The Wind-Up, and the Pitch …

I spent the weekend at the Willamette Writers conference, which was a most excellent good thing, though it has little to do with used cars. If you’re a writer and you’re anywhere near Portland Oregon the first weekend in August next year or in years hence, you ought to go. (I’ll delve more into that in a later post.)

I should back up and say I spent Thursday night at the conference, too, since I went to watch pitch practice. Pitching is the fine art of selling your book or screenplay idea to an agent or editor or publisher — verbally, in person.

In the world of publishing, 99.something percent of selling from author to agent (or ed. or pub.) doesn’t work this way. Instead it functions via the query letter, a one-page letter intended to both describe and inspire interest in your project, and say a little about yourself (answering the subtextual question, “why I am the perfect person on this earth to write this book”).

Queries are an art form in themselves, and writing one is an excellent way to figure out whether what you’ve written has a coherent plot (or not). Even if your plot hangs together, queries aren’t easy; they’re actually so bedeviling, there are entire books and blogs (Miss Snark and Query Shark) devoted to the subject. The best way to think of them is like the copy on the back cover of a book. Does it describe the story and get you interested? Does it give you an idea what it’s about, but not give away the ending? Did you buy the book as a result? Then it’s a winner.

The pitch is different, because it adds the exciting and dangerous prospect of … fear! After all, if you write a crap query, you’ll get a rejection letter. Disappointing as that is, you are spared the humiliation of sounding incoherent and stupid while describing your book — the same book you’ve slaved over, poured your heart into, agonized over for months or years — to a stranger.

On Thursday that’s just what I saw. These people stood up and stammered out a description of their book in front of a panel of four agents and a room of eighty people. Such bravery!

Saturday morning it was my turn. I had a pretty well-grooved pitch, thanks to practice, and a helpful book called “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read.” Oh, and having done this before. Experience helps.

That said, my first pitch had the distinct, smoky aroma of crashing and burning. Part of it was because the agent wanted to know about me before asking about my project, so I ended up explaining weird biographical details, and then explaining why I was explaining them, which meant my carefully crafted message about the book, its positioning, story, hook, and themes were all scattered like wreckage on the table between us. He said he was going to pass on the project, since it sounded “too quiet.”

I sat for a moment, quietly gnashing my teeth, frustrated that because of our messed-up miscommunication, I hadn’t been able to get to describe the non-quiet parts of my pitch. Well hell.

Things got better, slowly. The next agent I pitched asked for a partial. The agent after that passed, but her pass I could live with. She said my pitch was fine, she just didn’t care for sports books in general, and golf books in particular.

Because my Saturday was all carved up with pitches, I didn’t spend much time going to the workshops. Instead I spent time hanging out and talking to people. And what did we talk about? I asked people about their projects. and naturally, people want to know what I was working on, too. So, I told them. And you know what? It sounds just like a pitch.

It sounds like a pitch because the only difference is that at the end, you’re not trying to close the deal. Want to get better at pitching? Then describe your project in casual conversation as many times as you can. Here’s the script:

Person you’ve just met: “What are you working on?

You: “I’m working on …” [and off you go, giving a short description that makes it sound interesting, and makes them want to read it.]

I explained my project at least five other times on Saturday alone. And I noticed that as the day progressed, my pitch kept getting better. More organized, more articulate, and I was able to make all the points I wanted. I had pitches at 10:30, 2:15, 3:30, 4:00, and 4:30, and I snuck in two with people I hadn’t been able to schedule. By the last one I was one well-trained pitch-monkey. I pitched the book seven times on Saturday, making me the Herbert R. Tarlek of publishing, missing only the white shoes and white belt.

True, this is all very unnatural. But ultimately I think it’s for the better. Yes, it’s more work. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you’re going to get rejected. Right to your face.

But y’know what? That’s what makes you an author instead of just a writer. You’ve got to believe your stuff is that good, even if not everyone else does.

That said, I am now going back to revise my manuscript …

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