Pitchingpalooza, part XIII: who is this watery woman, and what is she doing to that fish?

fountain-in-carcassonne

Before I launch into a rather necessary explanation of the rather odd picture above, allow me to send out a quick word of advice to any of you out there who might happen to be planning to spend this coming weekend at a literary conference in my general geographical area: no matter what every fiber of your being may feel in the moments just after a successful pitch, you do not need to send requested pages to agents and editors right away. In fact, acting on that impulse is generally a really bad idea — especially if you, like so many well-intentioned aspiring writers before you, are in such a rush that you spring for overnight postage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Unless an agent asks you point-blank to overnight something, just don’t do it; it won’t speed up the reading process. So why shell out the quite substantial extra dosh?

Yet saving money, while in itself nice for a writer, is not the only reason that obeying that first hyper-excited impulse is not a good idea. Any guesses why?

That’s right, campers: almost without exception, aspiring writers who pop requested materials into the mail or e-mail them right after the request don’t have time to read their submissions IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ideally, OUT LOUD.

And why might that be a very, very costly choice? Because this is the single best way to weed out any gaffes that might get the submission shifted into the reject pile.

Some of you conference-goers are huffing at the very idea of delay, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those who are just itching to get that manuscript out the door protest, “I whipped my submission into apple-pie order before the conference, and I’m terrified that the requesting agent will forget who I am if I wait. All I have to do now is stuff it in an envelope or hit the SEND key, and I’m on my way to fame and fortune!”

Legitimate concerns all, but listen: if you pitched at a large conference, chances are that the agent or editor is not going to remember the details of your pitch, anyway; that’s why they take notes, so they know why submissions are landing on their desks two months from now. Requests for materials take months and months to expire.

So since you have time, why not make sure your submission is buffed to a high gloss? You get only one chance to impress that agent, you know.

Reading every syllable of it out loud is far and away the best means of catching the little problems that might dull the shine, such as typos, logic problems, and missing words. Not to mention that pet peeve that the requesting agent specifically mentioned at the conference as an automatic rejection offense. Proofing your work on a computer screen is not an adequate substitute, as all the typos that keep cropping up in newspapers and magazines attest: since most people read a backlit screen about 70% faster than words on a printed page, it’s just too easy for the eye to glide right past a fixable problem.

When you’re excited and in a hurry, of course, that’s even more likely to happen. And lest any of you doubt that, here’s a discussion amongst some very savvy writers about the manuscript-killers they’ve let slip by in their rush to get requested materials to agents.

Whether you heed this advice — and I know from experience that a hefty proportion of you won’t — make sure to follow this part: send precisely what the agent or editor asked to see — no more, no less. I don’t care if the cliffhanger of the century falls two lines into page 51; if the requester asked to see the first 50 pages, that’s all you get to send. Agents are wise to the ways of manuscripts, after all: they won’t be shocked to see that page 50 isn’t the end of a chapter. Heck, stopping there may well cut off the tale in mid-sentence.

Oh, and don’t forget to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the submission packet or in the subject line of the submission e-mail. That will help prevent your pages from ending up in the wrong stack. For a few more salient tips on how to polish and package your work, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the archive list at right. For those of you stymied by logistics, the posts in the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category might prove enlightening.

But enough of this frivolity. On to the marble lady and companions.

While flipping through my photos from my writing retreat in southwestern France — yes, I shall be continuing to rub that one in for the foreseeable future; thanks for asking — I stumbled across this photo of a genuinely strange fountain in Carcassonne. Leaving aside for the moment the question of why that astoundingly well-fed pigeon is attacking the mermaid, I ask you: when’s the last time you saw a mermaid who didn’t have to ride sidesaddle?

Seriously, wouldn’t you have thought that was logistically impossible? What does she have, a bifurcated tail like the mysteriously frond-like stems on the siren in the old Starbucks logo?

original-starbucks-logo

Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, I’m not merely alerting you to the tail enigma out of the fevered musings of a sleep-deprived mind. No, the watery trollops above are illustrating a point crucial to our ongoing series: the ordinary presented with a twist is inherently more memorable than the ordinary.

Bear that little nugget in mind as we continue to make our way through the mysteries of pitching. It will serve you well, I assure you. In the meantime, I promised you examples of good elevator speeches, and examples you shall have.

Frankly, I wish those conference brochures that advise writers not to dream of speaking more than three consecutive sentences about their manuscripts would deign to include a few concrete examples. Just as it’s more difficult to write a winning query letter if you’ve never seen a well-crafted one before than if you have, it’s pretty hard to construct a pitch in a vacuum. Since good elevator speeches vary as much as good books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes one work without showing a few of ‘em in action.

To get the ball rolling, here is an elevator speech for a book you may already know:

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?

Okay, okay, I know that was far, far longer than three beats, and you would probably be gasping like a goldfish that tumbled out of its bowl if you attempted to speak it out loud in only three breaths. It IS three sentences, though, by jingo, albeit lengthy ones.

Which, by the way, makes it precisely the kind of pitch that those tutored by conference brochures tend to give. 90% of three-line pitch constructors seem to operate under the assumption that the hearer will be counting the number of periods in the pitch, not the amount of time it takes to say. I’ve seen pitches with seven semicolons and two colons per sentence blithely presented as adhering to the length restriction.

Pull out your hymnals, everyone, and sing along: for a book pitch, the three-sentence guideline is intended to limit the amount of time it will take for the reader to say it, not to demonstrate how much minutiae she can cram into three innocent sentences. If you can say your elevator speech in under 20 seconds and it’s memorable, call it good.

By that measure, the pitch above is perfectly acceptable — that 18 seconds of murmuring you just heard was me double-checking that it could be said quickly enough. But let’s move beyond the brevity that, unfortunately, is usually the only metric aspiring writers apply to a 3-sentence pitch and get down to what actually matters.

Tell me: is this example a successful elevator speech for this book?

If your first impulse was to reply, “Well, I don’t know — did the agent or editor hearing it ask to see pages?”, give yourself seven gold stars; you’ve been paying attention. Pitches do not sell books; writing does. Your goal is to get the hearer to want to READ your writing.

So do you think this is likely to work? To answer, don’t tell me whether you think this is a good elevator speech, or whether you believe it really could be said in three breaths.

Instead, tell me: based upon this pitch alone, would you read this book?

The fact that you probably already have — it’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and anyone who intends to write novels in English should read it to learn a thing or two about timing from its unparalleled mistress — is beside the point here. Even a story that we all know very well indeed can be presented as fresh by focusing on the details that make the story unique.

Would you read this book? is the question you should be asking when you practice your elevator speech upon your kith, kin, and the guy sitting next to you on the subway in the time between now and when you are planning to attend a conference. Why is it so important? Because if the elevator speech doesn’t make the book sound compelling enough to sit down with the first 50 pages or so, it needs work.

Let’s take that elevator speech apart, and see why it grabs the attention. First, it’s clear about both who the protagonist is and what she wants. It establishes the context within which she operates.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you snort, “give us some credit. About whom would the elevator speech be OTHER than the protagonist?”

Laugh if you like, but as a long-time pitching teacher, I can tell you from experience that elevator speeches for novels and memoirs alike frequently focus on what’s going on around the protagonist, rather than what the poor thing is doing. In fact, you’d be surprised (at least I hope you would) at how often elevator speeches focus on everyone BUT the protagonist — it’s far from uncommon for the hearer to be astonished to learn, upon further inquiry, that the daughter mentioned in passing at the end of the second sentence of a paragraph about a troubled father is actually the book’s lead.

“Wait just an agent-tempting minute, Anne,” some of you protest, “the elevator speech you gave for PRIDE & PREJUDICE is mostly about people other than Elizabeth, isn’t it? If the goal here is to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, shouldn’t you have talked only about her?

Actually, the speech above is about her, even though it mentions other people. It depicts her as the central actor in a complicated situation that other quirky characters also inhabit.

How so? Take another gander at the elevator speech, and notice that establishes right away a few important things about our Elizabeth: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many foibles). And it does so with specifics that are delightfully memorable. (No credit to me for that; the specifics are all Aunt Jane’s.)

Still more importantly for introducing Elizabeth as the protagonist, this description also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, our girl is actively struggling to determine her own destiny. To North American readers, this is going to make her a more attractive protagonist than, say, her sister Jane, whose virtues lie primarily in being nice to everybody and thinking good thoughts while waiting for the man she loves to come to his not very complicated senses.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: while polite cheeriness is delightful in person, it’s often deadly dull on the page. Give me an active protagonist to a well-mannered bore any day.

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements — and it does so by SHOWING, not TELLING, that it’s funny. The big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections.

“Okay, okay,” you sigh, “I can see where Aunt Jane might be able to give that pitch successfully. But PRIDE & PREJUDICE is a masterpiece, and I’m just trying to find an agent for an ordinary book, albeit one that I think is well-written. Any tips on how those of us who don’t happen to be comic geniuses might want to go about it?”

Ooh, that’s a great question, but frankly, I’m hesitant to give a precise formula for deriving an elevator speech, lest agents and editors suddenly become inundated with tens of thousands of iterations of it. Like everything else, there are fashions in pitching and querying styles, and I’m not out to set a new one. (Although I have had agents say to me at conferences, “I met three of your pitching students today. They were the only ones who introduced themselves before telling me about their books.” For years, I seem to have been the only coach out there advising it.)

If you really find yourself stumped, however, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) three-step formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie, and build from there.

(1) Name the comparison, and say how your book is similar: “For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis.”

(2) Next, add a sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her: “Concert pianist Claire’s promising career is cut short when armies invade her beloved Amsterdam, smashing the hall where she played.”

(3) Show the central challenge she faces in escaping that oppression: “But how can she pursue her passion to bring the joys of music to her sightless fiancé Roderick, when every aspect of the world she navigates for him is being swept away before her comparatively perfect eyes?”

This format works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper, as we will see in a few days’ time), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours. Basically, you don’t need to fill in as many details.

I just sensed 5,000 hands shooting up in my virtual audience. “But Anne!” these bright souls cry, “didn’t you tell us in a recent post that comparing our books to bestsellers makes ours sound less original and, you know, FRESH?”

Well caught, sharp-witted 5,000: I did in fact say that, and I stand by it as pitch-construction advice. A writer usually is better off weaving her own tale, rather than relying upon the artistic output of others.

Note, however, that I suggested this method for would-be pitchers who are genuinely stuck — or those who are covering already well-worn literary territory. Sometimes, a great book does consist of a fresh twist on much-traveled material. As with a Hollywood hook, this formula enables a writer to capitalize on the very popularity of the subject matter by co-opting it as shorthand.

Or, to put it another way, if your novel is set in Oz, you could use your entire elevator speech explaining what that famous land is like — or you could simply say that it takes place in Oz and use the extra two sentences to show what’s new and fresh about your take on the legendary land.

It’s entirely up to you. But tick, tick. (Or Tick Tock, for those of you familiar with the later books in the Oz series.)

Do bear the freshness problem in mind, however. The real risk of this sort of elevator speech is that from the hearer’s point of view, it’s very easy for the protagonist to get lost in front of that very memorable backdrop. To prevent this horrible fate, you need to provide enough personal specifics to establish your protagonist firmly as — wait for it — an interesting person in an interesting situation.

To pull that off with aplomb, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which you protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Magenta O’Sullivan loves Ashby Filks, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, and the other half falls down an inconveniently placed well, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own alpaca farming business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?

Getting the picture? In an elevator speech, a writer needs first and foremost not to count periods, but to present an interesting, fresh protagonist embroiled in a fascinating conflict — ideally, garnished with a twist that the hearer is not expecting.

Predictability is not pretty, my friends, no matter how you dress it up. At least not in a pitch — and especially not in an elevator speech, where you have so little time to create a good impression. As a result, you’re more likely to catch a pitch-fatigued agent’s attention with the story about the mermaid who can ride a fish than the tale of one who can only swim. (That darned tail!)

The first commandment of a successful elevator speech is, after all, THOU SHALL NOT BORE.

Don’t worry; we’ll be talking at some length about how to avoid that pitfall before I’m through with the elevator pitch. First, however, I shall delve next time into how to construct an elevator speech for a nonfiction book or memoir. Then we’ll be all set to run barefoot through the fields of originality, as well as how and when to give your elevator speech without mortally insulting anybody. Then it’s (gulp!) the pitch proper.

Don’t tense up — you can do this. Keep up the good work!

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