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.
In response to last week’s Wurster Brotherly Love edition, I couldn’t pass up the chance to have one of Lane and Jon Wurster’s best high school buddies, Matt Thorn, fill in a few of the gaps in the history of 80s music fandom at Souderton Area High School. Truly awesome. And speaking of awesome, our second contributor is Patrick Cudahy, Chapel Hill t-shirt purveyor, 80s music expert, and without question, the winner of any dance contest he enters. Seriously. Patrick also designed the fabulous Banks Forest logo. As always, let me know if you’d like to play with these questions yourself. I welcome anybody with a good story or two. Send me an email at karen [at] karenbalcom [dot] com. Post a comment below if you want to let me know what you think (rather than sending an email). Other people want to know your deepest thoughts, as well.
Souderton Area High School, Soudernton, PA, Class of ’83, Currently: I teach about, write about and translate manga. (Check out “A Drunken Dream and Other Stories” by Moto Hagio, translated and edited by me, from Fantagraphic Books!) I also make lightsabers.
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: I would like to say R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, because it sounds better, but a more honest answer would be Adam and the Ants’ “Ant Music.” It was in my first year of high school, sometime in 1981. I was on the track team, along with Lane Wurster, who was a year ahead of me (and was an amazing long-distance runner, by the way). During track practice, someone had a boombox playing whatever the least horrible Philly radio station that we could pick up in Souderton was at the time, when a classmate of Lane’s, Ed Rodrigo, started freaking out. “This is it! This is it! Listen! Turn it up!” It was “Ant Music.” Ed cranked it up and started dancing around. This was my baptism into New Wave. I remember being blown away seeing DEVO on SNL in 1978, and Bowie with Klaus Nomi on SNL in 1979, but I saw those performances alone, and had no one to share them with. This was the first time I had a group of friends who were getting into this stuff and eager to share it. Yeah, Adam and the Ants were completely vapid, but they spoke to my adolescent angst, and even after being exposed to much better stuff, I remained an adamant fan. (Get it? Oh, I kill myself sometimes.) Until the release of Strip, that is, which was a rude awakening that forced me to acknowledge that Mr. Ant had the I.Q. of a tennis ball.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school: That’s an easy one. My Hair Club For Men T-Shirt. Hair Club For Men was Jon Wurster’s first band. I can’t remember if Jon was still in junior high when they formed or was a sophomore in high school. Steve Grasse, now of artintheage.com fame, was the bassist, and designed the T-shirt. Turns out he had more of a knack for design than for playing the bass.
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: That would be just about all of them. Too many to count. Foreigner leaps to mind as one of the most annoying and tacky.
Best show or concert you saw in high school: That’s a hard one. There were so many great shows. But I suppose I would have to go with the same Lane picked, which was the The Police, The Go-Go’s, The Specials, Oingo Boingo & The Coasters at Liberty Race Track in New Jersey, 1981. That was the first real concert I ever attended.
Best high school make-out song: I never even thought about it. The two most popular “slow dance” songs in Souderton back in the day were “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird.” As a matter of principle, I could not acknowledge any merit those songs might have. Although I seem to remember more than once jokingly dancing with guy friends to those tunes, much to the horror of the jocks and heads in attendance. But make-out music? The only thing that pops into my head is “I Melt With You,” by Modern English (1982). That was “our song.” By which I mean, mine and Robin Kane’s. She was my first love, so naturally she turned out to be a lesbian. (But we’re still good friends.)
Gulf Breeze High School (really), Gulf Breeze, FL, Class of 1990, Currently: owns The Merch and plays in a band called ROBES.
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: Gotta be “The Lung” by Dinosaur Jr. This whole record blew me away when it came out, but this song in particular seemed to be the one that no matter what i was doing, skateboarding, driving around w/ friends looking for something to do on a Friday night or just smoking cigs in the parking lot before school , this song was always being cranked on the stereo. But when we did decide to listen to mix it up a bit, Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” did the job too.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school: My giant Husker Du “Zen Arcade” poster, which i know didn’t come out while i was in high school, but i got it from a record store while i was in high school, so it counts.
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: Pretty much all the hair metal bands (minus GnR)…and the Indigo Girls, which weren’t super popular, but 2 good friends of mine who had similar musical tastes as me got way into them at the end of our senior year, and they just always wanted to play it. It was brutal.
Best show or concert you saw in high school: Too many to name. I grew up in Winona, Minnesota where absolutely nothing happened, especially bands coming to play, but the summer before my sophomore year of high school, my parents moved us to Pensacola, FL, which should have sucked, but it was the total opposite. It had an amazing skateboard scene as well as a great indie music scene, and for whatever reason, tons of bands that i liked at the time, played P’cola…Bad Brains, SNFU, Fugazi, Das Damen, Screaming Trees, Dag Nasty, Flaming Lips…they all played, and all RULED!
Best high school make-out song: I remember having a pretty good makeout session w/ a girl named Mary in her car listening to New Order’s “Substance” cassette.
This installment is pretty special to me. Lane and Jon Wurster are two of the funniest, most amazing people on the planet, not that either would own up to it. Lane was one of the very first people I met in Chapel Hill, before I moved here, and I remember thinking that if everyone in Chapel Hill was half as nice as Lane, I couldn’t go wrong. For the record, I would pay some serious money for a photo of Lane in the war paint and puffy shirt. I hope everyone can fully enjoy this chunk of Jon and Lane’s music memories as much as I do and as always, please let me know if you (yes, you) would like to participate in a future installment. I take nearly anybody who can tell a cool story, so send me an email at karen [at] karenbalcom [dot] com.
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: Two songs that come to mind right away are “Urgent” by Foreigner and “Heat of the Moment” by Asia. I liked neither. Whenever the former comes on the radio I’m transported back to my older brother’s Honda Civic in the winter of ’82 on our way to school. I still think there is nothing crueler than making a teenager get up at six AM to brave freezing winter weather to go to school. I barely graduated and I turned out great. I mean, look how good I right.
When I hear the Asia song I’m back in my friend Matt Thorn’s powder blue Rabbit the following year. We’re bound for the mall to see what exciting new wave LPs have made their way into Music Scene since we visited last week. I play along with Carl Palmer as he does that Ronettes beat but I hit the dashboard too hard and knock out a portion of the Rabbit’s humble stereo system. Matt is rightfully upset with me.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school:
1. A section of Adam Ant’s shirt that I caught at his show at the Tower Theater, winter of ’82.
2. A “Rio” t-shirt I got autographed by three members of Duran Duran at the Mann Music Center, summer of ’83.
3. A postcard from Michael Stipe.
I don’t think I have any of these anymore.
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: With the exception of a few songs I never liked metal. Though I’m sure there’s good stuff I associate it with many of the super closed-minded creeps with whom I went to school. I know that is petty but I’m sticking to it.
Best high school make-out song: I don’t think I kissed a girl ’til way after high school.
Best show or concert you saw in high school:
1. U2 at the Tower Theater, May 13. 1983.
2. Ramones at Drexel University, Feb, 1983.
3. R.E.M (opening for the Police) at JFK Stadium, August, 1983.
4. Robert Hazard at Ursinus College, Nov, 1982.
Souderton Area High School, Souderton, PA Class of 1982, Currently: I do advertising and design for The Splinter Group
Band and/or song that reminds you the most of high school: That would have to be Adam and the Ants. During my senior year, there was a Radio/TV Production class in which you could shoot your own music video in the A/V Room. I wasn’t enrolled in the class, but I somehow talked the teacher into letting me shoot one for Adam’s “Stand and Deliver”. My brother and our friend Matt Thorn were in it too — as back-up swashbucklers. Full make-up, lip-synching and bad dancing. The shoot ran a bit long and I remember catching a lot of crap for showing up to my Chemistry class in leather pants, a puffy shirt and war paint.
Favorite piece of music memorabilia (poster, t-shirt, etc.) in high school: Probably the ticket stub from “seeing” Aerosmith at The Spectrum when I was 15. My neighbor was two years older than me and he was a big Aerosmith fan. He got tickets to the show (I think it was either the ‘Draw the Line’ or ‘Night in the Ruts’ tour) and we were going to drive to Philly for the show in his ’67 Camaro. But my parents were nervous about “all of the bad things that can happen at rock concerts” and didn’t want me to go. After a stand-off they proposed a family night in the city in which we’d all stay in a hotel right next to the arena. That way my buddy and I could see the show and then safely walk back to the hotel afterwards. So we drive to city with my folks and brother, check into the hotel and Dave and I walk over to the stadium. There’s a huge crowd out front and people begin trying to crash down the doors. I’m about 125 pounds at this point and I’m being moved throughout the crowd without using my feet. It’s just a huge panicked wave of stoned people. And mounted police. The police horses start bucking. Dave and I get separated. I am trying to be “cool” but I’m really scared. I’ve never really seen people on hard drugs before and it seems like a terrible dream. We finally get inside and I find Dave at our seats. Golden Earring was the opening band and they played their hit “Radar Love” twice, at the beginning and end of their set. After a fifteen minute intermission Aerosmith finally comes on stage. This is it. What we’ve all been waiting for. They rip through the first song and then someone in the crowd throws a bottle at Joe Perry’s head and the band stops playing. “Philadelphia, you’ve got a fucking problem!” says Steven Tyler. They walk off stage. The show is over. It’s 8:15. Don’t you hate when your parents are right?
Band that you hated that everyone else at school seemed to love: I’m torn between AC/DC and Rush on this one. There were lots of parties my junior year at which AC/DC seemed to have been the constant soundtrack. The football players and wrestlers would all play air guitar and pump their fists to that “Dirty Knees and the Thunder Chief” song. I never really got it. The guy I rode to school with my sophomore year was pretty into Rush. No wait, that was the name of the inhalant he had in his glove compartment.
Best high school make-out song: Stevie Nicks’ “Leather and Lace”. Like most guys, I got into hard-core bondage during my junior year. What with all the Amish and Mennonite girls in our town, “Leather and Lace” really spoke to me.
Best show or concert you saw in high school: There was this amazing/bizarre show at a New Jersey horse race track (Liberty Race Track) in 1981. The Police, The Go-Go’s, The Specials (!!!), Oingo Boingo & The Coasters.Six of us packed into our tiny Honda Civic and drove a hours to see the show. The Specials were incredible. A friend of mine “fell asleep” during the show and we covered his face with cigarette butts and trash we found. That’s what friends are for, right?
In the spirit of welcoming a new year and saying goodbye to 2010, I want to thank everyone who has played a big part in my writing life over the last year. I can now say that I have spent an entire year writing Bring Me Back, although to be more precise, it’s more like fourteen months. I learned a lot about myself over the course of 2010—about what I’m capable of and how writing plays into that.
Warning: this is going to sound like chicken soup, but I’m going to say it anyway. When I write, I feel like myself. It doesn’t always make me happy or feel like I’m perfectly fulfilled and it certainly doesn’t mean that my problems go away. I’m just me, at least for a little while. I suggest fostering this in yourself whenever possible.
Thanks to my husband, Steve, for unconditionally supporting me even when he has no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.
Thanks to Sara, my cheerleader, for reading dozens and dozens of revisions and always “getting” what I’m going for.
Thanks to Karen, my writing critique partner, who isn’t afraid to tell me when something sucks and is happy to watch me tear it apart and put it back together.
Thanks to friends who pushed me to get better—Bill Williams, Sam Stephenson, Laurie Cochenour, Sarah Dessen, and Heather Ross.
Thanks to friends who went above and beyond to help and encourage—Jane Greathouse, Maura Partrick, Jennifer Resnick, Jared Resnick, John Strohm, and Jay Faires.
And thanks to all of my early readers—Karrie Adamany, Angie Mack, Lisa Kaylie, Evette Horton, Christie Oppliger, Mairead Maloney Eastin, Melissa Cain, Amy Barefoot, Smudge, Jill Mango, Sarah Austin, Ashley Mattison, Fran Wittman, Monica Shelton, Annette Alicea, Jane Sangster, and Diane Tameecha. Love you guys!