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

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

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

First, if you are planning to pitch next week, please feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through the basics at record speed. (I know — how do I come up with those esoteric category names?)

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

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

And for those of you who do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever, if you can possibly avoid it — please hang tight, either way. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation. Pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, however inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.
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As in any other business, there are ropes to learn if you want to get published. No shame in that.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, that sounds interesting, but naturally, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter will often get rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

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

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

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

Ah, you’re suffering from Pith Petrification. This dire syndrome’s tell-tale symptoms are clearly visible in the hallways of half the literary conferences in North America. Aspiring writers walk into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I am not a big fan this approach, however often conference brochures and websites tout it as the proper — or only — way to pitch a book. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions or sneeze while she’s in the midst of delivering it.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: people sneeze, and asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last time with some homework. How is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are being marketed to readers.

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

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

The idea here is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How is that delightful propensity manifested, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He waved away my objections. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic may be productively applied to the language of a pitch or a query letter: an overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what agents and editors are hoping to hear. Since they think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book concept.

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

Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. For the rest of this post, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted.)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent, the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of wanting to discuss your marvelously intricate book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: even if the agent of your dreams is given to twenty-minute conversations with aspiring writers, sometimes, you will have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when the aforementioned agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite mutual introduction will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch — where politeness doesn’t preclude it, of course. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk this morning. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

I feel the shy quailing, but here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so he will ask to hear more, not to pitch the book all by itself.

And you are going to do that charmingly, professionally, and most of all, courteously. (You didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript. Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE within a swift single sentence. The keynote is not a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he will ask to hear the entire pitch.

Think of the keynote as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into longing to hear your formal pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more.

It is not — and I cannot stress this enough — a pitch proper for a book. No matter how clever a single-sentence keynote is, you will still need to write a pitch (if you are successful in piquing an agent or editor’s interest, anyway). Naturally, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print; the keynote is designed to help open doors so that you may create pitching opportunities.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point at the moment. The point is that in an impromptu first contact with a publishing professional, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy.

And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood hook should not be — but often is — confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks her into the story. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms mixed up all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

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

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

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

It’s no accident that each of the examples above ends in an exclamation point: you want your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? Remember, the whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more.

Think about it: if someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Starting to get the picture? The point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about my book, not demonstrating my encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey would like us to believe. (Use the Force, Luke!)

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from earlier in the series: you can’t presume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your particular subject matter.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could never eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book sets out to solve vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue. Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch.

So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, I imagine the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand why pith that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to luxurious, page-long descriptions of individual dust motes floating in beams of light pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?”

That’s a great question, mote-lovers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

To put it bluntly, if you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony, not how likable your protagonist is.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound positively conflict-ridden. How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch, sunshine.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book overall is to be soothing. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights? Reach for this book!” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

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

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing art as you’re going to find.

Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before. Another effective method for constructing a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution to it.

This works especially well for nonfiction books on depressing subjects. A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and this book will tell you what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a few years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults; a crucial scene in the memoir I was hawking took place at the height of the Ethiopian famine. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounded like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. Oh, and the book’s subject apparently gave up the fight. These things happen.

My point, should you care to know it: if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbored an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believed they could sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, interesting hearers in heavy subject matter tends to be harder than attracting them with comedy, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year or two, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and absolutely original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is unique, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, so much the better. Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your book memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to get them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. realistically, neither could be true.

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

They can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose. While I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good verbal delivery is not the same thing as book concept memorability. I once went to a poetry reading that still haunts my nightmares.

A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked into a well-attended reading and declaimed, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. Yet to make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me — I was a sweet young thing at the time — lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone in the room was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, years later, everyone there seems to remember his, ahem, performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time. But then, we were all busy getting out of the guy’s line of sight.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his performance memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing.

Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who wrote an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if somebody ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.) But did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

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

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a lot of pitches, and even more Hollywood hooks: too many one-line pitchers concentrate merely on delivery or sounding clever, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you are the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at her already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XV: originality, moxie, and other traits exhibited by the successful hallway pitcher

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For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the dreaded elevator speech, a.k.a. the heart of the kind of informal pitch a writer might give for her book outside of a formal meeting at a conference. She might have an opportunity to say it at a luncheon, for instance, when an off-duty agent or editor sitting across the table asks, “So what do you write?” Or just after the agent of her dreams gives a talk, after waiting patiently until the crowds of other informal pitchers die down around her. Or, as I have had to do, at 4 am while fending off the not-at-all professional advances of a senior editor at a major NYC publishing house.

Hey, when one’s agent is at one’s elbow, hissing, “Give him your pitch,” one obeys. Then one gets the heck out of there.

Since informal pitches are generally given on the fly and under less-than-ideal circumstances, they take some guts to give. Let’s face it, not every writer has the pure, unadulterated moxie to stop a well-known agent in a conference hallway and say, “Excuse me, but I’ve been trying for two days to get an appointment with you. I’m sorry to bug you, but could you possibly spare thirty seconds to hear my pitch?” And, frankly, not every conference organizer is going to be thoroughly pleased with the writers who do it.

Allow me to let you in on a little professional secret, though: if you did an anonymous poll of agented writers who found representation by pitching at conferences, most of them would tell you that they’ve engaged in hallway pitching. Statistically, it makes perfect sense: the more agents to whom one pitches, the greater one’s probability of being picked up — in the signed-by-an-agent sense, mind you; stop thinking about that editor at that nameless publishing house — and at most conferences that offer pitch meetings, writers are given only one or two appointments. Simple math.

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: originality.

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 are 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. The structure is, as you may have noticed, 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 is out of the ordinary.

Add to that 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.

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 boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and cry, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath. Remember, 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 before 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?”

Well, yes, 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 — 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 currently 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 Sally sells seashells by the 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. 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?

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,” the 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 give my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is 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 from Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. 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. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state 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 still seem 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 prominent publisher’s college roommate. (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.

To have a voice 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 author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices fit with 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? Or 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.

For instance, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. 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.

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 back label copy for wine bottles (when I was too young to purchase alcohol legally, as it happens), for heaven’s sake, as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, 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.

I digress, however. My point is that 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 a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, 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.)

Let’s Go’s tone is 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 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 his obviously lacking 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.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into 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.

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 story, 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 lame 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 pinnacle 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 well-known writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same.

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire, doesn’t it? 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 all 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 sell in the short term — as anyone who amused herself in the first half of this year by counting just how many YA vampire novels US publishers acquired in any given week — for the long haul, what is 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: 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 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!

Pitching 101, part IX: getting all conceptual, or, Anne Frank meets Godzilla at the Eiffel Tower and love blooms!

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Did you enjoy your weekend, readers, or were you too busy racking your brains, trying to come up with a list of your book’s selling points? Here in Seattle, where a writers’ organization to which I used to donate a tremendous amount of time is gearing up for its annual Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, aspiring writers are walking into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of the brighter wits among you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I eschew this approach. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last Thursday with some homework. So I ask again: how is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are marketed to readers.

Don’t try this at your local library — the idea is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

I don’t mean to alarm any of you with my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books aimed at a specific group of readers, you may well notice that they all have something in common. In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words.

That’s not only true of book marketing, by the way. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) Since I was new to the game, I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine, in the apparently mistaken impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like.

After a week or two, the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be — and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots, to assure an accurate description?

He waved away my objection. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic holds true for the language of a pitch or a query letter: since agents and editors think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book. An overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what they’re hoping to hear.

So let’s turn our attention to pith, shall we? Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. But I digress)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be READY to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

Here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly ARE going to take up only a few seconds of her time. (Hey, you didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

But there I go, digressing again. Back to the business at hand.

The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript.

Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift single sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more. Just in case anyone is still confused, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at literally every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the entire pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood Hook should not be confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms confused all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY!”

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

“Paris Hilton is suddenly penniless and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day Martians invade!”

It’s no accident that the example above ends in an exclamation point: you WANT your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise?

The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book solves vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue.

Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand WHY that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?

That’s a great question, disgruntled murmurers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden.

How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

You WERE aware that both pitching and querying were species of seduction, right?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.

Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects.

A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a couple of years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. These things happen.

My point is, if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believe they can sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, all the better.

Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your BOOK memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. Logically, neither could be true.

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

In other words, they can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked in and read, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. To make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me, lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, almost a decade later, everyone there remembers his performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they tend to be merely about delivery, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you’re the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part X: Millicent’s frequent sense of déjà vu, or, the benefits of venturing off the beaten path

Revisiting my posts from a couple of years ago on reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1, I notice that I have been feeling compelled to add quite a bit of commentary, so much so that they are essentially new posts (which is why I’ve stopped doing the boldfaced introductions, in case anyone has been wondering). I’m not entirely sure whether this is due to how much the literary market has changed since I originally ran this list in the autumn of 2006, and how much is that, having edited, commented upon, and judged for contests scads of manuscripts in the intervening time, I have developed more pet peeves of my own.

I suspect it’s a combination of both. But I’m not the reader we’re discussing in this series, am I?

Here, we’ve been talking about the pet peeves of agents, editors, and the screeners they employ to accept or, more commonly, reject manuscripts. For the last couple of days, I’ve been going over something that is seldom discussed at writers’ conferences, in craft seminars, or even socially amongst aspiring writers, the possibility of submission’s getting rejected because it just doesn’t strike Millicent the agency screener as particularly exciting.

Funny, isn’t it, that although pretty much every writing teacher will underscore the importance of opening with a hook — an arresting conflict or strong image that draws the reader into the story from line 1, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a 1-line pitch for a book — very few seem to bring up the opposite possibility, inducing a yawn? Yet to understand what makes a hook effective, shouldn’t we writers give some thought to what might bore a reader in an opening?

More to the point of this series, shouldn’t submitters be casting a critical eye over their first pages before mailing them off, asking, “If I were Millicent the agency screener and this was my 25th first page before lunch, would I be turned off by anything in this opening?”

Yes, yes, I know — it’s painful to contemplate the possibility of even a line’s worth one’s own writing being less than scintillating, but it’s actually a much, much more useful exercise than the one usually conducted at the few writers’ conferences that devote seminar time specifically to opening pages. Some of you have probably been to these, right? They tend to be panel discussions where the published and their agents and/or editors discourse about what does and doesn’t grab them in an opening, using examples from books that have been out for years.

Can anyone see a problem with culling from that particular set of examples in order to help writers who are trying to land agents and publishing houses today?

If you said that what sold ten or fifteen years ago would not necessarily wow an agent or editor today, give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back. When aspiring writers complain — admittedly with justification — that their favorite authors breakthough books probably couldn’t land an agent these days, the pros tend to shrug and say, “Why would anyone be surprised by that? The market is constantly changing.”

But you’d never know that to walk into most conference panels on craft, let alone on opening pages, where the examples tend to be rather long in the tooth. For instance, at a seminar on hook creation I attended not long ago, 5 of the 6 panelists selected as their favorite example of a stellar opening the first lines of Gabriel García Márquez’ A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

A stunning specimen of an opening for a book, certainly, but it was first published in 1991. Would it really work today, or would Millicent mutter, “Oh, great, another knock-off of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.” (Millicents tend to be rather well-read.) Or — and this is the most probable reaction — would she roll her eyes and say, “Make up your mind which timeframe this book will be in, already! Next!”

More proof, in case you needed it, that the times they are a-changin’.

Speaking of which, a writer friend of mine forwarded an interesting article in the New York Times that actually contained some good news about reading rates in this country, something of a novelty these days. Apparently, for the first time since 1982, the percentage of adults who say that they’ve read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the previous 12 months actually rose in 2008.

I suspect that I would be happier about this news if consuming a short story or poem didn’t require a rather different level of commitment to reading than polishing off an entire book, or if the markets for the various types of writing weren’t wildly different. We’re just supposed to rejoice over increased readership in general, I guess.

No word on whether these wordhounds bought the works in question or checked ‘em out of the library, though, or whether those newer to habitual reading were more likely to do one or the other. From the point of view of those of us who write for a living — or want to — this is a rather important follow-up question, but I gather that this particular census did not make specific inquires in this direction.

As a professional reader, I’m all about asking the follow-up questions. I look at a poll like this and immediately wonder, “Gee, are these new readers snapping up the latest that’s on the market, or are their friends who have been reading voraciously for years passing along their dog-eared paperback copies of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE?”

Oh, you thought that’s all there was to that conference anecdote? Not by a long shot — if you’d attended that panel I mentioned above, the first sentence of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE would instantly start rattling around in your cranium the instant anyone mentioned analyzing the dos and don’ts of book openings for the rest of your natural life.

Why was that particular example so memorable? Well, in addition to the panelists’ devoting a full 15 minutes of the half-hour seminar to enthusing about that opening and no other without once even raising the possibility that what agents and editors seek in a submission might have changed just a trifle since 1991, they also missed something else about this opening that rendered it a less-than-perfect example of what they were trying to show.

That something was so obvious to me that I actually started timing how long it would take for anyone to mention it. Five minutes before the end of the seminar, when the moderator finally recognized my impatiently raised hand, I asked, as politely as I could, “I love A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE’s opening, too, but could you give a couple of examples of great book openings that were written in English?”

5 of the 6 panelists looked at me blankly. Apparently, it was news to them that they had been reading GGM’s work in translation for years.

Why bring this up within the context of this series? Even in translation, A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was a magnificently influential book for English-language writers; for years afterwards, Millicents across the English-speaking world were seeing many, many manuscripts that opened similarly.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I doubt, personally, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose), Márquez should have been blushing for a decade, based upon those submissions. So how effective do you suppose Millicent found such openings in, say, year 8 of seeing them?

Exactly: what began as brilliant had through sheer repetition begun to seem banal and derivative.

Another novel that apparently affected masses and masses of novelists was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES. How do I know? Well, take a gander at the opening:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

A grabber? Definitely. But look how many agents’ pet peeves it spawned on the Idol list of rejection reasons, just a couple of years after it came out:

9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”

44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.

45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.

In answer to what half of you just wondered: yes, when asked, all three of the agents who generated this list did spontaneously mention that they’d been rejecting many, many more submissions on these bases since THE LOVELY BONES had come out. Which just goes to show you why so many great books from the past would have a hard time getting the Millicent stamp of approval today: they would seem derivative of themselves.

Fame for originality can create its own type of predictability. Kind of an interesting paradox to contemplate, isn’t it?

While you’re busy pondering it, let’s revisit that subset of the list of rejection reasons dealing with the many ways submissions disqualify themselves by not grabbing Millicent the agency screener within the first page:

35. The story is not exciting.

36. The story is boring.

38. Repetition on pg. 1

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

57. The writing is dull.

Last time, I took issue with the difference between not exciting and boring, as well as the many, many reasons that a writer might be temped to repeat words, phrases, dialogue, or even action on page 1 without necessarily thinking of it as redundancy. This time around, I’m going to finish out this list with the style-oriented items on this list, the ones that involve a reader’s judgment about how the sentences in question are actually written.

Yes, I realize what I just said; I’m going to let the implications of that last statement sink in for a bit. In the meantime, let’s look into some more ways to avoid boring Millicent, shall we?

#55, took too many words to tell us what happened, is admittedly the most subjective reason on the how-to-bore Millicent list, as perceptions of wordiness are as personal to the reader as perceptions of beauty. For some writers, overwriting takes the form of sounding as though the word processor swallowed a dictionary and is coughing up every obscure three-syllable word in its technological stomach, but for most, it’s a matter of trying to cram too much information into any given sentence. In its simplest form, it tends to look a little something like this:

Bewildered yet not overcome, the lovely Clarissa pushed her long, red hair back from her fair-yet-freckled forehead so she could think better, a process with which she was not overly familiar, not having been brought up to the practice in her twenty-six years as Bermuda’s most celebrated debutante. Since the horrid pestilential fever that had so nearly claimed her life and had taken her handsome brother, harp-playing mother, flamenco master third cousin, and verbally abusive pet parakeet, she was ever-careful about over-heating herself through the the exercise of rigorous, excessive, or prolonged mental effort of any sort. Not for her the perplexing parliamentary papers of her grandfather, the stern advocate for planters’ rights yet friend of the downtrodden slaves who never failed to come near his petite lamb chop, as he had so loved to call her while he was still alive, without his august pockets crammed with sweets, pretty trinkets from far-off lands that he had picked up for a song at the local bazaar, and, always, a miniature of Clarissa and her mysteriously vanished yet equally beautiful twin sister, snatched at babyhood by brigands unknown.

Tremulously yet bravely, she sank gracefully against the gold-flocked wallpaper, gay with fleurs-du-lys, as tears of abject confusion clouded her usually sky-blue eyes and she felt for the comforting sofa beneath her, a gift from her now-dead but exceedingly generous whilst living mother back in their days of familial plenty, not to say opulence, before cruel Papa had been forced to auction off her favorite pony, Red Demon, who had merely mauled those silly Miller girls from across the river on that terrible day when Clarissa’s one true love, Roberto, had been swept away by piranha. If only she had listened to her beloved dog, Lassie, who kept barking vociferously at her as though trying to say, “Lady, your boyfriend’s fallen into the river!”

Seating herself with her delicate hands resting upon the still-sumptuous red velvet of her dress, a hand-me-down from Grandmamma, whose prowess at swordfighting was still the stuff of island legend…

Okay, what’s the problem here?

If you can’t see a number of reasons that this opening might make Millicent take umbrage, I can only suggest that you go back to the beginning of this series and read it all the way through again. But for our purpose of the moment, I ask you to consider only one question: what has actually happened in the course of this barrage of prose?

In the timeframe in which the story appears to be set, all that has actually occurred is that Clarissa pushed her hair off her forehead and sat down to think, right? Yes, yes, the author happened to stuff quite a bit of background information into this opening, too, but at the expense of moving the plot forward.

Or, as Millicent might put it rather less charitably, “I’m two-thirds of the way down page 1, and all the protagonist has managed to do is sit down and feel sorry for herself? Next!”

Overwriting tends to be forgiven a bit more readily in publishing circles than underwriting — partially because it’s a bit rarer than just-the-facts writing, partially because published authors’ first drafts tend more toward the prolix than the spare — but still, it’s not unusual for Millicent to get annoyed if a submission takes three paragraphs to say that the sky is blue and the protagonist is frightened.

Like redundancy, excessive overwriting is hard to sell to editors. Publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them. If you’re not sure whether you’re overburdening your opening pages, run them past a few first readers.

The last reason on our not-exciting sublist, #57, dull writing , also responds well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Unfortunately, I am far, far too talented to be able to produce a practical specimen of dull writing my own construction — not to mention far too modest to mention my brilliance and good looks — and I’m far, far too ethical to use any of the examples I have seen in my editorial practice.

But I’m betting that although writers often don’t know when they have produced it, pretty much everyone recognizes it when they see it in other writers’ work.

Dull writing usually runs to the opposite end of the terseness spectrum from overwriting: in many instances, it’s lean to the point of emaciation, with one verb doing the office of fifteen, adjectives reined in severely, and adverbs banished altogether. Its point is to tell the story — or, as commonly, a portion of the story that the writer doesn’t want to show in much detail or first-hand — as quickly and in as few words as possible.

This approach can work well for some book categories, but by and large, professional readers tend to regard the point of narrative prose not as an exercise in coughing up a purely bare-bones story, but as an art form in which the artist renders the story fascinating through how he chooses to tell it, the charming embellishments and insightful character development that render the reader’s journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point B enjoyable.

To understand why Millicent might feel this way, an aspiring writer need go no farther than your garden-variety cocktail party. We’ve all been cornered by someone who insists on telling us dull anecdote after dull anecdote, aren’t we? While successful anecdote-tellers are apt to please their listeners with building dramatic tension, amusing vocal mimicry, or even the choice of unexpected words that elicit a chuckle through sheer surprise, the dull anecdotalist makes the fatal mistake of assuming that the story itself is so inherently interesting that it doesn’t matter how he tells it.

And tell it he does, remorselessly ploughing forward despite his listeners’ glazed-over eyes, desperate glances toward other bunches of party-goers obviously having a better time, and repeated declarations that they must be getting home to check on kids they don’t actually have.

To Millicent, a run of dull writing is like being trapped in a closet with an anecdote-teller of this kidney for hours on end. All she wants is to get away — and the simplest expedient for doing that is to reject the submission as quickly as humanly possible.

The sad thing is, since the rise of the heroic journey story structure as novel blueprint, many novels open with material that even the writer considers the least interesting of any in the book — the normal, everyday world soon to be left behind. Since it is only the jumping-off point, many aspiring writers seem to think, why invest a great deal of narrative space and/or writing style to it? Or to the background information so many new writers are eager to stuff into the first page or two? There’s much better stuff in a page or two — or a chapter or two.

I can give one very, very good reason to open with your best writing, early-page style minimizers: because if Millicent isn’t wowed by that first page, she’s not going to keep reading. She’s going to assume, and with some reason, that what she sees on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing in the rest of the book.

Changes the way you think of a submission to know that, doesn’t it?

The best way to determine whether your first page has any of these problems is – and you should all know the tune by now, so please feel free to sing along — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

Trust me on this one. But now, back to the pondering already in progress.

Were you struck when I mentioned above that only the last couple of items on the how-to-bore-Millicent list were style-based? That’s reflective of a trend observable on the Idol list of rejection reasons as a whole: had you noticed how many more of them were about content and storytelling than about writing style per se?

I don’t think that’s accidental — or insignificant, especially given that this particular list of rejection reason concerned only the first page of any given submission, a point at which most manuscripts are far more concerned with providing background information than telling the story of the book.

Which leads me back to a boredom-defeating strategy I mentioned in passing yesterday, and clever and insightful reader Adam was kind enough to elaborate upon in the comments: while scanning the early pages of your manuscript for rejection red flags, you might want to consider the possibility that your book should start somewhere rather later than your current page 1.

I’m quite, quite serious about this. I can’t tell you how many great first lines for books I’ve found on page 4, or how many backstory-laden first scenes could have been cut altogether. Background, contrary to popular writerly opinion, does not necessarily have to come first in a book.

Or even — brace yourself — in the first chapter.

Just as explaining why a joke is funny right after telling it tends to kill its humor, overloading the first few pages of a book with backstory is often a major storytelling mistake. We’ve all see it work sometimes, of course, but in practice, an opening scene tends to grab a reader (especially an impatient one like Millie) a bit faster simply to introduce an intriguing protagonist already embroiled in an exciting situation, and fill in the backstory gradually or later on.

I’m not advising that you simply throw out your first scene on general principle — it pays to be wary of one-size-fits-all editing advice. But I would advise conducting this diagnostic test: save your current first chapter in one document, and open a new document. Write a fresh opening scene that presents something surprising about your protagonist; make that scene as active as possible. Then hand both your current opening scene and the experimental draft to a first reader you trust. Ask her to read both, wait half an hour, then have her tell you what happened in each. While you’re at it, find out which version of the protagonist struck her as more likable.

If her recall of the fresh scene is substantially better, you might want to consider changing the opening of your manuscript — not necessarily by substituting the experimental scene, but by lightening its explanatory load.

What makes me think that the scene with more explanation is not going to be as memorable? Simple: action in the moment is almost always more memorable to a reader than summarized backstory — and backstory in a first scene is almost always summary. It happens offstage, as it were.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen authors front-load opening scenes with backstory; it used to be considered perfectly acceptable. And at one time, the first lines of both A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and THE LOVELY BONES would have struck Millicent as absolutely unique and fresh.

The times they have a-changed. Being cognizant of that may help save you from falling into one of the most frequently-seen rejection-trigger traps of all: “I’ve seen this a thousand times before.”

Next time, to what I suspect will be everyone’s grateful relief, I shall be moving past the boredom-related rejection reasons and on to juicier ones. Keep those opening pages spicy and original, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Building block of the pitch #4: hitting the keynote, Hollywood-style, or, Godzilla meets Anne Frank on election day in Paris

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Welcome back to my ongoing series on the basic building blocks of marketing a book. While my primary focus here is on helping you create a pitch, going through each of the steps I outline here will undoubtedly make you a better querier, too, if not a better human being.

Okay, so that last claim may have been a trifle over the top, but I’m in a festive mood today: shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?)

What is a keynote, you ask? It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be READY to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Remember, it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

Here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly ARE going to take up only a few seconds of her time. (Hey, you didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. Its goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more — not to sell the book.

How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift single sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Let me repeat part of that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more. Again, to make it absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch.

Why am I hammering on this point so hard? Because at literally every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here.

The keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the pitch. In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy.

And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book, as in: “It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY!”

(Note: the Hollywood Hook should not be confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms confused all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

It’s no accident that the example above ends in an exclamation point: you WANT your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book solves vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue.

Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand WHY that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?

That’s a great question, disgruntled murmurers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden.

How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not do that on my watch.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

You WERE aware that both pitching and querying were species of seduction, right?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.

Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects.

A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like problems to have solutions.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold last year, and scores of preventably dying adults. It’s a fascinating story (I can say that, because I’m writing about someone else), but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract.

My point is, if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believe they can sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, all the better.

Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your BOOK memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. Logically, neither could be true.

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

In other words, they can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked in and read, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. To make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me, lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, almost eight years later, everyone there remembers his performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Notice what happened here — he made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us women under 40 would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? Yes.

This is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they tend to be merely about delivery, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you’re the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.

That’s another building block of the pitch down — whew! I know that I’m covering this material awfully quickly this year; if you’d like a slower, more example-ridden approach, please see the PITCHING: THE MASTER CLASS category on the list at right.

Tomorrow, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my present to the shy. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the formula for urbanity, or, the magic first hundred words

Okay, today is where it starts to get exciting. If you’ve been following my posts for the past couple of weeks, and doing your homework, you have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. (You’ve constructed quite a bit of a good query letter, too, but I’ll come back to that after I’ve run all the way through the pitching cycle.)

Really, you’re to be congratulated; you’re already far more prepared to market your work than 90% of the writers who slink into pitch meetings. By now, you have determined your book’s category (June 15-19), identified your target market (June 20-21), come up with a few strong selling points (June 22, 23, and 25), and developed a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28).

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

Impossible, you say? Read on.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already perfected together into the first hundred words you say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference. With these first hundred words, even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

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

Nifty trick, eh?

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about being an iconoclast: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching has made it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy, and doesn’t truly answer the question that agents and editors most need to know about an author: not can he speak, but can he write?

But since we’re stuck with pitching and querying as our two means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why do I think so? Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. Not just because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books. Which left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

Seriously, this happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. Frequently, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

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

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to put well-meaning people in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, about which I will tell you in the next few days — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned BEFORE those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I have literally never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say BEFORE a pitch.

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

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

Mastering the magic first hundred words will transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same. Urbanity is key here, people: ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease; observing the niceties is conducive to that.

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

So take it away, Cary.

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

Whetted your appetite yet? Ready to learn what they are? Here goes:

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

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

You’re welcome.

I have quite a bit more to say about when and where you might find yourself glad to have prepared the magic first hundred words, but I’m going to stop for today, to give it all a chance to sink in. More urbanity pointers follow, of course.

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

Keep up the good work!

P.S.: Are there any Spokane-area residents out there planning to attend PNWA next month? If so, would you be interested in carpooling with another fine reader of this blog? Drop me a note via the comments function (don’t worry; I won’t post your e-mail address), and I’ll hook you up.

Book marketing 101: hitting the keynote, Hollywood-style, or, Godzilla meets Anne Frank

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the basic building blocks of marketing a book. While my primary focus here is on helping you create a pitch, going through each of the steps I outline here will undoubtedly make you a better querier, too, if not a better human being.

Okay, so that last claim may have been a trifle over the top, but I’m in a festive mood today: shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?)

What is a keynote, you ask? It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old. Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Remember, it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

If you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. Brevity is the soul of the keynote. Its goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more — not to sell the book.

How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Let me repeat part of that, because it’s crucial. All too often, aspiring writers will knock themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. But the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Not to be confused with a book’s hook, the opening paragraph that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise.)

Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together. For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

Didja notice how they all ended in exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, really. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but she could not automatically assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to summarize here — you want to intrigue. Keep it brief, and make it memorable.

How does one pull off both simultaneously, you ask? Tips on same follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!