Pitchingpalooza, part XX: stacking all of those building blocks into a rock-solid pitch

pigeon-in-a-niche

No, I didn’t pose that pigeon; she volunteered to be today’s illustration of a book happily inhabiting a niche market atop a well-constructed pitch. It would be a better visual metaphor if there weren’t also bricks above her, of course, but you focus on a medieval bridge, you take your chances, right?

Before I launch into today’s task in earnest, my mother has charged me to pass along an editorial admonition to you — and believe me, we do not take such decrees lightly chez Mini. Madame Mini senior desires me to inform all conscientious writers everywhere that she is darned tired of reading books and manuscripts that use each other and one another interchangeably.

That’s one of my pet peeves, too, doubtless due to my strenuously literary upbringing: each other refers to interactions between two characters, entities, or objects; one another is activity amongst 3 or more. My parents used to correct this one in conversation, as well as on the page.

And yes, that practice did rather startle anecdote-spouting dinner guests, now that you mention it. One’s standards do not evaporate just because one happens to be serving a soufflé, however.

So abandon hope, all ye who were hoping to get a sentence like Marni, Monique, and Murgatroyd looked at each other past a good, old-fashioned editor. While you’re at it, Madame Mini would also like you to start making a distinction between farther (refers to physical distance) and further (conceptual distance). There’s a pretty good reason that one doesn’t hear farthermore in casual conversation, after all.

In answer to those of you busily engaged in picking your jaws off the floor: yes, these are nit-picky distinctions, but little things like this drive classically-trained professional readers nuts. It’s inconceivable to an editor of my mother’s experience that anyone would not have learned these precepts, if not actually at their parents’ knees, then at least by the end of the fourth grade. She flatly refuses to believe that I constantly meet talented writers who — sacre bleu! — claim that they were never taught the rules governing when to use to, two, and too or there, their, and they’re.

“What do these writers do, then?” Madame Mini scoffs. “Guess?”

Judging by the average manuscript submission, I would have to say that is precisely what a lot of aspiring writers do. That, and rely too heavily upon their word processing programs’ spell- and grammar-checkers. I have yet to break it to my mother that my version of Microsoft Word not only doesn’t make the necessary each other/one another or farther/further distinctions; it frequently suggests that I should use the incorrect form of there, their, and they’re.

My neighbors who work at the Lazy M Ranch profess to have no idea why this might be the case. “Poor elementary school education?” one of them suggested. “I wasn’t sure about that rule until I was in college.”

Please don’t tell my mother. She might faint from the shock.

Actually, while we’re on the subject of looking, would you mind if I ask you to avoid a pet peeve of my own? Novelists, would you at least consider giving the phrases they looked at each other and she gave him a look a rest, please? Millicent the agency screener scarcely sees a manuscript these days that does not include one or the other within the first chapter, and often both.

It’s not merely the percussive effect of seeing the same sentences so often across so many manuscripts in any given reading day that gets her proverbial goat, you know; it’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seem to believe that eye movement is an inherently interesting enough activity to deserve page space in an otherwise tightly-written narrative. From a professional reader’s perspective, it seldom is.

Remember, from a professional reader’s point of view, the bare fact that a character might have done something isn’t necessarily reason enough to for a narrative to mention it; especially in fiction and memoir, we tend to go for the character-revealing stuff. Unless the reader is shown the emotional intensity of a look, or what thoughts the author believes are being conveyed telepathically when two characters look at each other (or seventeen look at one another; it helps to see the rules in practice), all of that looking can come across as simply a substitute for more character- or situation-illuminating reactions.

Oh, it feels good to have gotten that one off my chest. Let’s get to work.

Last time, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you brand-new to verbal book pitching to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety conference pitching room. Why on earth would I scare you like that, you ask? Well, I think it’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.

Why, you ask again? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things that might be waiting for us on the other side of the pitching table. Like, for instance, an agent who cuts a writer off three sentences into a pitch given within the context of a formal meeting: “Oh, that’s the third period, I’m afraid, and you had not even gotten halfway through establishing your premise. I’m sorry; industry standards prevent me from listening to even one more word from you.”

Or an agent who shouts, “I hate your plot, your hairdo, and your tie! Begone, and never cause me to choke on my latte again.”

Or a writer’s rocketing to instant fame, fortune, and publication as a result of a particularly well-given pitch. “Oh, I don’t need to read the manuscript,” the agent in this fantasy says, clapping the lucky pitcher on the back. “Someone who can talk about a book as well as you can is obviously a talented writer. Let me introduce you to that editor standing over there at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, so we may sign a contract immediately. Would you be available to go on Oprah next week?”

Please believe me when I say that in years and years and years of attending conferences as both would-be pitcher and presenter, I have not even heard of any of these extremes actually occurring in real life. Honest. And Oprah’s off the air, at least on network television.

As I may have hinted a few times over the last couple of weeks, adhering to the common fantasies about what can happen in a pitch meetings both raise expectations to unreasonable levels and increase anticipatory fright to the point of being crushing. Knowledge really is power, at least in this respect.

No, really. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively for your appointment with an agent or editor — and psych yourself out much less in the process.

Feeling a little better about the prospect of pitch preparation? No? Okay, here’s a bit more good news to gladden your heart: 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? Well, for starters, you’ve already wrestled some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching until they lay panting, gone over how to narrow down your book’s category, figured out who your target market is, brainstormed selling points for your book), as well as a platform for those of you who write nonfiction, and constructed a snappy keynote statement. We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words, to keep it pithy with the elevator speech, and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a well-conceived hallway pitch.

Today, with all that under your proverbial belt, we’re going to begin to pull it all together into a two-pronged strategy for a stellar formal pitch: first, you’re going to impress ‘em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ‘em with your storytelling ability.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Actually, it’s a heck of a lot easier than it sounds, once you understand what a formal pitch is and what you’re trying to achieve with it. 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, nor is it a summary of the plot, or even a statement of the platform for a nonfiction book.

A formal book pitch is A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also precisely how and why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand this — and once you accept that, 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 is a much, much less frightening moment to contemplate. It’s not an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed BOOK CONCEPT.

Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not. And your hair is fine, I tell you. If only you would stop thinking in all of those capital letters.

What a formal pitch meeting can and should be is 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: if you will be so kind as to cast your eye back over my breakdown of Pitchingpalooza above, you will see that you have already defined your work in those terms. Aren’t you clever, to be so well prepared?

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, and I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound have already begun trying it out on everyone you meet. It’s a serious mistake not to speak it out loud prior to your scheduled pitch meeting, or even to the conference.

Why? Out comes the broken record again:

It takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a serious writer talking to other serious writers. Or a hobbyist writer talking to someone at a party kind enough to say, “Oh, you write? What kind of books?”

Why shouldn’t you talk about your work to the pros the way we talk about amongst ourselves or at a non-literary cocktail party? Well, when we’re in creative mode, we tend to speak with other writers about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer? But 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.

It’s time, to put it bluntly, to speak of your book as a commodity that you might conceivably want someone to buy, not as a reason to like or respect you as a creative human being. (Hey, I warned you it was going to be blunt.)

Recognizing that is not the first sign of selling out, as so many aspiring writers seem to believe: it’s an absolutely necessary step along the undiscovered (and unpaid) artist’s road to fame, fortune, and large readerships. Or even small ones.

Besides, walking into a conference believing that agencies and publishing houses are primarily non-profit institutions devoted to the charitable promotion of good art tends to lead to poor pitching. A savvy pitcher understands that good marketing and good art can are not natural enemies.

It’s imperative that your formal pitch reflect that understanding. Think about it: reputable agents and editors make their livings by selling books, after all; they are unlikely to the point of hilarity to be even remotely sympathetic to an aspiring writer who feels that his book will seem less artistically worthwhile if he knows anything about how — or even to whom — it might be sold.

That can work to your advantage: because art vs. commerce is such a common attitude, even amongst writers who have plopped down a considerable amount of money to pitch at a conference, presenting yourself as one of the few who has taken the time to learn how publishing actually works and how your book might fit into the current market will at least enjoy the benefit of novelty.

And a thousand hands just shot into the air. “I want to be the exception, Anne,” eager pitchers everywhere cry, “but I’m not sure how to force my book’s premise into a form that makes sense from a marketing perspective. How might one go about satisfying the demands of both art and commerce in a formal pitch meeting?”

I’m so glad you asked. I feel a theoretical structure about to emerge.

Step I: First, begin with your 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).”

As in a query letter, 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 guidance! That sounds like a back 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, building upon that expertise. My latest project…”

Everyone on board with that? Good. Let’s press on.

Step II: After you finish Step I, with nary a pause for breath, 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 or argument of the book. The resulting equation would look like this:

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

Again, do not even attempt to tell the entire plot. Your goal here 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 she has already read it.

This structure will work equally well for a memoir, of course. The trick is to present oneself as the protagonist — and to do that, you’re going to have to think of yourself as a character in your book, as well as its writer.

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

For a nonfiction book that isn’t a memoir, present the central question your book will address, along with why a reader would care about it. In considering that last part, remember, you can’t safely assume that the agent or editor to whom you will be pitching will be forearmed with any prior knowledge of your subject matter. This structure tends to work:

“The world is facing (interesting situation); if it is not resolved, (insert dire consequence here).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

For fiction or memoir, make sure to identify your protagonist in the first line of your pitch– by name, never as “my protagonist,” or you will sound like you are giving a book report. Yes, yes, I know that you learned in English class that it’s spiffy to speak in terms of protagonists and antagonists, as well as to say things like, “At the climax of the book…”, but a verbal pitch is the wrong context to talk about a book as if you were writing an essay about it. It’s distancing, and many pros find it more than a bit pretentious. (True in query letters as well, by the way.)

Here’s an even better reason to identify your protagonist by name: it’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Even better, 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 before your next pitch appointment.)

Step III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell to your intended readership. Not a boast, mind you: analysis that demonstrates the extent of your market research.

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 (# of TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Add a little charm and stir, and voilà: the two-minute pitch. Admittedly, 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.

Not to mention quite doable. You could manage all three of those steps in two minutes, right?

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

Once again, a forest of hands arises before my eyes. “But Anne,” some confused souls point out, “didn’t you say that most scheduled pitch meetings are around 10 minutes long? If that’s the case, why do I have to limit myself to a 2-minute pitch? Couldn’t it be, you know, 3? Or 8?”

Good question, confused ones, and here’s the answer: no, because if you went much over 2, there would not be time for subsequent conversation. Or for the agent of your dreams to interrupt you in the course of your speech in order to ask trenchant and enlightening questions.

Or to allow for time for a panicking pitcher to take a moment to compose herself, if necessary and appropriate. Aspiring writers aren’t tape recorders, you know, and most agents and editors honestly do want to give ‘em a chance to give their pitches.

The 2-minute pitch usually takes place at the very beginning of a pitch meeting; thus the imperative to introduce oneself. (You wouldn’t believe how many pitchers get so excited that they omit this essential information. Or the title of the book.) See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?

No? Was there so much going on in these last two posts that you forgot to look for a moral hidden in the midst of it all?

Excellent, if so — because that IS the moral: there’s going to be so much going on during your pitch appointment that it’s prudent to assume that it will be darned difficult to make even the most elegant story sound fresh and pithy.

Especially if you find yourself, as so many pitchers do, having a meeting under ear-splitting conditions. Remember, a high probability that you — and the agent sitting across the table from you — will be able to hear the other pitches and conversations going on around you. It’s easy for a hearer to get distracted, especially after pitch fatigue — the inevitable numbing effect on the mind of hearing many pitches over a short period of time — has started to set in.

Heck, you may find it hard to concentrate on your storyline — and you won’t even be the one who has already heard fifty pitches that day. Counterintuitive as it may seem, buttonholing an agent at a crowded luncheon or after a well-attended seminar for a hallway pitch is often a significantly quieter option than giving a 2-minute pitch during a scheduled appointment.

And yes, if I ruled the universe, this would not be the case, but apparently, conference centers fall outside the range of my scepter. Yet conference organizers are not actively trying to weed out the shy, the agoraphobic, and the noise-sensitive — although that is often the effect of a well-stocked pitching room. It’s just that space is often at a premium at a literary conference, and many conference centers have really lousy acoustics.

Or really good acoustics, depending upon how badly you want to hear the pitcher 20 feet away from you describe the gory mass murder at the center of his thriller.

Thus your goal is not merely to make the case that your book is a good one — it is to tell a story so original, in such interesting language, and with such great imagery that it will seem fresh in a pitching environment. That’s equally true for fiction and nonfiction, by the way, and even more so for memoir.

How might one go about that? In a frequently chaotic-feeling pitching situation, including vivid, surprising details is the best way I know for a good storyteller to make an exhausted agent sit up and say, “Wait a minute — I’ve never heard a tale like THAT before!”

Does this advice seem just a touch familiar? It should — it’s that old saw show, don’t tell, transplanted from the page to the pitching environment. The essence of good storytelling, after all, lies in evocative specifics, not one-size-fits-all generalities. The higher the ratio of one-of-a-kind details to summary in your pitch, the greater the probability of its being memorable.

And terrific.

Oh, there are all of those raised hands again. “But Anne,” some of these wavers protest, “I’m likely to be too nervous to remember the name of my book during my pitch meeting, much less any brilliantly vivid and pithy details I might have thought up in the solitude of my quiet room. Isn’t it just a touch unreasonable to expect me to be able to blurt ‘em out on command?”

Not really — as long as you don’t rely solely on your memory to help you through. There’s no earthly reason not to write out your 2-minute pitch on an index card or piece of paper and have it in front of you throughout the meeting.

Honest, it won’t render your pitch less impressive. As I mentioned last time, reading a formal pitch is completely acceptable; if you remember to look up occasionally, no one will fault you for reading your pitch, rather than blurting it out from memory. That way, you will be sure to hit all of those important points, as well as to include each and every memorable detail.

And no, you will not get Brownie points for reciting it from memory. This isn’t your 5th grade class’ Americana pageant, and this isn’t the Gettysburg Address — which, incidentally, Abraham Lincoln was too experienced a public speaker to attempt to give from memory.

Actually, at 267 words, the Gettysburg Address is a pretty good length guideline for a formal pitch. It’s also proof positive that it is indeed possible to work expressive language and strong imagery into a 2-minute speech. Take a gander:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Great speech, eh? Admittedly, my editorial hand itches to excise some of the structural redundancy, as well as some of those extraneous heres, and smooth out some of those slightly awkward subordinate clauses. (Had I mentioned that editors tend to be nit-picky?) There’s no denying, though, that this is a magnificently constructed argument.

Ever heard the story about why it’s so short? It wasn’t that Lincoln didn’t have a lot to say — he was scheduled to speak immediately after one of the greatest of living orators, Edward Everett. The opening act’s light-hearted little lecture lasted for two solid hours.

Who could compete? Lincoln knew better. Rather than fight fire with fire, he did one of the smartest things someone making a speech can do if he wants to be remembered fondly by his hearers: he made his point, and then he stopped talking.

In memory of that excellent strategic choice, let’s add another step to our formula for a formal pitch:

Step IV: 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. Or even after the agent or editor has said, “Great; send me the first chapter.”

Don’t keep trying to sell your book; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.

Besides, it’s better storytelling. 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 a good salesperson knows when to take yes for an answer.

Most of us have been turned off by a too-hard sell in other contexts, right? If your primary concern in choosing a vehicle is the gas mileage, you’re going to start to feel impatient if the car dealer keeps rattling off details about how many bags of groceries you could fit in the trunk.

By rambling, you’ll be missing out on a golden opportunity to demonstrate what a good listener you are. Remember, you’re not only trying to convince the agent or editor that your book is well-written and interesting — you’re also, if you’re smart (and I know you are), attempting to convey that you’d be an absolute dream to work with if they signed you.

I don’t know why this point so seldom comes up in pitching classes or in agent and editor Q&As at conferences, but being a considerate, careful listener is a definite selling point for a writer. So is the ability to ask thoughtful questions and an understanding that agents and editors in fact have jobs that are extraordinarily difficult to do well.

Treating them with respect during your pitch session will go a long way toward demonstrating that you have been working those delightful skills. These are interesting human beings, after all, not publication-granting machines.

Why, there’s yet another coincidence: if you’ve been following this series from the very beginning, you have been building the knowledge base to handle your pitch encounters as professional meetings, not as Hail Mary shots at a target nearly impossible to hit. You’ve done your homework about the people to whom you are intending to pitch (or query), so you may speak to them intelligently about their work; you have performed a little market research, so you may discuss your target market and sales trends for your type of book; you have figured out why people out there will want to buy your book as opposed to any other.

Okay, you’ve caught me: I’ve been pursuing a dual agenda here. I’ve not only been helping you prepare to pitch, but I’ve been pushing you to develop the skills that will make you a great client for an agency and a wonderful writer for a publishing house. Call me zany, but I like win-win outcomes.

Next time, 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!

Pitchingpalooza, part XVII: there are boundaries, and there are BOUNDARIES

oath-of-the-horatii

Before I launch into Pitchingpalooza’s much-anticipated step-by-step guide to approaching a real, live agent to ask if you may pitch without an appointment, would everyone please stand and salute? Today may not be a national holiday in the country at large, but here at Author! Author!, it could hardly be more important.

As of today, I have been writing this blog for six years. That’s 1,442 posts, about 5,000 questions, and so many thousands of pages of text that I actually don’t have time right now to sit down and tote them up.

The publishing world has changed quite a bit over that period, has it not? Back when we first began confabbing about the life literary, aspiring writers would complain about the necessity of promote their work to agents; published writers would grumble about the imperative to show up for readings and book signings scheduled by their publishing houses. Pretty much everyone on the writing side of the equation was vaguely disgruntled about having to put in that level of effort, or at least the fact that a first-time author’s advance no longer enabled her to take any serious time off work to make requested revisions. One might, if one was lucky, be able to purchase a used car, but unless one happened to toss off a surprise bestseller, small-but-serious authors often did not quit their day jobs until their fourth or fifth book was doing rather well.

At the time, we writers liked to get together and bemoan how much harder it was to get published and have one’s books sell well than it had been a dozen years before. Those concerns seem almost quaint now, don’t they?

In the interim, we’ve all watched in hushed anticipation as the publishing industry has been declared dead, not just once, but over and over again. Not since the advent of television had so many prophesied so much literary doom so often. Forget the fact that used book sales actually went up during this period, e-books have taken off, U.S. self-publishing releases have risen to three times the annual rate of traditional publishing (which, contrary to popular opinion, has hovered around a quarter of a million releases per year), and the increase in library patronage has almost exactly matched the decline in the new book sales market. As of 2008, we were all told, the world simply stopped reading.

Poppycock. If you look at even new book sales in the U.S. today, they are up in every major category. The book market is expanding. People haven’t stopped reading, bless their literature-loving hearts; they are simply doing it in different venues and in different formats.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re necessarily going to see a reversal in all or even any of the shifts in how writers are expected to relate to their books. Now, aspiring writer not only need to market themselves in an ever-more-competitive agent-seeking market, but first-time authors also frequently end up as their books’ primary pusher to the reading public at large. It’s common for an editor to tell the author of a newly-acquired to ramp up her web presence on her own, and pronto; authors often schedule their own book signings, as budgets for book tours have dried up. This, at a juncture when the average advance on a first novel often is not enough to purchase a new laptop upon which to write the second.

As editing staffs at the major publishers have dwindled, it has become commonplace for the acquiring editor not to follow the book all the way through publication, and for the new sheriff in town to want to take the book in a different direction; I’m constantly hearing from authors flabbergasted at learning that their book has just fallen into the hands of its fourth or fifth editor. Editorial staffs are more crunched for time, too, as are agencies. In the face of less hands-on support and greater competition for readers’ attention, many authors now chooses to bring in book docs like me to help whip their manuscripts into shape before plopping them into the print queue.

And because we writers are so devoted to seeing our words in print, as a group, we have done all of this largely without complaining (well, at least in front of company), during a period when we have seen advances for celebrity memoir and established bestselling novelists skyrocket, but advances for first novels drop precipitously. It’s not our imagination; it genuinely is harder than it used to be, by quite a bit.

Yet if the members of the Author! Author! community have groused about anything, it has tended to be about manners. And who could blame you? Six years ago, most first-time submitters considered it rude if their submissions were rejected by form letters at the end of two-month reading periods. I used to field incredulous comments from writers who had not yet heard back a couple of weeks after sending out queries. Three weeks used to be standard for exclusives.

Today, we barely blink at agency websites that announce up front that they will not respond at all to queries if the answer is no. Six- to eight-month turn-around times are the norm now, even if the writer grants an exclusive, and it’s not unheard-of for a writer to be left wondering nine or ten months after sending off requested materials if the manuscript is still being considered, has been rejected without notice (as is increasingly common), or just didn’t arrive in the first place.

These have been a hard six years to be a writer, but still, I have tried to remain upbeat through it all. There have been times — and now that they are behind me, I can admit this with impunity — when ambient conditions have been so bad that I have felt a trifle guilty for continuing to be your practical-minded cheerleader, urging you to keep moving forward down the path to publication. There have been weeks when I simply couldn’t bring myself to look at the lists of new book acquisitions, because I knew I would find so few first-time authors there. I had moments, days, and even months when, as I boldly answered questions about whether it is okay to contact an agent who has had your manuscript for four months to ask what’s going on (it isn’t) or whether a writer can submit adult fiction to the major publishing houses directly (you can’t) or whether it was still possible to land a first novel that didn’t include a supernatural element (it has always been, but sometimes just barely), I wondered bleakly if I should be advising you instead to rush out and become a celebrity in another field, so that you could get a book published in your chosen one.

And let’s not even talk about the many, many dark nights of the soul where I bearded heaven with my bootless cries of, “Why do I seem to be the only writing guru talking about standard format, when there actually is only one way to present a manuscript properly to a U.S. agent? And why are my mother and I apparently the only people in the nation who still wince when writers mix up farther and further, much less to, too, and two?” It’s important to have standards: surely, I felt, there must still be at least a small cadre of us who believe that the distinction between imply and infer should be recognized and maintained by all right-thinking people, even though it’s difficult even to remember now the literary outrage in the 1980s when newscasters first began using impact as a verb.

When did feeling this way stop being the norm amongst writers? I did not start out with ambitions to be a literary radical. But now that I’ve been besmirched (or honored, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) with the moniker, there’s something else I’ve been dying to get off my chest: real vampires do not sparkle.

Under any circumstances, really. Refraction requires the ability to reflect light, so a beastie who cannot admire himself in a mirror will in all probability have a hard time bouncing those light particles back at easily-dazzled virgins. Especially if he is prone to bursting into flames the instant a stray shaft of sunlight hits him.

I’m just saying. If a writer decides to present the world with a physically-limited being, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that writer to respect those boundaries.

These have indeed been trying times to be literate. Let’s hear it for all of us for hanging in there, scrambling to bolster the printed page’s apparently crumbling plaster ceiling while the same types of Chicken Littles who had placed the written word on the critical list sometime in the middle of the Boer War have run around screaming that the entire building is about to crash to the street. But people are still reading. And good writers are still producing great books.

I like to think that we here at Author! Author! have done our small part in perpetuating that. Three cheers for persistence!

That’s enough frivolity for one day, I think. Let’s get back to work.

This pitch-preparing series been a long road, hasn’t it? And not an easy one: I’ve been blithely asking each and every one of you to knuckle down and take your own work seriously enough to learn to talk about it in the language of the publishing industry. I’m aware that it’s been hard, intensive work, both time- and emotion-consuming.

But trust me: all of this effort will feel very worthwhile indeed ten minutes before your first scheduled pitch meeting. Or thirty-two seconds into your first hallway pitch.

Feeling positively faint at the prospect of the either, particularly the latter? Don’t worry; more timorous souls than you have braved the hallway pitch and survived it. Oh, they may not have enjoyed it while it was going on, but I’ve never yet had a pitching student keel over at the moment of truth.

Honest. I wouldn’t put you through the pain of creating an elevator speech unless I were very confident that you’d actually be able to put it to some use.

And yet, I feel as though I have been discussing elevator speeches — those 3-4 line gambits for use in informal pitching situations, as opposed to the 2-minute pitch reserved for formal appointments and other actual sit-down conversations — so intensely over the past few post that I may be inducing a phobia of lifts in my readers. (Not the shoes, the elevators.)

So I’m going to take out my magic wand and relieve you of a bit of that tension.

glinda-the-goodAs of this moment, you have my permission to get into an elevator with an agent or editor without pitching, if you so desire. Live long and prosper.

Feel better? Good. In return, I am going to ask something else of you. Here and now, raise your dominant writing hand (or both of ‘em, if you work primarily on a keyboard) and repeat after me:

johnson-taking-the-oath-of-officeI hereby solemnly swear that I shall not have learned the magic first hundred words and elevator speech in vain. The next time I attend a writers’ conference, I will pitch to at least three agents or editors with whom I do not have a previously-scheduled appointment.

I’m going to hold you to that, you know. Oh, and you can put your hand(s) down now.

Why did I foist such a dreadful oath upon you? Because I know from experience that the only thing better than walking out of a conference with a request to send pages to an agent you like is walking out with 5 requests to send pages to agents you like.

Is that not a good enough reason for some of you? Okay, here’s an even better one: I’ve heard from no less than seven members of the Author! Author! community that at a certain local literary conference that shall remain nameless, every single available agent appointment was booked. That meant that those attendees who were mistakenly assigned to meet with agents who did not represent their book categories were simply out of luck.

Too bad; come back next year and try again. You weren’t in a hurry to find an agent for your work or anything, were you?

In instances like this, the only other alternative is hallway pitching. So even if you think that you will never, ever, EVER be able to work up the nerve to buttonhole the agent of your dreams outside of a pre-arranged meeting, I strongly recommend coming up with a plausible hallway pitch.

You just never know when you’re going to need it, do you? But even if you never (knock on wood) find yourself in the unenviable position of not being able to pitch formally at a conference whose main selling point is pitching appointments, a savvy writer honestly does need to be aware of her own book’s selling points and how to market them.

Why, you ask? Well, in this economy and the current publishing market — see above — it’s actually not all that astonishing that the Conference That Shall Remain Nameless’ appointments sold out. Writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, after all. Predictably, that fact translates into higher writers’ conference attendance in slow economic times, a greater volume of queries and submissions arriving at well-established agencies, and, ultimately, significantly heightened competition for both agents and publishing contracts.

Sorry to depress you, but one of the reasons you keep visiting Author! Author! because you know I won’t whitewash the truth just because it’s unattractive, right?

So let’s take arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, shall we? Let’s talk about how to instigate a hallway pitch.

I just felt you tense up, but relax. You already have in your writer’s tool bag all of the elements you need for a successful hallway pitch — or, indeed, an informal pitch in virtually any social situation.

Did that one creep up on you? I swear, it’s true:

singing-in-the-rainMAGIC FIRST 100 WORDS + ELEVATOR SPEECH = HALLWAY PITCH.

Ta da! It honestly is that simple.

You thought I was talking at random when I made you promise that at the next conference you attended, you would pitch to at least three agents or editors with whom you do NOT have a pre-arranged appointment, didn’t you? Well, gotcha: I already knew that you the skills to do it.

How did I know? Well, we’ve been working hard for weeks on your toolkit. We’ve gone over how to narrow down your book’s category, identify your target market, as well as coming up with graceful ways of letting an agent know how big that audience might be, brainstorm selling points for your book,) and a platform for you, and construct a snappy keynote statement. We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words, as well as how to tease the premise with the elevator speech. Not only that, but we’ve also wrested some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching out from under that space under the bed that they share with the bogeyman and dealt with ‘em as they came up.

So you have all of the requisite tools. All that you need to add to that mix is the guts to walk up to an agent who represents your type of book, smile, and begin:

salesman

“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).” Wait for encouraging look, nod, or ask if it’s okay to continue. “(ELEVATOR SPEECH).”

I’m not saying that working up the guts to do this is easy; it certainly isn’t, especially the first time. But if you watch the flow of bodies at conferences, as I do, you will notice something: except for when the agents and editors are in assigned locations — on a dais, teaching a class, in pitching appointments — or socializing amongst themselves, they have two states of social being: swamped and alone.

With virtually no significant chunk of time that cannot legitimately be categorized as one or the other.

Sit in a corner and watch — you’ll see that I’m right. In social situations, there will always be many, many more writers giving an agent or editor a wide berth, in order to avoid the possibility of having to give a hallway pitch, than walking up and saying hello. For this reason, it’s often easier than one might think to engage an agent or editor’s attention at a conference.

Especially if the people in question happen to smoke. At any literary shindig thrown within the continental United States, the designated smokers’ area outside the hotel or conference center will be positively swarming with agents looking for a light. Be there to offer it to them, strike up a conversation along with the match — and then, after a discreet interval, ask if they would be willing to spare a moment or two to hear your 30-second pitch.

As with any alone-phase approach, the key is to be unobtrusive and polite. Ask before you pitch, and always give the agent the opportunity to say she’s too tired or busy to hear a pitch right now. You can always offer to meet her later in the conference, if another time is better for her.

Your mother was right, you know: good manners are the best calling card.

Don’t be shy; you’re prepared for this now. Just walk right up to ‘em. Remember, they come to the conference in order to meet writers — writers, in fact, provide their bread and butter on a daily basis.

Actually, it’s not uncommon for an agent or editor not to know anyone at a conference, other than other agents and editors. If the agent of your dreams is standing alone, waiting for his turn in the coffee line, he may not mind at all if you introduce yourself. He might, believe it or not, actually be grateful.

(He will mind, however, if you pursue this line of logic in the bathroom, the swimming pool, the sauna, the shower in the hotel’s gym, or anyplace else that finding oneself barricaded in a small space with a stranger might be a tad, well, uncomfortable. Trust me on this one; there’s a fine line between persistent and creepy.)

Public venues are safer: hallways, seminar rooms, and banquet halls, especially just after the keynote speaker has signed off for the night. Agents tend to get swamped in those places, true, but at least you don’t need to worry about whether you’re imposing.

Another fringe benefit to choosing one of the more conventional venues: the approach is typically easier. Heck, if you choose to walk up to an agent immediately after the agents’ forum, you may even be able to stand in line with other would-be informal pitchers. In fact, if it’s your first time giving a hallway pitch, I would recommend going and standing in one of those let-me-talk-to-you line.

That way, you can watch others in action before you jump in yourself.

Where would I recommend you try after that? Moments when a formal presentation is giving way to whatever is scheduled next tend to be rife with informal pitching opportunities. Between the morning’s last seminar and the rubber chicken luncheon, for instance, or immediately after the dinner’s speaker has reclaimed her seat. Or during the break in a seminar the agent happens to be teaching, just before it starts or right after it ends.

Another popular choice: remember that bar I keep mentioning, the one that is reliably a hundred yards or less from any writers’ conference? Guess where the pros — agents, editors, authors in town to promote their books, local authors seeking companionship amongst their own kind, vampires savvy enough to realize that if they want to talk literature, it would behoove them to track down those who love to chat about it late into the night — tend to hang out in their spare moments?

Suppose that’s a good place to find pitching prospects?

One very important caveat about bar or party pitching: if an agent or editor is already engrossed in social conversation in said bar, it is considered a trifle rude to interrupt that conversation so you can give your hallway pitch. The accepted method is to act as though this were any other party, introducing yourself and chatting until someone asks you, “So, Georgette, what do you write?”

Yes, that IS the invitation you think it is. Grab it.

Don’t equivocate, as so many aspiring writers do, by sighing and giving an evasive or 20-minute answer. Instead, smile and answer like the professional writer that you are:

mr-smith-goes-to-washington

“I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE). Would you like to hear more? Yes? (ELEVATOR SPEECH).”

After you have said all this, though, both etiquette and strategy dictate that you do one thing more. Chant it with me now, campers: stop talking.

Most hallway pitchers — at least, the ones who muster the nerve to go through with it — get so excited that they have absolutely no idea when to shut up. Don’t let nervousness prompt you to keep chattering. This is a social situation, after all, not a pitch appointment: if the agent or editor who asked what you write is intrigued, trust me, she’ll ask you to continue. Or, if you really hit the pitch out of the park, she’ll hand you a card and ask you to send pages.

If she does neither, don’t push. Treat it like any other business interaction that hasn’t gone as you would like: smile, thank the agent for her time, and retreat.

The same rules apply to the bar and the smokers’ area, by the way. These are public spaces, true, but they are also designated as relaxation places, rather than places of business. If the agent of your dreams is disinclined to shop talk, you are honor-bound to honor that preference. (Oh, and if you plan to pitch in the bar, keeping the refreshments light on the alcohol is an excellent idea. I usually settle for club soda and lime — the better to keep my wits about me, my dear.)

Regardless of the locale you pick for your informal speech, stick to the script. That way, you will know for a fact that you’re not rambling on endlessly.

I’m not kidding about this. Other than serving as a reliable, professional-sounding introduction for yourself and your work, this formula for a hallway pitch has another benefit: if you put it together properly, you will not have to waste precious seconds of informal pitching time checking your watch.

The hallway pitch is self-timing, you see. With advance preparation and practice, you should be able to say all of it comprehensibly within 30 – 45 seconds, certainly a short enough time that you need not feel guilty about turning to the agent next to you in the dinner line, or walking up to her after that interminable class on nonfiction proposals, and asking if she can spare a minute to hear your pitch.

To set your conscience at ease, we’re not talking about a big imposition here: if you follow the guidelines above, you will be taking up less than a minute of her time. So you may feel professional, not intrusive, by giving your hallway pitch immediately after saying, “Please pass the rolls.”

I had I mentioned that you should always ask first to make sure it’s okay, right?

Oh, and because hallway pitches are almost invariably delivered standing, do me a favor: just before you start speaking, bend your knees a little. No need to do a deep, ballerina-style plié; just soften those joints. Pitching with locked knees can make a person get light-headed. Which means that she can faint.

Don’t think about it too much; it will only give you nightmares. As should a vampire that sparkles, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

The hallway pitch and its constituent parts are tools of the trade, nothing more. It’s up to you to use them effectively and appropriately. How? Well, as many benefits as a pre-prepared hallway pitch offers for interacting with agents and editors, the elevator speech also gives you a concise, professional follow-up after ANYONE you meet at a conference responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Wow. Tell me more.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t be afraid to give your hallway speech to other writers at the conference — it’s great practice, and it is absolutely the best way imaginable to meet other people who write what you do.

Other than starting a blog, of course. Conservatively, I’d estimate that in the last six years, it’s been the medium of my meeting in the neighborhood of 15,000 writers at various stages of their careers. Not reaching that many readers, mind you — my statistics have been stronger than that — but making actual personal connections.

Top that, sparkle boy.

The elevator speech has other uses as well. It makes a stellar describe-your-book paragraph in your query letter. There, too, you will be incorporating the elements of the magic first hundred words — minus the “Hi, my name is” part, they make a terrific opening paragraph for a query.

We have, in short, been pulling together a complex set of implements for your writer’s tool bag. A hammer is not going to be the right tool for a job that requires a screwdriver, but that doesn’t mean that a hammer doesn’t have a heck of a lot of uses.

All of which is a nice way of saying: while you might not want to give everyone you see at a conference a 5-minute pitch, you could conceivably work the magic first hundred words into any conversation. But now that you have the tools to make a hallway pitch, get out there and do it!

But let the agent finish her drink, for heaven’s sake. She’s only just gotten rid of that pesky vampire.

Happy sixth anniversary, campers, and keep up the good work!

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

dali-clocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like, say, the entire rest of the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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