I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference last week in New York. It was a great trip—a chance for me to meet my writing critique partner, Karen Stivali, face-to-face (yay!), spend 48 anxiety-soaked hours with her, meet other writers, and learn about the state of publishing. I won’t give a full synopsis of my trip, because that would be dull (my flight was delayed, it was cold outside, I was a bit hung over on Sunday), but I did want to write about the dreaded Pitch Slam.
For those who don’t know, a Pitch Slam is literary speed-dating—600+ writers, 50ish agents, you stand in line waiting for your 90 seconds to pitch your book and the agent has 90 seconds for feedback and questions. Next!
In the weeks leading up to the Pitch Slam, I scoured the Internet for evidence of writers living through such an experience. I didn’t find much. I wanted to know what it would be like, what I should do, what I should wear. I found a blog post on All Things Literary that is nearly the written equivalent of Valium. Unfortunately, written Valium only lasts for a few hours.
So, here’s the deal.
Prepare. Practice, practice, practice and then well, you know. I pitched the cat, I pitched my twelve-year-old daughter, and I pitched the wall sconce in the hotel room (I was sure I would do great with any agent wearing a square lampshade). I wrote my pitch as I wanted to say it, and then I memorized it. Some people say this is a bad idea, but it was my safety net. I still improvised when I was delivering the pitches–that’s me, always revising.
Get a grip. Yes, these are agents. Yes, it feels like they hold your very future, the fate of the manuscript you’ve spent countless hours polishing, in their hands. But the truth is that they only hold that fate as it pertains to them. They’re lovely people, but there are other agents in the sea. If somebody doesn’t like your idea or your pitch, you should listen. Don’t argue. Just listen.
Keep it short. Don’t feel like you really have all of 90 seconds because you don’t. Maybe the guy ahead of you takes forever to get out of the chair or maybe the agent needs to jot down a note. I say budget for 60.
For fiction, they only care about your story. Some agents cared about things like my target audience, but they only asked questions about the story.
Show your enthusiasm. You love your book, you love your characters, you know everything about them and what makes them tick, so let the agent see how much you love your own book. Use your voice, use exciting (but simple) words, gesture. If you’re not excited, nobody’s going to be excited.
Adapt and survive. If an agent pokes a hole in your pitch (as happened to me), consider a tweak to close the hole. I made a change while waiting in line and had a request from the next agent I pitched.
Get out of your own head. This is counter-intuitive for most writers, but I found one of the best things for calming my nerves was chatting with writers more nervous than me. I was able to focus my energy on their worries and remind myself why it’s not worth the stress. I met some really awesome people this way.
Dress decently. Yes, you are already proving to them that you’re not a shut-in by showing up to do the pitch, but if you want people to take you seriously, you should dress like it. Wear what’s comfortable, but look the part of a capable, together person.
Have fun. Yeah, right. Nobody has fun doing this sort of thing, so that seems like terrible advice. I’m thinking a more appropriate ending to my list would be, “Head straight to the hotel bar” or, “Go outside and scream at the top of your lungs”, or as many people did, “Tweet your butt off about it”. The hotel bar is my favorite (see aforementioned hangover), but Sheraton, seriously? Sprite in a margarita? You’re killing me here.
Karen Stivali also has a fabulous post about WDC 11 and the Pitch Slam on her blog. Check it out at karenstivali.com.
This installment is a funny one–Sam Stephenson and Django Haskins, both incredibly smart and talented–scholarly Renaissance men, in my estimation. I fully expected stories of musical memories so outlandish and worldly that it would make me feel like the girl wearing sparkly blue eyeshadow, smacking gum and working at the Dairy Queen, and yet we have talk of Prince stickers on three-ring-binders and Bryan Adams slow dances. Turns out we all have some variation of the same experiences, which is a great comfort to me. As always, if you or anyone you know would like to answer one of these for me, drop me a line at karen [at] karenbalcom [dot] com. Enjoy!
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley. I grew up in a town of nine thousand people in coastal N.C. (Washington) and we relied heavily on two local pop radio stations – WITN Rock 93 out of Washington, or Chocowinity to be exact, and WSFL 106.5 out of Bridgeton/New Bern. This song was in heavy rotation 1983-84 and I hated it. When I heard its first notes on one of the two stations I’d switch to the other one. Whenever I hear it today I’m taken back to the 1978 Pontiac Firebird that was passed down from my brother to me and suddenly I’m driving out to the mall on a cold, dark winter night, and I’m hitting the radio preset buttons as fast as I can to get to a different tune.
“Union of the Snake” by Duran Duran. During summers, holidays, and Saturdays I worked at Moss Planing Mill, which was a lumber and building supply company. A slightly older co-worker named Sammy Corey had a Buick Regal two-door sedan with a T-top and I remember jumping in his car one day to go to Hardee’s for lunch. He threw in a cassette with this tune cued up and he said, “This is some bad jam,” and we cranked it over to Hardee’s. That sticks with me bigtime.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school: A purple Prince “1999” sticker that I had on my 3-ring binder. We didn’t have access to much memorabilia in Washington but it was around this time I got huge into Springsteen bootlegs after stumbling into a bootleg store on my first family trip to New York.
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: The Police. I can’t really explain this but I never could dig those guys. I learned to like them later, and Sting later. But in high school I hated “Every Breath You Take” and all those tunes. Eddie Murphy singing “Roxanne” in the movie 48 Hours was part of a turnaround for me.
Best show or concert you saw in high school: We didn’t have access to a lot of concerts. We had to go out of town to see shows. Billy Joel in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh circa 1979. I was in 6th grade. This was back when he was still Long Island cool, the 52nd St. tour, before he started being ticked off that he wasn’t Springsteen. There was 38 Special and Joan Jett at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, then Joan Jett and Donny Iris and some other forgettable acts in Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. There was also the annual Beach Music Festival at Emerald Isle, NC, featuring The Embers, General Johnson and the Chairmen of the Board, and a lot of drunks fighting. I can’t say I really enjoyed any of these shows, other than the spectacle value. A couple of other things come to mind. I grew up next door to an African-American beach called Griffin’s Beach on the Pamlico River outside Washington. Nobody had air conditioning back then so our windows were always open. I went to bed every Saturday night hearing the thump of Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Commodores cover bands playing next door. Also, my family visited New York a few times when I was a teenager and we went to Tavern on the Green once and a band of young black musicians was playing jazz. That left an impression on me. I can’t remember any specifics. Looking back, I’m sure they were playing mild ballads in that environment. But there was something hip about it to me.
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: Fishbone, “Bonin in the Boneyard.” I grew up in the country outside of Gainesville, Florida with an older sister who listened to Rick Springfield and Wendy & Lisa pretty much exclusively. The U of F radio station was strictly commercial and kept its playlist trimmed to the essentials: “All Right Now” by Free and “Radar Love” by Golden Earring. I was pretty much on my own in terms of finding cool bands. I think I first heard of Fishbone in the movie “Say Anything.” Since I was one of two fans at my high school, I had to make my own Fishbone t-shirt with puffy paint.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school: Bo Diddley lived in Gainesville, and I once stalked him at his lawyer’s office with an old LP of his (my dad knew his lawyer and tipped me off). He signed it, wrote his telephone number on it, and told me to call him and “come jam sometime.” I’d just started playing guitar the previous year, so I waited a while before calling. When I finally did call, one of his many grandsons always answered and told me they’d leave him a message. I never did get through.
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: Rush. Rush is Canada’s male chastity belt. It’s physically impossible to get laid while being a Rush fan. Not that I knew about either of those in high school.
Best show or concert you saw in high school: I didn’t see that many big shows, though I did see the Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour. From where I stood in the football stadium, they looked like little moving action figures. Still, it was pretty great. Living Colour opened and then promptly went scuba diving.
Best high school make-out song: Don’t know about high school, but I distinctly remember slow dancing in middle school to Bryan Adams’ (pre-Whiskeytown) “Heaven” and thinking that, if I could get any of these girls to make out with me (I couldn’t), that’d be a good one to play.