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 X: the cat doesn’t have to get your tongue, you know

Some interesting rumors have been flying around for the last couple of days, campers. While book lovers in general have been fretting over the demise of Borders, a lot of us have been worrying about the perhaps less sympathetic but still important to the book-moving trade Barnes & Noble’s future. There’s been quite a bit of speculation that Apple might step in and buy up the latter for its immense book catalog; there has also been talk of taking on a chunk of Borders, possibly just for the retail space, possibly not.

I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true, mind you, or even probable. Such is the nature of tittle-tattle. Since folks have been flinging their hands in the air and prophesying the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as an institution so much over the last few weeks, though, I thought you might find it refreshing to hear a bit of countervailing gossip.

Back to business. So far in this series, we have been mostly talking about taking the preliminary steps to constructing a conference pitch, rather than writing the pitch itself. We’ve covered selecting a book category, the desirability of narrowing down your target audience to something more specific than the ever-popular every woman under 50 in America, finding out how big that audience might be, figuring out your book’s selling points, and coming up with a one-line book concept or keynote, as well as deciding whether pitching is right for you in the first place and what to do if you find yourself in a pitch meeting with an agent who does not now and probably will not ever represent books like yours.

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Do those loud harrumphing noises bouncing around the ether indicate a certain level of skepticism? “I get that I will need to define my work in the language and according to the logic of the publishing industry, Anne,” some of you admit, rattling your feet on the floor and glancing frequently at the door, fearful of being overheard by an agent. “I also have faith that you’re going to walk me through constructing a strong formal pitch because, well, that’s the kind of thing you do in your multi-part -Paloozas. What’s keeping me up nights, though, is the creeping fear that no matter how prepared I am, I might suddenly clam up. Heck, I’m so nervous that I might not even lose my nerve in front of an agent or editor; I live in terror that I might lose the ability to answer coherently if the writer sitting next to me in a conference seminar asks me, ‘So what kind of book are you here to pitch?’”

Oh, I am very familiar with that particular dead-of-night fearful fantasy, campers; I help aspiring writers prepare pitches all the time. It’s a very, very common concern amongst first-time pitchers.

Which is why I can tell you with relative assurance that while you currently feel as if someone asking you to talk about your writing at a conference will be as threatening as this:

If you walk into the conference prepared, it can feel a lot more like this:

Still frightening, of course — there’s no way around that, I’m afraid — but not nearly so confrontational.

How might that semi-miraculous transformation be achieved? Well, learning not to hear the question as a clarion call to justify writing at all, for one thing. Doing precisely the kind of pre-conference homework we’ve been discussing throughout this series, for another. And most effective of all, pulling the pin in the panic grenade before you walk into your first pitch meeting.

How? By approaching fellow writers at conferences and talking about your work.

Yes, on purpose — and before you start telling me that you are nowhere near ready to take such a bold step, allow me to point out that you already have the skills. How do I know? Because we’ve been adding them to your writer’s toolkit for a couple of weeks now.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already constructed together into the first hundred words you will want to say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference — and that’s including “Hello.” With these first hundred words in hand (and mouth), even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean anyone, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, the aforementioned chatty guy sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in the few lines most first-time conference-goers regard as a pitch..

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about my own tendency toward iconoclastism: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching now often makes it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy and the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?

However, as long as aspiring writers in North America are stuck with pitching and querying as the only polite means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why? Well, among other reasons, it tends to make first-time pitchers feel a little like that lion tamer in the top picture: putting so much effort into not showing perfectly rational fear in the face of what your body is quite likely to interpret as a life-threatening situation (because your psyche knows it to be a potentially ego-eviscerating one) that you can barely move. Clutching a chair and a whip, even mentally, is not the best way to begin what can be a very cordial conversation.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate, and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

I’m quite serious about that last one. Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. They flounder not merely because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books.

Why is that structure problematic? Ask those stammering pitchers: focusing solely upon brevity left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

This species of brain freeze happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. You’d be astonished at how frequently these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

That leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine. The results, I’m afraid, are relatively predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to place talented-but-inexperienced writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this ‘Palooka — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned before those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows who you are and what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard bouncing off the moon and back into the atmosphere, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I’ve never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say before a pitch. But such is my faith in your mother that I believe she did not raise you to be rude to people you want to do you professional favors.

Let’s face it: simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man.”

That’s a screenplay-type pitch for TOOTSIE, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

“That writer’s mother can’t possibly know that he acts this way,” the agent will mutter, turning away.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words.

Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that, right?

The goal of my Magic First Hundred Words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with this talisman, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering the MFHW will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same — although we can all hope — it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. Ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease. Observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical here. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations in which a professional writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy. Here’s the formula:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

The beauty of the MFHW formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn these few sentences by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance encounter at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.

Why is so important to introduce yourself urbanely — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are MAGNIFICENTLY busy people. They honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.

That’s my job, right?

Look, it’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning the actual content of her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of him has usually already mentally stamped his foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.

Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, his book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than merely good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, he might not get to pitch at all.

By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, the pros will appreciate it.

I’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I don’t know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)

Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it makes a facing a firing squad seem like a carefree social encounter?

Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed. In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.

No, but seriously, folks, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.

They want to like you, honest. But they will like you better if you meet them halfway — and observe the niceties.

Worried? I can’t say as I blame you; would it set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings? Assuming that we all already know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at a couple of other common entrance speeches. First, the super-vague:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Non-specific, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? Who are these characters, and why should I care about them? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy, the self-rejecting:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it? Let’s try the book report method on for size:

“My fiction novel is a first-person narrative from the points of view of three different narrators, all unreliable. The writing is very literary, but I’m hoping to market it to a mainstream audience. The imagery is extremely filmic, so it would be a natural to make into a movie.”

Okay, but what is this book about? At the first-introduction stage, why should an agent care about the narrative voice or the number of narrators? It’s not as though she’s going to stop the writer before he even mentions the plot and say, “Oh, fantastic — I was talking to an editor just the other day who begged me to bring her more first-person narratives from multiple perspectives. You, sir, are my new client!”

And by the way, all novels are fiction, just as all memoirs are based on true stories. So saying that your novel is fiction is just about as redundant as telling an agent that you have taken the original approach of printing words on pages; trust me, she will have assumed that.

The book report pitch is not the most common, believe it or not. That honor would go to the ever-popular book review technique:

“This is the most exciting debut novel since THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, although it’s neither written in the first person plural nor a closely-examined depiction of a dysfunctional family. Searing in its intensity, the plot builds to a climax of Cinemascope proportions. The ending will leave you breathless and eager for a sequel.

At the risk of repeating myself, what is this book about? Why is the comparison relevant? And why would an agent believe a writer’s critical assessment of his own work, rather than waiting to make that call herself after reading the manuscript?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to know — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also convey:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME) a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than presuming that you are an automaton, an industry stooge with no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you to see how you like it: (KEYNOTE).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you have done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your sweet lips smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional. It’s going to sound a bit strange and more than a little pushy the first seventy or eighty times that convenient little speech pops out of your mouth.

That’s a perfectly lovely reason not to save the MFHW for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day. In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech.

Knock yourself out. You might make a few friends.

One caveat about using these words to meet other writers: they’re a great introduction, but do remember to give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what she writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work.

Courtesy counts, remember?

So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what your listener writes. In this context, the very brevity of the MFHW will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, she will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate pretty radically how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. After plugging away in one’s literary garret for so long, it can be a huge relief. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.

Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.

It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the MFHW to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group? And who will be more thrilled to hear that you’ve landed an agent, sold your first book, or will be in town for a book signing? (Oh, you thought writers who hit the big time didn’t have support networks?)

If that’s not enough to get you chatting, consider this: there’s a distinct possibility that one of those people sitting next to you in seminars is going to be a household name someday. Every writer has to start out somewhere. Just think how cool you’ll feel saying casually, “Oh, her? Great writer. I met her at a conference years ago. Look, there’s my name in the acknowledgements of her book.”

This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who get what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze, at least not in my general vicinity.

Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re doing for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So have you finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. If they know a little — just a little — about the publishing industry, they may even joke about the day when you will hand them free copies.

Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people copies of your future books. Nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra books to fulfill all those past promises, do you?

Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even in a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually wants to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!” can be pretty overwhelming.

It’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

For that, too, you are already more prepared than you think. For your conversational convenience, the MFHW transform readily into conversation-sparking questions:

”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? What is your target audience? What’s your premise?

Sensing a theme here?

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your MFHW aloud — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you already had the e-mail addresses of a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Trust me on this one: you won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes.

Practice, practice, practice those MFHW, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They are going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Next time, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech, those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about. After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks: you honestly are building up your professional acumen. Keep up the good work!

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 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!

Pitchingpalooza, part IV: finding the right conceptual container for your work

a-pile-of-boxes

Hello, campers –
Anne has taken a bit of a tumble — literally — on her road toward complete recovery from her car crash injuries, I am sorry to report. Thus the silence for the last few days. She should be back among us soon, but in the meantime, she was most concerned about making it through Pitchingpalooza in time for those of you attending her local writers’ conference to gain the full benefit of it. To that end, I’m going to be rerunning old posts on the subject every day until she has bounced back enough to write new ones herself.

She says to tell you not to worry — she’ll be upright and back blogging before you know it. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

For fiction: 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, Adult 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.

For nonfiction: 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).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

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

Remember, 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.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry 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, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be 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 to be the one to break it to you.

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.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part II: the dreaded single-page synopsis, or, what to do when you can’t allow those mushrooms to multiply

We begin today on a note of triumph: long-time reader and fab lady Auburn McCanta has had a political essay selected (amid some SERIOUS competition, I’m guessing, at this point in the election cycle) for publication on the Huffington Post. Congratulations, Auburn!

Please, everyone, keep sending in word of your writerly triumphs, large and small. One of the great benefits of community is being able to share good news!

Good news comes in many forms for writers — as does, lest we forget ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Many aspiring writers become so focused on imagining a single track to literary success — which typically runs thus: write book, land agent, sell book to Random House, book signings, Oprah, wash, rinse, and repeat — that they forget that other writerly achievements can look awfully good in a query letter and in an author bio. Publications — paid or not, in print or on the Internet — definitely count, as do degree programs, certificate programs, contest placing, and so forth.

So please join me, everyone, in applauding Auburn for doing some smart long-term career promotion — and set aside some time in your no doubt busy schedule to brainstorm what ECQLC you might add to your query letter candy bowl to render it more attractive to Millicent.

Who, for those of you joining us late, is Author! Author!’s pet agency screener, the one who is so very efficient at zipping through stacks and stacks of query letters with a latte in one hand and a pile of form-letter rejections in the other. She’s also often the gal who weeds out submissions before they reach the desk of the agent of one’s dreams — who, if s/he happens to work at one of the larger agencies, might even have two or three Millicents pre-reading submissions.

We here at A! A! try not to annoy Millicent. It’s not good marketing strategy.

In further pursuit of that laudable goal, I launched yesterday into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5- (or 1)-page summary in standard format.

Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

It’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework; if the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it.

A couple of good tricks to avoid the second: when you receive a request for materials, immediately sit down and make a checklist of what should be in the submission packet. Then have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests. (Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.) Afterward, compare and consolidate the two lists.

Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses — Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book (see above; wash, rinse, repeat), a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing oe.

Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Hey, there was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer. Or so my agent tells me.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

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?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, it’s still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves. Keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part III: suspense novel seeks LTR with agent

Throughout this latest barefoot run through the often rocky field of query letters, I have been thinking a lot about querying fatigue, 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.

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 work.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare 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?

The sole goal of querying, as of pitching, then, is to generate a request to read some of it — not, as many queriers and pitchers seem to believe, to sell the book per se.

Why am I bringing this up in mid-series, you ask, other than to be a ray of sunshine on a rainy Seattle day? Well, it’s all part of a longer-term plan: earlier in the summer, if you will recall, I promised that learning how to pitch would help make you a better querier; last week and this, I have discussed how a savvy pitcher might apply those lessons to constructing a query letter; yesterday, I broached the often-neglected subject of the difference between query letters that claim to be the next bestseller, and those that provide an agent with some reasons to believe it.

Beginning to descry the outlines of my evil plan? I don’t want any of you to follow my querying guidelines blindly, but to UNDERSTAND the goals and pieces of the query letter well enough to write one that is actually original. I would like to see my readers not merely sending out professional-looking query letters, but ones that shout, “Hey, I’m not just a writer who has slapped my ideas into a boilerplate query — I’m a smart, thoughtful person with a good idea for a book who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.”

Overkill? Perhaps. But in my experience, more effective than just changing the words in the same template half the aspiring writers in North America are using this week — and believe me, fashions in querying change almost as often as fashions in hemlines.

All of which brings me back to a question thoughtful reader Jake wrote in to ask earlier in the summer, in the middle 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. As I mentioned in yesterday’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, 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, as I mentioned yesterday. 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.

That’s at MAKING the bed, naturally, children.

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.

(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 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.

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 2. 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 until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: 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.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Oh, come on: 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, this at best looks like a rather pitiful 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. 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!

Okay, I get it about standard format for manuscripts. Now what does a query letter look like?

Hello, campers —

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid, but I’m anxious to start fulfilling a promise I made earlier in the summer. Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, way back in mid-June, and you’ll find that when I first began talking about how to pull together a verbal pitch, I promised that doing so it would help you crank out a stellar query letter.

Well, now’s the time to prove it.

In that spirit, I’m going to be re-running a few posts (edited) from last year’s interminable-but-useful Book Marketing 101 series. Today, we’re going to talk about how to construct a query letter from the building blocks of the pitch. (And if you’re not clear about what they are, check the category list at right — each has its own category, for easy reference.)

This is a perfect time of year to be working on polishing a query — as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so waiting until early-to-mid-September (after Labor Day, but before the Frankfort Book Fair, to be precise) makes good strategic sense.

Enjoy!

Here’s a startling statement for an online writing guru to make: I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more.

Why? Well, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits all boilerplate.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it? (For those of you new to the concept, please see a category on the list at right entitled, straightforwardly enough, THE MAGIC FIRST HUNDRED WORDS.)

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Optional. Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.

{ELEVATOR SPEECH}

I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Q. Author

Or, to show it as it might appear on an actual piece of paper (white, please; this is not the time to break out the solar yellow in an misguided effort to grab Millicent’s attention), like this:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m going to be showing you precisely what a properly-formatted query letter looks like on the page. For today, however I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!
PS to those of you who are reading this post for the first time in the archives: this is my basic how-to post for query writing, but there is a wealth of further information located in the QUERY LETTER 101 category on the list at right. For tips on technical formatting, please see the QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED category. Best of luck!

Surviving a conference with your sanity — and energy — in one piece, or, if a stone can smile, so can you

That’s an actual stone in my yard, by the way, one that apparently went out of its way to anthropomorphize for our viewing pleasure. If rocks can be that friendly, it gives me great hope for human beings.

Which is my subtle way of leading into asking: after these last few weeks of posts, are you starting to have dreams yet about pitching?

If they’re not nightmares, and you’re scheduled to pitch at a conference anytime soon, you’re either a paragon of mental health, a born salesperson — or I’ve underemphasized the potential pitfalls. For the purposes of the rest of this series, I’m going to assume that you either ARE waking up in the night screaming or that I haven’t yet explained this adequately.

Hey, it always helps to be prepared.

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

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

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a class of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes. I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual. The bigger the class, the more quickly s/he will focus upon you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, please remember: writing almost never sells on pitches alone. You are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try to maintain perspective.

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

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

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

Also, it is VERY much in your interest to send out submissions to several agents at once, rather than one at a time. And no, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless (a) one of the agencies has a policy precluding multiple submissions (rare) or (b) you promised one agent an exclusive. (I would EMPHATICALLY discourage you from granting (b), by the way — and if you don’t know why, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right before you even CONSIDER pitching at a conference.)

And don’t worry — I’ll be talking next week about how to cover your proverbial donkey whilst sending out multiple submissions. For now, all you really need to know is that the old saw about agents’ getting insulted if you don’t submit one at a time is absolutely untrue; unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive look at your work, it’s neither expected nor in your interest to act as if s/he has.

So there.

Back to why you should keep on pitching in those hallways: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch.

Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are easier, for one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

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

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

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

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

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

(d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Oops, slipped too far into Mom mode. Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question; she hastened to alter it. For my senior prom: a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley; not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear. Even with the alterations, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point: the FIRST words by mother-in-law uttered after hearing that my book had sold: “What do you mean, it’s not coming out until the autumn of 2009? Why the delay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hum that one a LOT during conferences, I’ll admit. Helpful, I find, when a bestselling author whose agent is her college roommate’s cousin tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing always finds a home. Perhaps, but certainly not easily.

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

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

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

Working up the nerve to pitch — or to ask pointed questions, for that matter

Sorry to have missed posting yesterday, campers, and during conference season, too: I had a lulu of a migraine, so my activities yesterday were limited to (a) moaning, (b) telling the cats to keep it DOWN, already, and (c) contemplating rolling over, then not doing it. Miserable stuff; I don’t recommend its cultivation.

As my SO (and cats) can attest, a fairly high percentage of my moans were about the fact that I really wanted to post yesterday, because I had planned to talk about a rather important topic for conference season: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch.

And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.

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

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

Before you shout, “Well, duh!” at me, allow me to add that this means it is very much in your interests be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.

Because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. So you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.

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

Why? Well, agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it.

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

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

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions.

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

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

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

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching.

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

What is likely to happen when our misguided friend above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does? One of two things, depending upon the mood and generosity level of the agents so approached. If they’re feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience.

Just don’t do it. It will get you talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance.

From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about the deal memo: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation.

Which leads to the second point: a book that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.

So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”

Again: not the best idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although should you happen to bump into MY fabulous agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved.

As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us before is wrong.” Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

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

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

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” (This is a question they tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names.)

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

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

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

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” (This last varies a LOT.)

“How much feedback to you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” (Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately.)

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

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

“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” (This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. The responses are usually pretty colorful. It’s also worth asking if they have any automatic red flags for submissions.)

These are pretty fundamental questions, but you are well within your rights to ask them. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

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

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

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, the editors from houses that have this policy tend to assume that pitchers are already aware of it. Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts.

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

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

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

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

(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients. (Of which, more in a couple of days.)

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

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

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

Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to them in the hallways.

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

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

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

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

And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? I would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query.

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

Oh, and for those of you who will be pitching this weekend and are already determined to ignore my advice about waiting until after my submission packet series next week to send off requested materials: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above.

Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event — that is, if my head remains clear. Keep up the good work!