Let’s talk about this: winding up for the pitch…

I am planning to toss up one of my patented nice, long revision-oriented posts this afternoon, but before I do, a quick question: are many of you planning to be giving conference pitches this summer and fall? If so, would you like me to spend a few weeks going over how to pull it off gracefully.

Yes, I said a few weeks. This is me we are talking about, after all: I’m not a big fan of the unturned stone.

A few of you have approached me privately about this, and I’m inclined to think these brave souls are right about the time’s being ripe for a little stone-turning. I haven’t done a series on pitching in a couple of years — the combination of a slow economy, a novelty-shy literary market, and rising writers’ conference price tags seemed to have resulted in fewer members of the Author! Author! community shelling out the sometimes hefty dosh required to garner a pitch appointment. And, frankly, I’ve just seen what a local conference is sending out to its prospective attendees on the subject, and I’m guessing that some of you might like just a bit more practical guidance.

Like revision, pitching well is a matter of learning the ground rules — and practicing, practicing, practicing. It would be helpful for me to know, though, what kind of pitch sessions any of you may be considering; every conference has slightly different rules.

No need to name names — I’m just trying to get a sense of what you will be facing. Are those conference brochures and websites telling you to plan on 2 minutes? 10 minutes? 30 seconds? Three sentences max?

Also, for those of you who will be pitching for the first time, what (if anything) about the prospect is stressing you out the most? Writing the pitch itself? Staying within the aforementioned time constraints? Or will this be the first time you will have spoken face-to-face with someone in the publishing industry about your book?

Finally, for those of you who have pitched and lived to tell the tale, what do you most wish someone had told you before you shook hands with that agent or editor?

If those last few paragraphs sent your blood pressure skyrocketing, calm down: by the end of Pitchingpalooza, you will be able to handle any of these conversations with aplomb. Heck, your heart rate might not even rise when someone asks you, “So what do you write?”

Seem impossible? Believe me, it isn’t — but the more you can tell me about specific (or even general) concerns, the more I can tailor Pitchingpalooza to help you allay them.

So please speak up, campers — and, of course, keep up the good work!

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part IX: Finally, the pitch!

Hello, readers –

Understandably, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from nervous readers about my continuing series on the building blocks of the pitch. Several of you pointed out, for instance, that my elevator speech examples varied rather wildly in length — my PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example was 190 words (which I know not because I counted it myself, but because two different readers did), while the example that followed was 83. A differential, I must confess, due in large part to the fact that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is an actual book, one that I know well enough to quote at length, while the examples that followed were not. I mean, really –would YOU want to be the person who couldn’t pitch PRIDE AND PREJUDICE successfully?

While I must confess that I myself have seldom had enough free time to sit down and count all of the words in other people’s pitches, the implied question here is a good one: is briefer always better in an elevator speech or pitch?

In a word, NO.

So, please, those of you out there who are so attuned to following directions that you are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: take a deep breath. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly. No agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words. They may, however, begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of periods, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

Let me recast that in graphic terms: the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor. Get it?

Remember, too, that AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. As I mentioned yesterday, the elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them, so if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words. Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch (see yesterday’s post) to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so.

While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say the elevator speech I wrote for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: one minute two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance. That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper (and really, as soon as I finish addressing these issues, I am going to get around to defining it), I might add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I were planning to walk around the halls of PNWA, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I might try to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is mainstream fiction and the title. Oh, and to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you. As I was explaining yesterday, it’s really the proponents of the three-sentence pitch that have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches.

I consider this a mistake, because if you’re pitching a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (I spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you from experience: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

So, to be as clear as possible: if you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it. Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

Okay, all that being said, let’s move on to the pitch proper, the one you will make in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor. (And for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I misspoke before: the PNWA meetings with agents will be 10 minutes, not 15.)

For the benefit of those of you who have never done it before, in an agent meeting, you will be led to a tiny cubicle, where you will be expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent. You will introduce yourself, and then spend approximately two minutes talking about your book. After that, the agent may ask you a few questions; you may feel free to ask a few as well. At the end of the meeting, the agent will tell you whether your book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. If so, the agent will hand you her card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for NF, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Note: this should not be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot, even if you have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet. Manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed rather than to carry them onto a plane. At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, in which case you should pull out 5 pages or so. (If you are unclear on why you should carry a 5-page writing sample with you at all times at a writers’ conference, please see my post for May 29th.) In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about cities being farther apart on the West Coast than on the East, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail on Monday.

And that’s it. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.) If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work.

Those two minutes when you are describing your book, of course, are the pitch proper. It is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by visiting the Pitch Practicing Palace at the conference, manned by yours truly and other valiant souls who have fought successfully in pitching wars past. Otherwise, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes doesn’t allow any rambling time.

Sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book is quite a different experience from giving a hallway pitch. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum. If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you (a) regard this as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length, (b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” (c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project, or (d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the whole series again. In fact, go back to last August’s blogs and read the whole 1000+ pages I have posted here. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) In a ten-minute meeting, there is actually time for them to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now. (If you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right?) So in a perverse way, a formal pitch is significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

Fear not, my friends: if you have been following this series and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a formal pitch constructed.

And I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: IT IS A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand that — and once you accept that in this context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch can be seen not as an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but as a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed premise.

What the formal pitch is, in fact, is a spoken query letter, and it should contain the same information.

This may seem obvious, but allow me to remind you: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it. A flubbed pitch is actually NOT a reflection of your writing talent; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences. I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore.”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing. But it isn’t; it can’t be.

Does that make you feel any better?

What a formal pitch can and should be is you taking the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would, the terms in which I have been encouraging you to define it throughout this series: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6).

Really, you’re almost there. In fact, if it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional pitch from these elements alone.

First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words: ”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Then, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech.

Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right? You could easily flesh out your elevator speech with interesting and memorable plot points, without going overlong. One great way to be memorable is to include a telling detail, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else.

Think back to the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example: do you think someone else at the conference is likely to pitch a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met? Probably not.

Here is the icing to put on the cake, the element that you have not yet constructed that elevates your pitch from just a good story to a memorable one: take fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. This is an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief. Do be specific, and don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger – scenarios that leave the hearer wondering “how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation?” work very, very well here.

Include as many sensual words as you can — not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the senses. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some frosting.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and long to read the book.

There is a terrific example of a pitch with this kind of detail in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is a film executive, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell the film in 25 words.

Before launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting. He spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

”That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free!

One last thing, then I shall let you run off to dig through your manuscript for the killer image or scene that will wow the agent: once you have gone through all of the steps above, given your two-minute speech, SHUT UP. Allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic. Most writers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material.

Don’t; it won’t help your case. If you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is only charitable to leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!” A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.

And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Between now and the conference, I shall of course post a few more helpful tidbits, but I’m going to keep it light, so you can focus your energies on crafting your pitch. As always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VIII: the ups and downs of the elevator speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the building blocks of a fabulous pitch — and to the 200th blog I have written for the PNWA! Not including today’s post, that’s 1,032 pages of irreverent advice, in standard manuscript format. I wish I had more time to linger on this major milestone, but with the conference a scant week away, I want to move through the rigors of pitching as quickly as possible.

News flash, though, everybody: sharp-eyed faithful reader Ron was kind enough to point out to me that the agent meetings this year are TEN minutes, not fifteen, presumably so more writers can see more agents. I have no idea why they should have changed (I couldn’t go to the conference last year, so it’s possible that this is a change from last year), but a shorter meeting requires slightly different advance planning. Many thanks, Ron, for alerting us to this.

Also, I notice that David Moldower is no longer going to be attending the conference, but agent Kate McKean and Michelle Nagler of Simon & Schuster will. I hope to have time to check out their respective sales and acquisitions records before the conference, but right now, my top priority to make sure to get through the basics of pitching.

Yesterday, I discussed the elevator speech, and gave you several examples of how to construct one for a fiction book. ”This is all very well for a novel,” I could hear your NF writers out there grumbling, “but how does all this apply to a MY book?” Today, I am going to deal with that very issue, and explain where and when an elevator speech can be more effective to use than a fully-fledged pitch.

In an elevator speech for a NF book, your goal is the same as for a novel: to intrigue your hearer into asking follow-up questions. Here, too, you do not want to tell so much about the book that the agent or editor to whom you are speaking feels that you have told the whole story; you want to leave enough of a question hanging in the air that your listener will say, “Gee, that sounds intriguing. Send me the first 50 pages.” However, for a NF book, you will need to achieve one other goal in both your elevator speech or pitch — to establish your platform as the best conceivable writer of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

To achieve these goals, you can use the same tools as for a novel, providing specific, vividly-drawn details to show what your book offers the reader. Demonstrate what the reader will learn from reading your book, or why the book is an important contribution to the literature on your subject. In other words, make it clear what your book is and why it will appeal to your target market. Here’s an example:

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

See? Strong visual imagery plus a clear statement of what the reader may expect to learn creates a compelling elevator speech for this NF book. And did you notice how Prof. Crawford’s credentials just naturally fit into the speech? By including some indication of your platform (or your book’s strongest selling point) in your elevator speech, you will forestall the automatic first question of any NF agent: “So, what’s your platform?”

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

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

Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who have been following this series so far: what techniques did the NF pitcher above borrow from fiction writing?

Give yourself at least a B if you said that the writer incorporated vivid sensual details: the frigid polar icecaps, the twin heat sources of hot flashes and tropical destinations. And make that an A if you noticed that the savvy pitcher used a rhetorical question (filched from Dr. Holbrook’s keynote statement, no doubt) to pique the interest of the hearer — and double points if your sharp eye spotted the keywords agents love to hear: happy, passion. Extra credit with a cherry on top and walnut clusters if you cried out that this elevator speech sets up conflicts that the book will presumably resolve (amongst the information popularly available; the struggle between happiness and unhappiness; between simple guides and complicated ones). Dualities are tremendously effective at establishing conflict quickly.

And now congratulate yourselves, campers, because you have constructed all of the elements you need for a successful hallway pitch — or, indeed, an informal pitch in virtually any social situation. Did that one creep up on you? Because — brace yourself for this one, because it’s a biggie —

MAGIC FIRST 100 WORDS + ELEVATOR SPEECH = HALLWAY PITCH.

Ta da!

With advance preparation and practice, you should be able to say all of this comprehensibly within 30 – 45 seconds, certainly a short enough time that you need not feel guilty about turning to the agent next to you in the dinner line, or walking up to her after the agents’ forum, and asking if she can spare a minute to hear your pitch. (Always ask first if it’s okay.) Because that is literally what you will be taking up, less than a minute, you may feel professional, not intrusive, by giving your hallway pitch immediately after saying, “Please pass the rolls.”

You’re welcome.

The elevator speech has other uses, too, the most important being that it makes a stellar describe-your-book paragraph in your query letter. There, too, you will be incorporating the elements of the magic first hundred words — minus the “Hi, my name is” part, they make a terrific opening paragraph for a query. The elevator speech also gives you a concise, professional follow-up after someone you meet at a conference responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Wow. Tell me more.”

You see, I really am working hard here to keep you from feeling tongue-tied when dealing with the industry. Don’t be afraid to give your hallway speech to other writers at the conference — it’s great practice, and it is absolutely the best way imaginable to meet other people who write what you do. (Other than starting a blog, of course.)

You’ve noticed that there’s a situation I haven’t mentioned yet, haven’t you? ”But Anne,” I hear some of your murmur, “if the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why SHOULDN’T I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors?”

That’s an excellent question. The short answer is: you can, but what would you do with the other 14 1/2 — no, scratch that; make it 9 1/2 — minutes of your pitch meeting? And why would you trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

The longer answer is, a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as a pitch; in fact, if you ask almost any writer who signed with her agent between 5 and 15 years ago, she will probably tell you bluntly that the 3-sentence pitch is industry standard. And so it was, at one time. To be fair, it still can work.

However, by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…in short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words.

You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to (a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings, (b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, (c) indicate whether the book has a title, or (d) all of the above. I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue AFTER the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with her battery pack on the fritz. “And?” the automaton says impatiently. “Well?”

”What do you mean?” I hear some of you gasp, aghast. “Doesn’t the agent or editor make a snap decision after hearing those three or four sentences, and immediately leap into chatting with me about her plans for marketing my book?”

Well, not usually, no, and in fact, in recent years, as the elevator speech has come to be regarded as the standard pitch, I have been noticing an increasingly disgruntled attitude amongst agents and editors at conferences. Whey walk out of pitch meetings complaining, “Why does everyone stop talking after a minute or so? I’m getting really tired of having to drag information out of these writers on a question-and-answer basis. What do they think this is, an interview? A quiz show?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

Nor is the other common situation, where writers talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you. Make sure you come prepared to talk about it — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

And how are you going to do that, you ask? Tune in tomorrow, my friends, and I shall fill you in on the conclusion of all of this work we have been doing for the past week: pulling it all together into a persuasive face-to-face pitch.

In the meantime, keep up the good work, everybody! And happy 200th anniversary to the blog!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VII: Your Elevator Speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the constituent parts of an effective pitch. Since I’ve been at it for a while now, if you’re just tuning in, you may have to dip back into the archives to catch the earliest installments. And for those of you faithful weekday readers who took the holiday weekend off, and are wondering what is going on: yes, I don’t usually post on weekends and holidays, but with the conference so close, I wanted to plough ahead at top speed.

A quick personal aside before I return my hand to the plow, however: as some of you may have already noticed, Amazon is saying that my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, will be shipping on July 17th, less than two weeks from today. Since my publisher has not yet informed me of a firm release date — the author is always the last to know, alas — I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor. Not that it is a state secret or anything; for legal reasons, I’m not supposed to be talking about it with any specificity here. (For as much detail as I am allowed to give about what’s been going on with the book, please see my post for March 30th. Contrary to the claims on the Dick estate-owned fan forum, I have given a grand total of one published interview on the subject: http://www.toobeautiful.org/waywo_annemini.html ) All I can tell you at the moment is that while the book is still in presale mode, Amazon is offering it at a substantial discount.

I promise that I’ll tell you the release date proper the instant I know it myself.

All right, we’re cooking with gas now. So far in this series, I’ve discussed building blocks of a great pitch: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), and pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (yesterday). Today, I am going to talk about what was considered the height of pitching elegance five or ten years ago, the 3-sentence elevator speech.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description (a longish paragraph) of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE. It is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

How is the elevator speech different from the keynote, you ask? Well, it’s longer, for one thing, and although the purpose of both is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your job is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation. You don’t have room here to tell how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, just enough to identify them and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you will resolve them in the book.

I know it’s hard in such a short space, but try to steer clear of generalities — and definitely avoid clichés. Neither show off your creativity as a plot-deviser or your talent for unique phraseology, do they? Show your protagonist being as active as possible (you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations), and enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one MEMORABLE unique image.

What kind of images you ask? Since elevator speeches vary as much as books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes a good one without showing a few examples, so here is a pitch for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (note to those of you who took my pitching class: I am not going to post the pitch for my own novel, for exactly the reason that I advised you not to send your chapters out electronically, if you can help it: there is absolutely no way of knowing where anything posted on the web is going to end up.):

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

Tell me — would you read this book?

At the risk of tooting my own horn, why is this a good elevator speech? It establishes right away a few important things about the protagonist: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many issues). It also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, Elizabeth is actively struggling to determine her own destiny.

Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it. (Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”) The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

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

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements (the big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections). Do make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book; it’s more compelling as a sales tool that way.

You’d be surprised at how often this basic, common-sense advice is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious — usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book. This undersells the book, frankly. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

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

“For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis. + (sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her) + But how can she pursue her passion to (secondary goal), when every aspect of the world she has known is being swept away before her eyes?”

This works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours; you don’t need to fill in as many details. What you do need to do in this sort of elevator speech is establish your protagonist firmly as an individual in FRONT of that backdrop, in order to be memorable. To do that, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which YOUR protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

”In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Woman-Who-Is-Not-Scarlett loves Man X, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?”

Tomorrow, I shall delve into how to construct an elevator speech for a NF book, as well as explaining when to give your elevator speech and when your pitch — because yes, Virginia, they are not the same thing, at least in my lexicon.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VI: The Magic First Hundred Words

Hello, readers –

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Remember, it’s very, very helpful for a writer to have all of her fingers in working order — try not to linger too close to lit fireworks.

Okay, if you’ve been following the blog for the past few days, you will have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. By now, you should have determined your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identified your target market (July 1), come up with a few strong selling points (July 2), and developed a snappy keynote statement (yesterday).

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

Nifty trick, eh?

Once again, I must add a disclaimer: this strategy is an invention of my own, the fruit of watching hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country, 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. Half the time, 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.

Frankly, I think it’s rather mean 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 tomorrow — 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 you are talking about. And 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.

My goal here 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.

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.

More importantly, if you learn this little speech by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance meeting at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — with ease. 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.

This is crucial, as agents and editors are (as I believe I have mentioned before) MAGNIFICENTLY busy people; they honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication. (That’s my job.) By the time many first-time pitchers get around to mentioning their books, after they have shilly-shallied for a few minutes, the agent in front of them has usually already mentally stamped their foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters. By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, they will appreciate it.

One caveat about using these words to introduce yourself to other writers at a conference: it is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what HE writes before you start going on at great length about your own work. If you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer, without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what the other writer writes. In this context, the very brevity of the first 100 words will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, he will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this, because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard; it’s one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage. And let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re DOING for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So, finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. (Get out of the habit NOW of promising these people free copies of your future books, by the way: nowadays, authors get very few free copies, and you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of copies for your kith and kin, do you?)

So at a writers’ conference, or even at a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually WANTS to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!”…well, it’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to practice your first hundred words — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers in your area. Most writers are genuinely nice people – and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you knew a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends. Tomorrow, I shall move on to the elevator speech (that’s those pesky three sentences), and after that, pulling it all together for the pitch! So fasten your seatbelts, everybody – the fireworks of the 4th aside, it’s going to be a bumpy week. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: if you’re just tuning in, and you are still considering whether or not to attend this summer’s PNWA conference, would it be helpful to know a bit about the professional likes and dislikes of the agents and editors who will be available there for pitching? Check out my archived blogs for the skinny on what they’ve been buying and selling lately: April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part V: Hitting the Keynote

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on building a persuasive pitch. Shout hallelujah, citizens, for today, we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously with envy. (Did you know that when he gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain. They always added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?

Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT. What is it, you ask? The keynote 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.

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 meeting your dream agent coming out of the bathroom (hey, this is a glamorous business). Since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half of that time, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds?

Seriously, there are several reasons that you might want to come up with a keynote statement for your book (other than that I told you to, of course). A keynote will allow you to be able to sound out someone in a hallway about interest in your book, to give an agent or editor an instant, read-made hook to sell your work, and to be able to sound like a professional writer on a moment’s notice. None of these are abilities at which you should be sneezing, smarty-pants.

Let me pause for a moment and focus on the last benefit on the list. One of the biggest differences between a professional writer and one who is new to the biz is how she answers the ubiquitous question, “So, what do you write?” Almost invariably, those unused to the question will betray their inexperience by shilly-shallying, giving evasive answers. A professional, on the other hand, will promptly tell the questioner in a couple of brief sentences the book category in which she writes, along with a quick quip or two about her most recent project. Not a long-winded speech, or boasts about her own writing talent, just a snippet about the book itself, to see if her auditor is interested before moving into more detail.

Agents and editors really, really like to see unpublished writers exhibit the latter behavior. They are acutely, even exaggeratedly, aware of how busy they are. (To quote those immortal social philosophers, the Bee Gees, all we can do is “try to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”) In their native habitat, these are people who fly into a fury if the woman in front of them in the deli line hesitates for fifteen seconds between pastrami or roast beef on her sandwich; just because they are our guests in the more laid-back PNW for a few days doesn’t mean that they shed that Manhattanite resentment of people who waste entire nanoseconds of their precious time.

Some writers don’t like to be perceived as tooting their own horns, which is understandable. But to someone trying to get a quick impression of whether a writer’s work might be worth sampling, demurrals do not come across as charming self-deprecation, but as an annoying disregard of the industry’s unspoken limit to how long a writer gets to take up an agent or editor’s time. No matter what anyone tells you, if you are over the age of 10, it’s just not cute.

Let me give you a non-writing example to demonstrate how irritating such waffling can be. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, something I do not tell people lightly, as they either take an instantaneous dislike to me, assuming that I must be a snob, or glom onto me, assuming that I have the private ears of kings and presidents alike, having gone to college with them. (The old university joke illustrates the third unappetizing possibility: How does a pretty woman get men to leave her alone in a bar? She starts a rumor that she went to Harvard.) For these reasons, many of us who do not habitually go around wearing our institutional affiliations on our chests in the form of sweatshirts choose not to share our educational backgrounds in social settings.

So when you ask many of my classmates where they went to school, they will respond evasively, “In the Boston area.” Now, to any Harvardian, that automatically declares that the speaker went to Harvard; people who went to MIT or Tufts tend to say so. But to anyone who doesn’t know the code, it sounds like an invitation to further questions, doesn’t it? So all too often, the subsequent conversation degenerates into a cutesy guessing game, with the Harvardian giving more and more evasive answers until the questioner loses all patience and shouts, “What — did you go to Harvard or something?”

This is precisely what it sounds like to people in the publishing industry when you equivocate about what you write. They don’t like guessing games, as a rule.

Okay, out comes my fairy godmother wand again: the next time you hear yourself start to equivocate about what you write, I decree that you will start hearing STAYING ALIVE playing in the back of your head on a continuous loop. Surely, any sane person will be willing to go to any length to avoid that dreadful fate…so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Okay, back to the keynote itself. What is its goal? To pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a BRIEF sentence or two.

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. 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 logically.

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? 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?

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. 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!)

I once asked a screenplay agent who favored pitch compression how he would pitch THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, a book light on plot but strong on character development. What would one say? A butler butles quietly? Hardly a grabber. Without missing a beat, the agent answered, “I would just pitch it as, ‘based on the bestselling book.’”

I love this answer, because it illustrates the point of the keynote so beautifully: the message itself is less important than the fact that you get your hearer’s eyebrows to shoot up.

Which brings me to the other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — 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 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 yesterday: 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?”).

The main point is to make it — say it with me now — MEMORABLE. Don’t be afraid to use strong imagery (as in, “The earth is about to be covered thirty feet deep in lichen in three days. What would you do?”) If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp, 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.

Whatever you do, please do not confuse good delivery with book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that shall remain nameless because it got flooded out last year. 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). Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader. 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 our webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap.) By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and remembered his performance.

Notice what happened here — he made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is, 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 proverbial plague? Yes.

This is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they’re all 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.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to USE your newly-constructed keynote to wow all and sundry at a writers’ conference. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet signed up for pitching meetings at the conference, please check out my archived blogs of April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find information on who is representing and buying what these days, to help you make your appointment rankings wisely.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part IV: Sell! Sell!

Hello, readers –

Yes, yes, I know: I don’t usually post on weekends, so why the Saturday AND Sunday posts? Nor do I generally post on national holidays, as I may well do this week. What’s the excuse for my unwonted chattiness, you ask? Well, I know that there are some of my faithful readers out there who would very much have liked to have been able to attend my pitching class last week, but being neither Seattle-area denizens nor possessors of teleporters, had to miss it. I’m trying to cover as much of the class material as possible by the end of this week, to help these fine people — and anyone else good enough to read my blog regularly — prep their pitches before the upcoming PNWA conference and the rest of the summer’s many literary conferences. I shall continue to give advice on the subject in the final days leading up to the conference, too, but I wanted to get the bulk of my sterling insights out to you early enough to give you time to ask follow-up questions.

Amn’t I a peach?

So welcome back to my series on the building blocks of a stellar pitch. Today, I’m going to talk about a little invention of my own, a single-page, bullet-pointed list of selling points for the book in question. This handy little document has more uses than duct tape (which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts). You can have it by your side during a pitch; you can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements; you can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable; your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors; an editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings. You can even, if you so desire, use it to give a paper cut to that particularly persistent admirer who keeps trailing around after you at the conference.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is it, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Scoff if you like, oh ye doubters, but a really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. In addition to its practical benefits, having one prepared before your first interaction with an agent or editor also sends a very strong unspoken message: you are an author who has taken the time to learn how the business side of publishing works, and are more than happy to do everything in your power to make your agent and editor’s jobs easier. My agent liked the one I included in my memoir proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.

So what is in this magic document? Single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread. I’m not talking about boasts about its utility to humanity in general (although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it) or inflated claims that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine), but about concrete facts about you and your book.

Your list of selling points can include market information, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book. Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story, and why will people want to read it? Is your novel based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Mention it. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

If you are stuck, think back to your target market (see yesterday’s post). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book — other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing? As I pointed out yesterday, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing — so why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important. Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples: Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book; Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets; Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry. (Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true.)

(2) Educational credentials. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility. Yes, even if you are a fiction writer. (I have a very, very dusty doctorate that only sees the light of day at times like these. And, of course, to annoy medical doctors I don’t like.) Some possible examples: Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs; Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage; Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors. If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. (Finalist in the PNWA contest, in this or any other year, anybody?) Some possible examples: Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas; Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX; Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it. If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have read your work at one of the PNWA’s TWIO events, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. Some possible examples: Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine; Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines; Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

(5) Associations and affiliations. If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some possible examples: the Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest; Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter. Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(6) Trends and recent bestsellers. If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, state it here. If there has been a resent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see yesterday’s blog on the joys of statistics), all the better.

Some possible examples: novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2006 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles; ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association; last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(7) Statistics. At risk of repeating myself from yesterday, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. By listing the real statistics here, you minimize the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Some possible examples: 400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book; according to a recent study in the TORONTO STAR, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines — pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(8) Recent press coverage. People in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the irrational. Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible example: in 1997, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE ran 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

(9) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends. I hesitate to mention this one. Current events are tricky, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published. (One year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a blistering pace.)

If you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, do it here. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples: at its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2007 – guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET; if tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(10) Particular strengths of the book. What is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different from other offerings? Some possible examples: BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap displasia; while Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(11) Research. If you have done significant research or extensive interviews for the book, list it here. Some possible examples: Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities; Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(12) Promotion already in place. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, by PNW standards, the average agent or editor is barely computer-literate. Most major agencies don’t even employ in-house IT support for heaven’s sake. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person) put together a site for you.

Okay, I can hear some of you out there, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently by this point. “Um, Anne?” some of you say, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that we will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference less than two weeks away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at the right time. Before you pitch is PRECISELY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points; I went through so many potential categories in order that everyone would be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH. Not in a general, “well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by verifiable statistics.

You will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to those magic words that summarize your book. Be prepared to get pithy, everybody. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part III: identifying your target market

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my continuing series on the building blocks of a successful pitch. With them firmly stuffed into your writer’s bag of tricks, you should be as prepared as it is possible for any first-time pitcher to be to present your work to agents and editors at the upcoming PNWA summer conference. (And for those of you who have not yet registered, and thus not you’re your agent and editor selections, please check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find copious information on who represents or prints what.)

So far, I have covered the building blocks that not only should feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter: for the last couple of days, I have been discussing book categories, and I snuck in a treatment of how professionals estimate word count (hint: it’s not the way your word processing program does) on June 23rd. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see my post of February 17th.)

Today, however, I shall be moving on to a more sophisticated marketing tool, one that is not technically required, but is always appreciated. I refer, of course, to a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic. I refer, admittedly with some trepidation, to statistics. Even the most personal literary fiction is about something other than the writing in the book, and chances are, you will be able to track down some demographic information about who is interested that topic.

What do I mean? Well, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about an American woman in her late 30s who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes your protagonist a Gen Xer — of whom there are 47 million currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. Think some of them might identify with your protagonist? Let’s say that your protagonist’s father is a collector of classic cars. Think he’s the only one in the country? And so forth.

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do ALL of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh Lord, when will it end?”

You’re beautiful when you get angry. Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even ten years ago, no one would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been pretty standard for NF book proposals.) And in truth, you could probably get away with not quoting actual statistics, as long as you are very specific about who you think your ideal reader is. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching radically underestimating how big your potential market is.

They don’t do it on purpose, you know. Honestly, is it fair to expect someone who spends her days poring over manuscripts in a Manhattan high-rise to have any idea how many corn farmers there are in Iowa?

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a dirty little industry secret: people in the industry have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN. And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES.

In fact, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author. Get a load of what got turned down:

Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses.

Thor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki.)

Dr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses.

Richard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses.

Patrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses.

And think about it: these first books were roundly rejected back when it was significantly easier to get published, too, when the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work, and back before so many of the major publishing houses consolidated into just a few. With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find an agent today, let alone a publisher?

And yet can you even picture the publishing world without any of them? Aren’t you glad they didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom? And don’t you wish that Richard Hooker had taken a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) BEFORE he composed his query letter?

My point is, even if you write on a very well-traveled topic, it’s always a good idea to have a few statistics at the ready, to back up your claim that there is a significant pre-existing audience for your book. The Internet is a tremendous resource, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible. If you really get stuck, call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff there is amazing. Send them flowers.) They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction.

Even after all this, I’m sure that there are more than a few of you out there who deeply resent the idea of having to identify a target market at all. Shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification? Well, yes, in a perfect world, or one without a competitive market. But think about it from the editor’s POV: if she can realistically only bring 8 books to press in the next year, how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without her losing her job?

It’s been my experience that most fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — but, as with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms whom you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language spoken by agents and editors. Their sales and marketing departments expect them to be able to speak in numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

Let me give you a concrete example of what happens when you are vague. Remember the book above, about the Gen X woman reliving her parents’ messy divorce? Let’s assume that our author, Suzette, has not thought about her target market before walking into her pitch meeting. She’s stunned when the agent, Briana, says that there’s no market for such a book. Being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette’s instinct is to argue. “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, what Suzette actually meant by this is: my target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.

But what agent Briana heard was: oh, God, another book for aspiring writers. (People like the author, right?) What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.

And what an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) would conclude is this: this writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!

Obviously, then, being vague has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if Suzette had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: Yes, there’s a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.

Agent Briana thinks: Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics at the ready.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.

Agent Briana responds: there are 47 million Gen Xers? I didn’t know that. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.

And editor Ted thinks: 47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only 1% of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.

The moral is, it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential. Think about your target reader — and why that reader really wants to read your book.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to another building block of a great pitch: knowing your book’s selling points. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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

Hello, readers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini

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

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

Hello, readers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini