Synopsis-writing 101, part VIII: the perils of self-revelation — and some great tidings about one of our own!

I am delighted to open today’s post in my favorite manner, by announcing good news about a member of our little Author! Author! community: Seattle-based author Michael Schein’s first novel, the historical mystery Just Deceits, has just been published by independent publisher Bennett & Hastings. Congratulations, Michael!

Michael’s the kind of writer I especially love to see make it into print: the rara avis who not only writes an intriguing book, but also has done his homework about the industry. We first met a couple of years ago when I was teaching a class on conference pitching, a notoriously difficult subject to wrestle to the ground within a single-day class, and certainly a skill that generally takes quite a bit of practice to pull off well.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when Michael walked into the pitch-practicing portion of the class (try saying that three times fast!), sat down, and uttered this:

In 1793, the most powerful family in Virginia found itself embroiled in scandal: Richard Randolph and his sister-in-law, the beautiful and impetuous Nancy Randolph, were charged with adultery and infanticide. Based on actual events, Just Deceits tells the story of the Trial of the Century – the 18th Century – as the remarkable defense team of wily Patrick Henry and ambitious John Marshall battled each other, their clients, family intrigue, the prosecution, and the truth itself, trying to save their clients from the gallows. In its ribald portrayal of a young legal system already driven more by spectacle than evidence, Just Deceits calls into question the feasibility — and even the desirability — of uncovering “the whole truth.” Ultimately, in the secrets revealed and the relationships celebrated, Just Deceits is as much a story of a trial of love as the trial in the courtroom.

Pop quiz for those of you who followed my pitching series this summer (conveniently accessible now under the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right, should you be interested): why is this a good pitch? Or, for that matter, a great summary paragraph for a query letter?

I hope that all of you shouted immediately, “Because it makes me want to read the book!” Ultimately, that is the goal of any pitch.

Or, as we’ve been discussing lately, any synopsis. Notice how well Michael has utilized specifics, rather than generalities, to draw the reader into the story: this is not just the tale of some couple, but of interesting people from a fascinating background — oh, and they actually existed.

Not a bad achievement for a scant 141 words, is it? And here you had been complaining about the necessity of describing your book in five pages.

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that Michael was dealing with a lulu of a historical incident, either, or that he’d spent a lot of years honing his suspense-building skills. Take a gander at his yummy back jacket blurbs:

“Michael Schein’s excellent debut novel, Just Deceits, is the perfect book for lovers of courtroom thrillers, historical fiction, mysteries, or anyone looking for an exciting page-turner that also stimulates the mind. Schein’s writing is crisp, the characters are vivid and engaging, and there are many unexpected twists on the way to a stunning ending. I couldn’t put it down!”

– Robert Dugoni, NYT bestselling author of The Jury Master, Damage Control, and The Cyanide Canary

“Just Deceits is an exceptionally well-written novel that combines a gripping legal who-done-it with a rich and clever historical tale. Because the line between truth and belief is not neatly drawn, the book is also a significant contribution to the genre of the novel of ideas. The reader looking for thoughtful fun will not be disappointed.”

– Julian Riepe, former Book Acquisition Manager, Amazon.com

The moral: yes, learning how to write a pithy pitch, query letter, or synopsis — not to mention finding out enough about how the publishing industry operates to get any of these onto the right desks — is a heck of a lot of work. But, as with any other skill, it can indeed be learned by a smart writer willing to do his homework.

And, lest we forget amid all of the recent talk about the grim economy and its effects upon publishing prospects, aspiring writers still are getting their first novels into print. Hooray!

Speaking of the dire doom and gloom predictions that we have been hearing so much lately, agent Michael Bourret, of the agency that represents yours truly, has written an excellent essay about the allegedly imminent demise of the publishing industry. He argues — persuasively, I think — that while the industry is obviously going through a period of great change, that isn’t necessarily cause for the world-weary despondence that so often haunts the halls of writers’ conferences these days.

It’s also a time of opportunity, for agents, editors — and for you.

Has that gotten you all fired up about crafting your synopsis? Good. Let’s get back to the nitty-gritty business of building a great one. As it happens, Michael’s ability to summarize his book intriguingly and well is not entirely unrelated to today’s topic.

Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?

Yesterday, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’ t it?

And if you doubt the latter, scroll back up to the top of the page and re-read those blurbs of Just Deceits. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses, you may be surprised to hear.

How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own island in the Caribbean.

And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

More’s the pity.

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichés.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

Other than those three situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people as the book itself. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN let’s talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse.
But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry — at least, not until after a contract is signed — unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. .

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a NF book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

A beautiful picture — and a few tips on increasing your protagonist’s interview skills

Isn’t that photo GORGEOUS? It’s by one of my favorite art photographers, Lana Z Caplan, from her new book, Sites of Public Execution. Here’s a description:

SITES OF PUBLIC EXECUTION: Photographs and stories of former sites of public execution around the world.

Paired with interesting facts and stories of the events that took place in these public places, sepia-toned photographs, shot in Beijing, Paris, London, Florence, Rome and Massachusetts, present the contemporary appearances of locales used for hangings, beheadings, and burnings, some in the transient fury of revolution, some in long-term state-sanctioned spectacles.

For a PDF preview of the book, please visit Lana’s website.

Normally, I wouldn’t post an announcement about a book of photography here on Author! Author!, but Lana’s work moves me deeply — so much so, in fact, that I have one of her pieces hanging where I can glance up at it frequently while I write. We met at an artists’ colony several years ago; then, the provocative work-in-progress hanging in her studio made me downright giddy.

And yes, I HAVE been posting quite a few announcements of new releases lately — for some reason, I know many, many talented people bringing out books this spring. I can only conclude that publishing houses have started weighing connections to me heavily in their considerations.

Or perhaps I just know a heck of a lot of writers. In any case, this spring has certainly enriched my bookshelves, let me tell you.

Okay: on to the topic du jour.

As we’ve been going through various common narrative problems, I’ve noticed something: either due to my excessive saintliness or a desire to save the best, if not for last, at least for later in this series, I’ve been concentrating for the most part upon avoiding some of the more notorious agency screeners’ pet peeves, rather than merely upon what tends to annoy me in a text. For the next week or so, however, I have decided to cut loose and lay bare the narrative problems that make me foam at the mouth, professionally speaking.

That’s right: for the next little while, it’s going to be all about me, me, me.

Today, I’m going to concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

I heard that tittering out there. Seriously, a protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know – and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know.

Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

It tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Reginald claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Janet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Fezziwig. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Reginald detached their clasped hands so quickly that Janet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Janet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Fezziwig bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why would an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader like me? Mostly, because it’s a lost opportunity for interesting conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Actually, writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a trifle impatient.

Why? Well, in essence, the protagonist becomes the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After awhile, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview would give the whole plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

However, before I do, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it tends to fall very, very flat with readers.

Why? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by DELIBERATELY withholding information from the reader.

As in details that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. Think about it: it’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else.

Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is – YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it NOT be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are.

Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict? Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: please share your pitching experiences

I’ve been getting such great feedback from readers returning, exhausted, from the Conference That Shall Not Be Named about their pitching experiences that I want to extend an open invitation for attendees (of this or any other pitch-centered conference) to post their insights as comments here.

There’s nothing like a writers’-eye view for getting the skinny on the perils of approaching agents and editors — and it would be hard for the dispatches from the pitching front to be any more up-to-date than this.

So do share your thoughts: how was it different from what you expected, and what part of preparation helped you the most? What do you wish you had known before you pitched, and what did you hit out of the ballpark?

I’m sure writers gearing up to pitching for the first time would love to hear it. Heck, we’d all like to hear it, wouldn’t we?

A couple of caveats: keep your observations G-rated, please, and for your own sake, please forbear from naming names. (I learned at a recent after-hours party that my readership amongst industry types is quite a bit broader than I had realized, and I don’t want to be the means of anyone’s burning any bridges that might conceivably be handy in crossing rivers down the line.)

To get the ball rolling, at a recent conference that I shall not identify, I noticed (and so did the agents and editors) that the pros’ schedules had been set up so tightly as to minimize their non-appointment time wandering around the hallways to a practically unprecedented low. To put it as delicately as possible while still conveying meaning, their scheduled social obligations seemed often to result in oversleeping and an aversion to loud noises in the morning hours.

Which necessarily sharply limited the hallway pitching opportunities for anyone who was not habitually distributing bloody marys with one hand and coffee with the other.

Frankly, I’d never seen this happen before, at least not to the extent of — and this is just a rumor, mind you — cancelled a.m. pitching appointments. It made me wish that I had given my readers a heads-up about the possibility of having either structurally or socially limited access. I promise that I shall be racking my brains to come up with a few clever strategies for dealing with it in future, but I would love to hear how readers handled it in the present.

So I am turning it over to you: what did you learn from your pitching experience that might help others? What worked for you?

PS: If you have complaints, compliments, or suggestions about how any conference you attend could be improved, you should contact the organization that threw it directly about them; please don’t assume that anything you say here will necessarily get back to them. Most conference organizers do take attendee feedback fairly seriously, and sharing your views might result in a better conference for everyone next year.

Book marketing 101: it ain’t necessarily so

Yesterday, I wrote about one of the great fringe benefits of conference attendance, making friends with other writers. The person sitting next to you at the agents’ forum might well be famous five years from now, you know, and won’t you be glad that you made friends with her way back when?

Today, I am going to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the naysayers and depression-mongers one occasionally meets at writers’ conferences. And, still more potentially damaging because they’re harder to pin down, the infectious rumors that inevitably sweep the halls from time to time.

You need to inoculate yourself against them. So think of what I’m about to tell you as an adult cootie shot.

Let me step outside the writing world to give you an example of the classic naysayer. Last summer, I went over to a friend’s house for a “let’s save the garden from being reclaimed by the jungle” party. Lopping off branches and deadheading roses in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but notice that another party guest — let’s call her Charity, because she was so VERY generous with her opinions about how other people should be spending their time — kept looking askance at everything I did. I could not so much as pull a weed without her telling me I was doing it wrong.

It was exactly like cooking Christmas cookies with my mother-in-law.

At first, I thought she just didn’t like me, but I soon noticed that Charity was striding around the yard, correcting everyone, in the most authoritative of tones. We all took it meekly, because she seemed so sure that she was right.

However, the third time she gave me advice on pruning that I — the girl who grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, pruning shears in hand — knew to be balderdash, I realized something: she was barely doing any gardening herself. She had no idea what should be done. And yet, she had appointed herself garden manager.

Why am I telling you this? Because I can guarantee you that no matter which writers’ conference you choose to attend in your long and I hope happy life, you will run into at least one of Charity’s spiritual cousins.

They’re not hard to recognize as a family. It will be the writer who tells you, in solemn tones, that there’s a national database of every query that’s ever been submitted, so agents can automatically reject ones that have been seen by too many agents. Or that if you’ve been rejected by an agency once, you can never query there again, because THEY maintain an in-house database, dating back years. Or that you’ll get into terrible trouble if you EVER have more than one query out at once. Or that you should NEVER call or e-mail an agency, even if they’ve had your manuscript for over a year.

None of these things are true, incidentally; they’re just persistent rumors that have been circulating harmfully on the conference circuit for years. To set your mind at rest, there are no such databases, and unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous submissions, it simply does not have that policy. Period. And if an agency has lost a requested manuscript, believe me, they want to know about it toute suite.

But these rumors SOUND so true, don’t they? Especially after you’ve heard them 147 times over the course of a weekend. It’s like brainwashing.

I don’t think that people perpetuate them on purpose to dishearten other writers, necessarily, but I have noticed that anyone who speaks with apparent authority on the rules behind the mysterious world of publishing tends to be surrounded by an audience at the average conference. There are some definite perqs to being the person who walks into a group of writers and says this and this and this is true.

For instance: you believe me, don’t you?

It works, of course, because the publication process IS often confusing and arbitrary. As anyone who has ever spent ten minutes browsing in a bookstore already knows, there are plenty of published books that aren’t very good; as anyone who has a wide acquaintance amongst writers also knows, there are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers whose work does not get published.

There IS a lot of luck involved, unquestionably. If your manuscript happens to be the first one that the agent reads immediately after realizing that her marriage is over, or even immediately after stubbing her toe on a filing cabinet, your chances of her signing you are definitely lower than if, say, she has just won the lottery. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect whether your work hits someone’s desk on a good or a bad day.

The more you know about how the industry operates, however, the better your chances of falling on the right side of the coin toss. But the right way to learn about it is not through rumors.

Ask people whom you are positive know how the industry works. Go to the agent and editor forums at the conference, and listen carefully. Learn who likes what. These are people with individual tastes, not mechanized cogs in a homogenous industry where a manuscript that interests one agent will inevitably interest them all.

Contrary to what that sneering guy in the hallway just told you.

Which is why, incidentally, you should always take it with a massive grain of salt whenever even the most prestigious agent or editor tells you, “Oh, that would never sell.” What that actually means, in the language the rest of us speak, is “Oh, I would never want to try to sell that.”

It is, in fact, a personal preference being expressed, and it should be treated as such. It may well be a personal preference shared by a substantial proportion of the industry, such as the nearly universal declaration prior to the success of COLD MOUNTAIN that historical fiction just doesn’t sell anymore, but it is still a personal opinion.

If you doubt that, consider: when the author of COLD MOUNTAIN went out looking for an agent, the platitude above WAS standard industry wisdom. And yet some agent took a chance on it. Go figure.

I am harping on this point for two reasons. First, it is a very, very good idea to bear in mind that not everything everyone who speaks with authority says — no, not even a senior editor at a major publishing house, or the agent who represents a hundred clients, or me — is necessarily accurate 100% of the time. That knowledge can save your dignity if you get caught in a meeting with an agent who dislikes your book’s premise.

Trust me, I’ve been there. Just thank the speaker for his opinion, and move on.

I’m quite serious about this: don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find yourself caught in a formal meeting with an agent or editor who tells you within the first thirty seconds that she does not represent books in your category, or that the premise isn’t marketable, or any other statement intended to prevent you from completing your pitch, you are under no obligation to remain and listen to the pro’s opinion. You are well within your rights to murmur, “Thank you for your time, then,” and leave.

Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, you can take the moral high ground, and turn the conversation into a learning experience. You can always learn something from contact with an industry professional.

For example, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t represent this kind of work,” (try to say it politely, even if the agent or editor’s conference guide blurb actually state specifically that he DID represent this kind of work) “but if you were me, who else at the conference would you try to pitch this book to, given your druthers?”

Or, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that you think it won’t sell. Would you mind telling me why? Do you think this is a trend that will go away after awhile, or do you think books like this always have a hard time selling?”

Or even, “If you were a writer just starting out, how would you try to market a book like this to agents and editors?”

Beats losing your temper, and it certainly beats bursting into tears. Often, agents and editors are happy to give you tips in exchange for your sparing them a scene.

The other reason I am harping on why you should take blanket pronouncements with a small mountain of salt. While rumors about secret ways in which the industry is out to get writers may roll off your back at the time you first hear them, they can come back to haunt you later in moments of insecurity.

And the last thing you will need if an agent has held on to your manuscript for two months without a word, and you are trying to figure out whether to call or not to check up on it (do), is a nagging doubt at the back of your mind about whether writers bold enough to assume that the US Mail might occasionally misplace packages are condemned forever as troublemakers, their names indelibly blacklisted in a secret roster to which only agents have access.

Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it?

When confronted with a hallway rumor, don’t be afraid to ask some critical follow-up questions. “Where did you hear that?” might be a good place to start, closely followed by “Why on earth would they want to do THAT?”

With an industry professional, you can use polite interest to convey incredulity, “Really? Do you know someone to whom that has happened? Did it happen recently?”

Whatever you do, if you hear an upsetting truism, do not swallow it whole. You look that gift horse in the mouth, and everywhere else, before you wheel it into Troy.

And when someone of Greek descent tells you to give a Trojan horse the once-over, believe it.

Let me just go ahead and nip the ubiquitous database rumor in the bud, since it is one of the most virulent of the breed. Since the average agency receives around 800 queries per week, can you imagine the amount of TIME it would take to maintain such a query database, even for a single agency? It would be prohibitively time-consuming. They barely have time to open all of the envelopes as it is, much less check or maintain a sophisticated tracking system to see if any given author queried them (or anybody else) two years ago.

A good rule of thumb to measure the probability of these rumors is to ask yourself two questions each time you hear one. First, would the behavior suggested serve ANY purpose to the agency, other than being gratuitously mean to writers who query it? Is its only real purpose the exercise of power?

Second, would performing the suggested behavior require spending more than a minute on each query — say, to input statistics into a database? Could the agency accomplish it WITHOUT hiring an extra person – or five – to do maintain the roster of doom?

If the answer to any of these questions is no – and it almost always is — chances are, the rumor’s not true. Even unpaid interns’ time costs something. They could be opening all of those envelopes, for instance.

Okay, that’s a long enough walk on the depressing side of the street. Tomorrow, on to what happens if an agent loves your pitch. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Just between ourselves, my predictive abilities sometimes startle even myself: my spies — oh, they’re everywhere — at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named tell me that 100% of the pitching info being taught there is toward a 3-line pitch. Sigh. I’m glad at least some of the attendees will have more to say for themselves and their books. I’ve also heard from several sources that the wining and dining (mostly the former) of the pros has been unusually lavish this year, to the extent that a savvy writer might want to wait until after their second cup of coffee to pitch to them in the mornings. But that’s just what about a dozen little birds told me; might not be true. But it does raise a possibility that one might want to bear in mind for future conferences, eh?

Book marketing 101: asking the right questions, some good news, and a goal!

It’s going to be a long one today, campers, but I can’t resist opening with a bit of good news: I sold a book yesterday!

To be precise, my agent, the fabulous Jim McCarthy of DGLM (who will be attending a certain upcoming Conference That Shall Remain Nameless), successfully marketed my next nonfiction book, a political memoir I am writing with the godmother of the first civil rights act of the 21rst century, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. It’s being acquired by a wonderful editor — and believe me, as an editor myself, my standard for wonderful is very high indeed — at a terrific independent press.

So I am THRILLED. Now I just have to write it.

Because, you see, like most NF and even most memoirs, it was sold on the basis of a proposal and the first chapter. And if that’s news to all of you memoir-writers out there, please see the WRITING MEMOIR category at right.

(Because I have a lot of material to cover today, I am going to refer to past posts, rather than explaining each point in full, as is my usual wont. If you don’t have time to check, don’t worry: I shall doubtless be revisiting many of these issues in the months to come.)

In case you’re curious about what happens after an offer is made and excepted, the agent then issues what’s called a deal memo, a 1- or 2-page document stating just the facts, ma’am: who is buying it, who the acquiring editor is, how much the advance is and how it will be paid (usually in either two or three installments; for further explanation, please see the ADVANCES category at right), the royalty rates, who owns what subsidiary rights (film, audio, book club, etc.), the area to be covered by the sale (first North American rights, first English-language rights, world rights), the length (always an issue in a book-to-be-written), the delivery date (that’s when I have to get them the finished manuscript), and the tentative publication date (when it will hit the shelves).

And all of that’s before the contract’s even written. Agents honestly do work very hard on their clients’ behalves, you know.

All very exciting, of course, and a trifle disorienting. I shall keep you posted, naturally, as the deal becomes codified.

A second bit of good news: FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jonathan Selwood’s first novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, comes out today, and with what fanfare! I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago, and just look at what greeted me when I arrived at my favorite bookstore:

/j-selwoods-marquee.tiff

If having one’s name emblazoned on a terrific bookstore’s marquee isn’t a goal worth having for any writer, I should like to know what is. Congratulations, Jonathan!

For those of you who live in the Portland area, Jonathan will be reading tomorrow night (thus the marquee) at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside. He will be reading in the Seattle area in a couple of weeks, and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing him.

So there you have it: concrete visions of goals-along-the-way for YOUR writing career. Go ahead, spend a few minutes envisioning your name on that marquee and your agent calling you about an offer on your book. That’s where you’re headed, and that’s why you’re investing all this hard work in making your work professional.

It may seem a trifle silly to say that outright, but it’s tempting to focus upon only the end products of writing: the book in the reader’s hand, the royalty check in the bank account, you reading your work to a hushed crowd of avid devotees. But days like this are well worth acknowledging. If you’re in it for the long haul, believe me, celebrating the victories along the way — your own AND others’ — helps sustain you through the long, dark days of seemingly endless work.

I mention this because it fits so beautifully into today’s topic: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. Because, you see, in the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Which means — and this is going to seem rather funny, in a pitching situation, when you are concerned with catching an agent’s wandering eye — you should be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication.

Because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes.

So you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers. Agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it.

It really is in everyone’s best interests, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

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

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

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

Here’s your chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

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

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching. You should feel free to walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

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

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

Just don’t do it.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about the deal memo: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. Which leads to the second point: a book that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.

So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about.”

Again: not the best idea. You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for something he said. (It happens.)

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

This question format will not help you win friends and influence people.

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

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. (As does, I believe, Rachel Vater, also scheduled to attend the CTSRN) So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’s, who enjoys a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to my agent with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: capturing the spirit of the pitch, not the letter

I’m back from my writing retreat! Thanks, everybody, for being so nice about my working hiatus. I actually had a near-nightmare during it that 1400 people had written into the blog, pointing out some truly fundamental yet somehow life-threatening aspect of the pitch I had forgotten to mention…so it was a great relief to log on today and see that the vast majority of comments were just the usual spam promising a better sex life, low-cost car loans, and nude pictures of celebrities.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, either on one’s own work or others’, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. Which, I suppose, is just a formal way of saying that my week of heavy-duty revision has left me a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Well, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, the little girl pointed out that her mother had just broken a commandment. (Apparently, they hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I now recognize is probably going to generate a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeats all or part of it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t right, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to pitching, weren’t you?) In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to follow what few guidelines they are given to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out before in this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the moment can be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result. The causalities of literalism abound.

There’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

Take a deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it is trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. And while some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally.

For instance, those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. 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.

Yes, you read that correctly: 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 in a hallway pitch, any more than they will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. 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 sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To 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.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. 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 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.

But don’t, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

Remember: adhere to the spirit, not the letter.

How? Well, here’s that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

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

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: 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, for instance, 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 women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them. But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the only virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

If you’re marketing 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 (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you with authority: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. 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.

It’s nice to be back, my friends. Keep up the good work.

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part II, or, all together now!

Yesterday, I introduced those of you new to pitching appointments to its unique joys and stresses. It’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.

Why? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things waiting for us on the other side of our first pitching experience. Like a pitch meeting’s rocketing us to instant fame, or an agent who says, “I hate your plot AND your tie!”

Also the common fantasies about what can happen in such meetings both raise expectations and increase fright. Knowledge really is power, at least in this instance. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively — and psych yourself out less in the process.

If the prospect of pitch preparation appalls you, take heart, my friends: if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.

How is that possible, you cry? Here’s a hint: first, you’re going to impress ‘em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ‘em with your storytelling ability.

You’re going to play to your strengths, in other words. And yes, your writing has them, to professional eyes. It’s just a matter of presentation the book so that people focused upon marketing notice them.

To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: 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 within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch 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.

Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not.

What a formal pitch can and should be is your 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.

Why, what a coincidence: you have already defined your work in those terms: your book’s category (posts of June 15-19), identifying your target market (June 20-21), coming up with selling points and/or a platform for you and your book (June 22, 23, and 25), inventing a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (June 29-30), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 2-5).

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

Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch (July 6, 9, and 10), which I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound are practicing on everyone you meet.

I’m serious about this. It takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a writer talking to other writers. When we’re in creative mode, we speak amongst ourselves about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer?

But when we’re in marketing mode, as in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.

How might one go about doing that in a formal pitch meeting? I’m so glad you asked. We’ve had the wind-up; now comes the pitch.

Part I: 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).”

If you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,

“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult information! That sounds like a jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”

If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,

“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, buidling upon that expertise. My latest project…”

Part II: After you finish Part I, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc.

“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

Do NOT tell the entire plot: your goal here, remember, is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels he’s already read it.

Make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. It’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it.

(And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right.)

Part III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell. If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it.

“I’m excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS. Currently, there are # (TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right?

Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, are you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.

One last thing, then I shall let you run off to ponder what details you would like to append to your elevator speech: once you have gone through all of the steps above, SHUT UP and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.

Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Don’t; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.

It’s in your self-interest, you know. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!”

A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.

And 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.

Tomorrow, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: but what do I WEAR to put my ego on the line in front of utter strangers prone to rejection?

I’m in the throes of a major deadline, my friends, so I’m trapped inside, despite the fact that this is the kind of glorious midsummer day that those of us in the Pacific Northwest spend all November fantasizing about in nearly pornographic levels of detail. Oh, the writer’s life is glamorous!

So, in keeping with the spirit of the summer vacation I really ought to be taking right now, out seeing everyone’s knees poking out below Bermuda shorts and sunburns on beaches everywhere, I’m going to take a breather before attacking the formal pitch to tackle a fun topic today: what you should wear to a conference in the dead middle of summer.

This is a serious issue, you know. It may be 90 degrees outside, but conference centers are often air-conditioned to the point that ice will not melt in your latte. And a bathing suit with a fur coat thrown over it seems as though it MIGHT send the wrong message about your professionalism.

Although I would dearly love to hear the pitch for the book where that particular outfit would enhance the author’s credibility.

You should be thinking about your credibility as you gaze into your closet in the days before a conference. In many ways, these conferences are job interviews — at least the pitching part. You will want to look professional, not as though you have just stepped off the aforementioned beach.

Does this mean you should wear a suit? No, not unless you will be pitching a book about business skills, or another sort of NF book where your credibility as an expert in a tradition-bound field is a strong element of your platform. If not, overdressing can come across as insecurity, rather than professionalism, especially to a NYC-based agent or editor.

Why? Well, just as being naturally good-looking makes a BIG difference in first impressions on this coast (come on, admit it), being well and appropriately dressed is important in making good first impressions on Manhattanites. One way that people identify others like themselves on that fair isle is by dress — if you work at a fashion magazine, you dress one way; if you work in a brokerage firm, you dress another.

So to an NYC-based agent, if you wear a suit, depending on the designer’s label within it, he might identify you as a high-powered attorney, a minor official at a state agency, a spy, or a shoe salesman.

So while in theory, this means that you could conceivably skip the makeup, don your jammies, and wear your glasses to your meeting (because that’s what writers look like while they’re working, right?), this is not the time to be shabby. Neatness counts.

So the short answer to what to wear is this: nice pants or a skirt (but not a super-short one, unless you are pitching erotica — and even then, don’t make the world your gynocologist), avoid showing too much cleavage or chest hair, and go light on the cologne.

Unless you are pitching a book about mountaineering, I would avoid much-worn jeans or hiking boots, but to a West Coast conference, you could get away with newish jeans quite happily.

No need for women to wear heels or nylons, though. (That great tumult of joyous noise you just heard, gentlemen, was the female readership of this blog rejoicing.) Unless you are attending a conference in the South, that is, where the nice ladies are more put together than we Westerners in general.

(Things I have been offered the loan of, kindly, at writers’ conferences in the South by well-dressed relative strangers: nylons, a hair dryer, hot rollers, shoe polish, nail polish, and spectator pumps.)

Generally speaking, though, don’t dress up as if you were attending an afternoon wedding — a corsage would be a BIT much, unless you are pitching a book on prom etiquette — but don’t show up in shorts and a T-shirt, either.

Leave the tube top at home, I tell you. Ditto with the Hawaiian shirt with the eye-searing pattern of chartreuse pineapples on a field of rampant pink flamingos — unless you are pitching the definitive Don Ho bio, of course.

Oh, sorry — I didn’t mean to make your brain start humming Tiny Bubbles on a continuous loop. (RIP, bubblemaster.)

Stand back, for I am about to make a prophecy: those of you attending the upcoming PNWA conference will remember this advice vividly when you walk into the conference, because there you will see many, many people there in jeans and T-shirts proclaiming their favorite bands, 5K runs for charity, or membership in the Don Ho fan club. The Pacific Northwest is a pretty casual place.

How casual, you ask? Well, let’s just say that I’ve seen a LOT of knees over the years, and no one is going to offer to loan you spectator pumps.

However, at the risk of sounding like your mother: do as I say, not as they do. Even if EVERYONE else is dressed down, you will still make a better impression if you are appropriately dressed than if you are not.

And besides, if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you?

Basically, you should wear what you might to the first major reading of your book in a bookstore. This is a terrific rule of thumb anytime you will be meeting with anyone in the industry, actually, because you will be demonstrating to an agent who is considering taking you on as a client, or an editor who is thinking about acquiring your book, that you have enough social sensitivity that they don’t have to worry about you showing up to future interviews or signings in your pajamas — or that Hawaiian shirt I mentioned.

Believe it or not, the ability to dress appropriately is equally helpful whether you write gardening advice or cyberpunk. People in the industry want to work with authors whom they can send into a variety of promotional environments.

If you doubt this, pay attention to what the presenting writers, agents, and editors are wearing at the next conference you attend. You’re not going to see a while lot of prints on the women, for instance; I’ve never been to a writers’ conference where at least one of the publishing professionals WASN’T wearing a plain, clean-lined pantsuit. I’ve seen entire editors’ panels swathed in subdued Ann Taylor crêpe.

As the immortal Laurie Partridge showed us all in my childhood, you can’t go wrong with a nice pantsuit.

Because the publishing industry does tend toward quieter fashions, this is not the best place to trot out the big floral prints (you’ll think about that, too, when you see how many people show up in them), or clothing bearing the insignia of a business or sports team. I don’t want to see your knees at all, under any circumstances, so just don’t pack the shorts or flip-flops with your conference gear.

Trust me on this one. The meeting rooms will be air-conditioned, anyway, sometimes to pneumonia-inducing levels of chill. You’re not going to want to wear anything that bares thigh, lest you die of exposure.

I hear some of you out there grumbling, and rightly so: for most of the conference, you will be sitting around on folding chairs, listening to speakers. So wouldn’t it make MORE sense to wear something comfortable, rather than fussy nice clothes?

In a word, yes — to the parts of the conference where you can reasonably expect to be sitting around on a folding chair, listening to speakers. But for your meetings, no. Would you stroll into an interview for a job you wanted in a halter top and ripped Daisy Dukes?

Okay, would you walk into an interview anywhere but Hooters wearing that?

There’s no law, however, that says you can’t leave your nicely-pressed shirt on a hanger in your car, or in the closet of your hotel room, to change into an hour before your appointment. In fact, re-robing just before your formal pitch meeting can be a good preparation ritual.

Two caveats about the preceding. First, if you plan on taking the brave route of approached agents to pitch at them in the hallways, do plan on being dressed up a bit the whole time, so you are always ready to make a good impression. The Flashdance look may be charming on you, especially the legwarmers, but you don’t want to have to think twice about accosting that agent next to you in the hotel elevator, lest your apparel suggest that you are proposing something different than you actually are.

You’ll understand that last sentence when you’re older, children.

Second — and this may seem a trifle frivolous, but it is nevertheless true — the lighting in virtually every conference center in North America makes everyone look positively ghastly. Red tones tend to do better in that light than yellows. And if you’re like me, and pale, you might want to spring for a little rouge or lipstick, so you don’t look as though you have spent the last year typing away on your opus in an unusually depressing crypt.

Unless, of course, you write about vampires, in which case you may feel free to look a trifle Goth. Other than that, stock up on the vitamin C, and smile.

Speaking of which, I now need to lock myself in my crypt and get back to work. Enjoy high summer, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: at long last, that three-line pitch! Or, this author and this agent walk into an elevator…

Welcome back to my ongoing series on marketing your work. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been concentrating upon the constituent parts of an effective verbal pitch, but never fear, those of you who are not conference-bound — a great many of these tools can be used to improve your query letters, too. Just you wait and see.

But 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.

Yes, yes, I know: I’ve spent the last couple of weeks telling you at great lenght that 3-sentence speeches are vastly overrated as marketing tools for books — which they are, in most pitching contexts. Sometimes, though, they are indeed useful; I’ll be showing you when and how over the next couple of days.

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

But I’m geting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a definition.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. (A longish paragraph, in other words.) 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.

Yes, you read that correctly: the 3-sentence pitch you’ve been hearing so much about in conference circles lately is NOT a standard pitch for a book: it’s a lead-in to the actual pitch, a chance to show off your storytelling talent in the 30 seconds you might have with an agent in a hallway.

Thus the term elevator speech: it’s designed to be short enough to deliver between floors when a happy accident places you and the agent of your dreams together in the same lift. It’s not, contrary to common belief, intended to replace the fully-realized 2-minute pitch that agents and editors will expect you to deliver within the context of a formal appointment.

Although often, an agent in a hurry — say, one you have caught immediately after he has taught a class, or on his way into lunch — will not wait to hear the 2-minute version before asking to see pages. Which is the true mark of success for an elevator speech: it so intrigues the hearer that further pitching is rendered unnecessary.

But again, the elevator speech does not work in every context: it should be reserved for informal pitching opportunities. For a formal pitching session, you will be better off with a 2-minute pitch. (And don’t worry, I’ll be getting to that soon.)

“Wait just a minute,” I hear some eager pitchers out there cry. “You’re telling me to do twice the work I would normally need to do! The conference brochure I have in my hand tells me that I must give a 3-4 sentence summary of my book. Obviously, then, I can just stick with that, and ignore the 2-minute pitch. Besides, won’t agents and editors get mad at me if I break the 3-sentence rule?”

In a word, no — at least, not in a scheduled pitch meeting. That’s a rule set up by conference organizers, generally speaking; the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry. And even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about it, it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule.

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

Because, you see, they don’t read the conference literature. They just know the norms of the industry.

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

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

On to practicalities. Since brevity is the soul of both the elevator speech and the keynote, how are they different, you ask? Well, the elevator speech is roughly three times as long, for one thing. While the keynote is designed to pique interest in the conflict, the elevator speech is intended to elicit a response of, “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”

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 task is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation.

Your elevator speech should, in other words, establish book’s premise. It should answer the basic questions: who is the protagonist? What is the problem s/he faces, and how is s/he going to attack it differently than anybody else on the face of the earth?

Why stick to the premise alone? Simple: when you have someone’s attention for only thirty seconds, you don’t have time to explain the interesting backstory, the macabre subplot, how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, that great twist about the long-lost half-sister, or how the villain gets dissoved in a vat of acid in the basement. You will just enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them in the book.

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

Yup. I wish someone had told me that before the first time I pitched, too.

An elevator speech should not be a summary. Actually, even in a screenplay pitch (which is where the 3-sentence format comes from, in case you’re curious; it’s foreign to the publishing industry), the writer is not expected to summarize the entire plot that quickly, merely the premise. To tell you the truth, the only people I have ever met who have expected writers to tell an entire story in three lines are pitching teachers and the conference organizers who write the directions in brochures.

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

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

Beat one: An Indian lawyer in South Africa
Beat two: uses nonviolence to change unjust laws
Beat three: and then takes the strategy home to fight British rule.

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

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

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

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

Let’s just clear that misconception up at the outset: the point in keeping it brief is TO KEEP IT BRIEF, not to play rules lawyer. If you can’t say your entire elevator speech within two regular breaths — no fancy yogi breathing techniques here, please — it’s too long.

Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this? Are you, in fact, seriously considering avoiding hallway pitches altogether, just so you don’t have to construct both an elevator speech and a 2-minute pitch?

A common reaction to meeting me, but don’t worry — I shall give you many, many practical tips on how to pull it off with aplomb, but for now, I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities until tomorrow. That way, you can brainstorm unfettered.

But do brainstorm about the best way to present your premise briefly. To give you a touch of additional incentive, I’ll let you in on a secret: once you have come up with an eyebrow-raising elevator speech, the process is going to help you improve your queries, too. Trust me on this one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: expectation vs. reality

Hello, Sunday readers:

Last Sunday, I took a break from my ongoing series on marketing to re-run a conference-related older post on industry etiquette, on the theory that most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the rules of the game. Better that my fictional exemplars make these mistakes than my readers, I say.

Think of it as educational soap opera.

Today’s little dramas are excerpted from two of my earlier posts, combined because both deal with the differential between what writers often expect to happen at a literary contest (meet the perfect agent instantly, get signed within the hour, sell the book within the week, Oprah and literary luncheons within the year), and what actually occurs.

The moral, if you’ll forgive my springing it in advance: it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to pitch or query to more than one agent at a time. Always, always, always.

Enjoy! More practical advice on marketing follows tomorrow.

I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks about the ways in which writers often overstep the bounds of what the publishing industry considers courtesy, and for the most part, I’ve been concentrating on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries – which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not overstep; she merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If she doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:

Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. In fact, of the agents on the panel, she sounds like the only one who regards her job as the promotion of art, rather than finding marketable work and selling it. This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.

Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.

“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”

My apparent twin frowns briefly. “Are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years, and she very seldom represents first-time writers. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”

Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, saying many encouraging things about the novel. Even better, she seems genuinely interested in Lauren as a writer and as a person; they seem to click, and are soon chatting away like old friends. Loretta asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel.

Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else. Obviously, she thinks, the agent would not have been so encouraging unless she were already more or less decided to take on the book.

The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.

What did Lauren do wrong?

Actually, not much: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately (in this case, none), and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference. Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference.

If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents – and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.

While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense – I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer – it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.

And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.

That being said, though, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT a commitment make. A writer is a free agent until a representation contract is signed, and there are agents out there who feel it’s their duty to be nice to aspiring writers. It’s very, very common for writers to interpret this as something more than it is.

So what should Lauren have done differently? Even if she hadn’t done her background research, she should have kept on pitching her book to others. Even if Loretta HAD actually wanted to sign her on the spot, no reputable agent is going to made a decision about representation without reading the book in question. Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her – as it turned out, false – first impressions of her. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.

And, realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference. Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

Learn from Lauren’s example: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart – and your valuable pitching opportunities – to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.

To give Lauren her props: she was awfully well-behaved about it all, and thus did not offend agent Loretta with her misconceptions. For the sake of argument, let’s meet another of Loretta’s pitch appointments, Lauren’s twin brother Lorenzo, to see how someone less knowledgeable about industry norms might have responded to the same situation:

Blurry boundary scenario 2: Lorenzo attends the same conference as his sister, and like Lauren, has an almost unbelievably positive pitch meeting with agent Loretta. Pleased, he too stops pitching, boasting in the bar that is inevitably located no more than 100 yards from ground zero at any writers’ conference that he has found the agent of his dreams. From here on in, he has it made.

So, naturally, Lorenzo goes home, spends the usual panicked week or two frantically revising his novel, and sends it off to Loretta. Like Lauren, he too receives a beautifully sympathetic rejection letter a few weeks later, detailing what Loretta feels are the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Unlike Lauren, however, Lorenzo unwisely picked conference week in order to go off his anti-anxiety medication. His self-confidence suffers a serious meltdown, and in order to save his ego from sinking altogether, he is inspired to fight back. So he sits down and writes Loretta a lengthy e-mail, arguing with her about the merits of his manuscript.

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

He sends it again, suitably embellished with reproaches for not having replied to his last, and attaching an article about how the publishing industry rejected some major bestseller 27 times before it was picked up.

Still no answer.

Perplexed and angry, Lorenzo alters his first 50 pages as Loretta advised, scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope, as he had the first time, and sends it off.

Within days, the manuscript is returned to him, accompanied by a curt note stating that it is the practice of Loretta’s agency not to accept unrequested submissions from previously unpublished authors. If Lorenzo would like to query…

Okay, what did Lorenzo do wrong? Where do we even start?

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did: he did not check Loretta’s track record for taking on previously unpublished writers, assumed that a nice conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching. Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

But no, our Lorenzo pressed ahead: he decided to contest with Loretta’s decision, adopting the always people-pleasing strategy of questioning her literary judgment. In order to insult her knowledge of the book-buying public more thoroughly, his follow-up included an article implying that no one in the industry knew a book from the proverbial hole in the ground.

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right. Perhaps even especially if you’re right, because agents’ egos tend to get bruised easily.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever. At the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read.

I’m sure, however, that you’re all too savvy to follow in Lorenzo’s footsteps, aren’t you? You would never be so blunt, I’m sure, nor would you ever be so dishonest as to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on materials that had not, in fact, been requested. (Since Loretta had not asked Lorenzo to revise and resubmit, her request ended when she stuffed his initial 50 pages into his SASE.)

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top right away to bug an agent with over-persistence. Tomorrow, I shall show you how.

And, of course, keep up the good work!