Sunday, July 27, 2008

PNWC: Bob Mayer on How to Pitch

Last weekend I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference here in Seattle. I hadn't planned to attend. In fact, I'd already registered for the Willamette Writers Conference, which is coming up NEXT weekend. But I finaled in the associated literary contest, so I decided to go to enjoy the little perks of being a finalist and to be there in person in case I finished in the top three.

Which, incidentally, was a good decision. My Napoleonic-era alternative history, Invasion 1805, took second in the science fiction & fantasy category. Huge ego boost there, I gotta admit.

Anyway, I'm finally making time to go through my notes, so I thought I'd put them on my blog so others could benefit, too.

My first workshop on Thursday afternoon was with Bob Mayer, the ex-Green Beret military thriller writer who lately has been collaborating with Jenny Crusie. The title was "How to Pitch," a topic which guarantees a packed house at any conference, and this was no exception. I got there five minutes before the start and still had to sit on the floor at the back of the room.

Mayer opened with some general thoughts on marketing your book and navigating the shoals of the publishing industry:

1. TITLES: The only marketing tool you as an author sorta-kinda have control over is your book's title. As such, you want to make sure it invites the reader into the story. Too obscure, too generic, etc. is a bad thing.

2. TIMING: A factor you can't control. Sometimes you've got the right book at the wrong time. This one struck home for me, because I really think the best of my three romance manuscripts, The Sergeant's Lady, is of publishable quality, but just doesn't fit the current market zeitgeist. While all my creative energies are focused on Invasion, there's still a part of me that dreams of TSL getting its moment to shine. Maybe the market will shift. Or maybe I'll get lucky and become so gosh-darn popular that it'll sell just because it has my name on it. A girl can dream.

3. FOCUS: You need to know your goals and focus on them. E.g. at a conference you should filter everything you learn through your goal in publishing.

4. PITCH: Emotion is the key. First you need to hook the editor or agent to the emotional core of the story. If s/he's hooked, s/he'll move on to the next question: "Can I sell it?"

5. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU'VE FINISHED A BOOK: Let it sit awhile before rewriting and submitting. Publishing is a slow industry, and you are the only one involved who's in a hurry. Start work on your next book even before querying on your first book. Once your book is on the market, it's not your baby anymore--it's a PRODUCT. Your emotional investment belongs to what you're writing NOW. Give up your Type A personality and focus on the most important character traits a writer needs--persistence and patience. Develop a 3-year mindset. It'll take you a year to write a book, a year to sell, and a year in production before the book hits the shelves.

6. THE MARKET: Don't write for the market, but invest in Publishers Lunch and understand the market and how you fit in. Network, network, network. And have a low PIA (Pain in the Ass) Factor. You don't want to lose a deal by being obnoxious.

Then Mayer moved into the meat of his presentation: how to distill the heart of your story down to 25 words or less. Basically, the "elevator pitch"--a quick one-liner designed to answer the question, "So, what's your story about?" and hopefully to hook the hearer and lead to more questions.

Mayer urged us to focus on "The Original Idea." Original here doesn't mean "unique"--he stressed that there are no truly unique ideas left--but rather "at the origin." You're to ask yourself, "What was it that made me write this book?" You'd think this would be obvious, but we often forget, and it's often where you find the emotional core that will resonate with readers.

Here Mayer digressed a bit to talk about character and its centrality to marketable, memorable fiction. What makes your book different from every similar book is character. You need to look at your protagonist's arc. If you put your protagonist as he is in his first scene into the climax of the book, he should lose, because he needs to grow over the course of the book to meet the challenge you throw at him in the climax.

Then he went back to more issues to consider in putting together your pitch:
- You want to lead with the most interesting aspect of your book.
- What's the payoff?
- What's your intent? What do you want readers to feel about your book?
- What's your protagonist's anomaly? What makes him or her unique?
- In general, less is more.
- Be wary of author comparisons. The invite the response of "No, you're not."

All through the second half of the talk, I was furiously scribbling away at my one-line pitch, because Mayer announced that at the end, he'd read out pitches from the audience and comment upon them. My Original Idea was maybe not as helpful as most people's would be, because Invasion started as a mental exercise to see if I could find a way to get the Napoleonic Wars onto English soil. (Why I engaged in such an exercise is a long story, and one I'd like to save for if/when the book sells.) After about eight attempts, I finally turned in "In a world where Napoleon conquers England in 1805, Arthur Wellesley (our world's Duke of Wellington) becomes a renegade resistance leader."

As luck would have it, mine was the very first pitch Mayer read aloud. He said it intrigued him, as someone who likes history and alternative histories. It's just a premise--we don't really know what's at stake, i.e. why we should care or root for England. A world where France conquered England 200 years ago might actually be BETTER, who knows. But he thought it was a good hook, a good premise that should lead to more questions. Oh, and he told me I needed to cut "Arthur Wellesley" and just say "our world's Duke of Wellington," because that's what my hearers will actually recognize, and there's no need to clutter the pitch with extra words. Good point. I should've known better, but I'm constitutionally incapable of calling my protagonist "Wellington" prior to 1809, because it wasn't his name yet. I nitpick, therefore I am. I am pedant, hear me pontificate. Also, I've come to think of the real man as Wellington and my interpretation thereof as Wellesley. Makes it simpler when talking to my critique partners, and frees me, somehow, to plunge into his head and play as I take him on a very different journey than the real Wellington ever experienced.

So. That's my one-line pitch, and I have to say it was effective as I tried it out on various people I met during the weekend. I have to work on a longer two-minute pitch and a query letter, but it's not urgent, since I'm still a few chapters shy of a completed first draft. It never occurred to me that anyone would question the "rooting for England" aspect of the story. As far as I'm concerned, I'm squarely in the Hornblower/Sharpe/Aubrey-Maturin tradition. Rooting for England is just what we do. It's a valid question, though, and I do play with issues of what freedom really means and what is worth fighting for.

1 comment:

Edie said...

Susan, that's a great pitch as is! I think "Napoleon" would be better than "France," because we think of Napoleon as a dictator. It's more specific than "France."

Thanks for sharing your notes!