Pitchingpalooza, part XXVI: surviving a conference with your dreams, sanity, and energy in one piece, or, if a stone can muster a smile, so can you

That’s an actual stone in my yard, believe it or not, one that apparently went out of its way to anthropomorphize itself for my illustrative pleasure. If rocks can be that helpful and friendly, it gives me great hope for human beings.

Which is my subtle way of leading into asking: after these last few weeks of posts, have you started to have dreams about pitching? If they’re not nightmares, and you’re scheduled to pitch at a conference anytime soon, you’re either a paragon of mental health, a born salesperson, or simply haven’t been paying very close attention. Either that, or I’ve seriously underemphasized the potential pitfalls.

For this, our last Pitchingpalooza post, I’m going to assume that you either are waking up in the night screaming or that I haven’t yet explained the conference environment adequately. So fasten your seatbelts — I’m going to be taking you on a guided tour of false expectations, avoidable missteps, and just plain disasters.

Hey, forewarned is forearmed. Or at least less stupefied in the moment.

First-time pitchers often harbor fears of inadvertently making a poor impression upon an agent or editor in a social situation, thereby nullifying their chances of being able to wow ‘em with a pitch in a formal meeting. I wish I could say that this is an unfounded fear, but actually, it’s pretty reasonable: one doesn’t have to spend much time hanging around that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America to hear a few horror stories about jaw-droppingly rude writers.

And I don’t know about you, but one of my more dubious gifts as a human being is an uncanny ability to find the most institutionally powerful person in the room and catch him in a misstatement or crack a joke that skewers his ego, generally before I know who he is. (It’s one of the reasons I elected to leave academia, as a matter of fact, as several past presidents of the American Political Science Association know to their sorrow. Fortunately for me, the step from spotting the incorrectly-placed comma in a constitution that would result in half the population’s losing a right to editing manuscripts was a relatively small one.)

Hard to imagine how this particular trait would have provided my ancestors with enough of a survival advantage to justify its being passed down the evolutionary line, but I do seem to have been born with it. Many are the family stories about the toddler critiquing the pediatrician’s sartorial choices.

Honestly, does anybody look good in those tacky white polyester coats?

Before any of my fellow compulsive truth-tellers begin to panic, let me hasten to add that agents’ and editors’ anecdotes are almost invariably about genuinely outrageous approach attempts, not minor faux pas. And that’s not just because “You’re not going to believe this, but a pitcher just forgot to tell me whether is book is fiction or nonfiction” isn’t nearly as likely to garner sympathy from fellow bar denizens as “This insane writer just grabbed my arm as I was rushing into the bathroom and refused to stop talking for 20 minutes.”

For one thing, the former is too common a phenomenon to excite much of a response from other agents. Unfortunately, though, the latter happens often enough that some agents turn against hallway pitching for life. As, indeed, many a product of the post-conference rumor mill can attest.

However — and this is a big however — in my experience, the aspiring writers who sit around and fret about being the objects of such anecdotes are virtually never the folks who ought to be worrying about it. These are not the kind of gaffes that your garden-variety well-mannered person is likely to commit.

The result: polite people end up tiptoeing around conferences, terrified of doing the wrong thing, while the rude stomp around like Godzilla with P.M.S. And then, once an agent who has been smashed into by one Godzilla too many complains on a blog or in an interview about how impolite writers are, the naturally courteous cringe, while the rude remain unfazed. Thus are the polite rendered more and more fearful of running afoul of an unspoken rule or two.

Case in point: technologically-savvy reader wrote in last year to ask if it was considered appropriate to take notes on a laptop or Blackberry during conference seminars. It’s still not very common (surprising, given how computer-bound most of us are these days) but yes, it is acceptable, under two conditions.

First, if you do not sit in a very prominent space in the audience — and not solely because of the tap-tap-tap sound you’ll be making. Believe it or not, it’s actually rather demoralizing for a lecturer to look out at a sea of faces that are all staring at their laps.. Are these people bored out of their minds, the worried speaker wonders, or merely taking notes very intensely?

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a lecture of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes, your Blackberry, or that Octavia Butler novel you’ve hidden in your lap because you can’t believe that your boss is making you sit through a talk on the importance of conserving paper clips for the third time this year.

I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual in a lecture environment. The bigger the class, the more quickly she will focus upon the one audience member who is visibly interested in what she is saying.

Heck, in the university where I used to teach, active listening was so rare that occasionally, one or another of my colleagues would get so carried away with appreciation that he would marry a particularly attentive student. One trembles to think what these men would have done had they been gripping enough lecturers to animate an entire room.

Back to the Blackberry issue. It’s also considered, well, considerate to ask the speaker before the class if it is all right to use any electronic device during the seminar, be it computer, iPhone, or tape recorder.

Why? Think about it: if your head happens to be apparently focused upon your screen, how is the speaker to know that you’re not just checking your e-mail? Also, in these decadent days, when the antics of unwary pets and clumsy humans often go viral, how may a speaker be sure that you are not recording him with an eye to posting his speech beneath unflattering lighting on YouTube?

Enough about the presenters’ problems; let’s move on to yours. Do be aware that attending a conference, particularly your first, can be a bit overwhelming. You’re going to want to pace yourself.

“But Anne!” conference brochure-clutching writers everywhere pipe up. “The schedule is jam-packed with offerings, many of which overlap temporally! I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take every single class and listen to every speaker, but frankly, you’re going to be a better pitcher if you allow yourself to take occasional breaks. Cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time.

Why? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather be babbling incoherently during the last seminar of the weekend, or raising your hand to ask a coherent question?

Before you answer that, allow me to add: since most attendees’ brains are mush by the end of the conference, it’s generally easier to get close to an agent or editor who teaches a class on the final day. Fewer lines, less competition.

Do make a point of doing something other than lingering in the conference center for three or four days straight. Go walk around the block. Sit in the sun. Grab a cup of coffee with that fabulous literary fiction writer you just met. Hang out in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference; that tends to be where the already-agented and already-published hang out, anyway.

And don’t you dare feel guilty about doing any of these things. Skipping the occasional seminar does not constitute being lax about pursuing professional opportunities: it is smart strategy, to make sure you’re fresh for your pitches. If you can’t tear yourself away, take a few moments to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, to reset your internal pace from PANIC! to I’m-Doing-Fine.

I know that I sound like an over-eager Lamaze coach on this point, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to keep breathing throughout the conference. A particularly good time for a nice lung-filling is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor.

Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then. It will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.

And at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, please, please, PLEASE don’t expect a conference miracle. Writing almost never sells on pitches alone, no matter how many times you have heard that apocryphal story about THE HORSE WHISPERER. You are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it.

Translation: it’s almost unheard-of for an agent to sign up a client during a conference. (And no, I have no idea why so many conference-organizers blithely hand out feedback forms asking if you found an agent at the event. Even the most successful conference pitchers generally don’t receive an offer for weeks, if not months.)

Remember, your goal here is not to be discovered on the spot, but to get the industry pro in front of you to ask to read your writing. Period.

Yes, I know: I’ve said this before. Repeatedly, throughout this very series. And I’m going to keep saying it as long as there are aspiring writers out there who walk into pitch meetings expecting to hear the agent cry, “My God, that’s the best premise since OLIVER TWIST. Here’s a representation contract — and look, here’s my favorite editor now. Let’s see if he’s interested. I want this book sold by midnight!”

Then, of course, the editor falls equally in love with it, offers an advance large enough to cover New Hampshire in $20 bills, and the book is out by Christmas. As an Oprah’s Book Club selection, naturally, even though neither the Oprah show nor her book club exist anymore.

Long-time readers, chant along with me now: this is not how the publishing industry works. This is not how the publishing industry works. This is not how the publishing industry works…

Did I say that you could stop repeating it?

The key to being a happy conference-goer is not only to realize that the popular conception of how books move from manuscript to publication is dead wrong, but to believe it. Having to make a significant effort in order to get an agent to read your manuscript is normal.

Thus the appeal of conference pitching: done well, it will allow you to skip the querying stage and pass directly to the submission stage. So being asked to send pages is a terrific outcome for this situation, not a distant second place to an imaginary reality.

Admittedly, though, that is easy to forget in the throes of a pitch meeting. Almost as easy as forgetting that a request to submit is not a promise to represent or publish. Out comes the broken record again:

Whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. There is no such thing as an implied offer of representation or publication; there are only concrete offers and preliminary conversations. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.

This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely.

Try to maintain perspective. If you can’t, stop and take a few deep breaths.

Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for eons. But it is vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job as a marketer. Oh, look, here’s another golden oldie from the broken record collection:

Regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it. And she’s not going to clear her schedule for the rest of the month to read it, either.

So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DO NOT STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.

Why, yes, you’re right: that is going to be a heck of a lot of work. What’s your point?

No matter who says yes to you first, you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.

Far too many aspiring writers will just give up after one successful pitch, assuming, often wrongly, that a friendly pitch meeting means a predisposition to like a submission or an implied promise to read it quickly. It doesn’t, and it isn’t. So it is VERY much in your interest to send out submissions to several agents at once, rather than one at a time.

I heard that gasp, but no, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless (a) one of the agencies has a policy precluding multiple submissions (rare) or (b) you actively promised one agent an exclusive. (I would EMPHATICALLY discourage you from granting (b), by the way — and if you don’t know why, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right before you even CONSIDER pitching at a conference.)

Some of you look concerned, but trust me, this is what the agents will be expecting you to do. If an agent wants an exclusive peek, she will ask for one point-blank; again, there’s no such thing as a tacit request for a solo submission. By all means, tell each of the agents in the cover letter that others are looking at it, but don’t make the hugely pervasive mistake of granting an effective exclusive that the agent does not expect, simply because she was the one you liked best.

I see some of you blushing: you’ve made this mistake, haven’t you? And you ended up waiting six months to hear back — or did not hear back at all, right?

“Wow, Anne!” those of you who have lived through this highly unpleasant experience gasp. “What kind of a crystal ball are you wielding these days? That’s precisely what happened to me!”

No crystal ball needed on this one: it happens to pitchers all the time. They misunderstand the level of connection they made with agents at conferences, committing themselves in principle before the agents in question have even seen their work. “Well, we just clicked,” these writers say.

What they tend not to say is that let’s face it, it’s a heck of a lot less work — not to mention less wearing on the nerves — to send out one submission than, say, seven or eight. It’s also less work not to keep querying while that nice agent from the conference considers your submission.

And then one sad day, months after the conference, they receive the rejection, often as a form letter. “What happened?” one-at-a-timers cry. “I thought we clicked. And now I feel like it’s too late to send out those other requested materials.”

Actually, if less than a year has passed since the conference, it isn’t. But just think how much happier a writer who could say, “Well, I’m sad that the agent I liked best decided against representing my book, but at least those six other agents are still considering it,” would be in that moment. Or even one in a position to sigh with relief and murmur, “Wow, am I ever glad that I kept querying throughout these last six months. Now, I have other requests for materials.”

Besides, your time is valuable: sending out those post-conference submissions one at a time, waiting for a response from each before moving on to the next, could eat up years. Just mention in your cover letter to each that other agents are also reading it, and keep moving forward.

Trust me, hearing that it’s a multiple submission not going to annoy anyone. That old saw about agents’ getting insulted if you don’t submit one at a time is absolutely untrue. Let’s toss another broken record onto the turntable:

Unless an agent asks for an exclusive look at your work, it’s neither expected nor in your interest to act as if s/he has. In fact, hearing that others are interested may even make your book seem more attractive.

Yet another reason you should keep on pitching in those hallways: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are more persuasive.

Why? For one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell a writer to submit the first chapter, simply in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

Seriously, it’s true. If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you:

(a) regard it as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length?

(b) regard it as an invitation to a lifetime of friendship?

(c) regard it as a promise to make you the next bestselling author?

(d) say, “Gee, you’re a much nicer human being than {insert name of other agent here}. He turned me down flat,” and go on to give details about how mean he was?

(e) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project?

(f) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke, so you may pitch to another agent? And before you send out the requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?

If you said anything but (Ff, I can only advise you go back and reread the Pitchingpalooza series — and as well as the entirety of the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right as well. You need to learn what’s considered polite and reasonable in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. Again, the reason is time: they’ve got more of it. In a ten-minute meeting, there is actual leisure to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits.

In short, enough time to save themselves some down the line by rejecting your book now.

Why might this seem desirable to them? Well, think about it: if you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right? By rejecting it on the pitch alone, they’ve just saved Millicent the screener 5 or 10 minutes.

In a perverse way, a formal pitch can be significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one. Sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book can be quite a bit more intimidating than giving a hallway pitch.

Think of it this way: every time you buttonhole an agent and say those magic first hundred words is one less query letter you’re going to need to send out.

Still breathing at least once an hour? Good; I’ll move on.

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother said to you before you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question. For my senior prom, she cranked out a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley. It was, to put it mildly, not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear.

She hastened to alter it. Even with the addition of quite a bit of additional fabric, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long. The last time I bumped into my old chorus teacher, he spontaneously recalled the dress. “A shame that you didn’t dress like that all the time,” he said wistfully.

Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.

Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).

I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in an earlier post, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your book.

And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?

To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to be hungry but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, your first encounter with your future agent is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint.

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings. This is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed.

Fortunately, conferences are peculiarly rich in opportunities to practice talking about your book. As I pointed out yesterday, you will be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them. Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand.

Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.

I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So what do you write?”

To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.

In fact, the first people I told about my first book deal — after my SO and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them before, say, my college roommate? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

I was lucky: I already knew a lot of writers, including my college roommate, who recently sold her first novel to Algonquin. (Well done, Julie!) But the very first words my erstwhile SO’s mother uttered after hearing that my memoir had sold were, “What do you mean, it’s not coming out for another couple of years? Can’t you write any faster than that?”

This kind of response is, unfortunately, common, and frankly, most people’s eyes glaze over about 42 seconds into an explanation of how a print queue works. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year or two, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.

Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout both the weekend and your writing life.

Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience is a terrific way to blow off steam, I find.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.

And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a newfound chum than alone?

Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless. To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world fell warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book. And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.

You think it didn’t make my day when Julie’s book sold? It made my month. It showed that being serious, talented, and smart can indeed pay off in the long run.

This can be a very lonely business. Nothing brightens the long, slow slog like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU have just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.”

But the other is still awfully darned good. Start laying the groundwork for it now.

One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings. So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you.

Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points. Please humor me by writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!

Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put your ego on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.

In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as courteous or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.

The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will stand a better chance of making it big on the pop charts, includes the perfect lyric to hum while walking into a pitch meeting:

And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too.

If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)

The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:

So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best.
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter.
I don’t want to turn cruel.
I don’t want to get old before I have to.
I don’t want to get jaded.
Petrified and weighted.
I don’t want to get bitter like you.

I hum that one a lot during conferences, I’ll admit — and not because you can’t throw a piece of bread at a major writers’ conference without hitting someone just delighted to moan about how hard it is to get published these days. Cynicism often masquerades as knowledge. I tend to start humming when a bestselling author who landed his agent 25 years ago, when the task was significantly easier, or a more recent success whose agent is her cousin’s next-door neighbor’s husband tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing will inevitably find a home.

Perhaps, but certainly not easily. The Agency Fairy just receives too many requests for help these days. Anyone who tells you that the only possible barrier to landing an agent is the quality of your writing simply isn’t familiar with the current reality of the representation market.

What you’re trying to do is not easy or fun, but you can do it. You are your book’s best advocate; act like it. And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing.

No more, no less. It’s a perfectly reasonable request for an aspiring writer to make to an agent, and you’re going to be terrific at making it. How do I know? Because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.

Kudos to you for taking your writing that seriously. Keep breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIX: mustering the wherewithal to deliver the pitch proper, or, hey, watch out for that tree!

Perhaps I am inspired by this genuinely gorgeous photo of Lou Gehrig — taken, I am reliably informed, in the midst of the famed “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech — but I’ve been feeling the urge to blog about memoir-writing lately, campers. I know, I know: I generally spend the annual publishing world holiday stretching from the second week of August until after Labor Day filling your heads with practical details aplenty; I am still planning to talk about querying in September. After I wrap up Pitchingpalooza next week, however, I think I shall indulge myself with some in-depth discussion of the writing about the real, both as memoir and as fiction.

So start digging up those scraps of paper marked ask Anne about this. As always, I like to incorporate readers’ concerns, questions, and ideas into all of my series. And call me psychic, but I’m willing to bet a nickel that somewhere out there at this very moment, some member of the Author! Author! community is rending her garments over some seemingly insurmountable problem in holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Oh, and I may be announcing a new contest next week. It’s been a while since I’ve offered my readers the chance to generate any new Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC), after all.

Back to the matter at hand: here comes the attraction for which you have all been waiting so patiently. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch proper, the full 2-minute marketing statement a writer is expected to give at an honest-to-goodness, meet-’em-in-the-flesh appointment with an agent or editor at a conference.

Goosebump-inducing, isn’t it? Don’t worry; you’re up for it. So far in this series, we’ve been learning how to describe our work in terms that make sense to the publishing industry, as well as how to benefit from an impromptu pitch opportunity.

Now, we are ready to stack up all of those building blocks into, well, a building.

But not right away; I shall be presenting you with step-by-step guidelines this weekend. First, because there are so many misconceptions floating around out there about what that building should look like, how many rooms it should contain, whether to call where you drink coffee the porch, the veranda, or the lanai, and someone please extricate me from this metaphor before I spontaneously begin producing blueprints, I’m going to begin not by telling you immediately how to do a pitch right, but by pointing out what the vast majority of 2-minute pitchers do wrong.

Here, for your cringing pleasure, are the most popular formal pitching faux pas, so that you may avoid them. To echo the title of this post, watch out for that tree!

crooked-tree(1) As with the keynote and the elevator speech, most pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot, rather than a teaser for its premise.

That’s going to be a Herculean task for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level. No wonder so many pitchers just start at page one and keep retailing details of the plot until the agent or editor says gently, “Um, I’m afraid it’s time for my next appointment.”

By which point, naturally, the pitcher has made it all the way to page 42 in a 387-page novel. Which leads me to another low-hanging branch to avoid:

lonely-tree(2) Most pitchers don’t stop talking when their pitches are done.

Yes, yes, I know: all throughout the posts on hallway pitching, I have been harping on the advisability of getting out there, saying your pitch, and then ceasing to have any sound coming out of your gullet. That’s as good advice for a formal pitch as for the elevator variety.

A 2-minute pitch means just that: the pitcher talks for two minutes about her manuscript. Possibly a bit more, if the agent or editor interrupts to ask questions (which is a good sign, people — don’t freeze up if it happens), but the pitch itself should not run longer.

In case I’m being too subtle here: plan to stop talking at that point.

Why? Well, among other things, you’re going to want to hear what the agent of your dreams has to say about your book project, right? Also, an active resolve to say what one has planned to say and then stop can be a powerful tool to keep a writer from rambling.

And why do writers tend to ramble in their formal pitches, other than pure, unadulterated nervousness? Glad you asked.

trees-without-leaves(3) The vast majority of conference pitchers neither prepare adequately nor practice enough.

Now, if you have been working diligently through this series, you shouldn’t fall prey to the first problem; here at Author! Author!, we always have our fine-toothed combs at the ready, do we not? I’ve noticed , however, that my magic wand seems to have lost the ability to compel my students to say their pitches out loud to at least 25 non-threatening human beings before they even dream of trying it out on a big, scary, Bigfoot-like agent.

Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating about the Bigfoot part. Or maybe I wasn’t: having spent years holding first-time pitchers’ hands at writers’ conferences, I’m not entirely sure that some of them would have been more terrified if they were about to be trapped in a room with a yeti.

Why? Well…

negative-tree(4) Most pitchers harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of memorizing their pitches, and thus do not bring a written copy with them into the pitch meeting.

This one drives me nuts, because it is 100% unnecessary: no reasonable human being, much less an agent accustomed to listening to nervous writers, is going to fault you for consulting your notes in a pitch meeting. Or even reading the pitch outright.

This is not an exercise in rote memorization, people; you don’t get extra credit for being able to give your pitch without cue cards. A successful pitch is a communication between two individuals about a manuscript. Everyone concerned loves books — so why on earth would an agent or editor object to a demonstration that you can read?

More to the point, having the text (or at least an outline) of what you want to say in your perspiring little hand is not only acceptable — it’s a grand idea. It’s smart. Its time has come.

It’s also a good idea to invest some pre-pitching energy in ramping down the terror level, because, let’s face it, this is a scary thing to do. Not because a writer might muff any of the technical aspects of pitching, but because of what’s at stake.

green-tree(5) Most pitchers don’t realize until they are actually in the meeting that part of what they are demonstrating in the 2-minute pitch is their acumen as storytellers. If, indeed, they realize it at all.

Raises the stakes something awful, doesn’t it? Relax — for someone who legitimately is a talented storyteller, coming across as one isn’t as hard as it sounds, as long as you avoid Tree #1, the temptation to summarize.

Rightly understood, the 2-minute pitch is substantially more intriguing than a mere summary: it’s an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are uniquely gifted to tell it.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?

I’m going to assume that giant gasp I just heard was the prelude to a yes and move on. While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (a good secondary use for an elevator speech, as I mentioned a few days back), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book.

Wait — is that another tree I see heading straight for us?

joshua-tree(6) Few pitches capture the voice of the manuscript they ostensibly represent. Instead, they tend to sound generic or vague.

Often, running afoul of Tree #6 is the result of getting bonked on the head of Tree #1: most pitchers become so obsessed with trying to stuff as many plot points as humanly possible into their limited time face-to-face with the agent that they abandon voice altogether. As is often (unfortunately) true of synopses, summary for its own sake is seldom conducive to graceful sentence construction.

Neither, alas, is a hard sell. Is that a tree I see sneaking up behind you?

(7) Too many pitches sound more like back jacket copy than a serious statement of the book’s premise and central conflict or question — and a disturbingly high percentage of these are riddled with descriptive superlatives.

You wouldn’t believe how many pitches sound like standard advertising copy. But a writer does not go to a formal pitch meeting to review her own book — she’s there to describe it.

Trust me on this one: from the pitch-hearer’s perspective, every pitch that strays into advertising-speak is going to sound very similar. All of those soi-disant the next great bestsellers, Great American Novels, the book you won’t want to misses, novels that will appeal to every woman in North America, and it’s a natural for Oprahs (which people still use, believe it or not) have one thing in common: their pitchers are wasting time that could be used to describe what is genuinely unique about the book in puffing the book concept in terms that no agent is going to believe, anyway.

Lest some of you have gotten lost whilst wandering around in that epic last sentence, let me restate that simply: boasts about the importance of a book simply do not work in pitches. Agents are accustomed to making up their own minds about manuscripts; why would they look to the writer, of all people, to provide them with a review?

So what should a savvy pitcher do instead? Here’s an idea: rather than talking about the book, why not use the 2-minute pitch as your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it?

To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.

Ah, I see we are about to run afoul of another tree.

desert-trees(8) Very few pitches include intriguing, one-of-a-kind details that set the book being pitched apart from all others.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right. Why not advise me to tap-dance, wave sparklers, and paint an abstract in oils at the same time? In two minutes, I’ll barely have time to brush the edges of my plot with generalities!”

That’s an understandable response, but actually, cramming a pitch with generalities is a rather poor strategy. It’s the unholy fruit of Tree #1.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, especially within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches that are pretty much all going to be told chronologically.

Strong imagery, on the other hand, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”

To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, sneak with me now into a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room. For the benefit of those of you who have never experienced a pitch session first-hand, let this serve as a warning: if you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.

If not actually stunned, because…

snowscape-tree(9) Most pitchers assume that a pitch-hearer will hear — and digest — every word they say, yet the combination of pitch fatigue and hectic pitch environments virtually guarantee that will not be the case.

Don’t take it personally. It honestly is the nature of the beast.

In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, frequently more and more of the latter as the day goes on. But while it’s not at all uncommon for an appointment booked for 4 PM not to commence until 5:23, obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest his agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales.

The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed-out people. Not an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.

Eventually, the writer will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where s/he is expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who in all probability has drunk far more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand, possibly to counteract the lingering effects of that big party the conference’s organizers were kind enough to throw the night before.

I don’t mean to frighten the timid by bringing up that last detail, but it’s actually not beyond belief that you might be seated close enough to the pitch recipient to smell the coffee on her breath. Or the vodka seeping out of her pores.

Heck, you might be close enough to take a whiff of all kinds of people. At a big conference, other pitchers may well be close enough for our hero/ine to reach out and touch; one may need to speak in a near-shout to be audible. Indeed, at some conferences, the pitchers simply move one seat to the right (or left, depending upon how the room is set up) to pitch to the next agent or editor. It’s rather like the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

In this relaxing environment, the writer introduces him to the agent (if he remembers his manners, that is), and then spends approximately two minutes talking about his book. Then — brace yourself for this — the agent responds to what the writer has said.

Possibly even while the writer was saying it. Which leads us straight into the path of another tree — or perhaps a thicket.

white-trees(10) Few pitchers are comfortable enough with their pitches not feel thrown off course by follow-up questions.

Oh, you thought it was an accident that I’ve kept bringing up this possibility every few days throughout Pitchingpalooza? Au contraire, mon frère: I was poking you in the ribs during practice so you would develop the sure-footedness not to lose your balance during the performance.

If a writer is prepared to have an actual conversation about her book, this part of the pitch meeting can be, if not actually pleasant, then at least informative. The agent might ask a question or two, to try to figure out how the manuscript might fit into his agency’s current needs; at this point, a writer may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.

But I’m not going to lie to you — sometimes, the agent’s first response is to say that she doesn’t handle that type of book, or that kind of story isn’t selling well right now, or any of a million other reasons that she isn’t going to ask to see pages. (Yes, they will usually tell you why; generic pitch rejections are not as common as form-letter rejections.)

Either way, at some point in the meeting, the agent is going to tell the writer whether the book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. She’s not saying whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can sell it.

You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually tenacious leech. Not to mention steering clear of our next obstacle…

fruit-tree(11) Far too many pitchers labor under the false impression that if an agent or editor likes a pitch, s/he will snap up the book on the spot. In reality, the agent or editor is going to want to read the manuscript first.

Believing otherwise only makes aspiring writers unhappy. It sounds like a truism, I know, but realistic expectations are the most important things a writer can carry into a pitch meeting.

In that spirit, let me alert you to two things that will not happen under any circumstances during your pitch meeting, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just because he happens to like the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing, period. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until both parties sign a formal contract documenting it.

Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you have ever thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.

The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.

It just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the purpose of the formal pitch is not to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see for herself what a good writer you are.

Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: it’s nice if it’s on the menu, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.

So once again, I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting. Here is a realistic best-case scenario:

cakeIf the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her business card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for nonfiction, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Mail is the operative term here. A request to see pages should never be construed as an invitation to hand her the whole thing on the spot.

Seriously. Not even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed or e-mailed) rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)

Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago, for the most part, or who have not tried to land an agent recently — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. It’s not even all that uncommon for conference brochures to recommend this method. This is WILDLY outdated advice, sort of like advising a 16-year-old nervous about taking her driver’s license test to bring along a buggy whip, in case the horse gets restless.

Just say neigh. No one is going to fault you for not pulling a manuscript out of your hip pocket.

At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, he will have a few pages in mind, not 300. If you’d like to be prepared for this eventuality, the first five pages of a book is a fairly standard writing sample. You could also use the first few pages of a favorite scene.

In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by his interest, and offer to pop anything he wants into the mail as soon as it’s feasible.

In the interests of covering the gamut of reasonable expectations, I’m afraid I must, at least briefly, take us on a walking tour of the other logical possibility: it’s imperative to understand what a no means as well.

(I’d number that, too, but I’ve run out of tree pictures. What, you thought they just grew on…oh, never mind.)

When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is not always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely encounter both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…

Getting the picture? Rejection is very, very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower. Try not to take it as if it is.

Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away. For a fuller discussion of how and why mismatched meetings happen and how to handle them, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Is your mind reeling, trying to picture this situation in full and vivid detail? Good; that means you’re grasping its complexity.

If you find yourself interrupted mid-pitch by a terse, “Sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work. Chances are pretty good that she will know all of the agents attending; wouldn’t you like to be able to begin a hallway pitch with, “Excuse me, but agent Selective Notforme recommended that I speak with you. Would you have a moment to hear my pitch?”

Whatever you do, don’t panic; you can avoid the wicked trees with relative ease. Over the next few posts, I am going to give you a template for presenting your story — fictional or not — in a vivid, exciting, memorable manner. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.

Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza has arrived!

That’s right, campers: it’s time to crank up the ‘Palooza machinery once more. This time, by popular request, I am going to spend the next few weeks to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript. And the masses rejoice!

Okay, so wild cheering is not the typical writer’s first response to the prospect of giving a face-to-face pitch to a real, live agent or editor. More often, the response wavers between guarded optimism and wild, insensate terror, seasoned with a healthy dash of Wait — why am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I just query instead, and thus avoid the hair-raising possibility of getting rejected in person?

It tends to be a pretty complicated reaction, in short. Even those wouldn’t be caught dead signing up for a pitch session feel their blood pressure rise at the very notion of it. Heck, sometimes even a simple “So what do you write?” at a cocktail party can induce stuttering, fainting — or, still worse, an apparent inability to describe a perfectly straightforward plot in under 45 minutes.

Given that writers are, let’s face it, communication-oriented people, the near-universality of reluctance to talk out loud about our work — at least briefly and in marketing terms — is a trifle puzzling. as thoughtful and intrepid reader Robin put it recently:

I won’t be pitching at conferences anytime soon, but I can still use help on this. Even though I’ve written a multitude of ever-shorter-pitches, whenever a hapless friend asks what I’m writing, they’re in for a long rambling ride. If I were to meet an agent in an elevator, I’d…well, it wouldn’t be pretty.

How do we make it sound conversational without being wordy? Surely they don’t want us to just memorize our back-cover copy? (Or do they…?)

Robin’s cut to the crux of the matter: most potential pitchers assume, wrongly, that what a verbal pitch entails is not a short, pithy, entertaining description of what the book’s about, who the target audience is, and what the book will offer to those readers that nothing else on the market currently does (for nonfiction) or a brief, fascinating introduction of the protagonist, the conflict or challenge s/he faces, and what’s at stake (for fiction). Instead, they believe that what they should do is spout promotional copy.

Which frequently comes as a surprise to agents and editors, frankly: why, they wonder, is this complete stranger boasting about this story, rather than telling me what it is?

What’s wrong with pitching a book the way a publisher’s marketing department would on a dust jacket? That’s promotion, not description; in essence, it’s a review. Listen:

Hello there, agent of my dreams, I’ve got this great book idea, something that half the women in America can relate to strongly. It’s the deeply moving yet humorous tale of a beautiful but insecure woman with family problems — her stepmother hates her, so she turns to a series of men for support while she waits for Prince Charming. Because it speaks to issues that plague many women, it’s a natural for Oprah…Hey, where are you going?

This is brief, you must admit, but it suffers from two rather serious drawbacks as a pitch. First, it tells the agent what to think of a book she hasn’t yet read: it’s a great idea, it’s moving and humorous, it’s a natural for Oprah. None of this is credible: professional writers don’t review their own books, for the exceedingly simple reason that they cannot be impartial about it.

So why would an agent pay the slightest attention to a pitcher’s unsubstantiated claims about her book’s wonderfulness?

What’s the second problem, you ask? Let me turn around and ask you a couple of questions: what kind of a book is it? To which already-existing group of readers might it appeal, and how is it different from anything else on the market? Who is the protagonist, and why is she inherently interesting enough for a reader to want to follow her for 400 pages?

Let’s face it, a pitch that does leaves all of these questions unanswered has not done its job very well. (Half the women in America is not a serious description of a target demographic: it’s a wild guess.)

Some of you still are not convinced that the back jacket approach isn’t working, are you? Okay, consider the most salient question of all: what is this book about?

“How am I supposed to know?” many a potential pitcher demands defensively. “I haven’t read the book.”

Exactly the objection the agent is likely to raise, as it happens, but not one that I’m prepared to accept at the moment. Why? Well, I’m pretty darn certain that at some point in your life, you actually have read the story I pitched above. Or at least had it read to you.

Give up? It’s Snow White. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch it, though; the agent probably wouldn’t have, either, based on the vague, self-promoting pitch.

“But Anne,” shy writers everywhere point out, “none of this has anything to do with the book in question, does it? I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING, not whether I can resist the urge to review my own book — and certainly not on whether I can describe it in thirty seconds. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

You make a pretty good point, shy ones. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer owes to himself to at least consider to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if he were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage of agent-seeking. .

How so? Well, if you pull it off, you move straight to the submission stage — and given how high a percentage of queries get rejected this days, are you certain you wish to sneeze at that? Try to think of a pitch as an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. Yes, really. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free because I’m a generous person), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

Will you learn to love it? Probably not. Learning to survive it with your dignity intact might be a more reasonable long-term goal. But hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

You seem to be doing that a lot today. Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, this series will be geared toward the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. The average writer tends to waltz into a conference with high expectations and a nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation.

Could the New York Times’ bestseller list be far behind? The book would have been a natural for Oprah, if she were still on the air.

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores. More often, it’s closer to two.

Translation: even for writers who actually are pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the shy grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented will necessarily be signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions: “Next!”

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

Not to boast like back jacket copy, but I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what pitching success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally scintillating; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. It’s not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently doable — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

Truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the hours in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Please stop gnawing your nails — this is a perfectly reasonable thing for an agent to want to know. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching.

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they? To help you be politely proactive, I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams.

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: she will stop you as soon as she figures out that your book is categorically not for her. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s not the writer’s fault. But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs from their websites, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides,Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do need to be aware of what they’re representing these days.

And you definitely need to be aware of what they are not representing these days. Had I mentioned that it is a waste of both your time and the agent’s to pitch to someone who does not handle your kind of book?

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this is every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a nonfiction-only agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come.

Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book — or how to pitch it without sounding like a talking dust jacket.

You can do this, honest. Keep up the good work!