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.

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