Basically, by dolling up her elevator speech with simply fascinating details and fresh twists that will hold the hearer in thrall.

At least for two minutes. After that, the agent’s going to have to ask to read your book to find out what happens.

Because sounding scintillating to the pitch-fatigued 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 in passing last time, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting.

Frankly, the length of the pitch appointment typically doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association. Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of free-form discussion he might have with another writer. All too often, pitchers will digress into artistic-critical questions (“What do you think of multiple protagonists in general?”), literary-philosophical issues (“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 observations (“I spent 17 years writing this novel. Please love it, or I shall impale myself on the nearest sharp object.”) .

Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art and theory can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with this agent or that editor. For now, your job is to wow ‘em with the originality of your book concept, the freshness of your approach, and the evocative language of your pitch.

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

Oh, you would like to know how to go about that, would you? 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 right now in your book category? Unless you know what’s out there, how can you draw a vibrant contrast?

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 exercise 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 unusual to someone who has been marinating in the present offerings for the last couple of years.

Regardless of how your book is fresh, 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 talks philosophy 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 render any subject interesting to a reader, you’re going to need to introduce an anecdote or two. 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; leave the hearer wanting more.
Remember, the pitcher’s job is not to summarize the plot or argument — it’s to present it in a fascinating manner. 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 cram the entire story arc into a couple of breathless paragraphs.

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? can work very, very well in this context.

(5) Axe the jargon.
Many pitchers (and queriers, actually) 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 permeates 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. It would behoove you, then, to 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.

(6) Delve into the realm of the senses.
Another technique that helps elevate memorability: including as many sensual words and images as you can in your pitch. 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 concentrating his professional efforts on chefs? We’d better taste some fois gras.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original image or 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 plan to pitch. The protagonist is an executive at a motion picture studio; throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director 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, I’m guessing.) 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. Which brings me to…

(8) Let the tone of the pitch reflect the tone of the book.
This one’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 its premise seem amusing; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer. By the same token, while a good pitch for a romance would make it sound 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 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. And it’s unlikely to the point of hilarity that she’ll stop you immediately after you say, “Well, my novel is told from the perspectives of three different protagonists…” with a curt, “I’ve heard enough; I’ve been looking for a good multiple-perspective novel. Allow me to sign you on the spot.”

How you have chosen to construct the narrative is not information that should be in your pitch. The agent or editor is going to want to know what the book is about.

“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 — “Bernice 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 with 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?

Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to include this information: 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 it, 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, without presenting the perspective choice as the most important thing about the book.

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 conferences. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea– 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. Again, 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. And 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 stories of each of the major characters: POV choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. While you will want to talk about some non-story elements 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.

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.

Dig deep for those memorable details, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XX: stacking all of those building blocks into a rock-solid pitch

pigeon-in-a-niche

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 visual metaphor if there weren’t also bricks above her, of course, but you focus on a medieval bridge, you take your chances, right?

Before I launch into today’s task in earnest, my mother has charged me to pass along an editorial admonition to you — and believe me, we do not take such decrees lightly chez Mini. Madame Mini senior desires me to inform all conscientious writers everywhere that she is darned tired of reading books and manuscripts that use each other and one another interchangeably.

That’s one of my pet peeves, too, doubtless due to my strenuously literary upbringing: each other refers to interactions between two characters, entities, or objects; one another is activity amongst 3 or more. My parents used to correct this one in conversation, as well as on the page.

And yes, that practice did rather startle anecdote-spouting dinner guests, now that you mention it. One’s standards do not evaporate just because one happens to be serving a soufflé, however.

So abandon hope, all ye who were hoping to get a sentence like Marni, Monique, and Murgatroyd looked at each other past a good, old-fashioned editor. While you’re at it, Madame Mini would also like you to start making a distinction between farther (refers to physical distance) and further (conceptual distance). There’s a pretty good reason that one doesn’t hear farthermore in casual conversation, after all.

In answer to those of you busily engaged in picking your jaws off the floor: yes, these are nit-picky distinctions, but little things like this drive classically-trained professional readers nuts. It’s inconceivable to an editor of my mother’s experience that anyone would not have learned these precepts, if not actually at their parents’ knees, then at least by the end of the fourth grade. She flatly refuses to believe that I constantly meet talented writers who — sacre bleu! — claim that they were never taught the rules governing when to use to, two, and too or there, their, and they’re.

“What do these writers do, then?” Madame Mini scoffs. “Guess?”

Judging by the average manuscript submission, I would have to say that is precisely what a lot of aspiring writers do. That, and rely too heavily upon their word processing programs’ spell- and grammar-checkers. I have yet to break it to my mother that my version of Microsoft Word not only doesn’t make the necessary each other/one another or farther/further distinctions; it frequently suggests that I should use the incorrect form of there, their, and they’re.

My neighbors who work at the Lazy M Ranch profess to have no idea why this might be the case. “Poor elementary school education?” one of them suggested. “I wasn’t sure about that rule until I was in college.”

Please don’t tell my mother. She might faint from the shock.

Actually, while we’re on the subject of looking, would you mind if I ask you to avoid a pet peeve of my own? Novelists, would you at least consider giving the phrases they looked at each other and she gave him a look a rest, please? Millicent the agency screener scarcely sees a manuscript these days that does not include one or the other within the first chapter, and often both.

It’s not merely the percussive effect of seeing the same sentences so often across so many manuscripts in any given reading day that gets her proverbial goat, you know; it’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seem to believe that eye movement is an inherently interesting enough activity to deserve page space in an otherwise tightly-written narrative. From a professional reader’s perspective, it seldom is.

Remember, from a professional reader’s point of view, the bare fact that a character might have done something isn’t necessarily reason enough to for a narrative to mention it; especially in fiction and memoir, we tend to go for the character-revealing stuff. Unless the reader is shown the emotional intensity of a look, or what thoughts the author believes are being conveyed telepathically when two characters look at each other (or seventeen look at one another; it helps to see the rules in practice), all of that looking can come across as simply a substitute for more character- or situation-illuminating reactions.

Oh, it feels good to have gotten that one off my chest. Let’s get to work.

Last time, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you brand-new to verbal book pitching to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety conference pitching room. Why on earth would I scare you like that, 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 that might be waiting for us on the other side of the pitching table. Like, for instance, an agent who cuts a writer off three sentences into a pitch given within the context of a formal meeting: “Oh, that’s the third period, I’m afraid, and you had not even gotten halfway through establishing your premise. I’m sorry; industry standards prevent me from listening to even one more word from you.”

Or an agent who shouts, “I hate your plot, your hairdo, and your tie! Begone, and never cause me to choke on my latte again.”

Or a writer’s rocketing to instant fame, fortune, and publication as a result of a particularly well-given pitch. “Oh, I don’t need to read the manuscript,” the agent in this fantasy says, clapping the lucky pitcher on the back. “Someone who can talk about a book as well as you can is obviously a talented writer. Let me introduce you to that editor standing over there at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, so we may sign a contract immediately. Would you be available to go on Oprah next week?”

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 any of these extremes actually occurring in real life. Honest. And Oprah’s off the air, at least on network television.

As I may have hinted a few times over the last couple of weeks, adhering to the common fantasies about what can happen in a pitch meetings both raise expectations to unreasonable levels and increase anticipatory fright to the point of being crushing. Knowledge really is power, at least in this respect.

No, really. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively for your appointment with an agent or editor — and psych yourself out much less in the process.

Feeling a little better about the prospect of pitch preparation? No? Okay, here’s a bit more good news to gladden your heart: 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, gone over how to narrow down your book’s category, figured out who your target market is, brainstormed selling points for your book), as well as a platform for those of you who write nonfiction, and constructed a snappy keynote statement. We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words, to keep it pithy with the elevator speech, and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a well-conceived hallway pitch.

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 nonfiction 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. If only you would stop thinking in all of those capital letters.

What a formal pitch meeting 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 Pitchingpalooza above, you will see that you have already defined your work in those terms. Aren’t you clever, to be so well 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, and I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound have already begun trying it out on everyone you meet. It’s a serious mistake not to speak it out loud prior to your scheduled pitch meeting, or even to the conference.

Why? 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 serious writer talking to other serious writers. Or a hobbyist writer talking to someone at a party kind enough to say, “Oh, you write? What kind of books?”

Why shouldn’t you talk about your work to the pros the way we talk about amongst ourselves or at a non-literary cocktail party? Well, when we’re in creative mode, we tend to 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 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, not as a reason to like or respect you as a creative human being. (Hey, I warned you it was going to be blunt.)

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.

Besides, walking into a conference believing that agencies and publishing houses are primarily non-profit 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.

It’s imperative that your formal pitch reflect that understanding. Think about it: reputable agents and editors make their livings by selling books, after all; they are unlikely to the point of hilarity to be even remotely sympathetic to an aspiring writer who feels that his book will seem less artistically worthwhile if he knows anything about how — or even to whom — it might be sold.

That can work to your advantage: because art vs. commerce is such a common attitude, even amongst writers who have plopped down a considerable amount of money to pitch at a conference, presenting yourself as one of the few who has taken the time to learn how publishing actually works and how your book might fit into the current market will at least enjoy the benefit of novelty.

And a thousand hands just shot into the air. “I want to be the exception, Anne,” eager pitchers everywhere cry, “but I’m not sure how to force my book’s premise into a form that makes sense from a marketing perspective. How might one go about satisfying the demands of both art and commerce in a formal pitch meeting?”

I’m so glad you asked. I feel a theoretical structure about to emerge.

Step I: First, begin with your 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 guidance! That sounds like a back 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 on.

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 even attempt to tell the entire plot. Your goal here 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 she has already read it.

This structure will work equally well for a memoir, of course. The trick is to present oneself as the protagonist — and to do that, you’re going to have to think of yourself as a character in your book, as well as its writer.

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

For a nonfiction book that isn’t a memoir, present the central question your book will address, along with why a reader would care about it. In considering that last part, remember, you can’t safely assume that the agent or editor to whom you will be pitching will be forearmed with any prior knowledge of your subject matter. This structure tends to work:

“The world is facing (interesting situation); if it is not resolved, (insert dire consequence here).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

For fiction or memoir, make sure to identify your protagonist in the first line of your pitch– by name, never as “my protagonist,” or you will sound like you are giving a book report. 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. Even better, 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. Not a boast, mind you: analysis that demonstrates the extent of your market research.

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 (# of TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Add a little charm and stir, and voilà: the two-minute pitch. Admittedly, 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.

Not to mention quite doable. You could manage all three of those 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.

Once again, a forest of hands arises before my eyes. “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, confused ones, and here’s the answer: no, because if you went much over 2, 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 a panicking pitcher to take a moment to compose herself, if necessary and appropriate. 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.

The 2-minute pitch usually takes place at the very beginning of a pitch meeting; thus the imperative to introduce oneself. (You wouldn’t believe how many pitchers get so excited that they omit this essential information. Or the title of the book.) See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?

No? Was there so much going on in these last two posts 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 prudent to assume that it will 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 going on around you. 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 significantly quieter option than giving a 2-minute pitch during a scheduled appointment.

And yes, if I ruled the universe, this would not be the case, but apparently, conference centers fall outside the range of my scepter. Yet conference organizers are not actively 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 the gory mass murder at the center of his thriller.

Thus 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. That’s equally true for fiction and nonfiction, by the way, and even more so for memoir.

How might one go about that? 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 from the page to the pitching environment. The essence of good storytelling, after all, lies in 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.

Oh, there are all of those raised hands 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.

Honest, it won’t render your pitch less impressive. 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, as well as 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. Take a gander:

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? Admittedly, my editorial hand itches to excise some of the structural redundancy, as well as some of those extraneous heres, and smooth out some of those slightly awkward subordinate clauses. (Had I mentioned that editors tend to be nit-picky?) There’s no denying, though, that this is a magnificently constructed argument.

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. The opening act’s 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.

Besides, it’s better storytelling. 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.

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. These are interesting human beings, after all, not publication-granting machines.

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 target nearly impossible 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 as opposed to any 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!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIX: mustering the wherewithal to deliver the pitch proper, or, hey, watch out for that tree!

Perhaps I am inspired by this genuinely gorgeous photo of Lou Gehrig — taken, I am reliably informed, in the midst of the famed “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech — but I’ve been feeling the urge to blog about memoir-writing lately, campers. I know, I know: I generally spend the annual publishing world holiday stretching from the second week of August until after Labor Day filling your heads with practical details aplenty; I am still planning to talk about querying in September. After I wrap up Pitchingpalooza next week, however, I think I shall indulge myself with some in-depth discussion of the writing about the real, both as memoir and as fiction.

So start digging up those scraps of paper marked ask Anne about this. As always, I like to incorporate readers’ concerns, questions, and ideas into all of my series. And call me psychic, but I’m willing to bet a nickel that somewhere out there at this very moment, some member of the Author! Author! community is rending her garments over some seemingly insurmountable problem in holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Oh, and I may be announcing a new contest next week. It’s been a while since I’ve offered my readers the chance to generate any new Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC), after all.

Back to the matter at hand: here comes the attraction for which you have all been waiting so patiently. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch proper, the full 2-minute marketing statement a writer is expected to give at an honest-to-goodness, meet-’em-in-the-flesh appointment with an agent or editor at a conference.

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 are ready to stack up all of those building blocks into, well, a building.

But not right away; I shall be presenting you with step-by-step guidelines this weekend. First, because there are so many misconceptions floating around out there about what that building should look like, how many rooms it should contain, whether to call where you drink coffee the porch, the veranda, or the lanai, and someone please extricate me from this metaphor before I spontaneously begin producing blueprints, I’m going to begin 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, for your cringing pleasure, are the most popular formal pitching faux pas, so that you may avoid them. 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, rather than a teaser for its premise.

That’s going to be a Herculean task for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level. No wonder so many pitchers just start at page one and keep retailing details of the plot until the agent or editor says gently, “Um, I’m afraid it’s time for my next appointment.”

By which point, naturally, the pitcher has made it all the way to page 42 in a 387-page novel. Which leads me to another low-hanging branch to avoid:

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

Yes, yes, I know: all throughout the posts on hallway pitching, I have been harping on the advisability of getting out there, saying your pitch, and then ceasing to have any sound coming out of your gullet. That’s as good advice for a formal pitch as for the elevator variety.

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.

In case I’m being too subtle here: plan to stop talking at that point.

Why? Well, among other things, you’re going to want to hear what the agent of your dreams has to say about your book project, right? Also, an active resolve to say what one has planned to say and then stop can be a powerful tool to keep a writer from rambling.

And why do writers tend to ramble in their formal pitches, other than pure, unadulterated nervousness? Glad you asked.

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; here at Author! Author!, we always have our fine-toothed combs at the ready, do we not? I’ve noticed , however, that my magic wand seems to have lost the ability to compel my students to say their pitches out loud to at least 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 accustomed to listening to nervous writers, is going to fault you for consulting your notes in a pitch meeting. Or even reading the pitch outright.

This is not an exercise in rote memorization, people; you don’t get extra credit for being able to give your pitch without cue cards. A successful pitch is 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 in your perspiring little hand 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 storytellers. If, indeed, they realize it at all.

Raises the stakes something awful, doesn’t it? Relax — for someone who legitimately is a talented storyteller, coming across as one 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 uniquely gifted to tell it.

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 and move on. 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. Instead, they tend to sound generic or vague.

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 construction.

Neither, alas, is a hard sell. Is that a tree I see sneaking up behind you?

(7) Too many pitches sound more like back jacket copy than a serious statement of the book’s premise and central conflict or question — and a disturbingly high percentage of these are riddled with descriptive superlatives.

You wouldn’t believe how many pitches sound like standard advertising copy. But a writer does not go to a formal pitch meeting to review her own book — she’s there to describe it.

Trust me on this one: from the pitch-hearer’s perspective, every pitch that strays into advertising-speak is going to sound very similar. All of those soi-disant the next great bestsellers, Great American Novels, the book you won’t want to misses, novels that will appeal to every woman in North America, and it’s a natural for Oprahs (which people still use, believe it or not) have one thing in common: their pitchers are wasting time that could be used to describe what is genuinely unique about the book in puffing the book concept in terms that no agent is going to believe, anyway.

Lest some of you have gotten lost whilst wandering around in that epic last sentence, let me restate that simply: boasts about the importance of a book simply do not work in pitches. Agents are accustomed to making up their own minds about manuscripts; why would they look to the writer, of all people, to provide them with a review?

So what should a savvy pitcher do instead? 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.

Ah, I see we are about to run afoul of another tree.

desert-trees(8) Very few pitches include intriguing, one-of-a-kind details that set the book being pitched apart from all others.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right. Why not advise me to tap-dance, wave sparklers, and paint an abstract in oils 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 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, sneak with me now into a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room. For the benefit of those of you who have never experienced a pitch session 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(9) 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, frequently more and more of the latter 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-out people. Not 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 the night before.

I don’t mean to frighten the timid by bringing up that last detail, 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 seeping 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 well 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 to the agent (if he remembers his manners, that is), and then spends approximately two minutes talking about his 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 straight into the path of another tree — or perhaps a thicket.

white-trees(10) 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 Pitchingpalooza? Au contraire, mon frère: I was poking you in the ribs during practice so you would develop the sure-footedness not to lose your balance during the performance.

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, then 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 I’m not going to lie to you — sometimes, the agent’s 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 tenacious leech. Not to mention steering clear of our next obstacle…

fruit-tree(11) 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, the agent or editor is going to want to read the manuscript first.

Believing otherwise only makes aspiring writers unhappy. It sounds like a truism, I know, but realistic expectations are the most important things a writer 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 because he happens to like 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 both parties sign a formal contract 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. Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the purpose of the formal 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 for herself what a good writer you are.

Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: it’s nice if it’s on the menu, 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. It’s not even all that uncommon for conference brochures to recommend this method. 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. No one is going to fault you for not pulling a manuscript out of your hip pocket.

At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, he 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 his interest, and offer to pop anything he 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 encounter 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. Try not to take it as if it is.

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. For a fuller discussion of how and why mismatched meetings happen and how to handle them, 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.

If you find yourself interrupted mid-pitch by a terse, “Sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work. Chances are pretty good that she will know all of the agents attending; wouldn’t you like to be able to begin a hallway pitch with, “Excuse me, but agent Selective Notforme recommended that I speak with you. Would you have a moment to hear my pitch?”

Whatever you do, don’t panic; you can avoid the wicked trees with relative ease. Over the next few posts, 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!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIV: hammering together a solid platform, or, isn’t it convenient that the best-qualified individual in the known universe to write this nonfiction book just happens to be the person pitching it?

You guessed it, long-time readers of this blog: we’re about to launch into one of my cherished (if a bit heavy-handed) exercises in expanding your expectations. So — what do you think this nebulous picture depicts?

Give it some thought. In the meantime, do you mind if I get back to the matter at hand?

Thanks. For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the elevator speech, the ubiquitous 3-line pitch’s prettier fraternal twin.

Prettier in what sense, you ask? Well, in the most important way a verbal pitch can be: it’s more likely to impress a hearer. Unlike the usual 3-line pitch, a plot summary whose primary (and sometimes only) virtue is brevity, an elevator speech is an introduction of an interesting protagonist with an interesting goal facing interesting opposition, preceded by a polite request to pitch, the writer’s name, and the book category.

What’s the difference in practice, you ask? An excellent question. Here is a fairly representative specimen of the kind of thrown-together 3-line pitches agents and editors often hear at writers’ conferences.

Agent: Hi, I’m Emma Perfectagentforyou. Won’t you sit down?

Writer (drawing in the kind of breath Olympic swimmers take immediately prior to diving into a pool): My book’s about an old folks’ home with a problem: people keep getting murdered in various ways; no one knows why. Someone’s got to do something about it, or else the town’s elders — who want the land the retirement home is sitting on to sell to a greedy developer in exchange for major bribes — will close the place down, and fast. By the end of the book, my heroine has foiled the developers, shot the mayor, and, along with all of the surviving circle of friends from the retirement home, has taken over the city council — which had been corrupt for decades due to a hushed-up bribery scandal decades before that only the residents of the home are old enough to remember, so only they can catch the crooks.

That’s not a terrible pitch, certainly; at least we know in general terms what the book is about. But it’s awfully vague, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Who is the protagonist, for instance? In what era is the book set? Does it have a title? And what kind of a book is it?

Surprised that a plot summary laden with twists could leave so much relevant material out? Don’t be — and don’t judge our intrepid writer too harshly. She’s out there trying, and that takes bravery. Besides, she’s never heard a professional writer pitch a book before. All she knows — and see if this sounds at all familiar — is that the conference materials said that the pitch could not be more than three sentences long.

Thus all of those semicolons, commas, and dashes. Technically, it’s only three sentences long; count the periods. But how would one say all of that in a 30-second hallway pitch?

Go ahead, try it. In my many-hued past, I used to declaim Shakespeare on a regular basis, but even my lungs could not get through all of that in less than five breaths and still produce remotely comprehensible words.

And at the risk of terrifying you, that’s the dilemma facing the conscientious pitcher who takes the time to craft something that seems to fit the bill. Although it pains me to say it, most pitchers do not prepare adequately — or, if they do, they often write their pitches so close to their pitching appointments that they don’t have time to practice.

The results, I’m afraid, are seldom pretty. Let’s take a peek at how the attempt usually plays out — no, I don’t have the heart to put you through that. Instead, let’s take a gander at a relatively unstressful pitching session.

Agent: Hi, I’m Emma Perfectagentforyou. Won’t you sit down?

Writer (sits, clutching notes in a death grip): Oh, I’m so nervous.

Agent: That’s okay. Tell me about your book.

Writer: The protagonist of my fiction novel –

Agent (under her breath): All novels are fiction.

Writer: — is a singer who lives in a retirement home where people die all the time, only now, they are dying really close together; the manager is so scared of being sued by people’s relatives that he keeps threatening to close the place — that’s okay with the town officials, though, because they want to condemn the place, anyway, so greedy developers can snap up the land that’s very valuable since it’s right next to the vacant lot that the corrupt mayor knows is about to be bought by a major movie star who, like Greta Garbo, just wants to be alone. The people in the retirement home get very scared, because they have nowhere to go, so she –

Agent: Your protagonist, you mean?

Writer (jarred into losing her place in her memorized speech): What?

Agent: Is your protagonist the one who does something about it?

Writer (frantically shuffling through pages of notes to find the latest draft of her pitch): Um, sorry. (All she turns up are drafts 2 and 3. Decides to wing it.) So my protagonist — yeah, she’s the one — decides to organize the old people into a posse, but there’s this other woman doesn’t like her and opposes it. And oh, I forgot to mention, in this town, there’s a law that states that everyone must be armed at all times. So it’s not like going against the town’s elders isn’t dangerous. And then there’s this subplot about the mayor’s niece, who’s really a good person, and she’s in love with the grandson of one of the people in the old folks’ home, and they want to run away together, but they don’t have the money. So when she gets pregnant –

Agent (glancing at wristwatch): Okay, I’m getting a general sense. I’m afraid I don’t represent cozy mysteries?

Writer (turning crimson): Oh, no, I don’t write genre fiction. This is literary. Your blurb in the conference guide said…

Agent: Well, it doesn’t really sound like the kind of book I can sell in this market.

Frozen with empathetic horror yet? You’d be astonished at how often nervous pitchers sound like this, especially if they have not taken the time to prepare. Or when they do, they misapply their time, believing that an agent will be more impressed by a memorized pitch than one read off an index card. (That’s seldom true, incidentally; agents know that writers tend to be shy. When in doubt, read it.) So if they get interrupted by a perfectly reasonable question, they often panic and lose all sense of their planned structure.

See now why I have devoted so many posts to drilling you to be able to answer questions about your book? If you prepare for a conversation, rather than lecture, you’re less likely to be thrown.

Admittedly, even well-prepared pitchers often feel disoriented in impromptu pitching situations. Are you up for another harrowing example?

Writer (to fellow attendee): Isn’t that Emma Perfectagentforyou walking into the women’s room? I loved her speech at the agents’ forum, but I couldn’t get an appointment with her. Maybe I can catch her…

(Dashes down lengthy hallway, bowling over several prominent memoirists. She tracks down the agent of her dreams waiting in a long line.)

Writer (grabbing her arm): Emma? I want to give you my pitch. Emma lives in a retirement home, and her friends are dying around her. Normal, you say? Not nearly. It turns out that the corrupt mayor has been bribing the manager to poison the water supply –

Agent (sidling away): Oh, it’s my turn. Bye!

(Writer turns away, crestfallen, and returns to the hallway. Several minutes later, Emma and another agent emerge from the restroom, chatting in confidential tones.)

Agent (veering sharply in another direction): Oh, God, there’s that rude writer I was telling you about.

“See?” those of you who have heard that agents universally hate hallway pitching crow triumphantly. “That’s why I would never pitch outside a formal meeting. Even if I accidentally got matched with an agent or editor who did not handle my kind of book, I would be terrified of offending someone!”

Well, you should never, ever, EVER try to pitch in the bathroom (or to an agent whose trajectory and worried facial expression might lead you reasonably to conclude that he might be headed in that direction), but at most conferences, there are perfectly acceptable moments to ask to give your elevator speech.

The key, however, is to ask. Unlike in a formal pitch meeting, where the agent or editor is obliged to listen to a pitch, agreeing to a hallway pitch is in fact granting a favor to a perfect stranger.

Politeness counts. Here is the same book, presented in impeccably polite elevator speech fashion.

Agent (sitting on dais immediately after teaching a seminar): Well, that was a vigorous question-and-answer session.

Writer (approaching respectfully): Excuse me, Ms. Perfectagentforyou, but Brilliant McAuthorly, and I wanted to tell you that I just loved your speech during the agents’ forum.

Agent: Why, thank you, Brilliant.

Writer: You really sound like a great fit for my book, but I could not obtain an appointment with you. Would you have thirty seconds to spare for a literary fiction pitch, either now or at any other time you say?

Agent (glancing at her watch): Sure, if it’s quick.

Writer (delighted): Thank you so much. 81-year-old Emma Trenchfoot is increasingly lonely these days, because every week, another of her friends at the Buona Notte Opera Diva Retirement Retreat dies under odd circumstances. So many have perished that the local authorities are threatening to close the place down. Can intrepid Emma save her last few beloved friends before the CONDEMNED sign swings from the front door?

Agent (astonished that for once, a 30-second pitch actually took only 30 seconds to deliver): Wow, that sounds interesting. (Digs out her business card.) I’m afraid I have to run off to a meeting now, but why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?

Writer (clutching the card as if it were the Holy Grail): Oh, of course. Thank you. (She backs away immediately.)

I’ve sensed raised hands out there in the ether since the end of Brilliant’s elevator speech. “But Anne,” meganovelists everywhere shout, “there’s so much more to the story! Why did Emma say yes, when all Brilliant did was lay out the basic premise, introducing her protagonist as an interesting person facing an interesting challenge with quirky specifics after having clearly stated what kind of book it was…oh, never mind.”

Exactly. Yes, there’s more to the plot than this — but Ms. Perfectagentforyou is just going to have to ask a follow-up question (preferably along the lines of, “Wow, that sounds interesting — tell me more,” or, better still, the aforementioned “Would you send me the first 50 pages?”) in order to find out.

The elevator speech is just a tease. To extend my meal metaphor from a few days back, if the keynote is the amuse-bouche, designed to whet the appetite of the agent or editor, the elevator speech is the first course, designed to show that the chef has talent prior to the entrée, the full-blown 2-minute pitch.

Let me pause to make absolutely sure that every human being within eyeshot of this page understands that: the elevator speech should not be confused with a formal pitch — it’s specifically designed for informal settings. However, If the elevator speech is not finely prepared and delectable, the hearer is not going to stick around for the main course.

If you wow him with the fish in round one, he’s going to clamor for the steak in round two.

That’s the theory, anyway. More commonly in a hallway pitch, an agent in a hurry is going to gobble up the fish and pass on the steak, opting to skip the 2-minute pitch altogether in favor of, well, continuing to walk down the hall.

Don’t let that outcome discourage you; it’s not always bad for the pitcher. As long as the agent hands you a business card and asks you to send pages before he moseys, why should you mind not serving the second course?

Yes, yes, I know: this runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. We’ve all heard that pitchers are allowed to say only three sentences to an agent in total and that those three sentences should summarize the entire plot, as if that were possible. (What about “Hello?”) We’ve also all been told that the purpose of the pitch is to sell the book, not to tempt an agent or editor into reading it.

Believing that is a pretty infallible means of making pitchers feel lousy about themselves, because it’s setting the performance bar almost impossibly high. Those of you who have worked your way through this series, chant it with me now: the SOLE purpose of a verbal pitch is to convince the hearer to ask to read the book in question.

Or at least a part of it. If you’re defining pitching success in any other way, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Everyone got that, or should we chant it a few hundred more times? I can stay here all day, people.

All throughout the sterling set of examples above, I could sense a certain pervasive dissatisfaction amongst writers of nonfiction. (Bloggers develop tremendously acute senses of hearing, you see. That rumble I just heard was slight settling on mile 32 of the Great Wall of China.) ”This is all very well for a novel,” memoirists and nonfiction writers grumble, “but how does all this apply to a MY book?”

Calm your grumbles, oh memoir-writers and pursuers of fact. How does all this theory apply to nonfiction?

Well, at the risk of seeming redundant, the basic principle is the same for a nonfiction book as for a novel: to intrigue the hearer into asking follow-up questions, or even the entire 2-minute pitch.

Which I am GETTING TO, people. Hold onto those proverbial horses.

But while a novelist can simply spring her premise on the nearest agent or editor within shouting distance, the nonfiction writer needs to use a little more finesse. Especially if the book in question happens to be a memoir.

Although, to be fair, a memoir’s elevator speech can be structured rather similarly to a novels. The questions it addresses are alike, after all:

(a) Who is the protagonist and what is the context in which s/he exists?

(b) What is her/his goal, and what is at stake if s/he does or does not reach it?

(c) What obstacles does s/he face in reaching it?

A good elevator speech for other kinds of nonfiction book also answers some very specific questions, but not the same ones. Here, the goal is to demonstrate the book’s importance to its target readership and the writer’s platform.

(a) What is the problem the book is seeking to solve?

(b) Why is it important to the target reader that it be solved? (Or, to put it another way: what will the reader get out of seeing it solved by this book?)

(c) Why is the writer the best possible person in the world to address this question in print?

Yes, these are pretty wide-ranging questions, but remember, the goal here is not to provide the definitive answers. In the elevator speech, you will want to say just enough to intrigue the hearer into asking either to hear the full-blown pitch or to see some pages. As with a novel, it’s not in your interest to tell so much about the book that the agent or editor to whom you are speaking feels that you have told the whole story.

In other words — and you may have heard this somewhere before — the elevator speech is the first course, not the entrée. No version of a pitch should give the impression that there’s no need to read the book.

So here’s a word to the wise: don’t try to stuff too much information into your elevator speech.

Unfortunately, this is often a much-needed bit of advice. I can tell you from long experience as a pitching coach: many, many pitches do convey precisely that impression, because they go into far, far too much detail. Heck, I’ve heard pitches that took 15 minutes to get to the action or argument on page 36.

In a manuscript with 482 pages.

Trust me, you will want to leave enough of a question hanging in the air that your listener will say, “Gee, that sounds intriguing. Send me the first 50 pages,” rather than, “God, this person has been talking for a long time; I was really hoping to grab some lunch. I wonder if room service would bring a drink and a snack to me in the appointment lounge, so I may swiftly depart this hallway, doubtless leaving this writer still talking in my wake.”

I can already feel those of you who’ve pitched nonfiction at conferences shaking your heads. “Yeah, yeah,” these weary souls point out, “obviously, I want to make the book sound like an interesting story. But as any NF writer who has ever come within 30 feet of an agent or editor can tell you, the first question anyone in the industry asks us is, So what’s your platform? If you aren’t already famous for being an expert on your subject matter, or famous for being famous, it seems as though they don’t even listen to the story you’re pitching.”

Well, in my experience, that’s not quite true — most of them will listen to the story a NF writer is pitching. But you’re quite right that they will want to know right off the bat what that writer’s platform is.

A platform, for those of you new to the term, consists of whatever in the writer’s background, experience, birth, credentials, connections, research, etc. that would enable her agent to say truthfully, “Oh, the author is an expert in this area.” Or, at any rate, to be able to claim that people in the general public will already recognize the author’s name.

Which isn’t, contrary to what many aspiring writers believe, always a matter of celebrity. Basically, your platform is the answer to the question why are you the best-qualified person in the universe to write this book?

Hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

And no, for a memoir, simply being the protagonist who lived through the events described in the book is not necessarily a sufficient platform, in the eyes of the industry. If you’re a memoirist who is planning to pitch, you’re going to need to come up with a better answer for, “So what’s your platform?” than “Well, I lived through it,” or the ever-popular, “It’s about ME.”

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. Strange but true, in the literary world, merely being the protagonist doesn’t necessarily render someone the top pick for writing the protagonist’s life story. As the pros say, it all depends on the writing.

So yes, memoirist, you should be prepared to be asked about your platform — in fact, you should work that information into your pitch. Having successfully pitched a memoir myself, I’m not a big fan of allowing an agent or editor to ask that particular question. In other words, I believe that any really good NF pitch should establish the author’s platform as the best conceivable writer of the book, BEFORE anyone thinks to ask about it.

Why? Well, in the first place, including some mention of the platform in an elevator speech (or a formal pitch, for that matter) demonstrates that the writer not only understands how the nonfiction market works, but is aware that it is different from the fiction market. Since it is significantly less time-consuming for an agent or editor to work with a writer who is already familiar with what will be expected of her, publishing savvy is a selling point in and of itself. (In the event that anyone out there doesn’t understand how it works, I would strongly recommend a quick perusal of the START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right before you prepare your pitch; it will make your task much easier.)

In the second place (and thus taking the silver medal), stating your platform up front greatly increases the probability that the hearer will take your argument seriously. Just human nature, I’m afraid, and the reality of the publishing world.

See why I made you figure out what your book’s marketing points, including your platform, before I let you anywhere near anything that remotely resembled a pitch? During a hallway meeting is a lousy time to brainstorm about your platform, after all — and not being prepared leaves you prey to nagging doubts when agents and editors say from the podium (as someone invariably does at every writers’ conference ever given atop the earth’s crust), “Well, unless a writer has a good platform, it’s not possible to sell a nonfiction book.”

I can’t imagine how aspiring writers hearing this could have derived the impression that only the already-famous need apply, can you?

The fact is, though, the vast majority of NF books are written by non-celebrities — and even by people who aren’t especially well-known in the areas in which they are experts. Literally millions of NF books are sold each and every year, and few of their authors are the Stephen Hawkings of their respective fields.

How is that possible, you ask? Let me whisper a secret to you: great platforms are constructed, not born.

If you’re not certain why you’re the best-qualified — if not the only qualified — writer currently wandering the face of the earth to tap out your NF book, you’re going to be pitching at a severe disadvantage. (If you’ve been feeling queasy for the last few paragraphs because you don’t know what your platform is, run, don’t walk to the right-hand side of the page, and check out the posts on YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS, PLATFORM, and NONFICTION MARKETING categories for a bit of inspiration.)

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in seats out there. “But Anne,” those noisy memoirists from earlier protest, “this sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work without a very clear pay-off. Obviously, my memoir is about ME — why do I have to prove that I’m the best-qualified person to write about MY life?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Yet, as I’ve pointed out many times in this blog, a memoir is always about something in addition to its protagonist.

In order to establish your platform, you will need to demonstrate that you’re qualified to write authoritatively on that background issue, too. Because, you see, it just doesn’t make sense to expect the person hearing your pitch to guess what your background is.

For example, if you grew up in a traveling circus, you would probably have some pretty interesting stories to tell — but that will not necessarily be obvious to an agent or editor to whom you’re pitching. What are they, psychic?

But if you demonstrate that your first-hand knowledge renders you a credible expert with an intriguing, unique point of view on the subject, they won’t have to guess, will they? Make it clear that your point of view is not only unusual, but one that readers who already buy books on this subject will have encountered before.

As with a novel, introducing specific, unusual details is usually the best way to achieve this. For instance, it would not necessarily establish your platform as a circus kid to say, “Look, I was the little girl watching from beneath the bleachers,” because to an outside observer, that little girl wouldn’t necessarily have seen anything different than what any audience member did. If you were more specific about how your experience was unique, however, you more or less automatically sound credible: “By the time I was five, I had graduated to riding the lion during the circus parade,” for instance, would be a real show-stopper in a pitch.

Once you’ve figured out what makes your point of view unique, making the case that you are the best person currently living to write about it will become substantially easier, no? (But please, if you love me, do not fall into the trap of describing relatively common attributes or experiences as unique just because they overwhelming majority do not share them. Unique means one of a kind.)

And please don’t wait until you’re actually in a pitching situation to ponder why your take on the larger issues in your memoir is different and better than others’, I implore you. It’s much, much smarter to think in advance about what makes your point of view unique and work it into your informal AND your formal pitches than to try to wing it in the moment. And if that’s not sufficient incentive, here’s more: by including some indication of your platform (or your book’s strongest selling point) in your elevator speech, you will forestall the automatic first question: “So what’s your platform?”

This same strategy will work with any NF book, believe it or not. What is unusual about your take on the subject — and does your special point of view offer your reader that other books in this are do not?

Don’t boast — be specific and practical. Demonstrate what the reader will learn from reading your book, or why the book is an important contribution to the literature on your subject.

With a strong grasp of your selling points to build upon, you can use your elevator speech in much the same way that a novelist might: to provide specific, vividly-drawn details to show what your book offers the reader. Make it clear in your elevator speech what your book is and why it will appeal to your target market. Here’s an example:

Swirling planets, the Milky Way, and maybe even a wandering extraterrestrial or two — all of these await the urban stargazing enthusiast. For too long, however, books on astronomy have been geared at the narrow specialist market, those readers possessing expensive telescopes. ANGELS ON YOUR BACK PORCH opens the joys of stargazing to the rest of us. Utilizing a few simple tools and a colorful fold-out star map, University of Washington cosmologist Cindy Crawford takes you on a guided tour of the fascinating star formations visible right from your backyard.

See? Strong visual imagery plus a clear statement of what the reader may expect to learn creates a compelling elevator speech for this NF book. And did you notice how Professor Crawford’s credentials just naturally fit into the speech, obviating the necessity of a cumbersome addendum about platform?

Didn’t I tell you that it was all about finesse?

Try reading Prof. Crawford’s elevator speech out loud: feels a little awkward to be tooting the author’s horn quite that much, doesn’t it? We writers tend to be rather unused to describing our own work in such unequivocal terms, so I always advise trying it out for oneself — say, a few hundred times.

There’s nothing like practice for learning the ropes, so it’s not a bad idea to buttonhole a few like-minded writers and figuring out elevator speeches for their books, too. I know it sounds wacky, but learning to pitch other people’s books is a great way to get comfortable with the style.

Remember, your elevator speech should be entertaining and memorable, but leave your hearer wanting to know more. Don’t wrap up the package so tightly that your listener doesn’t feel she needs to read the book. Questions are often useful in establishing why the book will be important to the reader:

EVERYWOMAN’S GUIDE TO MENOPAUSE: “Tired of all of the conflicting information on the news these days about the change of life? Noted clinician Dr. Sal Solbrook simplifies it all for you with her easy-to-use color-coded guide to a happy menopausal existence. From beating searing hot flashes with cool visualizations of polar icecaps to rewarding yourself for meeting goals with fun-filled vacations to the tropics, this book will show you how to embrace the rest of your life with passion, armed with knowledge.

Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who have been following this series from the beginning: what techniques did NF pitcher Solbrook borrow from novel pitching?

Give yourself at least a B if you said that the writer incorporated vivid sensual details: the frigid polar icecaps, the twin heat sources of hot flashes and tropical destinations. And make that an A if you noticed that the savvy pitcher used a rhetorical question (filched from Dr. Solbrook’s keynote, no doubt) to pique the interest of the hearer — and double points if your sharp eye spotted the keywords agents love to hear: happy, passion.

Extra credit with a cherry on top and walnut clusters if you cried out that this elevator speech sets up conflicts that the book will presumably resolve (amongst the information popularly available; the struggle between happiness and unhappiness; between simple guides and complicated ones). Dualities are tremendously effective at establishing conflict quickly.

Speaking of odd sensual details and dualities, have you come to any conclusion about the picture at the top of this post? Looks kind of like light reflected off water, doesn’t it? Or a very heavy rain falling through the air, perhaps?

Actually, it’s a photograph of a granite-tiled patio on a sunny day. Completely different level of hardness than water or air, similar effect.

Which only goes to show you: first impressions are not always accurate. Sometimes, a surface that initially appears to be wavering is as solid as stone; sometimes, an author who doesn’t at first seem to have many qualifications to write a book turns out to have precisely the right background for presenting a fascinating new take on the subject.

The world is a pretty complex place. And that a writer doesn’t have to be a celebrity to have a good platform.

More thoughts on constructing and delivering engaging elevator speeches follow anon, of course. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XII: because 30 seconds is not much time — and it will feel like less

dali-clocks

My, it’s quiet out there in the Author! Author! community. I’ve been hearing from some of you prospective pitchers privately — although again, it honestly does make more sense for readers to post questions in the comments here, rather than e-mailing me; that way, not only I am less likely to answer the same question fifteen times in a day, but other curious souls can see the answer — but for the most part, folks have been keeping the comments to a minimum throughout this series. It’s fine just to observe, of course, but I have to say, I am starting to worry that some of you with pitching opportunities coming up might be reluctant to come forward with your concerns and fears.

Call me zany, but it concerns me. It makes me fearful.

Please, if you have questions, ask them — I would much, much rather devote a bit of extra time to responding to comments than have even a single one of you walk into a pitching session unsure what to do. Use a pseudonym in the comments, if you like, but honestly, there’s no shame in feeling insecure. Believe me, you’re not the only prospective pitcher out there overcome with worry; your speaking up might even help someone who is too shy to ask.

Of course, the silence may also be attributable to shock at just how much there is to learn about pitching. We’ve covered a tremendous amount of territory over the last couple of weeks, you must admit. We’ve discussed how to identify your book’s publishing category, identifying your target market, coming up with graceful ways of letting an agent know how big that audience might be, come up with a few strong selling points, develop a snappy keynote statement, and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words. 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.

Oh, stop groaning — this is where it starts to get exciting. Now that we have the building blocks of the pitch assembled, 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, humble scribe, and don’t forget to 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 while I was spooning wilted green salad onto my plate, you may have 30 seconds of my time. Do you mind if I finish making my way through the buffet first?”

Moments like this were just made for the elevator speech. Or, if you’re going to be polite about it — and you are, aren’t you, if only to make your mother and me proud? — the moments two minutes after a conversation like this, after the agent in question has had a chance to heap her plate to overflowing and set it down on a nearby table, were just made for this. So are the moments right after an agents’ panel, while you are waiting in line for any of the many, many conference festivities that seem for no apparent reason to require waiting in line, and fifteen minutes after the really nice first-time author with whom you’ve been chatting in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America says, “Oh, there’s my agent. Mind if he joins us for a drink?”

Trust me, you will want to be prepared for these moments. Even if you are so terrified of the prospect of pitching that you have promised yourself that you will not utter word one about your manuscript until you have actually shaken hands with the agent with whom you have a scheduled meeting, you’re going to be a much, much happier camper if you have worked up something to say if asked in any context other than a formal pitch session.

Like, say, the entire rest of the conference.

Or, to put it another way: you know those 30 seconds that seemed so short to you when you were trying to compose an elevator speech? The surest means of making them feel eternal is not to have an answer prepared when an agent you have just met socially says, “Mavis, was it? Tell me what you write.”

You’ll be glad then that you took the time to work up an elevator speech, a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense (for novels and nonfiction about current events) and the past tense (for memoir and nonfiction about the distant past). Regardless of the narrative voice of the work, the elevator should be in the third person (and not waste valuable seconds mentioning the narrative voice of the work) — unless, of course, it is for a memoir, which should be pitched in the first person. As we discussed last time, an elevator speech is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name, a brief introduction to the challenges s/he faces, and an implied invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

Then — and this is the hardest part for many nervous pitchers — you are going to stop talking. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, and definitely do not proceed to give your formal 2-minute pitch until that agent asks to hear it.

I’m serious about the invitation part: a 3-sentence elevator speech is not an automatic preamble to a pitch; it is a means of judging a stranger’s interest. Assuming that interest is, in a word, rude. You need to pause in order to allow a well-meaning agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book to tell you that — wait for it — he doesn’t represent your kind of book, and thus it would be a waste of both of your time to continue.

Stop gritting your teeth. An agent’s being willing to tell you that up front is actually a kindness: instead of plowing ahead with a pitch that is doomed from the outset for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing quality of your manuscript, you can simply thank the agent and move on. Preferably to another agent who does represent your kind of book.

How does a savvy writer know to do that? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been following Pitchingpalooza from the beginning: it’s simply not worth your time to approach an agent who does not have a solid track record representing books in your category.

Remember, the single most common reason that pitches and queries get rejected is being aimed at the wrong person. There is absolutely nothing a writer can do about a mismatch other than accept gracefully that this is not going to work and move on — because agents specialize, no amount of persuasion is going to convince an agent who habitually represents nothing but memoir that your fantasy novel is the next great bestseller. He’s looking for memoir, period.

But that didn’t address your central fear about giving an elevator speech, did it? “Oh, no, it didn’t, Anne,” those of you quaking in your proverbial boots cry. “I’m not just nervous about an agent’s saying no to me — even the notion of sitting down and trying to…well, not summarize, since you said an elevator speech should not be a summary, but to talk about my book in just a few sentences makes me feel like I’m being invited to waltz on quicksand. I’ve never done anything like this before, and…”

Pardon my interrupting you, boot-quakers, but that last bit probably is not true. If you have ever queried, you actually do have some relevant experience upon which to draw.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, a 3-4 paragraph teaser for a book is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter.

That’s not too astonishing, I hope — 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 REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

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, even though Oprah’s book club has been defunct for quite some time now.

Like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches 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 dissenting thoughts 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. Let’s begin with the strategy.

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 panicking and self-blame 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, 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. Give yourself some time to get good at it.

Feeling better? Excellent. 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?
I’m not just looking for a name here, but characteristics relevant to the story that will make her seem like an interesting person in an interesting situation. Ermintrude is a twenty-seven-year-old North American may well be factually accurate, but you must admit that it’s a heck of a lot less memorable than Wild boar huntress and supermodel Ermintrude is struggling to complete her doctorate in particle physics.

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?
If the central conflict of the book is not about this, shouldn’t it be?

c) What’s standing in the way of her 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?
And no, “Why, it’s me!” is not a sufficient answer. Show that you are an interesting person in an interesting situation.

b) What did you want more than anything else out of that interesting situation?

c) What was standing in the way of your getting it?

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

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
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 particularly accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a particular person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

How? By being specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Yes, you’re trying to give an overall sense here, but the less you generalize, the more memorable your protagonist and situation will seem. Ambrose was a florist with a dream is not uninteresting, but let’s face it, Forced into being a florist by his controlling great-uncle, Ambrose dreams daily of becoming a lion tamer is more likely to make you want to read the book.

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. Mara was an offbeat girl with a problem is significantly less memorable than Mara learned to use her first prosthetic limb when she was three, isn’t it?

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.
That loud thumping sound you just heard reverberating throughout the ether was the jaw of every pitcher who has ever said something like, “It’s THE DA VINCI CODE, but with 21rst-century sheep herding instead of multi-century religious conflict!” hitting the floor. Amongst a certain type of pitcher — typically, the type who picked up the idea somewhere that a pitch and a Hollywood hook are the same thing — drawing parallels with a bestseller, any bestseller, regardless of the aptness of the analogy, is downright common.

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? The elevator speech is not about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is all citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves. Besides, once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is in your magic first hundred words, referring to a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage, 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 mayoral 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, forced by circumstances beyond their control, and 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 sad thing is that the books being pitched this way may not actually have passive protagonists. Honestly, though, 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.

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, language, and vocabulary 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.

Oh, you smile incredulously; you think a funny premise speaks for itself, don’t you, and that it does not require a funny presentation? Au contraire. Nothing kills a funny premise faster than a deadpan delivery, just as a hilarious elevator speech for a serious book would make an agent who represents the ultra-serious think twice about asking to see pages.

Don’t believe that the wrong tone can undermine ? Okay, tell me where you would expect to see these two books shelved in a library:

A womanizing, shallow reporter becomes unstuck in time. Forced to repeat the same day over and over again, he loses hope of ever moving on with his life. In the process, he becomes a better man.

A shy woman with a past moves to Brooklyn and falls in love with her wacky neighbor. When a young Southern writer takes up residence in their offbeat apartment house, he can’t believe what he sees going on! Will he be able to win her heart before her boyfriend tires her to death with his high jinks?

Did you recognize either of those stories, devoid of the tones that characterized them? I’m guessing not, although both of these elevator speeches are factually accurate renditions of the stories in question: the first was the comedy GROUNDHOG DAY. The second was the tragedy SOPHIE’S CHOICE.

Make the tone of the elevator speech match the tone of the book. 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 in the corner of your office 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 you see my point, right? You simply cannot know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you actually 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.

Oh, you may laugh now, but 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, do not use it in your elevator speech. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often use words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; most inveterate readers do. But 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,” some perplexed souls murmur, “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, shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud eventually; 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 to the agent of your dreams, or a few days before, when you still have time to 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. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching to an agent, or days/weeks/months 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 of these principles in action, but that’s a task for another day — like, say, tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XI: the justly dreaded three-sentence pitch, or, this writer and this agent walk into an elevator…

As I may perhaps have mentioned 40 or 50 times throughout the course of this series, the common conception of what a conference pitch should be — three sentences, no more, no less, preferably fired off in a single breath — and what actually occurs in pitch meetings tend to be rather at odds. Even at writers’ conferences where the organizers tell attendees point-blank that if there’s a fourth period in their pitches, no one will still be listening, agents and editors generally expect writers to be able to have actual conversations about their work, not merely to cough up a few rigid memorized lines.

In deference to that reality, and because many first-time pitchers’ greatest fear is freezing up and not being able to say anything at all, I have been devoting much of Pitchingpalooza to helping you become not only a good pitcher, but a writer who sounds professional when discussing her work. That way, no matter what the agent or editor in front of you expects, you will be able to roll with the proverbial punches.

I’m quite aware, though, that sometimes, conference brochure rhetoric can scare prospective pitchers into conniption fits. I must conclude, therefore, that at least some you reading this will be perusing this series in panicky haste, searching frantically at the last minute for a quick how-to for cramming a 400-page novel’s complexities into three short sentences.

You have found it, panicky searchers. Today, I am devoting this entire post to the construction and use of the 3-line pitch.

That does not mean, however, that I’m simply going to hand you a one-size-fits-all formula; generic pitches, like boilerplate query letters, are boring. Instead, we’re going to be talking about how to figure out the best way to present your ideas in this super-brief format. And in order to maximize the number of contexts in which you will be able to use this 3-sentence wonder, I shall also be talking about the 3-sentence elevator speech.

Oh, don’t cringe; I’m not saying that you must buttonhole an agent in an elevator (although you would be astonished at how many elevator speeches are indeed given whilst traveling between the floors of a conference center); it’s merely shorthand for a quick chance encounter turned promotional opportunity. That chance could crop up anywhere on the conference’s grounds, even in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America.

But don’t get antsy if you’re shy: you don’t ever need to say these words out loud at all, if you prefer to promote your work in writing: the species of elevator speech I have in mind 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, an elevator speech is just the ticket; over the next couple of posts, I shall be showing you when and how.

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.

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. Contrary to popular belief, the elevator speech should not be a plot summary. Instead, it is an introduction to the main character(s) — by name, please; they’re more memorable that way — the challenges s/he is facing, and what’s at stake.

An elevator speech is a longish paragraph about your book’s premise, in other words, not its plot. Much less threatening if you think of it that way, isn’t it?

How should this brief introduction to your premise be phrased? If the book in question 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. If you have written a memoir, the past tense and the first person are appropriate.

Does that forest of hands waving in the air indicate that someone out there has a question? “Anne, I’m confused. The definition above sounds a heck of a lot like what the conference website before me seems to think I should be saying in a 2-minute pitch. What’s the difference between an elevator speech and a pitch?”

I don’t blame you for being a tad puzzled; there’s quite a bit of pitching advice floating around out there that makes no distinction whatsoever between the two. But they are not the same thing: while an elevator speech is a pitch, not all pitches are elevator speeches. Nor should they be.

Yes, you read that last bit 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. 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 don’t get your hopes up: 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.)

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 ask politely if it’s okay to pitch before uttering so much as a syllable of it.

“Wait just a minute,” I hear some time-strapped neophyte conference-goers protest. “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, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s not their rule. Almost invariably, conference organizers, not the potential pitch-hearers, set up the 3-sentence maximum. There’s a reason for that: the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry, but the movie industry; agents seldom have much attachment to it.

I still feel some of you out there quailing, however. Here’s something to make you feel better: even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about brevity, 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, buddy — that was 3.5 sentences. Out of the pitching 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. That’s a matter of context and fallen blood sugar, though. 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 publishing world.

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 “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”

That’s right: the elevator speech is 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. It’s only a sentence, after all. In the elevator speech, however, your task is to show that your novel or memoir is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation — or, if it’s nonfiction, that it’s about an interesting, important problem with a fascinating solution.

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 scintillating person caught in a riveting dilemma, or at any rate shown against an absorbing backdrop, you should revise it until it does. Ditto if your nonfiction elevator speech doesn’t make the underlying problem sound vital to solve and interesting to read about solving.

Your elevator speech should establish book’s premise, main character, and primary conflict — and that’s it. For a novel or memoir, it should answer the basic questions:

(1) Who is the protagonist/are you?

(2) What is the problem she/he/you are facing?

(3) How is she/he/you 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 barely enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them on the page.

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. 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.

Out comes the broken record again: an elevator speech should not be a summary; you will drive yourself completely nuts if you try to summarize hundreds of pages of plot or argument in just a few lines.

Oh, I see: that is precisely what you have been trying to do, isn’t it? No wonder you’re stressed about pitching.

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 Tuesday.

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.

So don’t get your hopes up, rules-lawyers. We’re not talking a page of description here; we’re talking a paragraph.

Unfortunately, that’s a necessary admonition. 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 out loud. 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.

Remember, the point in keeping it brief is TO KEEP IT BRIEF, not to satisfy some esoteric punctuation requirement. How brief is brief, you ask? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can’t say your entire elevator speech within the space of two regular breaths, it’s too long.

Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this level of pith? 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 my pitching classes 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 Conference That Shall Not Be Named 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? Or to remind you that no matter how thrilled you are to receive a request for pages from a real, live agent, unless that agent actually asked you to overnight it (very rare, but it happens), you are under no obligation to send requested materials right away. You have time to take a day, a week, or even a month to get those pages submission-perfect.

For the rest of you, I leave to ponder the possibilities until next time. Brainstorm about the best way to present your premise BRIEFLY, not how to cram as many plot points 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.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again, amn’t I? Tune in tomorrow, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part IX: Anne Frank and Godzilla meet cute at the Tour Eiffel, and love blossoms! Or, how to get conceptual without sounding reductionist

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Did some of you find yourself getting just a trifle antsy when I didn’t post yesterday, campers? I couldn’t really blame you, especially if you happen to be in a great big hurry to polish a pitch — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area the weekend after this. It’s eight days away — can you hear Washington State’s collective blood pressure rising at the very thought of it? — and frankly, I have about twice that many posts’ worth of observations to make about pitching.

There goes that blood pressure again. Take some nice, deep breaths, local pitchers-to-be, and let’s think about our options.

First, if you are planning to pitch next week, please 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 the basics at record speed. (I know — how do I come up with those esoteric category names?)

Second, I could ramp up the pace, in the manner of ‘Paloozas past. I’m reluctant to start posting twice per day (and thrice on Sunday!) in mid-summer, because I assume that most of you who are not planning to pitch as early as next week might conceivably want to engage in some leisure activities, get some work done, and/or spend enough time with your families that your kith and kin could pick you out of a police lineup (“That’s she, officer — or that’s what Mom looked like before she took up writing.”) In the midst of one of my hectic ‘Palooza marathons, any of those things could in theory take a back seat to furious reading.

So here is what I propose: let’s take a poll. If you’d like me to pick up the pace, gearing the rest of the series to the assumption that many of you will in fact be pitching the weekend after next, drop me a note in the comments. If, on the other hand, you would feel that boosting my already voluminous blog output would stretch your reading capacities, you need say nothing. I’ll get the hint.

And for those of you who do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever, if you can possibly avoid it — please hang tight, either way. 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. Pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, however 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.
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As in any other business, there are ropes to learn if you want to get published. No shame in that.

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, that sounds interesting, but naturally, 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 will often get 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.

Allow me to repeat that, as it’s hugely important for you to remember as you are walking nervously into a pitch meeting: giving a poor pitch will not hurt your book’s long-term publication process; like inadvertently sending a query addressed to Agenta McMarketpro to Pickyarbiter O’Taste, Jr., the worst that will happen is that you will engender some minor irritation in the person on the receiving end. There are other agents and editors, after all.

Learn what you can from the experience, then pick yourself up, dust the leaves and bracken from your ego, and move on. Doesn’t your book deserve the compliment of persistence?

Yes, yes, I know: when you’re prepping a pitch, it feels as though not only the fate of your book, but the prospects of Western civilization hang on whether you can give a coherent and appealing account of your plot or argument. “It’s not just the idea of sitting face-to-face with a real, live agent that’s so intimidating, Anne,” nail-gnawers all over the Pacific Northwest point out. “It’s the shortness of the darned pitch meeting. I’m a complex person who writes in a complex matter about complex things — how on earth am I supposed to cram several years’ worth of concentrated creative thought into just three sentences?”

Ah, you’re suffering from Pith Petrification. This dire syndrome’s tell-tale symptoms are clearly visible in the hallways of half the literary conferences in North America. Aspiring writers walk 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 you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I am not a big fan this approach, however often conference brochures and websites tout it as the proper — or only — way to pitch a book. 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 or sneeze while she’s in the midst of delivering it.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: people sneeze, and 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 time with some homework. 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 being marketed to readers.

Yes, I know: the major chain bookstore to which you might have hied yourself a year ago may well be closed today. Try not to think about that; find another brick-and-mortar purveyor of books. Given the recent events at Borders and B&N, I’m sure the staff will be delighted to see you.

As fond as I am of public libraries, checking out the new release shelf there is no substitute for browsing at a bookstore. Neither is surfing through the offerings on your favorite online book emporium’s website — and not just because all of us who write might feel just a little bit better about our futures if more people got up from their desks, locked the doors of their respective domiciles behind them, and strolled into the nearest bookstore.

The idea here 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 is that delightful propensity manifested, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

Once you have found the general section in the bookstore where your book will sit one happy day, try to find stories that share characteristics with yours. Is the voice similar? Is the subject matter roughly equivalent? Do your book and the one in front of you both contain long sections of historical flashback?

I don’t mean to tout my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books that resemble yours, you will notice that they all seem to be aimed at a specific group of readers. They will all have something else in common, too.

In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words. Think those words might be ones it might behoove you to consider including in your pitch?

Seriously, marketing efforts are not known for their vast vocabulary. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) When I was handed my first set of bottles, I was laboring under the impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like. As I was new to the game — and, to be completely honest, under 21 at the time, and thus not legally empowered to sample any of the wine I was supposed to be describing — I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine.

Okay, so I wasn’t actually guessing. Having grown up literally in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, I had a certain amount of prior experience nailing down precisely what nuances the palette might find pleasing.

After a week or two of being on the receiving end of some frankly much too long descriptions (some of them would have had to be continued on the next bottle), the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be, honey,” he told me, “and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots to produce accurate descriptions?

He waved away my objections. “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 may be productively applied to the language of a pitch or a query letter: an overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what agents and editors are hoping to hear. Since they 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 concept.

In other words, you’ve probably been working too hard, trying to shoehorn too many extraneous details into your pitch.

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. For the rest of this post, 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.)

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, 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 intricate book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: even if the agent of your dreams is given to twenty-minute conversations with aspiring writers, sometimes, you will have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when the aforementioned 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 mutual introduction 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, of course. (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 this morning. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

I feel the shy quailing, but 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. The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so he will ask to hear more, not to pitch the book all by itself.

And you are going to do that charmingly, professionally, and most of all, courteously. (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?)

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 within a swift single sentence. 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 will ask to hear the entire pitch.

Think of the keynote as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into longing to hear your formal 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.

It is not — and I cannot stress this enough — a pitch proper for a book. No matter how clever a single-sentence keynote is, you will still need to write a pitch (if you are successful in piquing an agent or editor’s interest, anyway). Naturally, 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 so that you may create pitching opportunities.

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 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 at the moment. The point is that in an impromptu first contact with a publishing professional, 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 — but often is — confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks her into the story. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms mixed up all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY — on Mars!”

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

“Queen Elizabeth II finds herself suddenly deposed, penniless, and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day aliens invade!”

It’s no accident that each of the examples 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? Remember, the whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more.

Think about it: 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?

Starting to get the picture? 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 demonstrating my encyclopedic knowledge of 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 would like us to believe. (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 earlier in the series: you can’t presume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your particular subject matter.)

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 sets out to solve 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, I imagine the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand why pith 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 luxurious, page-long descriptions of individual dust motes floating in beams of light pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?”

That’s a great question, mote-lovers, 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.

To put it bluntly, 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, not how likable your protagonist is.

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 positively 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, sunshine.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book overall is to be soothing. 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? Reach for this book!” 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.

Did some eyebrows hit some hairlines just then? Weren’t you aware that both pitching and querying are species of seduction?

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 art as 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 constructing a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution to it.

This works especially well for nonfiction 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 this book will tell you 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 few years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults; a crucial scene in the memoir I was hawking took place at the height of the Ethiopian famine. 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 sounded 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. Oh, and the book’s subject apparently gave up the fight. These things happen.

My point, should you care to know it: 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, harbored an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believed they could 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, interesting hearers in heavy subject matter tends to be harder than attracting them with comedy, 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 or two, 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, so much 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 get 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. realistically, neither could be true.

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

They can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose. 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 verbal delivery is not the same thing as book concept memorability. I once went to a poetry reading 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 into a well-attended reading and declaimed, 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. Yet 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 — I was a sweet young thing at the time — 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 in the room was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, years later, everyone there seems to remember his, ahem, 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. But then, we were all busy getting out of the guy’s line of sight.

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 wrote an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if somebody ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.) But 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.

And, like an agent or editor who has been the object of an inappropriate pitch in a conference bathroom, do I share the horror story on a regular basis? Need I answer that?

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a lot of pitches, and even more Hollywood hooks: too many one-line pitchers concentrate merely on delivery or sounding clever, 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 are 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 her 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!

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

mr-magoo-in-danger

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 latest blog,” Jack 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. “You get ‘em, tiger!”

Tiger wasn’t entirely pleased to hear this reaction. It was flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey in my last post.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of it 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.

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 occupying the world’s computers. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes she 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 and no one in his right mind would want to read his book.

To be clear, being dismissed as having only niche appeal is most emphatically not a comment on the book concept’s quality. It’s not even the same as saying the book won’t sell well. A book that appeals to a niche market does actually have a recognizable audience; it’s merely a smaller audience than the agent is hoping her clients will serve.

That in turn will usually make it harder for the agent to sell it to an editor, unless that editor and publishing house already have a track record selling to that particular niche market. Even if they do, the initial print run is probably going to be small — and since the advance is typically calculated as a function of the size of the initial print run, that generally adds up to a relatively small sale. And since reputable agents make their livings solely by taking a percentage of their clients’ sales…

So if you chose to hear, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” as “Oh, I don’t think I can make any money on that,” no one could blame you. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you should take either to mean that your book doesn’t have significant market appeal — or that it’s not worth your while to keep pitching and querying it.

Why not? Well, as I mentioned last time, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from a pro’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a function of having taken on a book like yours and broken his heart by not being able to sell it; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, he just isn’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of particular demographics 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 generated within the last five years. )

Because the person to whom you will be pitching will not necessarily be an expert on your subject matter, 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 Jack 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, typically.

See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming? Or how many Americans are currently supporting a loved one battling cancer?

That’s likely to be true, incidentally, even if there are quite lot of books on the market on any of these subjects right now. Remember, no agent or editor works with every kind of book; no agency professes to cover the entire literary marketplace, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible. They are 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.

Before anyone out there starts feeling superior about her own far-ranging reading habits, 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.

Oh, you may laugh, but most pitchers’ expectations about their hearers’ interests are both unrealistic and unfair. 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 particular 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, that mind-numbing species of tiredness that stems from hearing pitch after pitch several days in a row.

Heck, even your fellow conference attendees may start to succumb by the last day of the conference. After the tenth response to, “So what do you write?” even rather dissimilar books can start to sound sort of the same.

Let’s face it, tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Actually, if my recent odyssey through the medical establishment is any indication, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

“Which knee was it again?” I have been asked countless times.

In a medical office as well as a pitch meeting, sarcasm is the least effective way to deal with inattentiveness. No matter how tempting it may be to say, “Gee, Sherlock, do you think it could it be the one in the meter-long brace?” the way to win friends and influence people is generally to pretend with all of one’s might that one has never heard that particular question before.

Oh, you may laugh now. You will thank me, however, when you step into an agent’s seventh pitch meeting of the day and find yourself asked by a weary listener, “So this is a mystery, right?” after you have just spent five minutes describing a plot containing fifteen grisly murders, a vivid description of a detective’s frantic search for the killer, and a blow-by-blow of a suspense-filled trial of the wrong man. Instead of blurting out, “Weren’t you listening? I spent six years writing this thing!” you will know to say politely, “Why, yes, it is a mystery.”

Leave it at that. Your mother will be proud of your nice manners, and so will I.

Because it is so very easy for even the most intelligent, market-savvy, and demographically-minded of pitch-hearers to succumb to pitch fatigue, it is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for the exhausted (or, in the case of a query, for a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. The best way by far: quantify it.

Yes, I am talking actual digits here. Because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the concrete sums, wherever possible. Statistics are easier to dismiss. Besides, 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.

Oh, you don’t think that might be a problem? Quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 311,836,375. 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, and thus might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your book.

You could state it that way, of course, and sound like every other pitcher aware of that particular survey. It is indeed an impressive percentage — if you happen to know how many people there are currently residing within the nation’s borders. Do you really want to predicate your pitch on the assumption that your hearer will be (a) aware of the size of the population, (b) able to do long division in his head, and (c) not too groggy to perform (b) correctly?

“That’s a lot of people,” the pitch-fatigued pro murmurs, rubbing his aching forehead; those fluorescent lights in conference centers have been known to trigger migraines. “Keep on talking — I’m just going to chug this entire carafe of coffee.”

In the blink of a bloodshot eye, what should have been a show-stopping statistic falls by the wayside. Let’s try another means of incorporating it into the pitch, to see if we can render it a trifle more memorable.

One-third of 311,836,375 is 103,945,458. Let’s assume for the moment that the ghost survey is correct (and it may no longer be; it was conducted quite some time ago). Let’s also set aside the undeniable fact that no survey actually covers the entire population (just try to elicit a baby’s opinions on the debt ceiling) and ignore what any sociologist would happily tell you, that how a question is asked can have a profound effect on the answer. (“Do you believe in ghosts?” would undoubtedly provoke a different response than simply screaming, “AAAAGH! Behind you! Is that a ghost?” and counting everyone who turned around as a believer.) Let’s proceed, in short, as if this statistic were 100% reliable.

You are going to be stressed out when you pitch, though, right? I’m guessing that you will not want to rely upon your recall of a nine-digit number. So what easy-to-remember alternative might you try? How about this: “Over a hundred million Americans believe in ghosts, and there are surprisingly few realistic ghost stories currently on the market.”

You could also say, “33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in my subject matter,” but that’s not nearly as impressive. Trust me on this one: to a former English major, 103.9 million people is going to sound a heck of a lot larger than a third of the population.

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could possibly 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 103.9 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 450 million sales worldwide, and that’s counting the translations into 67 languages.

Hold it right there — you were fantasizing about a hundred million people buying three copies of your book each, were you not? I hope for your sake that turns out to be the case, but to an agent or editor, that kind of expectation is just going to sound like wishful thinking.

You don’t need to argue that all of those 103.9 million will buy your book — just that as a group, they will be 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.

Was that blinding flash an indication that light bulbs are 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 to buy my book even once? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I happen to be pitching at the moment that my book has a genuine shot at attracting a hefty percentage of those potential readers?

Glad you asked, gun-jumpers. Let’s talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Oh, stop groaning; this is going to make you feel better about your book’s chances. 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 you are planning to pitch or query. 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 would render the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread to the right reader.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment of a pitch, 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.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, 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.

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 ongoing desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors so that the Author! Author! community takes the literary world by storm and we can all sit around celebrating together? Wait — what was my objection again?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, taking the time to prepare such a list works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my nonfiction-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their proposals. 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. Both times, the agent in question found her/himself reaching for that page while talking about the books on the phone.

Think of it this way: a 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 a little good P.R.?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely need to prepare before you pitch or query; it’s merely a spectacularly 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 an agent who habitually reads this blog — or did when she was a Millicent. I hear from readers in all walks of life.

But I digress. Even if you are not planning to pitch, query, or propose anytime soon, it is still worth your time to constructing a list of selling points for your book. Heck, it’s even worth doing if you are still in the throes of writing the book: the exercise forces you to picture your ideal reader and her reading preferences.

Another fringe benefit: 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 nonfiction book proposal, even.

Yet ask your garden-variety 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? 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 their particular 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 it up. As a battle-scarred pitching coach and veteran of more writers’ conferences than readily come to mind, 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.

Sometimes, tears accompany these accounts. “…and after getting rejected 17 lines, I had more or less given up on the book, but then I thought I would try one last query. When the agent asked for pages, I got so excited that I sent out the requested pages by overnight mail, so they would get there before the agent changed her mind, and then I waited eight months! Eight! All that time, I didn’t want to send out any more queries, just in case this agent wanted my book. So by the time she wrote and said that she just didn’t think she could sell it in the current market, I barely had the energy to completely rewrite the thing before sending out another flotilla of queries. But since 18 agents have said that the book is no good…”

Stop. Take a deep breath. In the first place, submissions get rejected for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with whether the writing is any good. So do queries, and so do pitches. (In fact, rejections based upon last two cannot possibly be reflection of the book’s writing, unless the agency’s submission requirements asked you to send a few pages or the agent asked on the spot to see a writing sample.) In the second place, no one who handles manuscripts for a living seriously believes anymore that the number of times a book has been rejected is a particularly good predictor of what will happen with its next pitch or query.

And third, complaining about your rejection history is what your fellow writers are for; cultivate them, for only they will understand the pain of a rejection completely. When discussing your work with the pros, the last thing on earth you should mention is how difficult the submission process has been for you emotionally. This is not a therapy session. It may seem harmless enough, venting to a seemingly sympathetic stranger, but remember, you are in a pitch meeting in order to try to convince the agent or editor in front of you that you are a serious writer, one whose professional future she should take seriously. A tearful or resentful writer who would apparently rather waste time complaining than discussing his book is, while hardly uncommon, is more likely to be remembered for histrionics than for even the most brilliantly-conceived storyline.

Yet conference after conference, pitchers get so worked up over having to talk about their books that they flat-out forget why they are there. Especially if the agent in question happens to be nice to them; it’s very, very common to mistake a sympathetic listener for a potential friend. Let the jabbering begin!

On second thought, let’s not. Not only will constructing a list help you avoid the pitfall of getting off track– 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 indicate a certain level of surprise? “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.”

Actually, it’s rarely that simile — 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 an indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. It’s a good sign. So you might want to be prepared for the agent of your dreams to ask something like, “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 make active preparations, 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. “Please forgive me for taking up your time.”

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). 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.

The pros also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with the manuscript’s not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace. That’s not always a fair assessment, of course, but since the very premise of verbal pitching is the certainly debatable contention that someone who can write well will necessarily be able to talk about it well — and in publishing-friendly terms, too — you can’t really blame an agent for advising a writer barely able to stammer out a sentence to try again at next year’s conference.

The selling point sheet helps keep 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! A list of concrete facts about you and your book. Who was the clever soul forward-thinking enough to provide you with that?

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there muttering. “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, 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’s 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 for your agent 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? Why will people want to read this book, as opposed to what is already on the market? What does the book or you as a human being offer to readers that no other document or author does?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means I should list 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.)

Include 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. 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 your novel’s subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? What qualities or life experiences might those readers share, other than a laudable propensity to curl up with a good book?

Try thinking of the book as though someone else wrote it; what might you tell someone else about a book you really loved? 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 her to schedule the author for an interview?

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 nonfiction 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. He is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara fourth 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 things that go boom.

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, providing the basis for her protagonist’s skill in murderously wielding a scalpel.

(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?

The honor need not be related to your book’s subject matter, though; the point is that there are already people out there who consider you wonderful enough to be recognized for it. At least some of them will buy your book. 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, definitely bring that up.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. (If you don’t know why, I assign you the interesting homework of attending any five randomly-selected author readings. You’d be astonished at how many people have a hard time reading out loud.) If you have done a public readings of your work, include that, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (Which quite possibly explains the phenomenon I described in my last parenthetical aside.)

Some possible examples:

Paris Hilton writes a regular column on hog-wrangling for FARM JOURNAL.

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! I Can’t Hear You! has drawn crowds for years on six 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!

Pitchingpalooza, Part VI: the book market’s a banquet of possibilities, and most poor pitchers are starving to death

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Still hanging in there, campers? How delightfully brave and intrepid of you. Here I am, expecting you to swallow a whole lot of rather unpleasant truths about marketing in great big gulps, and you just plow ahead with me. 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 give a face-to-face pitch — specifically, the vast majority who never attend writers’ conferences, literary parties, or have opportunities to talk about their books in public — please, for your own sakes, do not simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon.

Why not? Learning how to give a verbal pitch well will not only help you present your work more professionally in any context; it will also render you a much desirable cocktail party invitee.

Oh, sure, that seems like a shallow incentive. “I resent it enough that I have to learn how to present my book well to agents and editors,” those of you clinging to the high ground mutter. “I want to be judged on my writing, and here I am, squandering my time on figuring out how to pitch and query. And on top of that, you want me to waste still more energy worrying about how I sound to anyone else?”

Yes, yes, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers feel that having to market their book at all is a monumental imposition. That’s a view that makes little sense to folks in the industry — unless a writer seriously believes that Publishing Fairy shows up the instant the first draft of a brilliant book is completed, leading an agent on a leash like a St. Bernard, how else would the agent of his dreams learn of the manuscript’s existence other than by writer’s self-promotional efforts? — but it’s certainly understandable. Writing a book was — and is — a lot of work.

But it’s just a fact that the average writer causes herself a lot of unnecessary stress by avoiding coming up with a simple, direct means of describing her book in under two minutes — because, let’s face it, writers are expected to give brief, entertaining overviews of their work all the time. If we could harness all of the chagrin felt nationally by aspiring writers struggling to define their work in social situations alone, we could build a perfect 1:48 scale replica of the Taj Mahal outside every bookstore in the United States in under a month.

Don’t believe me? Okay, hands up, anyone who has ever been asked by a stranger, “Oh, you write? What’s your book about?” and ended up giving a 45-minute blow-by-blow account of the plot to some poor soul who was only trying to be polite? Your heart shriveled up like a prune, didn’t it, while you watched that nice person’s eyes glaze over? You didn’t think of pretending to choke on an olive until you had already made it past the chase scene in Chapter 28, and by then, you figured you might as well just finish.

Two hands up if you have ever stumbled into the opposite faux pas, answering the question by turning bright pink and muttering, “Um, it’s sort of…autobiographical, based on a true story,” changing the subject so suddenly that your questioner assumed that your memoir must have been about a prison break, and you must still be on the lam. This is particularly embarrassing if one happens to blurt out this sentence to someone remotely affiliated with the publishing industry, who is all too likely to inform you huffily that all memoirs are autobiographical and thus based upon true stories — the credible ones, at least — and that what he was asking you is what had happened in your life that makes you believe that a reader will want to follow you through 400 pages.

Oh, and you might want to avoid telling that guy you’re writing a fiction novel, unless you’re just dying to hear a 20-minute lecture on how much this phrase bugs professional readers. (All novels are fiction, you see.)

I’ll stop now, as presumably, you’d have to run to the neighbors to borrow another hand to raise. For now, let’s just agree that a savvy writer and reasonable human being would prefer not to be caught in either of these scenarios unprepared.

“Ah,” the shy amongst you cry, “I can see why a writer foolish enough to venture out into public AND to admit to having produced a book to someone who might conceivably be able to help bring it to publication might find having a pre-written speech helpful for moments like this. I, however, am of the ilk of aspiring writer who intends not to breathe a word about my book in public space (whether it be construed in the Rousseauian or Habermasian senses) until I already have a publication contract in hand. Then I shall astonish kith, kin, and bystander by abruptly revealing my status as an author, and everyone who ever thought mean thoughts about me will stand up and applaud.”

Ah, that old scheme; scratch any three aspiring writers, and you’ll find one bent upon keeping her writing a secret until it’s successful. Furthermore, she’s been determined to follow this strategy ever since the fourth grade, when she read about Jo March doing it in LITTLE WOMEN.

Oh, you don’t think many writers regard Jo as a role model for marketing? Think about it: she scribbles — Alcott’s word — in secret in a literal attic, producing her fantastic tales of woe and uproar and quietly submits them for publication (to a single entity, no less; no strategic mass marketing for her). Heck, she only admits to her best friend that she’s doing it at all, and forces him to drag the truth out of her at that.

Forgive the indulgence of an extended excerpt. I’m guessing that even those of you who did not grow up with the March girls will find both her hopes and her logic familiar:

“You won’t say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“We’ll, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children, for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest until I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

“It won’t fail, Why, Jo, your stories are works of Shakespeare, compared to half the rubbish that is published every day. Won’t it be fun to see them in print, and shan’t we feel proud of our authoress?”

Jo’s eyes sparkled, for it is always pleasant to be believed in, and a friend’s praise is always sweeter than a dozen newspaper pulls.

Come on: absent the audience of poultry, you’ve probably had virtually this conversation with a significant other of some stripe. Feel free to take a moment to sigh nostalgically for the days when it took only a week, not six months or a year, to hear back on a submission.

Then, once you have recovered from the inevitable fit of pique, as Aunt Louisa would have called it, over how much more difficult it is to get published now than 150 years ago, join me for the immensely gratifying second part of this common writerly fantasy. In true fairy tale fashion, it occurs just a few pages after that last scene.

In a few minutes, Jo bounced in, laid herself on the sofa, and affected to read.

“Have you anything interesting there?” asked Meg with condescension.

“Nothing but a story! Won’t amount to much, I guess,” returned Jo, carefully keeping the name of the paper out of sight.

I’ll spare you the succeeding section, where she blandishes her sisters into begging her to read the story aloud — writers may be notoriously insecure as a group, but we are tricky, are we not? — as well as the praise the latter give after her dramatic reading. Suffice it to say that Meg cries. Then comes the cream:

“Who wrote it?” asked Beth, who had caught a glimpse of Jo’s face.

The reader suddenly sat up, cast away the paper, displaying a flushed countenance, and, with a funny mixture of solemnity and excitement, replied in a loud voice, “Your sister.”

“You?” cried Meg, dropping her work.

“It’s very good,” said Amy critically.

“I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!” and Beth ran to hug her sister, and exult over this splendid news.

Dear me, how delighted they all were! How Meg wouldn’t believe it till she saw the words “Miss Josephine March” actually printed in the paper; how graciously Amy criticized the artistic parts of the story, and offered hints for a sequel, which unfortunately couldn’t be carried out, as the hero and heroine were dead; how Beth got excited, and skipped and sang with joy; how Hannah came in to exclaim “Sakes alive, well, I never!” in great astonishment at “that Jo’s doin’s”; how proud Mrs. March was when she knew it; how Jo laughed with tears in her eyes, as she declared that she might as well be a peacock and be done with it; and how the Spread Eagle might be said to flap his wings triumphantly over the House of March, as the paper passed from hand to hand.

That’s such a pretty fantasy that I don’t have the heart to puncture it right away; I can barely muster the wherewithal to deplore that incorrectly-used terminal semicolon or shake my head over the unfortunately-named publication in which Jo’s first short story appeared. (And in a book for young girls, too!) Nor shall I linger upon how astoundingly judgmental Jo’s future husband will be about precisely this kind of tale, a tsk-tsking disapproval of thrillers that dominates all of the movie versions of LITTLE WOMEN, despite the fact that Louisa May Alcott supported her entire family with such stories for several years.

Here’s how judgmental her diary was on the subject: Sold two of my blood-and-thunder stories. Paid winter’s coal bill.

Writing for a market, you see, is not a new phenomenon; Alcott was reportedly appalled when her publisher told her that if she wanted to make some serious money, she should write a book for girls. She didn’t even like girls. She did like to eat, however, and so did her family, so she, in her own words, elected to “make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

Thus was born the classic description of the sweet first tastes of writerly success. The writer labors in invisible silence until the point of being discovered — and then everybody, but everybody, is God-awfully impressed.

As charming as this fantasy is, and as reluctant as I am to burst anyone’s bubble (but that doesn’t seem to be stopping me from doing it), in my rather extensive experience with first-time authors, this is not how the revelation generally goes. Oh, our modern Jo may well write a novel in private and even not complain out loud about the agent-seeking process. (It would require a Herculean effort, of course, but technically, it’s possible.) She might well manage to keep mum until the happy day that she lands an agent.

And when she makes that astonishing announcement, seven-eighths of her acquaintance will say, “Wow! So when is the book coming out?”

Rather than basking in well-deserved triumph, our poor Jo finds herself explaining endlessly to people who don’t understand how publishing works that the major U.S. houses do not consider unagented fiction or book proposals (check their websites), so she absolutely must have an agent. Then, as her previously jubilant kith and kin try with varying levels of success to hide their disappointment over the rather large differential between what they thought had just happened and what actually did, Jo will attempt to explain why landing an agent is both incredibly difficult and a very, very good thing.

Not exactly Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes, is it?

While I’m in the bubble-bursting business, I might also add that she’s likely to find herself similarly deflated when a publishing house acquires the book: “What do you mean, I won’t be able to buy it for two years?” “What do you mean, your advance is not large enough to permit your taking any time off work?” is another popular exclamation. And if she persists in not preparing her vast and no doubt affectionate acquaintance for the radically changing realities of the literary marketplace, she should steel herself at publication time for a multi-part chorus of “Wait — why do you have to promote the book? Doesn’t your publisher have a marketing department?”, “You have to set up your own book readings?”, “What do you mean, publishers seldom pay for book tours these days?”, and, of course, the ever-popular, “You have a book out? You should go on television.”

I can go on like this for days, you know. Starting to reconsider whether it’s really worth it to spare your nearest and dearest the sight of how hard it is to complete a novel, let alone land an agent?

No? Okay, consider this: hiding one’s manuscript under the proverbial bushel also presents certain promotional disadvantages. Being reluctant to talk about one’s work renders it quite a bit more difficult to meet other writers and learn from their querying and submission mistakes, for instance. Isolated writers tend to feel rejection more; there’s no one with whom to compare notes and notice that pretty much all rejections use the same phrasing.

Oh, you thought sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this story was a personalized response?

Learning to talk comfortably about your book in market terms will also 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 describing your manuscript partially in terms of its target readership. It’s a heck of a lot easier to pitch or query a book if you have already devoted some serious thought to why that reader really wants to read your book, rather than any other currently on the market.

In fact, I recommended that you go even further. I asked all of you out there — and not, as the issue is usually framed, merely the nonfiction writers — to figure out why the world NEEDS your book. Specifically. And in more complex terms than a muttered, “Well, I think it’s pretty well-written…”

I felt some of you cringing at the grandiloquence of that question, but don’t be afraid to think of your little book in those terms. Doesn’t the advent of any 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. We help the species understand itself.

But if you will forgive an abrupt, bumpy descent from the golden glow of Parnassus to the squalid fluorescent lighting and crammed-together tables characteristic of conference pitch sessions, that’s not the primary reason you should walk into any pitching situation having already identified your target readership. Yes, who is likely to want to read your book is useful information to include in your pitch (and yes, yes, we’re getting to how to do it) and query letter, but it also invariably pays to walk into any writers’ conference 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; this is not a lung endurance test. Rather, the aim is to be able to present your work intelligently and professionally in a variety of promotional contexts.

Besides, 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 — and that they actually have to make a living selling their clients’ books, rather than simply being able to take on any writer they happen to like as an exercise in non-remunerative literature propagation..

Being the writer who appears to get even one of those last two points would render you something of a novelty at most literary conferences, incidentally.

Last time, 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 their literate hearts, but potential readers with a concrete reason to evince a future interest in some aspect of the story you are telling.

Are those far-off sounds of explosion indicative of a few blown minds out there in the ether? “But Anne,” gasp those of you unaccustomed to thinking of your writing as having any value to humanity except as, well, writing, clutching at your bleeding ears, “I write fiction. What possible target reader could I have other than readers already fond of books like mine?”

Well, even the most personal literary fiction, just like the most intimate memoir, is about something other than all of those pretty sentences, 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.

Oh, those potential readers might not already be combing the literature section at a liquidating Borders (sniff!) to find the one novel among thousands that gives a truly vivid depiction of the fine art of bricklaying. But like the rest of us, those mah-jongg players, bricklayers, and Morris dancers have friends, family, and Secret Santas who read — and who like to give books as presents.

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

All of which is to say: 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 your pitch or query, you’re going to have to get specific. To build upon yesterday’s example, let’s say you’ve written a scintillating 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 predispose them to identify with Tina.

That’s a heck of a lot more persuasive, from an agent’s point of view, than Suzette’s merely pointing out that daughters of divorced parents might conceivably resonate with the protagonist’s struggles.

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? If her sexually-generous sister Midge constantly appears with hilarious tales of the masses she has been warming, why wouldn’t the sisters, friends, and coworkers of ladies with Midge’s proclivities want to giggle over the parallels between the novel and certain water-cooler gossip?

Heck, I know inveterate book-buyers who would fall all over themselves to purchase such a book for the Midge in their lives. She has to be alone to read sometime.

Okay, so that last demographic may be a trifle hard to document, but 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, then, 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 busy way along 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?”

Oh, Jo. 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 fifteen 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 nonfiction book proposals, so everyone from economists to memoirists tend to be steeled to the necessity.) Heck, most agents would not have routinely spouted this information.

Even today, you could certainly 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 the exceedingly high probability that a busy publishing professional will hear a pitch or read a query and think, “This book 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.

There are a couple of problems with this response, logically speaking. First, the literary market changes all the time; what is widely considered niche market fodder today may well be the hot trend of next year. (I don’t advise pointing this out to an agent or editor who has just rejected your pitch; 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, when I first came up with this example, 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.

Today, the numbers are even more startling. In a recent survey, one out of 7 Americans reported having lost a parent or sibling before the respondent turned 20. 73% of adult children of deceased parents feel that their lives would have been significantly better if they had not been bereaved so young, and most say that they would trade a year of their own lives for the opportunity to spend a single day with that parent again.

Terribly sad, isn’t it? But 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: the pros tend to 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. Unless an editor happens to be the Amazing Kreskin, acquiring a book always involves speculation.

Would it make you feel better to know that 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 no more than 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 the memoir it purported to be?)

To render these rejections all the more impressive, these books, all first novels, had a hard time back when it was significantly easier to get published than it is now. 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 a home with an agent today, let alone a publisher? And yet can you even picture the literary 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?

If you were Richard Hooker today, you would be wise to 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. 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 — and do it quickly, before budget tightening causes these invaluable people to be laid off. 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. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff is amazing. Send them flowers.)

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 afterward. “I called and asked,” this earnest soul will cry with ire, “but they said they couldn’t help me.”

When prodded, every stomper turns 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. (And I can already tell you that number will be round. Very round.) 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 about your target readership, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, 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 query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

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

So if you started to describe 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 on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or 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 ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

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 or bleary-eyed Millicent 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 and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it 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, even the most patient agent 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.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description 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, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are 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, but publishing is a business, after all.)

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: perspective 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. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

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

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “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? Okay, 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, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or 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 before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view 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 throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? 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 query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part X: making the book sound like a real page-turner

Did everyone have a delightful Labor Day weekend — or, even better, one filled with productive writing and/or querying time?

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst.

The last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, that’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book, or even an exciting one.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound so. It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the books being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query letter is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is.

Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along: realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a book’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many samples out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues. But first, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?

Anyone being kept up at night by any of those, or experiencing any difficulties in putting one or more into practice? If so, please speak up — my goal here is to be helpful.

While you’re framing your questions, let’s get back to the imperative to be interesting.

(29) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Get the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(30) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

(30) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(31) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA. Today, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem?

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(32) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Avoiding the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses: on an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(33) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in earlier posts (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(34) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder.

(35) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

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Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

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I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

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But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

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And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

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Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

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FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.

How to write a really good query letter, part IX, in which you will repeat after me until you believe it: there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent…

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As promised, we’re nearing the end my series on how to write a better-than-average query letter — if, by the end of Labor Day week, your query letter is not polished to a high gloss, I shall not be to blame.

What’s on the agenda after that? Well, as much as I would like to switch our discussion back to craft immediately thereafter — yes, yes, I know: I’m pining for it, too, and I have a dangerously tall stack of reader questions to revisit — I’m aware that many of you will be sending out requested materials this month. (Congratulations, successful pitchers and queriers!) So although I took a brief run at the topic just before I started this series, I shall be revisiting it at greater length, addressing such burning issues as is there a proper running order for a submission packet?what kind of box should I ship my manuscript in? and the ever-popular what the heck is a SASE, anyway? After that, I will be taking a quick jaunt through the ins and outs of crafting a Millicent-intriguing synopsis, completing my guided tour of the query packet.

I know, I know: not scintillating, perhaps, but definitely practical. If you have any lingering questions on the subject that you’d like me to address, the next week or so would be a dandy time to leave a comment on the subject.

You know how much I enjoy being thorough. Let’s turn our attention back to query letter diagnostics.

And already eyes across the English-speaking world roll. “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” the time-strapped cry. “No offense, Anne, but you’ve been making me concentrate so intensely on a single piece of paper that every fiber of my being ties itself in a sailor’s knot at the very mention of a query. On top of everything you’ve pointed out here, I’m also going to have to do some research on each of the agents to whom I intend to address my highly-personalized queries. PLEASE tell me that I won’t need to write an entirely fresh missive for each one.”

Not entirely, no: quite a few paragraphs will probably be recyclable, unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Because like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

Thus this series: the goal here is not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these are not generalists.

Which means, to put it bluntly, that while their Millicents share common pet peeves, they are all looking for different things in a query letter.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It’s as simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I have been going over here tends to work well; it has a proven track record across many book categories.

However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

A strategic-minded querier can, however, avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, just after Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1.

Trust me, all of those New Year’s resolution-fulfillers will provide her with more than enough reading material to keep her cross and rejection-happy for a few weeks. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then. Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

Frankly, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass in the margins of my missive — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

To tell you the truth, this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like many writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know.

But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you CAN control. Speaking of which, let’s recap our checklist so far.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

Everyone happy with those? Taking that stunned silence for a no, I shall press forward.

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
This is true of submissions as well: while honourjudgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are technically incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border.

Tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience: the agent. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?
You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms. Like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book you are shopping around.

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry use.

The fact is, any agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it up front. (If you’re unclear on why, please see my earlier post on the importance of identifying the book category in a verbal pitch.) So go ahead and state it up front.

If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance Travelogue or Time-Travel Thriller.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such names are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller be bad?

I hate to break this to you, but in quite a number of ways. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that he’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that he’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put MY book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course; agents make their clients commit all the time. But being stubborn about it isn’t going to help you convince Millicent that you’re a professional, either.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. Which is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are marketed.”

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail next week, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.

Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a NF author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means — and I do seem to being blunt quite a bit today, don’t I? — that a nonfiction query letter that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected.

And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir. I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter — the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month.

Is this the last of the query checklist? Not by a long shot, my friends, but as we’ve all been working so hard this week, I have a little treat in store for you tomorrow, an inspirational little tale to help you keep your eye on the reason that you’re going to all of this trouble in the first place.

So don’t forget to tune in tomorrow — and, of course, to keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VIII: spinning one heck of a good yarn — for the space of a paragraph

wildfire
Before I launch back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, allow me to pause a moment to express the hope that all of the writers living in the path of the California wildfires are and will continue to be safe, sound — and if they have to evacuate, either did or will have time to take copies of their works-in-progress with them.

To those who did not: the hearts of all of us here at Author! Author! go out to you.

In honor of what I devoutly hope were very few lost manuscripts, would the rest of you do me a favor, please? Would you make a complete copy of your writing files now and store it in a safe place? Or if you’re not in a position to do that at the moment, will you please take the precautionary step of e-mailing the files to yourself as Word attachments?

Weren’t expecting that last one, were you?

It’s not ideal, of course, and it isn’t really a substitute for making complete backups early and often. I wanted to mention it, though, because if one were in a hurry — if, say, one’s governor had just ordered the evacuation of one’s neighborhood and one had to choose between saving the family photos, the deed to the house, or the heavy computer — it is something one could conceivably do within just a couple of minutes. It would also — and this is no small consideration in an emergency situation — create back-up copies of one’s work that would be accessible from another computer.

Say, one far, far away from where anything was likely to burst into flame anytime soon.

I’m just saying. Of the many, many hideously sad results of a home or business lost to flames, the manuscript whose only copy was on a lost computer is one of the few against which a prudent person can prepare in advance — and one of the many that can strike prudent people who have prepared.

How so? Well, tell me: where is your primary computer? How close to it do you store your back-ups? And if they’re in the same room, or even the same structure, how long would it take you to reconstruct your book if you couldn’t get to them?

In the longer term, of course, regular back-ups by more conventional methods probably make more sense. I have a terrific little thingamabob that automatically backs up my entire hard disk from time to time, and it’s small enough to shove into a coat pocket if I suddenly had to dash from the building. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s certainly portable.

Less expensive but more trouble: saving back-ups to disks or DVRs. Admittedly, it’s kind of a pain to burn a new one after each significant revision (rule of thumb: if you couldn’t reconstruct what you’ve changed in your manuscript since your last back-up, either from memory or by reading through the backed-up version, it’s time to make another back-up), but disks are easily stashable. So much so that you could store a set somewhere other than the building that houses your computer.

Sound paranoid? Perhaps. But again: how much of your manuscript would you have if your current computer went up in flames? Or got stolen? Or even simply had a hard disk meltdown?

Please, don’t let your only copy get lost forever. Take the time to make regular back-ups, and either don’t store them right next to your computer or encase them in a fireproof box. Someday, you may be very, very happy that you did.

And to those who did not get the chance to take preventative action: again, my condolences.

Back to work. For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the past few days going over some common query letter faux pas, so all of us here in the Author! Author! community may avoid them. Let’s recap our checklist so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

Everyone comfortable with all of those? Or, if comfortable is too strong a word, at least no longer breaking out in hives at the mere mention of these concepts?

Good. Let’s move on.

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed summary paragraph in a query letter. So if the book is funny, go for a laugh here; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, don’t you? “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series — nay, in this post — that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the summary paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/my whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that ONLY the summary paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE query letter were written in an entertaining tone. But let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the platform paragraph of a query letter into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it’s hard to turn that into a giggle line.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your book is unique?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
This one should sound at least a little bit familiar — I brought it up back in Pitching 101. (That seems so long ago, doesn’t it, now that the weather has calmed down a bit?) All too often, aspiring writers will construct their summary paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers.

There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents who screen submissions.

But it doesn’t mean that a summary paragraph that demonstrates that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Take a gander:

The protagonist is a troubled man, caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Not the best descriptive paragraph, is it? All of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, but tell me: what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why? Well, the presentation of the storyline is distancing; she would much, much rather that the querier simply told the story directly. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner she’s far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spot some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Because neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane: the goal of the summary paragraph is to show what the book is ABOUT, not how it is written.

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss the agent likes to say, it all depends on the writing. Let the narrative tricks come as a delightful surprise.

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

If not, is the summary paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. No matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if your query letter does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript. Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query letter is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your query letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point.

And here’s the good news: once again, if those of you who did your homework throughout the recent Pitching 101 series are already well equipped to tackle #19: you’ve already sat down and figured out who will be buying your book and why, right? If you have not assembled a list of selling points for your book, there are a series of posts that will walk you through it relatively painlessly, cleverly hidden under the category YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS at right.

Stop groaning. Yes, it’s more work, but if it’s any consolation, it’s great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?
One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know where this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

Trust me, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

The second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, come on — you thought that they wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they think the first version is inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so both examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the BOOK, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #17, is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

As I mentioned last time, most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has.

If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the summary paragraph as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not take the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic applies to any type of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph. If you have written a steamy romance, select the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail.

And so forth. Again, this is basic pitching strategy, right?

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty close to self-evident.

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow tomorrow, of course.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VII: differentiating yourself from the rest of the crowd intent upon storming the castle

angry-mob
Still hanging in there, everyone? Or are you getting a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail?

Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you had the opposite reaction: visiting the site, glancing at the title, exclaiming, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that!” and clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum. Who could blame the hasty retreaters? For the past few posts, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, and unbound manuscripts, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent the agency screener rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

You hadn’t been thinking of your query letter as part of an implacable daily onslaught, had you? Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the inevitability of a query letter’s being part of that perpetually angry mob — and how to avoid sounding in your query letter as if you are wielding the third pitchfork from the left.

Why might that be to your advantage, you ask? Novelty, among other things: you wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. (If you don’t know why a query letter’s sounding generic is a bad idea, please see my earlier post in this series on the dreaded cloning effect.)

The other reason is — wait for it — professionalism. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad summary statements (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (Dear Agent: please read my book) makes their work seem professional. If the query reads just like what they’ve seen online, they reason, it has to be good, right?

Not necessarily. Typically, if it reads that way, it’s just like a good half of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle. Next!

But when a query is unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. For a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

Why? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing lurching about Geneva belongs to him. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F to open the door, she’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying her secret laboratory where he dabbles in revivifying the dead.

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to catch her eye, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the angry mob’s attempts to get her attention.

Okay, so that analogy was a trifle forced; very few of the screeners of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latte, right?

My point is, in the face of a constant barrage of queries, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. Our goal in this series is to rid your letter of the most common rejection-provokers.

And before anyone says it: yes, yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.

To pull out my broken record again: please, before you ask yourself the following questions, read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem.

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time.

And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist trail. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much in it?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

Everyone clear on those? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not. While you’re formulating questions, let’s move on.

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?
This may seem like a draconian question, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

I have been dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. (Yet another reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 1-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear those timorous about storming the castle cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”

Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.

However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic.

In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either. With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query.

Actually, it’s pretty much always a mistake to send an attachment with either a query or a submission; unless the agent specifically requests it, it will almost always go unread. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.

In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (If the very idea of producing such a synopsis makes you wince, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category on the list at right.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.

Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
This is a tough one for most queriers — as we discussed in my recent Pitching 101 series, the overwhelming majority of queriers and pitchers resort to vague generalities in order to cram as much plot into that short descriptive paragraph as humanly possible.

The result: a whole lot of summaries that sound pretty generic. One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Not the best strategy when one is trying to convince an agent that the book in question is DIFFERENT from what’s already on the market. As in a pitch, the first commandment is thou shalt not bore, and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

So why not spice things up with details that only you could devise?

Remember, too, that a query letter, like everything else an aspiring writer submits to an agency, is a writing sample; you’re going to want your summary to show off your well-honed storytelling skills (for fiction or creative NF) and/or argumentative acumen (for NF). In addition, you’re going to want to make your story concept or argument sound fresh.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we pull all that off in a brief paragraph? In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words. It’s still a great strategy.

As I argued in an earlier post on pitch construction, what makes a book summary memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not usually its overall arc but its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details. Remember, your goal in the query letter is not to tell the book’s entire plot or reproduce its primary argument, but to present its premise in a way that invites further scrutiny.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

<>Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle. On the rebound from a ten-year marriage with Parisian bassoonist Serge, Gisèle scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say clichè-ridden.

Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil’s…

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

Worn out from that extensive compare-and-contrast exercise? Let’s take a break with a simple yes or no question.

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

Oh, and before it slips my mind: all too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

That was restful, wasn’t it? I could shift back to the knottier questions, but I think that’s enough for you to think about for the nonce.

As long as you remember this: what makes a manuscript or book proposal great is not how similar it is to already-published books, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché— or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t. In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them.

But as you do, never forget that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part V: before you pop that query into the mail, let’s listen to a few golden oldies

animated envelope cat-mailanimated envelope

We’ve just been zipping through the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments from which your garden-variety query letter tends to suffer, haven’t we? There’s a good reason for that: many, many aspiring writers stateside will be using the upcoming Labor Day long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters and submissions, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

Are those of you reading this outside the United States wondering why that particular holiday is so popular for query and submission preparation? Could it perhaps be that we like to celebrate our Puritan and commercial national heritage (contrary to the history offered in 5th-grade Thanksgiving pageants, the rather mercenary Jamestown settlement was established prior to the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock, seeking religious freedom), US citizens are actually required to work toward the pursuit of happiness on Labor Day? Is it a holiday to celebrate how few holidays from work we get around here?

Not precisely: Labor Day was established in recognition of the union movement. You know, the folks that brought us the concept of weekends off in the first place.

No, the popularity of querying and/or submitting immediately after Labor Day stems from three sources. First, the holiday marks the beginning of the US school year, so many aspiring writers think of it as a good time to start something fresh, like an intensive querying campaign. (A similar logic prompts scads of queriers and submitters to pop things in the mail just after New Year’s Day.)

Second, as those of you who have been following Author! Author! all month are already aware, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day. (So for those of you who already have agents sitting home and gnawing your nails over submissions to editors: even if the editor of your dreams liked it, s/he probably would not have been able to pull an editorial committee together this month to discuss acquiring your book.) Thus, just as it makes more sense to avoid querying or submitting during the notoriously quorum-defeating holiday-laden days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, many savvy aspiring writers choose to spend August revising, rather than popping queries or submissions into envelopes.

Third, and not entirely unrelated to the second reason, Labor Day marks the dividing line between the summer writers’ conference season and the fall conference season, so pitchers who received requests for materials over the summer are starting to feel antsy about sending out those submissions. (Don’t worry; another week’s worth of proofreading won’t harm your book’s chances.)

The cumulative result: Millicent and her cronies will be dragging into the office nine days hence, only to be greeted by (in some cases) a month’s worth of queries and submissions. So it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a couple of weeks or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: in addition to those excellent practical reasons, I have an ulterior motive for urging you not to pop those queries in the mail just yet. I’d much, much rather devote an extra week or two on the topic than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Do I see some hands being thrown skyward out there? “But Anne,” I hear those of you with query letters on the point of being stuffed into already-addressed envelopes, “isn’t this a trifle redundant? After all, you’ve been talking for the last few posts about big problems to which query letters are prone, so aren’t you preaching to the choir here?”

You’ve got a point there, hand-flingers: I, too, would dearly like to believe that all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid the major pitfalls. In fact, over the course of the last four+ years (can you believe I’ve been blogging for that long?), all of us here at Author! Author! have worked pretty hard to produce that outcome.

Go, Team Literate!

I must confess, though, that I worry about the reader who found this blog only a week ago, my friends, as well as the one who started reading faithfully just a few months back. These fine folks have not yet lived through one of my troubleshooting series — and, hard as it may be to imagine, not everyone has the hours — or, at this point, days — to spare to troll my archives. (Helpful hint to those in a hurry: the HOW TO categories on the list at right contain the briefest sets of explanations of a number of basic writerly skills, like query-generating; lengthier, more detailed accounts lurk under other category headings.)

Before those of you who have worked through one of my querying series before and lived to tell the tale decide to blow off the rest of this post in order to dash outside into that nice summer day, I hasten to add: I’m not going over this material again only for the sake of new or archive-shy readers. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent the agency screener’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. So please, even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of common query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record:

broken-record unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never — well, almost never — turns out like that. And out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record Writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve seen over the last few posts. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on fine-tuning the delicate art of diagnosis.

Word to the wise: even if you have already run your query through the wringer of my last set of diagnostic posts, you might want to cast your eye over these as well. Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-record the querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has been in my lifetime — and I’m not nearly so young as I look.

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase, so I have beefed up the questions this time around. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my earlier advice, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-record re-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-record as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

broken-record Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier — and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute, because it’s too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-record you must indent your paragraphs. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable here.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-record don’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page; just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-record Remember, your job here is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 30 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But (feel free to sing along; you should all know the words by now)

broken-record Millicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I know — shocking.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began, Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

A close second: I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client; I’ll be talking a bit about that next month) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

Speaking of which…

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but you wouldn’t believe how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph? Because, as I mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record the vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show.

If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query her (having spoken to her at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific of you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. But won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest in the first paragraph of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, absolutely, but not the best way to pitch your work.

A query is not the place to express querying fatigue. Try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first. No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you.

No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-record if you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. In-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

And yes, this remains true even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.)

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record every agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem LESS marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever.

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost as though I had been thinking ahead when I designed the Pitching 101 series.

Perhaps that’s because figuring out how to identify your book’s target market and a few reasons that your book would appeal to that demographic were exercises we did earlier in the summer. (If you missed that part of the PITCHING 101 series, I have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right.)

Which means that all of you out there who have been following this series the whole time should give yourselves a big ol’ pat on the back: you’ve spent the last six weeks assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

So well done, everybody. Tomorrow, I shall continue with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep listening to those golden oldies, everyone, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part III: eschewing the annoyance factor, or, hey, wasn’t that tree alive yesterday?

weeping-willow

After Wednesday’s packed-to-the-gills post, I thought we could all use a bit of a rest — and little pretty greenery today. In fact, let’s warm up to the hardcore stuff in a casual manner, with a wee verdure-based anecdote about grave interpersonal vitriol.

Our next-door neighbors can’t abide trees. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to swaying cedars, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritates the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment. Particularly if the leaf in question happens to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity.

Oh, they can try to hide their prejudice, but few small hints are enough for a novelist: their yard could not have more impervious surfaces if it were an industrial kitchen. They recommend at least twice a year that we chop down our magnificent willow tree, scowl at our ornamental crabapple, refuse gifts of home-grown pears, and swear audibly throughout the entirety of their every-other-day concrete-sweeping extravaganzas. That last ritual began just after they very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, and so do all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities). We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property might attract fifty citizens to a public meeting.

In fact, in the recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal. If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we’re not their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone leaf-mad. We are, however, the only locals who keep bring them holiday cookies in the hope of smoothing things over, as well as the only ones who tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior hasn’t really won us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas: our willow tree still greets them every morning by waving its abundant leaves at them. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, unfortunately, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that is the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand, murder in his eye and intent on mayhem. Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping MASSES of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a bunch of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we have let all of this go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover him if he fell from our tree and laughing as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We just don’t plant anything close to the fence anymore and heroically resist the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response is unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we hold all the power, since we are the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground, so we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We are the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of the possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we hold all of the power, and that, to put it mildly, irks them so much that each spring, I tremble for the baby hawks.

Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possess a significant power: the ability to annoy us by molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, and poisoning our trees. We quietly take defensive steps, trying to avoid open confrontation, but we cannot always protect ourselves or our furry friends. (I’ll spare you the story of what happened when someone in the neighborhood fed the mother of three small raccoon cubs wet cat foot with broken glass mixed into it.)

So we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood live in a state of uneasy détente.

A few weeks ago, while we were moving the debris from the dead trees — audible cheering from the Smiths’ house after the axe’s second blow — I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. But a couple of days later, branches littered that side of the yard. We carted those away, only to discover a few days later piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely parallels the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them. By everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that the aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time querying resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment.”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agent didn’t really mean it on the website about sending only the first five pages, since something really great happens on page 6. Continuing to e-mail after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Calling at all, ever.

Oh, and all of those nit-picky little manuscript problems we discussed in the posts conveniently gathered under the FIRST PAGES AGENTS TEND TO DISLIKE and AGENTS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories on the archive list at right.

That made you cast the popcorn aside and sit up straight, didn’t it? “Wait just a minute, Anne. Everything you’ve listed there is an instant-rejection offense. So what good do any of them do for the querier who embraces them?”

None — unless that querier happens to want to irritate Millicent the agency screener more than he wants to find an agent for his manuscript. Or, if perpetrated upon a contest with obscure or confusingly-described rules, the entrant wants to make a point rather than win.

Think about that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend the rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well make the Smiths feel better, it certainly doesn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it’s made us more protective of them.

By the same token, aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either: it merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions. Nobody wins.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch sides and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the other side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue.

Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

So I hope that my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying. Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads ONLY your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing.

To pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query. So when those folks reject me — or more commonly these days, just don’t respond — that’s a rejection of my writing talent, right?”

Not necessarily. If the query letter itself didn’t grab Millicent’s attention, or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this, apparently: they think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

In practice, though, Millicent simply would not have the time to do that — even at a mere 30 seconds per query, screening 800-1200 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else — and from her point of view, why should she, when the query letter and/or the first page of text is covered with those annoying leaves? “Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to that to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or the writer’s talent, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points?

(d) insist that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that the writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of fallen leaves, let me revisit a question thoughtful reader Jake wrote in to ask some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (“Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph of a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question. 

whereas

A blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets. 

 

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. Or, to translate that into the terms of this post, the first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Seem harsh? Perhaps, but this is such a common querying faux pas that I want to make absolutely certain all of my readers avoid it. As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating.

Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it. From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is indeed glaring.

So how, as Jake so insightfully asks, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe the book, or does it pass a value judgment on it?

Generally speaking, agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go clean up your respective rooms.

My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t otherpeople be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use?

Does this question sound eerily familiar? It should, at least to those of you who followed me through the Pitching 101 series earlier this summer.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query or pitch describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise.

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?

A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label.

And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napoléon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category.

Trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the BOOK CATEGORIES section of the list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style? Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ’em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not get you what you want.

More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows in the days to come, so take a nice, deep breath and keep up the good work!

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

wedding_rings

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!