The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part II: Luke…use the Force…Luke…

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I broke the unhappy news that each and every one of you who ever plans to pitch to an agent or editor, either at the upcoming PNWA conference or elsewhere, needs to pick a conceptual box into which to load your book. In other words, you need to pick a book category — and only ONE book category — for your book.

Since I know that this suggestion is making some of you cringe, let’s do a little meditation to help you acclimate yourself to this new reality, shall we? Everybody ready? Okay, picture me in your mind as your fairy godmother, wings and all. (I’m a brunette, if that helps with your visualization. In fact, I look like a travel poster for Corfu.)

Got it? Good. Now picture me lifting my spangled wand high and whacking you over the head with it. Poof! You are now no longer capable of being wishy-washy about your book category. Wasn’t that easy? Now you will speak — and even think — of your book as a marketable product, as agents and editors do. You have been magically forever deprived of the unprofessional desire to describe your book as, “sort of a cross between a high-end thriller and a romantic comedy, with Western elements” or “Have you ever seen the TV show HOUSE? Well, it’s sort of like that, except set in a prison in Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages!” This is simply not an industry where vagueness pays off.

While I was at it, I also knocked out of your vocabulary the cringe-inducing phrases “fiction novel,” “a true memoir,” and “…but it is written like literary fiction.” You’re welcome.

Did the last phrase in that list surprise you? If you write anything BUT literary fiction, the kindest thing your fairy godmother could possibly have done for you is prevent you from EVER saying it to an agent, editor, publicist, interviewer, or even the guy next to you on the bus at any point in the next fifty years. Why? Because IF YOU WRITE IN A GENRE, YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF THE FACT, not apologetic.

And believe me, hedging about the writing in your book WILL come across as apologetic to professional ears. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre?

It is also a turn-off, professionally speaking, a signal that the writer might not be very well versed in the genre. Why, the average agent will think during such a pitch, doesn’t this author write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving?

See the problem?

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

Trust me on this one, for your fairy godmother speaks from hard personal experience. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle either. One of those conference assignment snafus I was mentioning the other day. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as those of you who have been reading the blog for the last couple of weeks know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

If only I had been clutching my magic wand at the time. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. But I kept my mien pleasant. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was another Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange, though: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic. To them, books outside their areas of expertise might as well be poorly written; in their minds, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

The baseless rumor that genre carries a stigma has led a lot of good writers to pitch manuscripts that would have stood out magnificently within their proper genres as mainstream or even literary fiction, resulting in queries and pitches aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your pitch’s attracting someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

Being true to your genre will help you resist the temptation to label the book as an unholy hyphenate (“It’s a chick lit thriller!”) in a misguided attempt to represent it as having a broader potential audience. Trust me on this one: if a subgenre already has a name, there is already a well-documented market out there for it. Don’t be afraid to label your work with a very narrow subgenre label, if it’s appropriate. Yes, it may whittle down the array of agents to whom you can pitch the book, but it will definitely make your querying and pitching more efficient.

That’s just common sense, really. The more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that. in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost immediately.

Consistently, the writers who have the hardest time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. (If this sounds like a subgenre in and of itself, take a look at the statistics: women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country, and virtually all of the literary fiction.) Does this automatically mean it’s women’s fiction? Well, no, not necessarily: it really depends how important the relationships are in the book.

This is one of the few instances where I consider it acceptable to equivocate a little about the book category. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that. (Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs.)

The other group of writers who have an especially tough time with categorization are those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp. Time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.” Without reading all of their work – which is really the only way to categorize it properly – it’s impossible to tell whether these writers honestly are experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if they merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

Just so you know, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” However, it is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but they know it when they see it.

Or so they claim. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers. But the fact is, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream.

There’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about it: most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. And it definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “oh, I write literary fiction.” It says loud and clear that you haven’t sold out your talent; you are more than content to have a small but devoted readership, without sullying your keyboard with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roué, you are, with your goatee and bongos and poetry readings in basements.

Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give you a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it. So labeling your work as literary will NOT make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.

I am hammering on this point, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. These are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk, and you in the wrong meeting. When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you find yourself in a serious quandary over whether your book is sufficiently literary to need to be marketed as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. If you can honestly envision an upper-division undergraduate seminar spending a few hours discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals do this — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. Especially the semicolons. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. (Or you should disable the colon/semicolon button on your keyboard.)

Don’t believe me? Spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, wandering from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Seeing a lot of semicolons outside the literature section? Mainstream fiction tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exceptions), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Hey — I heard that grumbling out there; fairy godmothers come equipped with bionic ears (and an apparently unlimited recall of late 1970s pop culture). Yes, grumble pusses, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!

Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will help you construct a stronger pitch.

May the Force be with you, my friends. And also with your books. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet registered for the upcoming PNWA conference, there are still slots available for agent and editor appointments. If you would like to see a rundown of what they have bought and sold over the last few years, in order to make a better-informed choice, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, part I: identifying your book

Hello, readers –

As those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform with the prevailing wisdom. GASP! The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.

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

What happened in that intervening 15 months to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that within the last couple of months, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? Yet such is the prevailing paranoid that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly they all would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.

Let no one say that the industry’s standards do not change.

That being said, I’m going to be upfront with you: I do not advise walking into your agent meeting and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications. Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its usefulness: it is equally helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in a hallway and in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book.

But think about it: your agent appointment is 15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous. Do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?

(If you have trouble imagining the awkward pause that might conceivably ensue, check out yesterday’s blog. And to get my housekeeping duties out of the way early today, if you have not yet made your selections for agent and editor meetings – I’m told that there area still many slots available – check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. Lots of useful information there, even if I do say so myself.)

There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue. At the end of last Saturday’s pitching class, the fabulously talented Cindy Willis and yours truly spent 4 1/2 hours listening to pitches from class attendees. (I am pleased to report that had I been an agent, there were several that I would have asked to read right away.) Now, Cindy and I are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, are almost always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. But after 4 1/2 hours – a far shorter shift than most the agents and editors will be putting in at PNWA – neither of us could even begin to imagine ever wanting to pick up a book again. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail.

And we were outside, listening to dozens of pitches with the advantageous backdrop of glorious weather. Agents and editors at conferences, by contrast, are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

Gather up all of those factors I have just mentioned into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent. Now: what is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, decorated with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly.

So if I deviate from the received wisdom about pitching here — and I assure you, I will — please be aware that I am not doing it merely to be an iconoclast (although that’s kind of fun, too). I am making these suggestions because I truly believe that they will make your pitch better.

So here is my first unorthodox suggestion: say right away where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble.

Did I just hear the “ding-ding-ding” of alarms going off in the heads of my long-time readers? Yes, my friends, it is time to revisit the dreaded book category. If you are planning to pitch, the best description of your book is NOT “(sigh) well, it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s also suspense. And the writing is definitely literary.”

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

To put it bluntly, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So tell them up front what kind of book it is – and don’t just make up a category. Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word category description. In order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language. Pick one of their recognized categories.

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

Pick one. But whatever you do, NEVER say that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always.

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

Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I went through the distinctions at some length in my blogs of February 13 – 16. Check out the archives.

And when in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding like something that will sell. (And for you doubters out there: yes, naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time. That doesn’t mean you should make one up.)

Yes, it’s a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry. But to put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into how putting your work into the right box can help you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Knowing your pitchee

Hello, readers –

I was felled with a migraine yesterday, so I am a day later than planned getting started on my series on pitching. But computer screens and dark rooms do not mix well, alas.

Before I get started, a word or two to the many readers new to this blog who have been writing in (or thinking very, very loudly) suggesting rather forcefully that that the blog’s archives would be easier to use if they were searchable or organized by category, rather than date. Well, yes, that is true — and if anybody out there is willing to donate the many, many hours it would take to make the archives subject-searchable, please write in, and I shall connect you with a very grateful volunteer coordinator.

Yes, it is a little hard to find specific topics in the archives, and I’m sorry if you find it inconvenient. A blog, however, is not a reference book, by definition, but an ongoing document with frequent additions over time. At some point, I probably shall organize all of this into a book, with a chapter on each major topic. But then, you would be paying for my words of wisdom, and would have a clear right to be annoyed if it were hard to find what you wanted, right?

Here, however, I am limited by the constraints of the blog form, and the fact that the PNWA is a volunteer-run organization. Again, if any of you out there have the expertise to make the archives easily searchable, and would like to volunteer your time…And to the guy who was really, really rude about it recently: why would you WANT to take writing advice from a female dog?

I am not merely writing about archive organization in order to blow off steam: my first piece of advice on pitching may well send some of you scurrying to the archives, specifically those for April 26 – May 17 (my write-ups on the agents who will be attending this summer’s PNWA conference) and May 18 – 26 (the editors). For the advice in question is this:

Whenever possible, be familiar with the work of the person to whom you are pitching.

Why? Well, there are several reasons that it is in your best interest to do a bit of research before you pitch. First, it ensures that you are pitching to someone who does in fact handle your type of book. As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

And, as it happens, I have already done quite a bit of research for you: in the aforementioned blog posts, I have gone over what the standard professional databases say these agents and editors have sold and bought over the last three years. (And when’s the last time any dog, female or male, did something like THAT for you, Mr. Smarty-Pants?) As my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. Check first.

However, sometimes agents and editors’ preferences switch rather abruptly: it is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection.

What should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

Yes, you will be disappointed, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour after the meeting, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, being miserable. Remember that you are at the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better. You have a highly-qualified, well-informed insider sitting in front of you: ask some questions.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “if you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch?” Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?” Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area, but who do you think are the top five agents that handle this sort of book?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists would LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if they come back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can move the both of you on to topics where you’re comfortable, trust me, they’ll appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

So prep a few questions in advance, as insurance. Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find. There’s such a thing as human nature: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

Unless you’re rude about it, Mr. Dog-Hater.

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

Remember, though, that in giving you this advice, these people are doing you a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite. As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, in this state, stalking is illegal.

So be polite. Remember, too, that an agent, editor, or writing teacher who was glad to be helpful to you at a conference may well be less pleased if you spend subsequent months peppering her with e-mails. I can’t even count the number of times I have told someone who asked me a question, “Gee, I’m not sure. But I’d be happy to check my files and get back to you with the information” — and then returned home to find a petulant phone message or injured-sounding e-mail, demanding to know why I haven’t yet sent the information. (The usual answer is that I haven’t yet set down my bags after the airplane trip.) And trust me on this one: even if your message is very courteous, and you sent it because you were afraid that the person might not remember you or the request, if you send it before, say, a week after the event, it is going to come across as badgering.

The moral of the story: as long as you are polite, many people in the industry will be glad to share their expertise with you at a conference. When someone in the industry is generous enough to be willing to help you, express gratitude, and try not to be a pest. Free advice is best when given freely — and accepted as a favor.

This is a good rule of thumb for anyone you meet at a conference, by the way. Chances are, you’re going to meet an author who is farther along the path to publication than you are. Writers tend to be very nice people; many of them will be happy to have you solicit their advice on, say, who would be a good agent to query with your type of book, particularly if you write in the same genre. This is a perfectly legitimate question to walk up to a conference presenter and ask. However, this type of friendliness usually doesn’t mean that writer wants to be your lifetime chum — or, as happens more often, your first stop for every industry-related question that occurs to you for the next decade.

If you’re in doubt as to whether you have made a friend or not, limit your follow-up to a single polite thank-you e-mail or card. If you made a true connection, the writer will respond.

All right, back to the reasons to do research on an agent or editor before a meeting. Knowing books they have handled enables you to walk in and make a stellar impression as someone who has done her homework. It is surprisingly rare, and accordingly impressive.

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

Why is this a good idea? Again, human nature: we all like to be recognized for our achievements. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up. Trust me, she will be flattered by meeting someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books.

One caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t praise a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Knowing something about the agent or editor will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower. Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less.

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

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this year, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This is a serious advantage. Think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person, or a jerk who happened to be talented?

Pitch specifics follow in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Housekeeping

Hello, readers –

Thanks to those of you who attended my Saturday pitching class! It was a great success – but, as I kept warning people beforehand, like Cassandra uttering woe and not being believed, since not everybody who ended up coming pre-registered, the cookies ran out woefully early. You have only yourselves to blame.

At least, I think it was a success — by the time I checked my messages the evening after the class, I had received 40 e-mails from class attendees (out of roughly 65), with thank-yous and follow-up questions. I had not expected the class to have this particular side effect; responding to this slew of individual questions has more than taken up the hours I had budgeted for writing the blog today. So the rest of you will have to pardon me if this is mostly a housekeeping blog.

A reminder to those of you who have been writing in with questions through this website: IF YOU DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS, I CANNOT REPLY. It is literally impossible. The e-mails you send to me are filtered through the PNWA, so I have NO access to your address unless you send it within the body of the message. (An aside to Janis: I cannot send you an answer to your question when your e-mail blocks my address as unknown. Send another e-mail when you have corrected this problem, and I’ll be happy to resend the multiply-bouncing reply.)

While I’m on a spate of requests, for the literally dozens of blog readers who have written in asking either (a) how you can quit your job and have your writing support you (in that order) or (b) how you can get your poetry books published, I’m afraid you are barking up the wrong tree. I have been racking my brains to come up with kind-yet-useful responses to these questions, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to come up with any. Except to say: if you are seeking to accomplish (a), it is probably not prudent to pursue that goal through (b).

I know, I know, that sounds flippant, but listen: I hate to be the one to break the news, but there are a heck of a lot of published authors out there, and good ones, who have NEVER been able to afford to quit their day jobs. First-time authors, particularly novelists, seldom attract large enough advances for them to write full-time — and you will be much, much happier if you do not walk into a pitch meeting with your dream agent expecting otherwise.

Please do not be crushed by this — yes, there are authors who hit the big time with their first books. But generally, these cases are the proverbial overnight successes who spent a decade or two preparing for it. And even then, it is extremely rare: we’ve all heard stories of the person who put a single dollar into a single slot machine and suddenly found himself a millionaire, too. It’s not impossible, but even a cursory glance at the probabilities involved should lead one to believe that these instances are the flukes, not the rule.

But hey, no one will be more thrilled than I if your book turns out to be the fluke. Knock ‘em dead, tiger!

On to (b). There is plenty of poetry published in magazines around the country, and POETS & WRITERS always lists a dozen or so chapbook competitions in every issue, but other than that…usually, in this country, poets gain notoriety one poem at a time, one contest win at a time, one publication at a time. There may be some shortcuts of which I am not aware, however. Since I am not a poet by trade, I would urge you to seek out poetry-specific websites and direct your questions there.

Another housekeeping issue: I’ve received several requests from readers who could not make the pitching class on Saturday for a written version of it. Um, written version? As opposed to what I post here five times per week? I used to be a professor at a quite prominent local university (which shall remain nameless, but rhymes with Boo Scrub), and I can tell you, neither my colleagues nor I ever wrote our lectures out verbatim beforehand, merely notes. I certainly did not for this class (which I was teaching as a volunteer, incidentally).

Honeys, do not panic: I am very committed to covering as many aspects of pitching here in this forum as I possibly can. Starting tomorrow, and all the way until the first day of the conference. Trust me, we have more than enough time to cover the basics. You’ll just be getting it in smaller installments — which, if you could have seen how tired we all were by the end of the pitch class, you might well consider an advantage!

But I do have a treat in store for each and every one of you who is attending the conference: I have begged, cajoled, and promised fabulous karmic rewards (because there are no tangible ones in this instance) with three wonders PNWA members who have successfully landed agents within the last few years — two of us AT PNWA, in exactly the kind of pitch meeting you will be attending, so we know whereat we speak — and the four of us shall be manning the Pitch Practicing Palace at PNWA. So please plan to stop by our booth before your pitch meeting to try our your spiel on some kind, sympathetic professional writers who can help you polish off the rough edges of your pitch.

Please, don’t drop by RIGHT before your scheduled appointments; try for at least an hour before. If you are particularly nervous, I would urge you to drop by the PPP on Thursday afternoon, on the first half-day of the conference. The actual agent and editor meetings will not start until Friday, so you will have lots of time to incorporate our feedback.

See? I really do want all of you to do well.

The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed that I have mentioned good intentions, volunteerism, and writers who also carry day jobs throughout this post. That was not accidental. As conference time approaches, I know people start to panic a little, but please remember, the PNWA is a volunteer organization, staffed by devoted people who sincerely want to help you succeed as a writer — people who, by and large, are writing books themselves AND hold full-time jobs. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is not a task to enter into lightheartedly, with a martini in one hand and a whiffleball racquet in the other. It is a whole lot of very hard, very extensive work. For your benefit.

Please, do me two favors, those of you who will be attending the conference: first, take advantage of as many learning and pitching opportunities there as you can. (I actually made everyone at my class on Saturday raise their paws and swear to pitch to at least three people with whom they did NOT have scheduled appointments. Don’t make me come after the rest of you, too.) Second, improve your own karma by thanking every conference volunteer you see. Your mother would approve, and so will I.

I bring this up in part because I know many of you entered this year’s PNWA contest. The finalists have all been notified already, and each entrant will receive two written critiques after the conference. Why not before the conference, you ask? First, because it would totally give away who amongst the finalists had an edge, and second — had I mentioned that organizing a conference is a heck of a lot of work?

Believe me, no one wants to keep you in suspense, but we here at the PNWA have to be realistic about turn-around times, in order to make sure that the conference comes together every year. But please rest assured that this most emphatically does NOT mean that you will not receive solid feedback in a timely manner.

As my long-term readers already know, the PNWA’s fine volunteers (translation: working for the good karma alone) thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of contest entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts. You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary. That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year — so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

I know, it’s frustrating to wait for the feedback. But the turn-around time is a reflection of a serious effort to provide a good service.

To that end, I learned something very exciting recently: due to feedback from past conference attendees, the PNWA has REORGANIZED this year’s editor meetings. Instead of ten or a dozen writers pitching simultaneously, there will be ONLY FIVE WRITERS scheduled for each half-hour meeting with an editor. So each writer will have more time than ever before to make a good impression. Isn’t that great news?

In this spirit of helpfulness, on to a couple of lingering questions from readers. Intrepid and insightful reader Dave wrote in to ask: “On the first page of a chapter, should the chapter number be in Roman, Arabic numerals, or spelled out? Can or how would one include both the chapter name and number on that first line? Could you mention something about the first page of the first chapter? Isn’t it supposed to have info on it akin to what is on the title page?”

Good questions, Dave – and you’re not the only one to wonder about this. Thoughtful and talented reader Julie also wrote in to ask about the title page: “I read in your blog that the text should appear 1/3 of the way down after ‘Chapter #.’ This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. Is it fairly standard format with agents and editors alike? Could you tell me the reasoning behind it?”

Dave and Julie, I have been hearing this kind of question for years, I think largely because many writers’ publications simply assume that aspiring writers already know what standard format is for first pages of chapters. I think this, because I see SO many incorrectly-formatted first pages that there must be an overarching reason for it, rather than merely misinformed individuals, right? Perhaps there’s an evil First Page Fairy. Or maybe I would just like to blame someone for this phenomenon, which makes a LOT of submissions look unprofessional to agents and editors. Bad fairy! No cookie!

First off: no, the first page should NOT have the kind of information that’s on the title page (which I shall recap again within the next few days). The title page contains contact information; the only conceivable reason to include it on the first page of the chapter would be if there were no title page. And, frankly, a submission without a title page might as well have NEW TO THE BIZ stamped in red on it.

The first page of ANY chapter should have “Chapter #” on the first line of the page, centered, with the chapter title, if any, on the line beneath it. Do not put them on the same line.

The chapter should begin on line 14. What is the rationale behind this, Julie asks? I have always been told — and as a freelance editor, I have certainly been grateful for this convention — that the purpose having all that white space at the beginning of each chapter is to make it easier for an editor to flip through the manuscript quickly and find a particular chapter. All that white leaps out the pile visually.

Which is why, to get back to Dave’s question, the first page of the first chapter should not be cluttered up with too much information. It interferes with the desirable white.

As to whether the chapter number should be written out, in Roman numerals, or in Arabic numerals…I have heard many things over the years. I always write out the chapter number in full (Chapter One), simply because the 1, in this case, is a number under 100 appearing in a manuscript. Standard format, you know. I know many published authors who use Arabic numerals (Chapter 1), and they don’t seem to have been eaten by the publishing wolves yet. Roman numerals are less common, so I would avoid them altogether; they bring to mind outlines, not fully-realized prose.

Okay, the house is now relatively clean. Tomorrow, on to some pitching elements. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Synopsis Wisdom, Part IV: Don’t let resentment hold you back

Hello, readers –

Before I get started on the latest installment in my series on how to write a synopsis for your book (and why it really would behoove you to do so BEFORE the conference is upon us), many thanks to my correspondent (who shall remain nameless) for writing in with the skinny on Flag Day — and a confession that might conceivably raise the eyebrows of the Department of Homeland Security:

”Hello, Anne. Flag Day commemorates the day Betsy Ross (supposedly; many historians are skeptical of the Betsy Ross lore) presented George Washington with the flag he had requested: the first Stars and Stripes. I think it’s a rather lovely design, although I won’t discuss here my opinions of what has/hasn’t been done in its name. And I deny ALL the rumors that Che Guevara is alive and well, lives in my basement, and loves Taco Bell…(Aunt Jean warned me that fish and house guests both start to “turn” after three days…)”

I can believe it all but the part about Taco Bell. But thanks for filling us in.

Back to synopses. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it (which, unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores being under time pressure, is an exceedingly bad idea), I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one — taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you meet with an agent is going to make it easier for you to pitch your book. It helps you think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating. Even writers desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. Yet any agent who signs you is going to HAVE to summarize the book in order to market it — there is just no way around that.

So by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die. When you are signed up for a 15-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters, such as whether the agent wants to read the book. Confidentially, anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with an agent has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

The second inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, you will look like a star. You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all.

I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it. It’s the first 50 pages that count, right?

Wrong. EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample. If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or (even more common) to toss it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit is your best writing.

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? In real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole damned book, if you liked my pitch, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!” ’Fess up — wouldn’t you LOVE to see someone do that at a conference? So that is my mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length.

Then get back to work.

I know, it sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for the conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion The Industry and pound it silly twice a day until it’s time to give your pitch. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

After you have thrown a well-deserved tantrum or two at how difficult it is to catch an agent’s attention, remind yourself that the synopsis DOES serve a purpose within your submission packet: from the requesting agent’s POV, it is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Let me repeat that: in this context, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

It bears repeating, because the synopsis an agent or editor asks you to include with your first 50 pp. actually serves a rather different purpose than the synopsis you tuck into the envelope with your query letter. After all, a querying synopsis’ primary purpose is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pp.; basically, it acts as a proxy pitcher for your book.

But at a conference meeting, YOU are the pitcher, and your goal is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the pages. Now, let’s assume s/he has done so. In the packet of requested materials you send, the synopsis has a new goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp. It is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone. Often, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, and then turn to the synopsis. Thus, the synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

And PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved. This is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games (or, as they like to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”) So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.

Next!

More tips follow on Monday. In the meantime, here comes the tape recording again: for those of you who have not yet done it, there is still time to register for this summer’s PNWA conference. Come along and have a spot of tea with your humble correspondent and talk about your work. If you’re lost about which agents and editors to pick for your appointments, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 to get the skinny on the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Hey, while you’re on the website, why not sign up for my Prepping Your Pitch course on June 24th? It’s free to PNWA members, and while it isn’t strictly necessary to pre-register, it would be nice for me and the organizers to know whether to expect 5 people or 500. Makes a difference in how many cookies to buy, after all.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini