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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUBJECT LINE: I missed you at the Greenwater Conference

Dear Ms. Pickyperson,

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

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

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

SUBJECT LINE: post-Greenwater Conference query

Dear Mr. EyeofSharpness,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!