Tag Archives: pitching a book

A Small Riff on “Infinite Revision” (I’m an Expert!)

cresock deserted peer sea

I’ve been deep in revisions of two major Works-in-Progress, with a resultant and perhaps regrettable absence from the blogosphere. The process has led me to think about the pros and cons of “infinite revision”—the impulse to come back to a supposedly polished manuscript again and again and again (and again. . . . ad infinitum).

The impetus for these revisions is twofold: first, responses from my valuable beta readers; and second, experiences at two recent “pitch” events, both of which I recommend: the one-day WritingDayWorkshop held in Louisville in April and the Midwest Writers Workshop “Agent Fest,” a Friday-Saturday affair in May at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

The fact is, every time I attend a conference to pitch or get feedback from agents and editors (REAL agents and editors, mind you), I come home thinking that before I can respond to invitations to send materials, I really need to revise the darn book again!

Which of course means that my pages are sitting here, going nowhere, instead of in an agent’s inbox.

It seems worth asking whether the gains from the process of re-re-revising in response to these conference experiences are worth the inevitable delay. Surely there should come a point when I hit “save” for the last time and say “Enough!”

Well . . . yes. But. . . .

Two major eye-openers from this pitch-conference process have driven my compulsive rewriting, leading me to propose that maybe, just maybe, I’m not wasting my time.

“First-Page Reads”

First, both conferences included a “first-page read,” a feature that seems to be gaining popularity. In the “first-page read,” if you haven’t experienced one, conference attendees turn in, anonymously of course, the first page of their book. During the session, a moderator reads randomly selected submissions aloud.

At WDW, agents had copies to read along, a modification of the original format that I think made it easier for them to hone their responses in a rapid-fire, somewhat artificial setting. Agents raised hands or voices when they “would quit reading.” As one agent at MWW pointed out, ordinarily agents would have already glanced at the query, so they might be more tolerant of less than perfect submissions than when hearing a page cold (especially late in the evening after a long day). Even with those caveats, seeing how a panel of agents responded to my first page has, each time, been one of the most valuable conference experiences I can report.

“The Three-Minute Pitch”

Second, there is nothing like having to explain your book fast to a potentially skeptical listener to make you home in on that perennially vital question: what is this book about?

Think you know the main conflict, what’s at stake, how the main character changes, and why readers should care? Give yourself the three-minute test.

To meet the format requirements at MWW, I honed my pitches to ninety seconds. By the time I applied advice from my writing groups, they took barely a minute. And they both worked.

Things I Learned from Writing Conferences (This Time)

From the first-page read, I’ve distilled a “rule” much more important, it seems, than common prohibitions like “Avoid adverbs” or “Use strong verbs.”

Most obvious to everyone but slow-witted overachievers like me: BE CLEAR. Those agents wanted to be able to locate themselves in space and time in the company of a recognizable character. They wanted to be able to figure out, duh, what’s going on. And all this, of course, with only the tiniest touch of backstory. A hard lesson for those with unquenchable literary aspirations. Turns out all that energy devoted to haunting and mysterious hooks and complex, original metaphors would have been better spent on who, what, why, and where.

From the three-minute-pitch process, I’ve learned something else I sort of already knew but kept resisting: even the most complex plots, with the most tortured and nuanced characters, must have a throughline.

This rule is not in the least simple. It points to a tenet of structure as old as storytelling but one easy to overlook. Even if you are creating convoluted characters who wander all over their own emotions and tangle with fifty secondary characters and subplots, the book has to be about somebody who wants something and will pay in spades if he or she doesn’t get it.

That’s the throughline. Finding it is like that old story about chipping away parts of the marble that aren’t the statue. At some point, what your character wants, why she can’t get it, and what will happen if she doesn’t has to emerge from all the stuff that only supports your story, however important all that other stuff will ultimately turn out to be. The extras won’t work if they have nothing to hook onto.

Bottom Line: Sorry, You’re Not Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Any of Those Wonderful Folks

It’s tempting to think that our writing is so special, our creativity so rich, that any agent or editor who opens our file will be so entranced that clarity and throughlines are simply beside the point.

I fully acknowledge that there are literary geniuses for whom this is true. But two hard facts I’ve come to accept more and more: we first have to get our files into that agent’s inbox, and a clearly stated throughline is our best chance of slipping them in there. That throughline, which a three-minute pitch forced me to write, is also one of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where my book goes off track and w

Second, you are almost certainly not the genius who can transcend clarity once your first page is up for scrutiny by people who might actually pay you for the rest. Your genius—okay, my genius—will remain undiscovered if an agent or editor chooses “Move to Trash” before finishing that first page.

Quick Caveat before You Infinitely Revise

Choose your conferences carefully. It’s fun and often inspiring to attend lectures on how to do this or that in your story (“Make Your Characters Dynamic!” “Build Conflict!”). And it’s nice to chat with a “real author” who has agreed to critique your work

But conferences aren’t cheap. You can get “how-to” in spades online. And authors, bless us, don’t come to the chat thinking, “Would a publisher be willing to PAY FOR this book?”

With infinite revisions already behind me, I’ve found that someone who comes to my work with that question looming—who has made me do the work to answer it—is the only one who can definitively tell me whether I should revise again.

Okay, so when do you decide, “I’m never revising again”?

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Filed under Finding agents, Learning to write, literary fiction, looking for editors, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, Publishing, Works in progress, Writers' conferences

Is It Worth Your Time to Pitch Your Book?

Book in dramatic sunset landscapeOver at Indies Unlimited not too long ago, I ran across this comment from multi-award-winning author @MJBowersock:

[A]nyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t.

That’s not quite the kiss of death to our dreams of one day breaking into the publishing big time (the big houses call themselves “legacy” publishers now, Bowersock says). But it’s close.

Books as stairs to publishing success

So my question is, what about all those conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors who claim to be starving for new talent (like you and me)? Are they scamming us? Do they consider a day at a conference listening to pitches some sort of paid vacation?

If Bowersock is right, I guess so. And our chances of coming away from a conference with real hopes for a contract are nil. Conferences aren’t cheap. Pitching is scary. Why go through such an ordeal?

Here’s one answer: because there are benefits from pitching to actual editors and agents that you can’t get any other way.

I’m not suggesting that any writer invest thousands of dollars in conferences. But I am arguing that a judicious choice of conference at the right moment in your process can be worth at least as much as what you’re paying for that cover or that expert to format your text—

—Because pitching gives you several kinds of feedback you won’t get from any other source.

Publishing success is like a sunny day

You know what you get from query letters: “Sorry, we’re not the right agency for this book.”

What about your writing group? I consider writing groups essential. But the members of your writing group read as friends and colleagues. They don’t read as business people, charged with making money out of your book.

And therein lies all the difference. They hope to make money off of you!

I’m not plugging for any conference, but I’ve been to quite a few, and I’m sharing my experience. I’ve learned things from pitch sessions that no one else ever told me. I’ll do it again.

If you do decide to pitch, be sure to make your investment count:

  • Be ready. Don’t rush to a pitch session with an unspellchecked draft while you’re still trying to figure out whether your main character’s hair is black or red. Exhaust your writing groups and beta readers first.
  • Review the faculty to make sure you can pitch to people who work with your genre. Make sure they work for good agencies and aren’t just somebody’s Facebook friend.
  • Get one-on-one critiques as well as pitches. If at all possible, pay extra to have the right person at the conference read a query letter or a first page and meet with you so you can ask follow-up questions. Pay for “pitch practice” if you possibly can.

Your words fall into your book!

Here are the kinds of questions you can get answered even if there’s scant hope of a contract. They’re the questions you would pay an editor to answer, and Lord knows good editors aren’t cheap.

Do I know what my book is about?

You can muse all day with your writers’ group about your story question, your main character’s goals, why she can’t achieve them, how her journey ends, and so on.

In a pitch session, you have five minutes to lay it out. Five minutes with a steely eyed editor daring you to make him buy it. Get tongue-tied with that agent smiling ever-so-sweetly at you?

Then you haven’t figured it out.

Seeing that stare glaze over or that smile turn to a frown tells you that it’s time to take a good look at your structure so next time you’ll know what your book is about.

What’s derailing my book?

When was the last time you got a response from a query that said, “Sorry, here’s why we don’t want your book.” [Interject sound of strangled laughter from author]

In contrast, you’re three minutes into your pitch, and Steely Eyes says, “I don’t understand why anyone would do that.” Sweet Smile says, “That sounds like a really unpleasant character.” They both say, “I’m lost.” (Often followed by a specific hint as to where and how the road signs got turned around.)

Yeah, I know, if they’d just read the darn book, they’d get it. But the fact is, you’ve just recited part of the back cover blurb that will make readers buy the darn book, and now you know a few things that can turn readers off.

And you have specific issues beyond just-not-good-enough to consider before your next submission: motivation, characterization, style.

Is my idea the high-concept, totally original, million-dollar gem I think it is?

Agents and editors see hundreds of ideas in your genre. You may well be asked, “How is this different from all the other books I’ve seen recently about crazed werewolves in New Jersey?” That five minutes will tell you whether you know the answer to that.

How does my work stack up with someone who is not my friend?

Really, it all comes down to this one: An agent or editor at a conference does not need to make you feel good.

They don’t need you to be in the mood to give them friendly, constructive advice at the next writing group meeting. They don’t need to keep you happy so you’ll hire them again the next time you need an editor.

They’ll give you your five minutes, but after that, they’ve got twenty other people lined up, one of whom might have THE BOOK they came to the conference to acquire.

So the instant they know your pitch isn’t clicking, they won’t string you along.

Pitching at a conference isn’t the way to learn how to make your structure work or how to make your concept a stand-out. But it’s one sure method of finding out fast how close you are to those goals. The day the frown is accompanied by a business card and a willingness to take a look, you’ll know you’ve finally managed to answer the questions that will sell your book.

Book publishing success

Do you have advice for making the most of pitch sessions? Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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