Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pitching Advice Part V

So you're at a writing conference. You've scrimped and saved to get there, you've been dreaming of this chance to hobnob with agents and editors. You've signed up to meet with said agents and editors but then you learn that you didn't get an appointment after all. Or maybe you're in the envious position of having the appointments you've signed up for, but there are other agents and editors you wanted to meet with. What's a writer to do?

Time to see if you can get what I like to call a "God appointment."

Simply (and somewhat crassly) put, at writing conferences, it's acceptable to stalk editors and agents. Well, within limits, of course (more on that in a bit). But should you run into an editor or agent in the hall, in a coffee shop, or even on the cliched elevator, it's okay to try to pitch to them.

So how do you do that? First, ask if it's okay to pitch at that moment. Your target, whoever it may be, could be heading to a meeting, or running late to a class, or possibly even heading toward the bathroom. Needless to say, if that's the case, they probably won't take kindly to an enthusiastic and/or nervous author trying to pitch them a book. Show your professionalism and your respect for their time, and ask, "May I pitch to you?" If they say "No," thank them and walk away.

But if they say yes, treat it like a high-powered pitch session. Tell them the book's title, the genre, and your hook (you have been practicing your hook, right?). And then wait for feedback. If the editor or agent prompts you for more information, keep talking.

The key to these kinds of pitch meetings is to let the agent or editor steer things. So long as they keep asking questions, you're golden. But if they thank you, time to let it (and them) go. And if they're eying potential avenues of escape, then it's definitely time to stop talking.

This is a great way to get your work in front of industry insiders, but it's important to keep the three "Bs" in mind, namely, "Breakfast," "Bathroom," and "Bedroom." Simply put, if your target enters one of these three, they're off limits.

I don't think I have to elaborate too much on these points. I mean, I'm not a morning person. It's best to let people have their coffee and donuts in peace. If you find yourself at a table with an editor or agent, make small talk, but don't talk business unless they bring it up first.

And really? Pitching to someone in the bathroom? It seems odd that people would have to be told this, but apparently, not everyone understands. In his book The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell tells of an editor (or maybe an agent) who used to have proposals slid under the stall door while he was in the restroom. This individual would take off the cover sheet, and then write on the second page, "This has met my needs at this time," and then slide it back out again.

Don't let that happen to you.

I would think the bedroom one is obvious too. If they're heading for their room, don't follow them in.

Does this work? You'd better believe it does. I've been to four ACFW Conferences and I've seen it happen. At one, I was chatting with a friend when an agent walked up to us. He dismissed me pretty quickly (due to my genre of choice) but my friend launched into a very concise and passionate pitch. They exchanged information and my friend signed with the agent shortly thereafter.

And it worked for me twice as well. At the last ACFW Conference, I ran into Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press before the festivities started. He invited me to chat with him while he ate lunch. I told him about Failstate. He asked for a full manuscript. And sometime next year, that manuscript will be published.

At the same conference, my friend, Jill Williamson, introduced me to her agent, Amanda Luedeke. In a bizarre twist, Jill actually pitched Failstate to Amanda for me. That began a conversation with Amanda that ended with me signing with her.

God appointments, times when He intertwines your path with the right people, do happen. You just have to be ready for them.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I Write Like . . .

I just saw a link to a webpage that allows you to cut-and-paste something you wrote into a text box. Using some sort of computer voodoo, the website then determines what famous writer you write like.

So I decided I should test this out. I took the first chapter of Failstate, my debut, soon-to-be-published novel, and this is what I got:

I write like
Chuck Palahniuk

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Huh. I've never read Chuck, but I have heard of him.

So I decided to see if this would vary at all if I submitted text from a different story. So I dusted off the first chapter of Numb, my Christian space opera/espionage thriller. And this is what I got from that:

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Um, wow.

So you tell me? Good thing that my style varied so much between two books? Or evidence of a lack of consistent voice on my part?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beyond Black Mesa

I've apparently been amassing a load of on-line videos that are really cool. I figured I'd better start sharing them, nicht wahr? Here's one set in the universe of the Half Life games. The sheer dedication it takes to make a video like this is absolutely mind-boggling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pitching Advice Part IV

So here's the "long awaited" post about what not to do in a pitch meeting. But before we get into that, let me tell you a fictional story that will help illustrate my point.

Let's pretend that I just went through a particularly messy divorce (this is in no way based on my life at present, just FYI). It turns out that my wife wound up cheating on me multiple times, and then, due to legal chicanery on the part of her attorney, she winds up with everything. I am left an emotionally, financially, and spiritually broken man.

Over the course of a year, I manage to pick up the pieces and, by the grace of God, I am made whole again. And as I reflect on my experiences, I realize that by golly, there's a story there, one I'm yearning to tell. So I sit down and bang it out. I edit it, I revise it, I show it to my pastor, my family, and everyone agrees that it will be a blessing to those who went through similarly messy divorces.

So I'm off to ACFW! I have my editor and agent appointments in hand and I am ready to wow them with the story that God has laid on my heart.

The editor is first. I sit down, introduce myself, and she asks me to tell her about my story. I begin telling her the tale of my protagonist (who is loosely modeled after me) and his harrowing journey (which is loosely based on mine). And as I describe the plot, it stirs up all sorts of painful memories: of learning of my wife's cheating ways, of the long, empty nights alone, the glories of grace that set me free.

And I start to tear up a little. I apologize and wipe away the tear and try to soldier on, but with every word, more memories are bubbling up, stirring up my emotions and before I know it, I'm blubbering like a baby. I somehow manage to make it through my pitch, but by the time I'm done, I've gone through six tissues (which the editor had to retrieve from her purse).

Oddly, the editor doesn't seem all that interested. She thanks me for my time but that's it.

So I figure I have to wow the agent. When I meet with him, I hold it together a little better, just a few random sniffles, and then I sit back and wait for him to make the offer.

Instead, he starts to criticize my protagonist, saying that he's unlikeable and his entire character arc is unbelievable.

I bristle immediately. How dare he criticize me like that? He didn't go through what I did! I feel attacked, so naturally, I do my best to defend myself. I point out how he is wrong, how the story is fine the way it is, that it's truer to life that way.

After what amounts to a tense, five minute "conversation," the agent thanks me for coming and that's it. I wind up leaving the conference, wondering why no one asked to see more.

Can anyone tell the fictional me why this happened?

Before you pitch, you have to Spock it up. Keep your emotions in check. When you're pitching, being overly emotional is a liability.

Now you might think that both of these examples are a bit extreme, I've heard stories through the grapevine of those things happening. People will start crying as they pitch, either because of nerves or because, like the fictional version of me, they're too emotionally connected to their story.

I've also heard stories of people who, when encountering criticism from editors or agents, will become belligerent and start arguing with them.

You might be tempted to think that crying or arguing is an indication of being passionate about your craft. And that's a good thing, right? An editor or agent would want to know you're passionate, right?

Normally, yes. They want to find passionate people who are engaged by their stories. But if you're weeping while pitching or arguing with them, they're going to see, not a passionate author, but a thin-skinned one. A person who will be too emotional to handle the process of publishing a book. A person who won't be a good partner and collaborator when it comes to the editing that needs to be done. In short, a person they won't want to work with.

So if you're pitching an intensely emotional story, one with deep connections to you, and you're not sure you can make it through a pitch without crying, start practicing it now. Work on it every day until you can make it through with no more than a sniffle. If you think you might get snippy with an editor, well, learn to bite your tongue until it bleeds.

Now does this mean you have to be completely Vulcanized (i.e. without emotion, for those of you not in the know) when you pitch? Of course not. It's good to seek a bit of rapport with the agent or editor in question. That's a lesson I stumbled into my first conference.

At my first conference, way back in 2006, I was signed up to meet with Steve Laube. At the beginning of the conference, they held an agent panel, and one of the questions they asked the agents was, "What's the worst project you've ever been pitched?"

There were some doozies, but Steve Laube told the story about how an author started pitching him a story about flesh-eating mutant frogs. He very gently tried to explain why he wasn't interested, but as he did, the author blurted out, "But it's a love story!" And of course, everyone at the panel laughed.

Fast forward to my appointment. I am nervous. Petrified, really. I had never met a literary agent before, let alone pitch to one. Not only that, but my first pitch meeting hadn't gone well (my own fault; I hadn't done my research on the publishing house). So I was freaking out.

But as I approached the table where Steve Laube waited, I decided I had to do something to let off some of the nervous energy, something that would give him a glimpse of who I was as a person. When Steve asked me what I was pitching, I said, "I've written a romantic novel about flesh-eating mutant frogs."

Steve, with a perfectly straight face, replied, "It's been done."

And that's all it took. I relaxed, I told him about my project, he told me why it would never sell, and that was it. And I count that as a success.

I guess the upshot of this is: be yourself when you pitch. Just remember, this is very much like a job interview. Be respectful, be calm, and you'll do fine.

Next week, we'll talk about what I like to call "God meetings." Those are fun.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

From Dust

One of the dangers of having Steam installed on my computer is that every now and then, I'll see an ad for a game that looks interesting and is priced relatively low. Usually I can resist the temptation to splurge. Sometimes I can't. And the cheap-o games I get are a mixed bag. Some are really fun, others aren't.

So a few weeks ago, I saw an ad for From Dust. The ad made it sound like this was a critically acclaimed game and a friend of mine mentioned playing it. I blame my sleep deprived state, but I decided to buy the game and see what it was like.

It's a fairly straightforward game. You have a little tribe of followers/worshipers who are traveling from level to level, building villages around stone totems. You are some sort of powerful deity or spirit or something-or-other who can sort of control the forces of nature, sculpting the land, protecting your people, guiding them ever onward in their quest to find . . . well, I'm not sure what, exactly. The story in this game isn't much, just a weird through-line of trying to find "the Ancients" for some unknown reason. Go figure.

Each level is basically a puzzle you have to solve, using the powers that your followers can unlock for you. For example, if they build a village around the totem for "Infinite Earth," you gain the ability to create sand and dump it wherever you want for a limited amount of time. The trick is to figure out how to keep your tribe safe from the hostile world around them. That's not as easy as it sounds. There were a few levels that I barely made it past, simply because I got lucky.

In many ways, this game reminded of me of a stripped down version of the old Populous games. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I liked Populous. And for the most part, I liked From Dust. The levels were challenging enough but not so bad as to completely stymie me. There are further challenge levels that I may check out.

The downside is the DRM, which apparently a lot of gamers are upset about. From what little I can gather, Ubisoft, the game's developer, promised that you wouldn't need a persistent internet connection to play but, guess what, you actually do. That didn't bother me so much, but for some reason, at the beginning and end of each session, the game tried to sync my saved games and failed, a process that took two to three minutes. Kind of bugged me.

So I guess you have to ask yourself if you don't mind intrusive DRM. If not, this could be a fun distraction.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pitching Advice Part III

Last week, I promised that we would take a look at a big no-no when it comes to pitching your ideas. But I realized after I made that promise that I haven't really talked about what to bring into a pitch meeting at a conference. So I'll save the "what not to do" thing for next week, okay?

Basically, you can/should bring two things: a one sheet and a proposal for your novel, one that includes sample chapters.

Now I'm no expert on one sheets, but my philosophy on those is to keep it simple. I've seen some one sheets that a chock-full of graphics and fancy designs, but I wonder if that really helps. Instead, put the book's title, genre, and wordcount on it. Put a back-cover type blurb on it, along with your bio and contact information. I usually also include a picture of myself so that if the editor or agent takes the one sheet, they'll have a face to go with the name. If you want to see some examples of one sheets, head over to Rachelle Gardner's blog. Her most recent post is about what to bring to a conference, but it also includes links to sample one sheets.

As for the proposal, that can be tricky. Different houses and agencies have different requirements. It's impossible to craft one that will please everyone in terms of content and format. You definitely want to put in your hook, your back-cover copy, any spiritual payload or theme you're trying to convey. Include a one to two page synopsis, your bio, any marketing ideas you might have. And be sure to include sample chapters as well. It's been my experience that in a pitch session, the editor or agent will want to see what you bring to the table.

Again, I'm no expert. If you do some searches on-line for sample proposals, you'll find some. Rip off the general structure and you should do fine.

The one thing to remember is this: it's very unlikely that the agent or editor you're meeting with will keep your one sheet or proposal. After all, they have to pay for their checked luggage too, and the last thing they need is to try to stuff a carry on or suitcase full of paper from their meetings. If they do keep it, that's great. If they don't, it's not a big deal either. Every agent or editor has their own style and preferences when it comes to this.

With that out of the way, next week we'll talk about a huge "DON'T" when it comes to pitch meetings. See you then!

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Story Time

Earlier this evening, I was driving to McDonald's to pick up some supper, and my radio was tuned to KS95. The DJs, Moon and Staci, were asking for people to call in and tell them stories. Moon wanted folks to tell him stories about a time when they uttered the words, "Get out of my house!" Staci, on the other hand, wanted people to tell her a story about a time they were in a riot.

The moment I heard her story prompt, I started laughing, and I thought, Do I have a story for you! Sadly, I had left my phone at home and by the time I returned, food in hand, I couldn't call in. So instead, I Tweeted my thought.

Shortly thereafter, I found this reply:

I replied with a short version of the story. But that got me reminiscing and I felt the need to share.

So snuggle in, folks, and let me tell you the story of the four Minnesota kids who found themselves in a race riot sparked by the Ku Klux Klan.

When I was in college, three of my friends used to go on what they called "Cross Country Skips." Usually during spring break, they would pack up and drive to Toronto or New Orleans or Corpus Christi. But since my college was on the quarter system, our breaks never matched up. I never got to go.

Finally, in my second year in Seminary, we figured out how I could go. We'd head to Memphis for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. They'd drive down to St. Louis and pick me up early in the morning. We'd be there by Saturday morning, and we'd have a day or two to see the sights and hit Beale Street.

Everything went pretty well. We made the drive and arrived early on Saturday. As we pulled into town, we saw people walking around with what appeared to be civil rights inspired signs: "Keep the Dream Alive," that sort of thing. When we got into our room, we saw a big crowd gathering nearby. We thought that maybe it was a parade of some sort. So we figured we should go check it out.

Now pay attention, folks, and make sure you learn from our mistakes. There were certain stupid decision we made.

We left our hotel and drifted in the direction of the crowds. Much to our surprise, we saw a police checkpoint across one street. Confused as to why a parade would need a checkpoint, we asked a passerby what was happening.

"The Klan's in town and having a rally on the police station steps."

Now I'd like to think that it was sleep deprivation, but for some inexplicable reason, we decided that we should go check this out. NOT because we agreed with the Klan's rhetoric or beliefs, mind you. I think our reasoning was more along the lines of "We're four white kids from Minnesota who have never seen the Klan before." So we thought that we'd see what we could see. (THIS IS STUPID DECISION #1)

We went through the police check point, where we were patted down and the girls' purses were searched (STUPID DECISION #2) We then went down the block and we came upon the edges of the scene.

Let's see if I can set the stage for you: the Klan, about a dozen members in the sheets and everything, had set themselves up on the police station steps. The cops had made a no man's land around the steps, using police cars as a barricade. Pressed up against said barricade was an anti-Klan protest, a crowd that covered the street from building to building. We found a spot toward the back of the crowd, where I had a pretty good view of the proceedings (being 6' 6" has its advantages at times). I could see the Klan, the entire crowd, the Memphis riot police in full body armor watching us all warily (EVIDENCE OF STUPID DECISION #3).

As we watched, the anti-Klan crowd . . . well, "saluted" the Klan in an appropriate manner and then burned a Confederate flag. Then some sort of disturbance started working its way through the crowd, heading right for us (EVIDENCE OF STUPID DECISION #4). The girls wisely ran away; the other guy and I stuck around to see what was happening. As it turns out, someone had shown up wearing a jacket with a Confederate flag patch on it. A group of people were screaming at him, "Are you one of them? Are you one of them?" and hounded him out of the crowd.

It was at this point I turned to the other guy and said, "Let's find the girls and get out of here."

We found them on the edge of the crowd. We started discussing what we wanted to do next without really leaving the area (STUPID DECISION #5). That's when we noticed that a big chunk of the crowd was running. As in right at us.

So we turned and ran, but a second later, the people stopped running and started moving back into the crowd. Out of immediate danger, we did the only logical thing: we stopped where we were and continued our discussion of where we wanted to eat lunch (EXTREMELY STUPID DECISION #6).

As I recall, I was the one facing the crowd as we talked. And as we talked, I noticed these odd canisters sailing through the air, spouting what looked like smoke. And these projectiles were landing in the crowd. By the time I realized I was seeing honest-to-goodness tear gas canisters, the entire anti-Klan crowd (which, remember, filled the street from building to building) had turned around and everyone was running.

Right. At. Us.

I think I said something like, "I think it's time to run again." And we started running for our lives, a mass of humanity hard on our heels. One of the girls was yelling that if we got split up, we should meet back at the hotel. Thankfully, said hotel was just a block or two and we managed to dive into the lobby just as the desk clerk was locking the doors. In other words, if we had been moving just a second or two slower, we would have been trapped out on the streets.

We waited for the initial surge to go past the hotel and then we snuck out a side doorway to head for lunch (STUPID DECISION #7). It was then that we discovered that some people had decided to take advantage of the chaos and do some destruction of public property. Some teenagers came running down the streets, knocking over trash cans and newspaper vendors. One had his belt off and, for some reason, was whipping a bus. Another was carrying a 2X4. But then the guy carrying the 2X4 turned around, dropped it, and took off running. We soon saw why. The cops were after them, one with his weapon drawn, the other wearing a gas mask.

We got out of there quickly and went to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. We stayed out of the neighborhood until the later afternoon, when we went back to watch the news to try to figure out what happened. As near as we could figure at the time, the anti-Klan people started pressing up against the police barricade, prompting the cops to start spraying pepper spray to disperse them (that, we think, caused the initial surge of people). When that didn't work, they resorted to tear gas.

Anyway, we went out later that evening to hit Beale Street. As we left the hotel, one of the girls spotted the 2X4 the guy had dropped in the street. On the way back to the hotel, she saw it again. And she took it as a souvenir. So far as I know, she still has it.

Like I said, we made some stupid decisions. Looking back on it, I honestly have no idea what possessed us to go past that police checkpoint. It was just dumb all around.

At the very least, it gives me a great story to use when I play "2 Truths and a Lie" with people. Because really, how many of you would think a mild mannered Lutheran pastor would have witnessed a race riot started by the Ku Klux Klan?

Why We Need to Be Careful

A friend of mine pointed me toward this article tonight and it was an interesting cautionary tale, especially for those of us who are trying to produce stuff that could be found in Christian bookstores. Here's the relevant hook that got my attention:

Immersing myself in Christian culture is the reason I nearly stopped being a Christian; immersing myself in a morally-suspect show about witches and demons is the reason I came back.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Naomi and Her Daughters

Well, this was an interesting one, to be sure.

I got Naomi and Her Daughters by Walter Wangerin, Jr., for free from Amazon for my Kindle. I've read some of Wangerin's books in the past. I still use his book on marriage in my premarital counseling sessions. So I was a bit curious to see what he would do with a beloved Bible story.

The title is pretty self-explanatory. This is a novelization of the book of Ruth. If you know the story, you know the plot of this book for the most part. But Wangerin takes some rather unique liberties with the story, marrying the book of Ruth with the ending of Judges (yes, that ending. The one with the Levite's concubine). He fleshes out the characters in some rather interesting ways too. Boaz starts out life as a petulant teenager with some pretty severe issues and Naomi winds up extremely bitter toward the end.

I think I enjoyed this book, for the most part. Wangerin has a poetic lilt to his writing that seemed to suit the material fairly well. I think any potential readers should be aware that this book is pretty salty for Christian fiction. There's some vulgarities tossed around. And one scene, involving Rachel and Leah, boggles the mind. I seriously do not understand what the point of it was and I'm still struggling to wrap my mind around it.

And Wangerin does take some rather interesting liberties with characters and situations, such as including the destruction of Gibeah in the story of Ruth. At first, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was kind of within the realm of possibility.

I don't know. You can check it out for yourself. It's a fast read, to be sure, and there are some interesting theological thoughts to consider at the end. Just don't expect a clean-and-polished story.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

Wow, this one took a while to get through. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it, but I'm a little angry at the same time. But what else did I expect from George R. R. Martin and his latest book, A Dance with Dragons?

How can I even sum this one up? I mean, if you haven't read the previous four books, anything I say will not make any sense. But to sum up: Daenery Targaryen is ruling over the city of Meereen. Jon Snow is Lord of the Night Watch and trying desperately to juggle competing pressures. Tyrion Lannister is traveling across the eastern lands. And I was glad to see all three. They are the most memorable and sympathetic characters left in this saga and they were largely absent from the previous book. It was great to see them wading back into the mess that Martin has made.

I don't want anyone to think that by "mess," I am somehow disparaging the world and story that Martin has created. This is epic stuff and incredibly volatile. There's really no way to predict where Martin is going.

My only real worry was that I wouldn't be able to get back into the story. It's been a while since I read the previous four books. But thankfully, it all came back to me as I read. I think I may have been missing some details but that didn't stop me from enjoying this book.

But I can also understand why some people are upset about the ending. It seems like Martin likes to dangle hope in front of us before shredding it. I honestly have no idea where this series is going. I just hope it doesn't take him another five years to get the next book done.

Basically, this is the best way to sum up reading a George R. R. Martin book:

That says it all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pitching Advice Part II

Let's continue this series about what to do in a pitch meeting at a writing conference. Again, I'm thinking mostly of the up-coming ACFW Conference that's a little over a month away, but I'd like to think this advice could be used at other times as well.

So you've signed up for a pitch meeting. You wait for your turn in pitch purgatory, having done whatever it is you do to psyche yourself up (personally, I hit the prayer chapel for a quick centering prayer). You are called to enter the room, you sit down across from the editor or agent you're pitching to, and . . . then what?

It may seem obvious. Talk about your book, right? But if you're not ready, you can wander into a verbal quagmire:

"Well, my book is, uh . . . well, it's contemporary romance and it's about this girl who's based on my best friend from college. Anyway, she's got this problem. She's being stalked by this guy who is totally obsessed with her. Oh, and did I mention that the girl has a dead twin? I think that's important . . ."

Okay, so maybe you wouldn't be that bad. But if you're not ready, you can easily lose your way. So what do you do? Introduce yourself, tell the title, genre, and wordcount, and then hit them with your hook.

A hook is a one sentence summary that explains what your book is all about. It should be succinct and easy to grasp, something that tells a person what your book is about in thirty seconds or less.

It's not an easy thing to do. I mean, what if you have a cast of thousands or a plot so filled with twists and turns readers need a map to keep track of it all? How can you condense it all down to a short blurb?

I won't lie to you. It's not easy. I had trouble wrapping my head around it. But then I got help, specifically from Randall Ingermanson and his infamous Snowflake Method. This is a method that I've adopted to help me write my books and it really, really works.

Specifically, you want to pay attention to what Randy says about Step One, writing a one sentence summary about your plot. I won't go into all of it; it's worth your time to read the whole thing and even buy the course from Randy. Believe me, it'll help your writing, no matter where you are on your journey.

I'm also going to give you three examples from my own writing. I'm not saying these are perfect, but I think they'll give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

For NUMB: "A surgically-altered assassin fights his superiors to save the only woman he can love."

For HIVE (my current WIP): "A pregnant teeanger flees her people and those who want to steal her baby."

For FAILSTATE (my soon-to-be-published debut novel): "A fledgling superhero seeks justice for a fallen colleague despite his older brother’s interference."

In all three cases, I don't use names (because those would be meaningless) but descriptors. I tried to describe the conflict and obstacles my main characters face. It's as pure a distillation as I can get of the basic plot. Are there more characters in the story other than the assassin, the pregnant teenager, and the fledgling superhero? Of course. But they are the heart of their stories and they get center stage.

Once you have your hook, you need to know it. Backwards, forwards, upside down. You should be able to rattle it off at the drop of a hat. Last year, my wife and son would try to surprise me in the weeks leading up to the ACFW Conference. They would ask me at random times, "What's your pitch?" And I would have to deliver the hook for Failstate quickly and clearly. If I couldn't do it, my wife would mock me.

So you're back in the pitch session. You've introduced yourself, you've told them your book's hook. Then what? Now you can start giving a more detailed version of the plot. But again, you want this to be clean and concise. You don't have to give intricate details about every subplot or character's backstory. Think back cover copy here. Three or four paragraphs that explains what your character is doing, how they do it, and how the book is resolved. That's right, in a pitch meeting, you give away how your book ends. This isn't the time to be coy and say something like, "And to find out the ending, you'll have to read my manuscript." As a matter of fact, those words should never cross your lips or be written by your hands. Ever.

At this point, the agent or editor might start asking you questions about your book, its characters, and the plot. Be ready for this. Know your book and your story well enough that you can answer the questions without getting flustered.

A few years back, I wound up in an pitch session with my "back-up" agent. To put it bluntly, she wasn't my first choice. I knew she didn't represent speculative fiction (there are precious few who do), but I had to put someone down for my second choice, and I liked her attitude on the ACFW website. Lo and behold, at the Conference, I found myself meeting with her.

So I hit her with my hook and my back cover copy. And then she spent ten minutes grilling me about every single little detail about my book. What motivated my characters? How did this work? Had I considered this or that or the other thing? As I answered, I actually got my hopes up a little. Was she interested?

As it turns out, no. At the end of our meeting, she told me flat out she didn't represent spec fic (which I knew), but she did compliment me on knowing my book.

Truth be told, I think I made up about a third of what I said on the spot. The point is, when you're in a pitch meeting, you'd best either know your book or be really good at improvising.

So that's it for this week. Next week, I'll talk about a few mistakes you'll want to avoid in a pitch meeting.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Pitching Advice Part I

Holy cow! The ACFW National Conference is well nigh upon us, only a month and a half away. I should really be adding to my WIP; instead, I thought I would stink up my little corner of Al Gore's series of tubes by offering some unasked-for advice on how to pitch to agents and editors. I'm thinking mostly in terms of those folks going to ACFW, but I'd like to think that this advice can transfer to other conferences as well. Yes, I am just that full of myself.

So I should probably show off my credentials at this point, right? Talk about how I have many degrees in writing? Or reveal that I've inked many multiple book deals from the times I've pitched? Yeah, I got none of those things. But I have been to four conferences. I've paid attention to what other people have said about pitching, and so I figured it might be helpful to pass on my (rather limited) wisdom. I'm thinking these posts, one for the next several Wednesdays, will be geared for those who have never pitched before, Conference newbies, as it were. Of course, if more experienced writers happen on by and wish to add or contradict me, I will gladly accept the chastisement.

So here's the first piece of advice, specifically for those who will be at their very first conference. My first piece of advice about pitching is this: don't.

That may sound a little odd. I mean, the great thing about a conference like ACFW is the chance for new writers to meet and rub shoulders with editors and agents. You've been working on your book for years, honing and perfecting it. Your critique partners and the others you've shown it to are raving over it. You've dreamed of getting your work in front of an industry insider. You've scrimped and saved, you've got your appointment in hand. Am I really suggesting that you shouldn't pitch if this is your very first conference?

Yes. Yes, I am.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Randall Ingermanson has also said this (and if he hasn't, well then, I'm sorry for putting words in his mouth). Allow me to tell you a story to explain my reasoning.

When my older son was nine months old, he figured out the whole crawling thing. A week later, he started walking. We tried to discourage him, mostly for our own sanity, but he was bound and determined. He was going to walk. And then, a day or two later, he started running.

My wife and I were stunned. He was always good at the gross motor stuff, but we were astounded at how "advanced" he was. We were proud parents to be sure, having a child who went from crawling to running in such short order. So naturally, we signed him up for a full marathon that very week.

Of course we didn't. He obviously had a long way to go and, although all he does now is run, he still has a long way to go.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing. You may be far and advanced in front of all the newbie authors attending the conference, but if this is your first writing conference, you're taking your first steps and probably aren't ready for a full marathon. Not yet.

To put it another way, you're going to learn so much about writing at your first conference that suddenly, the book that you've slaved over and was so good . . . well, you start noticed the flaws. Or you've learned a new technique that will push your already good story to a phenomenal level. In other words, as ready as you might think you are, you're probably not. You need a little more time to get things to where they could and should be.

So what if you've signed up for an editor or agent appointment and you get one? Should you not show up? No, definitely go, but don't go to pitch. Go to talk to the agent or editor about the publishing industry. Ask what they think the next big genre might be. Ask them what mistakes newbie authors make in their writing so you can avoid them. If it's an agent, ask him or her what they bring to the table and how they work with their clients.

This is definitely a case of "do as I say, not as I do." I pitched at my first conference, way back in 2006. I had a great story, the "story of my heart." I had the praise of critique partners and friends who had read it. I was sure that I was going to wow those I spoke to and walk away, if not with a contract, then with a promising lead for one.

Please note that I just recently signed my first contract. That's how well that went for me.

Part of it was genre; I've always been a speculative writer and the Christian market has never been all that open to us. But a larger part of it was the fact that I was taking my first toddling steps into a marathon. I simply wasn't ready.

Of course, you're free to ignore this if you want to. Plenty of first-timers do indeed pitch and do well. So what do you do if you're going into your first pitch meeting? Come back next week and we'll talk about what to do and not to do.