Pitchingpalooza, part XVI: take a deep breath. You have not blown it irretrievably.

Smack dab in the middle of this last weekend’s Conference that Shall Remain Nameless, I received one of the most pitiful types of calls a pitching coach can get: a frantic “What do I do now?” cri de coeur from a talented aspiring writer who had just realized that she had missed one of her scheduled pitching appointments. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really; he had simply written down the wrong day in her calendar.

In the midst of trying to navigate a busy conference schedule, it isn’t all that hard to do. In fact, it’s not all that uncommon a snafu. (So in response to what a third of you thought very loudly while reading the last paragraph: yes, there are agents and editors who do read this blog, but no, the petitioning writer would not be identifiable from this description. He probably wasn’t even the only scheduled pitcher who missed an appointment at this conference; because people have been known to panic at the last minute, agents and editors are used to no-shows.)

My first thought was for him, of course, but my second thought was for you, campers. It ran a little something like this: my God, is it possible that I have never covered this situation on Author! Author! at any point within the last 6 years? (My third thought, should you care to know it: wait, aren’t we coming up on our iron anniversary any day now? Indeed we are: I posted for the first time as the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless’ Resident Writer on August 11th, 2005. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of one single thing a blogger might actually need that is made of iron, other than a hammer to batter home a point or two, but I’m open to suggestions.)

My alarmed second thought was, alas, depressingly accurate. Not only have I never written anything here about this rather common conference faux pas; a panicked would-be pitcher who realized with a start at 2:15 that his meeting with the agent of his dreams had been a 12:15 — oh, for the loss of a digit! — might end up scrolling through dozens of posts searching for an answer.

Obviously, that’s not acceptable to me; I try very hard to make this site panic-friendly. I hope all of you who are not planning to pitch anytime soon will forgive me, therefore, if I devote part of today’s post to addressing this question, so I may establish a category for it on the archive list toute suite.

The first thing to do upon realizing that one has spaced out (or chickened out; no shame in that) of a scheduled appointment with an agent or editor is to relax. The pro is not going to hate you for all eternity, nor is s/he going to regale all of her friends in the publishing industry with the tale of how (insert your name here) didn’t show up for the meeting. As I said, it’s just too frequent an occurrence to generate much umbrage — and it’s definitely too common a conference phenomenon to make a good anecdote.

“Oh, that’s happened to all of us,” the tellers coworkers will say, yawning. “Writers get too stressed out to pitch all the time.”

You feel better already, don’t you? Excellent. What you should do next is march up to the meeting-scheduling desk (or, if it’s closed, march up to the nearest well-marked member of the conference’s organizing committee) and boldly admit that you got your scheduling wires crossed. “Is there any way at all,” you should ask politely, “that I could reschedule?”

Yes, really. Try dangling your head between your knees until the urge to faint passes.

You’d be surprised how often the schedulers will say yes, provided that you are hugely apologetic about imposing upon their time. Pitchers cancel appointments all the time; they may be able to give you an abruptly emptied appointment, if you are willing to hang around on the off chance that one might open.

Why do they tend to be willing to do that? Well, rescheduling meetings is part of their job. Not only do first-time pitchers come tiptoeing up to them to whisper regrets about suddenly having developed a case of laryngitis; It’s also not unheard-of for — brace yourselves — an agent or editor to miss a scheduled meeting. In either case, they’re going to need to do some appointment-shuffling.

Head back from its second field trip between your knees yet? “But Anne,” excited pitchers everywhere gasp, “how on earth is that possible? I prepared for weeks for that meeting — what do you mean, they might not show up?”

I mean that as powerful as aspiring writers perceive agents and editors to be, they do not control flight schedules; if a plane gets delayed at JFK, they might well be late arriving at a conference in Austin. If (heaven forfend) a child gets sick, a parent might very well decide not to arrive in St. Louis to hear pitches until the next day. I’ve even heard rumors (mostly over bloody Marys the day after a conference party) that people simply oversleep.

It happens. If it happens to you, your first and second steps should be precisely the same: take a nice, deep breath, remember that it wasn’t the conference organizers’ fault, and go make a polite request to reschedule.

Believe me, courtesy counts here: if the agency decided at the last minute to send a different agent with different tastes at the last minute because the one originally scheduled has a client whose revision deadline just got moved up by a month (again, it happens), plenty of writers will be scrambling to switch appointments. Stand out from the crowd by being the one who is nice about it, especially if you are willing to stick around and wait for any last-minute openings.

Say, because someone forgot about a pitching appointment. Their gaffe may be your gain.

Please remember, though, that it’s in your interest to be polite even if the answer is no. Think about it: when a slot opens up unexpectedly three hours later, who is the scheduler more likely to flag down for it, the writer that yelled at her, or the one who commiserated with the craziness of trying to juggle so many irate people’s demands?

If you cannot make a fresh appointment (as is likely to happen, if the agent does not turn up at the conference at all), don’t lose hope; you still have two quite good options, the gutsy and the shy. The gutsy route involves doing precisely what we’ve been discussing over the last few posts: walking up to an agent or editor in the hallway or other non-bathroom conference venue, courteously attracting her attention, and asking if you can pitch.

Wow, you are prone to attacks of dizziness, aren’t you? Have you tried not locking your knees?

Actually, a pro is more likely to say yes to a hallway pitch if the requester mentions a missed pitching appointment. No need to say why you weren’t there (or to remind the agent that he was the one who didn’t show); just apologize briefly if it was your doing, and ask if you can have some time now. Or later.

Can’t imagine yourself saying it? Come on, it’s easy.

Writer (edging up to agent chatting with editor at the end of rubber chicken luncheon): Excuse me for disturbing you, Ms. Pickyperson, but may I have a moment?

Agent (clutching her coffee cup; she didn’t get a lot of sleep last night): Yes?

Writer: I’m terribly sorry, but there was a mix-up, and I missed our appointment this morning. Is there any possibility that you could make a few minutes for me? I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (shoving out a chair with her foot so she need not remove the coffee cup from her mouth): I’ll give you two minutes right now.

See? Your mother was right; politeness pays. Do be prepared to be equally polite, however, if she gives you a different time to meet, or if says no.

Writer: I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (glancing at her watch): I’m afraid that I just don’t have time. My plane leaves in two hours.

Writer (disappointed, but hiding it well): Oh, I understand. May I send you a query?

Agent (hoisting her carry-on bag): Yes, that would be fine.

Wasn’t our writer clever to suggest that last option? He could also just have gone there directly, if he was shy, skipping the face-to-face approach altogether and dispatching a query that builds upon the missed meeting.

I prefer e-mail for these sorts of missives, if the agency accepts them; that way, it’s apparent that the writer is trying to follow up as soon as possible on that canceled appointment. Again, there is no need to raise the issue of fault.

SUBJECT LINE: I missed you at the Greenwater Conference

Dear Ms. Pickyperson,

I am so sorry that our scheduled appointment at Greenwater did not happen; I was looking forward to talking to you about my romance novel, OOPS, I LOST MY CALENDAR. I hope that you are still interested in hearing about it now.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

Perfectly polite and reasonable, isn’t it? This method can also work delightfully well for agents whom one did not have the nerve to buttonhole in the hallways.

SUBJECT LINE: post-Greenwater Conference query

Dear Mr. EyeofSharpness,

I enjoyed your talk at the recent Greenwater Conference. Unfortunately, I could not obtain an appointment to speak with you about my thriller, THE BUTLER DID IT TWICE.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

What you should most emphatically not do — but need I add that these are the most popular choices in practice? — is either dash up to the scheduling desk to demand a fresh appointment on the spot, trail weeping after the agent in the hallways, loudly berating yourself for having spaced out on your meeting, or decide in humiliated silence to do nothing at all. None of these methods is likely to turn a missed opportunity into a saved one.

Is everybody clear on that? Please feel free to pepper the comments with follow-up questions and hypothetical situations, if not. I would much, much rather that you ask me now than send me a breathless e-mail as you hyperventilate at a conference a month hence.

Call me zany, but I prefer it when my readers can breathe. They tend to think more clearly that way.

Back to our originally scheduled programming. Next time, I shall be talking about how to make the actual approach for a hallway pitch, because it requires a certain amount of finesse not to end up as the subject of an anecdote about how pushy aspiring writers can be. Today, however, I want to bring up another common trait of the successful hallway pitcher: freshness.

As I pointed out a couple of days ago, the first commandment of a winning elevator speech is THOU SHALL NOT BORE. Actually, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any pitch, query letter, or submission, but if a hallway pitch is snore-inducing, the results can be instantly fatal.

Not boring is a while lot harder than it sounds, you know. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most 3-line pitches sound a great deal alike, at least to someone who has been hearing them for three days straight.

Agent (eying the bottom of her empty coffee cup): Tell me about your book.

Writer: Well, it’s called GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and it’s the story of (insert protagonist’s name, age, profession, if any, and geographic location here), a (insert adjective) man/woman/group who face (insert conflict here). The stakes couldn’t be higher, because (insert barrier to achieving goal here). In pursuing his/her/its collective dream and/or saving his/her/its (insert treasured resource here), he/she/they will discover (insert life lesson here).

Agent (overcome by certain sense of déjà vu): Hmm. Sounds interesting. Tell me more.

The structure is, let’s face it, awfully darned restrictive. No wonder the people who hear them for a living tend to remember my students: the mere fact of their introducing themselves prior to pitching is out of the ordinary.

Add to that structural similarity all of the pitches for books that sound suspiciously like the big bestseller from two years ago, as well as the ones that lift plots, character traits, and situations from movies, TV shows, pop culture, and good, old-fashioned clichés, and is it still surprising that pitches start to blur together in the hearer’s mind after a startlingly short while?

Hands up, anyone who still doesn’t understand why that agent who requested the first fifty pages of a manuscript last Saturday might not recall the details of the pitch today. (On the bright side, that agent was probably downright grateful when her eighteenth pitch appointment was a no-show; it gave her time to grab an extra cup o’ joe.)

Is that abject terror I’m sensing creeping around out there, or have the trees outside my window suddenly taken up moaning for fun and profit? “Gee, Anne,” the newly nervous pipe up, “I had no idea that part of the goal of my pitch — 3-line or otherwise — was to strike the agent or editor as original. Now I’m quaking in my proverbial boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and shout, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath; it’s the too-common structure that is snore-inducing, not necessarily any individual pitch’s subject matter. Besides, no agent or editor can possibly judge the quality of your writing solely through a verbal pitch, so even in the unlikely event that a pro said something like that to your face, it would be a response to your book’s premise or plot as you have just presented it, not to the book itself. As practically everybody in the industry is fond of saying, it all depends on the writing.

And I have even more good news: if you can make your elevator speech resemble your narrative voice, it is far, far more likely to strike the hearer as original.

Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advising you to work with your elevator speech or pitch until it sounds like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. Or like a pitch for a book that’s already on the bestseller list.

Was that giant thud I just heard the sound of the jaws of all of you who have attended conferences recently hitting the floor? “But Anne,” these astonished souls protest, cradling their sore mandibles, “you’re got that backwards, don’t you? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard agents and editors say at conferences, ‘Oh, THAT kind of book isn’t selling anymore.’ Wouldn’t it be better strategy for me to imply that my book is just like something that is selling well right now?”

Perhaps, if your manuscript actually is similar to a current bestseller. Even if you find yourself in this position, though, you’re going to want to figure out what makes your book original and work some inkling of it into your pitch. After all, any agent who represents those types of books will have been inundated with carbon copies of that bestseller since about a month after it hit the big time.

Seriously, do you have the slightest idea how many YA vampire books Millicent the agency screener sees in any given week?

In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else. To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And somnambulant Sally sells salacious seashells by the sordid seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often two. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY? Or even the next DA VINCI CODE? How about something that’s selling immensely well in your book category right now?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

That’s as true of a pitch as it is for a novel or memoir, you know. A generic pitch isn’t going to show off an honestly original voice, or even a fresh story — it’s just going to sound like two-thirds of the other pitches an agent or editor has heard that day.

See why I so discourage writers I like from embracing the ubiquitous 3-line pitch formula? The way that new pitchers are typically encouraged to do it tends to flatten original stories. Squashes some of ‘em flat as pancakes, it does.

“Wait just a minute,” that Greek chorus of conference-goers pipes up again. “I’m confused. We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks here about making my book project sound marketable. So if I make it sound like something that’s already a bestseller, why won’t that lend my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, there’s just no getting around the fact that a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is inevitably going to come across as derivative. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is why those periodic experiments where some wag tries to query and submit the first five pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in order to demonstrate that good writing no longer stands a chance are not actually measuring agents’ responses to high-quality writing. At this point in literary history, the first five pages of any Jane Austen novel would strike any literate Millicent as being derivative of Jane Austen.

Not that quite a few authors haven’t made a killing in recent years being derivative of Jane Austen, mind you. So much so that even copying her style has been done.

The second answer is that what is already in print isn’t necessarily indicative of what agents and editors are looking for NOW. (If you’re not sure why, I refer you back to that section above where I talked about the usual lapse between acquisition and publication.) The third answer — I’ll throw this one in for free — is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice, so copying it is going to seem even less fresh.

That “Wha–?” you just heard was Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. Take a bow, everyone. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. I’m not going out on a particularly lengthy literary limb by suggesting — or even stating categorically — that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege.)

I seem still to be standing, so allow me to continue: books get published for all kinds of reasons. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction in the five years before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a Pulitzer winner’s ex-husband. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective, and strenuously pretending that any issue affecting humanity has two equal sides — and only two sides. But the author is not going to lean toward either. Uh-uh. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

To have a literary voice, though, is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option. In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the writer chose for this appropriate for the story?”

Not all voices fit all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would you want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? A political thriller whose first-person narrator is a senator by day, a hacker by night, but speaks all the time like a Barbary pirate? What about a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write. Nor would it best serve my literary purposes to pitch my fiction in the same voice as my memoir.

Honestly, if I used my wistful-yet-tough memoir voice here to discuss the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor in 42 second flat. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please. I have some masses to mobilize.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written everything from political platforms to fashion articles to promotional copy for wine bottles to lectures on Plato. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these topics, because the audiences were very different.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting (although believe me, you need some pretty good comic timing to keep hung-over frat boys awake throughout the entirety of an 8 a.m. lecture on ancient Athenian political theory), and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Just as there are millions of different ways to tell any given story, there are millions of different ways to pitch it. Tone, voice, vocabulary choice, rhythm — a skillful writer may play with all of these tools in order to alter how a reader or pitch hearer receives the story.

Speaking of stories, let me tell you one that you may find enlightening.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay very young, very naïve Harvard students a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area.

Alone. All summer. In my case, throughout the wildlife-rich Pacific Northwest. I awoke once near Mt. St. Helens to find a ground squirrel tap-dancing on my head; something with awfully big paws made off with my frying pan outside of Bend, and a tourist bureau employee in Walla Walla told me I was “asking for it” by wandering around town, inquiring about motel rates. (He offered to explain over dinner what “it” was, but I declined.) My gig was heaven, however, compared to my friend who got a switchblade in his gut while asking some perfectly straightforward questions about the freshness of the fish in a bar in Barcelona.

The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Not entirely coincidentally, Let’s Go’s tone at the time was very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right? Not so.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket. It was raining so hard on the outskirts of Eugene that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique her obviously underdeveloped customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge. (If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework, please, and don’t accept any job offers that involve hitchhiking.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to slip into her jeans after checking around the corner for the manager. After I deposited my backpack in my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name.” The combination of the rain noisily battering the phone booth and the angry mob urging me not to impinge upon their territory rendered his response inaudible. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

He had to shout his response three times before I could understand what he was saying. ”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up. He’s an extremely respectable English professor at a well-known liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest now. He tells me that he thinks about my motel adventure every time he meets a student from Eugene.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

In other words, presenting the story in the same flat, just-the-fact voice that dogs the average conference pitch. You’d be surprised at how many pitches for interesting, imaginative books come across with all of the stylistic verve of a police report.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go anecdote, compressed into a standard 3-line pitch:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby and tells the clerk she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity, but the manager confirms the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lamé huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman suspects that she might not be in the right place and telephones the editor who sent her there.

Not the apex of colorful, is it? It’s the same story, essentially, but an agent or editor hearing this second account and think, “Gee, this story might have potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story. I think I’ll pass.” Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

I might not garner precisely the same reactions if I pitched this story in the style of a bestselling writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing over how often aspiring writers pitch and submit books that bear suspicious similarities to theirs.

To an experienced pitch-hearer, the resemblance doesn’t have to be too overt for the kinship to be obvious, if you catch my drift. You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

All that being said, I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting some agents’ and editors’ attention, at least on the Hollywood hook level:

“My memoir is ANGELA’S ASHES, but without all of that pesky poverty!”

“My chick lit manuscript is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!”

“The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or the death!”

However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copycats may hit the big time in the short term, for the long haul, what audiences find memorable is originality.

That’s as true for a pitch as for a manuscript, you know. Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a pitch is this: three days after an agent has heard it, will he remember it on the airplane back to New York? Even if the storyline escapes him, will he remember the interesting way in which the pitcher told it, the narrative voice, the details he’d ever heard before?

In 99% of 3-line pitches, the answer is no. Partially, that’s the fault of the flattening format. Partially, it isn’t.

So at the risk of boring you, allow me to repeat the advice I’ve been hawking for the last couple of posts: the best use of your pre-pitching time — or pre-querying time — is to figure out precisely how your book is different from what’s currently on the market, not trying to make it sound like the current bestseller. A fresh story told in an original manner is hard for even the most jaded pro to resist.

Provided, of course, it’s presented in a polite, professional manner. Next time, I’ll give you some tips on how to give a hallway pitch without impinging upon the hearer’s boundaries. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer: The protagonist of my fiction novel –

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

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

Agent: Your protagonist, you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agent: Why, thank you, Brilliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a manuscript with 482 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fountain-in-carcassonne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

original-starbucks-logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dali-clocks

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

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

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

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

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that.

Oh, stop groaning — this is where it starts to get exciting. Now that we have the building blocks of the pitch assembled, from here on out, we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, stalwart writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, humble scribe, and don’t forget to awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me while I was spooning wilted green salad onto my plate, you may have 30 seconds of my time. Do you mind if I finish making my way through the buffet first?”

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

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

Like, say, the entire rest of the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not too astonishing, I hope — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah, even though Oprah’s book club has been defunct for quite some time now.

Like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissenting thoughts very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice. Let’s begin with the strategy.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but panicking and self-blame are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself. Give yourself some time to get good at it.

Feeling better? Excellent. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

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

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

c) What’s standing in the way of her getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?
And no, “Why, it’s me!” is not a sufficient answer. Show that you are an interesting person in an interesting situation.

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

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

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

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people. Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t particularly accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a particular person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

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

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities. Mara was an offbeat girl with a problem is significantly less memorable than Mara learned to use her first prosthetic limb when she was three, isn’t it?

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
That loud thumping sound you just heard reverberating throughout the ether was the jaw of every pitcher who has ever said something like, “It’s THE DA VINCI CODE, but with 21rst-century sheep herding instead of multi-century religious conflict!” hitting the floor. Amongst a certain type of pitcher — typically, the type who picked up the idea somewhere that a pitch and a Hollywood hook are the same thing — drawing parallels with a bestseller, any bestseller, regardless of the aptness of the analogy, is downright common.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

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

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage, where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of …and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being. Or Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple and won her the mayoral election.

Or, heaven preserve us, Can they learn to live happily ever after?

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.
Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, forced by circumstances beyond their control, and are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is never a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen to them, rather than characters who do things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of those I’ve heard, I’d build three of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The sad thing is that the books being pitched this way may not actually have passive protagonists. Honestly, though, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone, language, and vocabulary of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

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

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

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

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

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

Make the tone of the elevator speech match the tone of the book. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp in the corner of your office responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but you see my point, right? You simply cannot know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you actually say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Oh, you may laugh now, but I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, do not use it in your elevator speech. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often use words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; most inveterate readers do. But do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” some perplexed souls murmur, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud eventually; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch to the agent of your dreams, or a few days before, when you still have time to fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching to an agent, or days/weeks/months before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech. Chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples of these principles in action, but that’s a task for another day — like, say, tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But don’t get antsy if you’re shy: you don’t ever need to say these words out loud at all, if you prefer to promote your work in writing: the species of elevator speech I have in mind is equally useful at conferences and in query letters.

Were you expecting me to follow that last statement with not at all? I can see where you might leap to that conclusion: I have, after all, spent the last couple of weeks telling you at great length that 3-sentence speeches are vastly overrated as marketing tools for books. Which they are, in most pitching contexts. Sometimes, though, an elevator speech is just the ticket; over the next couple of posts, I shall be showing you when and how.

So I would, contrary to what you may have been expecting, advise you to construct one prior to conference time. It’s just not going to be the primary pitching tool in your writer’s bag.

Let’s begin with a definition of the three-line pitch, or, as I prefer to call it, the elevator speech. Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. Contrary to popular belief, the elevator speech should not be a plot summary. Instead, it is an introduction to the main character(s) — by name, please; they’re more memorable that way — the challenges s/he is facing, and what’s at stake.

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

How should this brief introduction to your premise be phrased? If the book in question is a novel, the elevator speech should be in the present tense and in the third person regardless of the tense and narrative voice in which the book is actually written. If you have written a memoir, the past tense and the first person are appropriate.

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

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

Yes, you read that last bit correctly: the 3-sentence pitch you’ve been hearing so much about in conference circles lately is not a standard pitch for a book. It isn’t intended to replace the fully-realized 2-minute pitch that agents and editors will expect you to deliver within the context of a formal appointment. Like the keynote, the 3-line pitch not a substitute for a pitch proper, but a teaser for it — it’s the lead-in to the actual pitch, a chance to show off your storytelling talent in the 30 seconds you might realistically have with an agent in a hallway.

Thus the term elevator speech: it’s designed to be short enough to deliver between floors when a happy accident places you and the agent of your dreams together in the same lift. Although often, an agent in a hurry — say, one you have caught immediately after he has taught a class, or on his way into lunch — will not wait to hear the 2-minute version before asking to see pages.

Which is the true mark of success for an elevator speech: it so intrigues the hearer that further pitching is rendered unnecessary. But don’t get your hopes up: for a formal pitching session, you will be better off with a 2-minute formal pitch. (And don’t worry, I’ll be getting to that next week.)

But — and I cannot emphasize this enough — contrary to what the vast majority of pitching classes and conference brochures will tell you, the elevator speech does not work in every context: it should be reserved for informal pitching opportunities. And even then, you should ALWAYS ask politely if it’s okay to pitch before uttering so much as a syllable of it.

“Wait just a minute,” I hear some time-strapped neophyte conference-goers protest. “You’re telling me to do twice the work I would normally need to do! The conference brochure I have in my hand tells me that I MUST give a 3-4 sentence summary of my book. Obviously, then, I can just stick with that, and ignore your advice to prepare a 2-minute pitch as well. Besides, won’t agents and editors get mad at me if I break the 3-sentence rule?”

In a word, no.

At least, not in a scheduled pitch meeting, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s not their rule. Almost invariably, conference organizers, not the potential pitch-hearers, set up the 3-sentence maximum. There’s a reason for that: the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry, but the movie industry; agents seldom have much attachment to it.

I still feel some of you out there quailing, however. Here’s something to make you feel better: even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about brevity, it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s not as though goons with stopwatches will be standing behind you during your pitch appointments, shouting, “Okay, buddy — that was 3.5 sentences. Out of the pitching pool!”

Oh, sure, if you went on for two or three minutes during a chance encounter over the dessert bar, the average agent’s plate of tiramisu might start to shake with annoyance after a minute or so. That’s a matter of context and fallen blood sugar, though. In the formal appointments, agents are often actually perplexed when writers stop talking after 20 seconds or so.

Because, you see, they don’t read the conference brochures. They just know the norms of the publishing world.

But think about it: do you really want to waste the other 9 1/2 minutes of your appointment by having prepared only 30 seconds about your book? On the other hand, you don’t want to focus so much on the 2-minute formal pitch that you can’t take advantage of hallway pitching opportunities, do you?

In short, you’re going to want to prepare both. This is an industry that values flexibility and creativity, after all.

Did that gusty collective sigh I just heard mean that I’ve convinced at least a few of you? “Okay, Anne,” some of you shout wearily, “You win. But since brevity is the soul of both the elevator speech and the keynote, how are they different?”

Good question, tuckered-out would-be pitchers. The elevator speech is roughly three times the length of the keynote, for one thing. And while the keynote is designed to pique interest in the conflict, the elevator speech is intended to elicit a “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”

That’s right: the elevator speech is intended to provoke follow-up questions.

Although the purpose of both the keynote and the 3-line pitch is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. It’s only a sentence, after all. In the elevator speech, however, your task is to show that your novel or memoir is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation — or, if it’s nonfiction, that it’s about an interesting, important problem with a fascinating solution.

Let me repeat that, slightly twisted, because it’s important: if your elevator speech does not present your novel or memoir’s protagonist as a scintillating person caught in a riveting dilemma, or at any rate shown against an absorbing backdrop, you should revise it until it does. Ditto if your nonfiction elevator speech doesn’t make the underlying problem sound vital to solve and interesting to read about solving.

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

(1) Who is the protagonist/are you?

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

(3) How is she/he/you going to attack it differently than anybody else on the face of the earth?

Why stick to the premise alone, you ask? Simple: when you have someone’s attention for only thirty seconds or so, you don’t have time to explain the interesting backstory, the macabre subplot, how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, that great twist about the long-lost half-sister, or how the villain gets dissolved in a vat of acid in the basement.

You will not, in short, have the time to summarize the plot. You will have barely enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them on the page.

Was that giant slide-whistle I just heard the sound of all of you who have experienced the horror of trying to cram an entire book’s plot into three sentences realizing that you didn’t need to do it at all?

Yup. I wish someone had told me that before the first time I pitched, too. To tell you the truth, the only people I have ever met who have expected writers to tell an entire story in three lines are pitching teachers and the conference organizers who write the directions in brochures.

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

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

So why is the demand that you limit yourself to three sentences so ubiquitous in conference literature? Beats me. And what makes this phenomenon even stranger, at least from my perspective, is even screenplays are not really pitched in three sentences; they’re pitched in three beats. So what book writers are being told to do is not even accurate for the industry in which micro-pitches are the norm.

Curious about what three beats might sound like? I’m no screenwriter (nor do I play one on TV), but let me give it a try for one of the longest movies of my lifetime:

Beat one: An East Indian lawyer in South Africa

Beat two: uses nonviolence to change unjust laws

Beat three: and then takes the strategy home to fight British rule.

Recognize it? It’s GANDHI. (In case you think I’m kidding about the expected brevity of movie pitches, here is the IMDb version: “Biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British through his philosophy of non-violent protest.” Mine’s shorter.)

Of course, far more happens in the movie than this: it’s 188 minutes long, and it has a cast of — well, if not thousands, at least many hundreds filmed repeatedly. But if I had tried to summarize the entire plot, we would have been here until next Tuesday.

Fortunately, an elevator speech for a book is not expected to be this terse: you actually can have 3-4 complex sentences, not just beats. But that does not mean, as is VERY common in the ostensibly 3-sentence pitches one actually hears at conferences in these dark days, three sentences with eight dependent and three independent clauses each.

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

Unfortunately, that’s a necessary admonition. I’ve heard many elevator speeches that — while technically three sentences in the sense that they contained only three periods — took longer than two minutes to say out loud. While that may meet the letter of the 3-sentence rule, it clearly violates its spirit.

Stop glaring at me. I don’t make the rules; I merely explain them to you fine people.

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

Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this level of pith? Are you contemplating taking up fancy yogi breathing techniques to extend the length of your elevator speech? Are you, in fact, seriously considering avoiding hallway pitches altogether, just so you don’t have to construct both an elevator speech and a 2-minute pitch?

All three are common reactions to my pitching classes I must confess, but don’t worry — I shall give you many, many practical tips on how to pull it off with aplomb, but for now, I’m going to let those of you who are attending the Conference That Shall Not Be Named get back to your frantic pre-conference preparations.

For those of you who have not attended before, you might want to channel some of that anticipatory energy you’ve been devoting to nail-biting to taking a gander at the reader-requested WHAT TO WEAR TO A CONFERENCE and WHAT TO BRING TO A CONFERENCE categories on the archive list at right. Also, if you love me, please do not even consider sending off any requested materials to any agents and editors you might meet at said conference without at least glancing at the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET posts.

And is it too late to advise you to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it to anyone? Or to remind you that no matter how thrilled you are to receive a request for pages from a real, live agent, unless that agent actually asked you to overnight it (very rare, but it happens), you are under no obligation to send requested materials right away. You have time to take a day, a week, or even a month to get those pages submission-perfect.

For the rest of you, I leave to ponder the possibilities until next time. Brainstorm about the best way to present your premise BRIEFLY, not how to cram as many plot points as possible into a couple of breaths’ worth of speech.

To give you a touch of additional incentive, I’ll let you in on a secret: once you have come up with an eyebrow-raising elevator speech, the process is going to help you improve your 2-minute pitch — and your queries, too.

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