New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019
This pitch conference in New York puts you in touch with experts in the field of novel writing and prepares you for agent representation with book publishers.
From Sept 19-22, last Thursday to Sunday now, I took part in the New York Pitch Conference, the creation of mastermind Michael Neff. As luck would have it, too, I found myself in Group B, with many fellow writers–most of them focusing on sci-fi and fantasy–and all of us under the tutorship of the sometimes critical, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes hysterical, but always knowledgable, caring, and in particular, focused on what is going to sell in the publishing industry and what will not.
The conference itself was well organized, with three groups separated into three rooms. One group was led by Paula Munier and focused on writing mysteries. Susan Breen led Group A and focused on memoirs and women’s fiction.
We only gathered together once to hear a presentation from the funny and strategic thinker, Amy Collins. She presented a plan, Becoming a Successful Author, that is eye-opening about the demands on every author in this modern market of publishing. And we were thinking getting an agent was difficult.
Acquisition editors from some of the major publishing houses were brought in at the beginning of the 20th after Michael Neff guided each of us in sharpening our pitches on the 19th. The sharpening continued after each pitch based on the feedback received from each editor.
By the time we were pitching on Sunday, our pitches were well-honed. Based on the interests of the editors, some received requests for more, others did not. We all returned home with the need to do more revising.
(That is nothing to be upset about. Revising is about 99 percent of writing a book. It is not at all like they portray in the movies where one sits down at a typewriter or computer and you see them starting and then finishing and it’s ready for publication.)
The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch
“Kirk Egerton is resentful when he sneaks from his house in the middle of an Upper Michigan blizzard because five of his friends are missing. They all live on an air force base where bombers are armed with nuclear weapons and sit on alert ready for the call to attack the Soviet Union in December 1977, whether it is snowing or not.
“But while Kirk knows the others should be at the tree house they built during the summer months that year, no one knows a Russian spy has captured the five when they found his hut while trying to get home in the storm.”
The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch Improvements
We made some important decisions about my present project. It’s something of a square peg. The industry prefers round holes. But at the suggestion of Brendan Deneen, we are now using the comp of the movie The Goonies to pitch my book.
But that’s not all.
At Brendan’s suggestion and with the reinforcement of the responses that followed from others, I’m now also including some of the “cool stuff” that happens in the meat of the book.
“To build the fort one of the guys overcame what he thought was the threat of killer bees. Another swears he sees Bigfoot when he steps away from their camp the first night they spend the night out in the woods. As four trained Scouts, they fail to notice until it’s too late that they’ve sat down in poison ivy. Rather than risking treatment at the base hospital, one of them persuades the rest that using skunk oil will relieve the itch. This leads to them building a trap and….
“For initiation one walks alone at night through a cemetery, which is a former Indian burial ground. Another climbs the base water tower at 10 p.m. and plays Reveille after Taps. For the final initiation, they all climb into a cave behind the tall rock face in the Little Laughing White Fish Falls lagoon and the entry collapses.”
The Closing Questions
“In the end, Kirk must rescue the others from the top of the rock face, known as the Devil’s Ledge, by climbing the face of the rock. The spy intends to force the five off the top and let them plunge to their deaths. Kirk engages the spy with a combat knife when the Russian has a pistol. Is he able to rescue the others and keep them from getting killed? How have the events of the year affected Kirk and shaped him for this one moment that will matter for the rest of his life?
I ask some good closing questions. They are designed to get an agent to ask for more, not to give away the whole story.
What I Learned at the New York Pitch Conference
I’ve been to a number of writing conferences and spent three years in the Southern Methodist University Writer’s Path Program.
There is some variance in how to do a few things, but the rules for how to pitch, what New York editors and agents are looking for, and those things are pretty much set in stone.
Some fluctuation exists, but not much. New York writing agents receive hundreds, if not thousands, of queries each week. Their screeners and the agents themselves are looking for the “slightest anything” they can use to reject and pass on representing your book.
Neff said he’s even seen screeners even highlighting lines of queries in email boxes and randomly highlighting them and then hitting delete just so they could get to a manageable number of queries to read in a week. Not fair, no, but there is nothing that can be done about it, and one will never know if that brought a pass or if they read your pitch and did not like it.
The proverbial “they” say there is a difference between a writer who got published and one who did not. The one who got published ignored the umpteen rejections and kept querying.
One of my mentors once told me that until I got into the 130-rejections range I really had not tried to query anyway. I’m almost halfway there and I have to tell you, my pitch has changed considerably, my book has been revised about five times since then, and the writing is much stronger.
My Recommendation: Attend the New York Pitch Conference when you’re ready
I recommend this conference to well-seasoned writers who have a book that’s in its fourth or fifth draft. If you take a first draft or second draft to pitch, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. While your idea may be exciting to the editors and coaches you’ll work with, your book will not be ready for the scrutiny that will follow and in a couple of years, their passions will likely have moved on to something else.
Writing a book takes time. A novel does. (Update: Forget what those using ChatGPT might tell you!)
Remember the Ernest Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.
I shared my first draft of Voodoo Hill with my family and a few friends. I’m embarrassed now that I did. I wish I could sneak into their homes and get them all back and burn them, but most likely they’ve all thrown them out already anyhow. That is what should have happened to that copy. The next year when I made a 10-CD audio recording of the next draft, ugh, I shudder to think about it.
This latest draft I feel is pretty sound, but I felt the same way about the others and I know they weren’t ready for human consumption either.
Go slow. Be deliberate. Let your words simmer. Finish a revision and then put the book away and forget about it for a month or two. Maybe even six months. Then come back to it. The words will still be there. So will the publishing industry. And the trends will change. Maybe square holes will be the thing soon. I sure as hell hope so….
But the New York Pitch Conference is a wise investment along the path to getting your book published. Without any reservations, I recommend it whole heartedly.
Check out my post a week after here: NY Pitch Conference.
Heather Sellers’ 2007 writers’ guide Chapter After Chapter encourages anyone interested in becoming a better writer to read 101 Fiction Novels.
In December 2016, I set out to do just that, having suffered an injury that was keeping me from working like most, one that continues to plague me even today.
Other complications and illnesses have been added since, making working and concentrating even harder, but thankfully, I’ve been able to keep reading, and on Nov. 29th, I put down Javier Marías’ The Infatuations, book number 101, satisfied and fulfilled in a way I could not have imagined two years before.
You see, while I have been physically disabled the past two and a half years, I have been able to mentally travel around the world and through time through the power of fiction.
I’ve made a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, the three geniuses edited and managed by Maxwell Perkins. Through them I’ve been bullfighting in Spain in the 1930s, been all over Italy and Europe during World War I, and Paris afterward.
Then through various authors I’ve been in Paris as the Germans invaded it during World War II, and in many ways I felt what it must have been like, to have gone from such heydays after World War I with the Lost Generation to the starkness of the Nazi invasions, their lists, the killings.
But I’ve also been to Australia for a road race around the continent in the 1950s with Peter Carey in his book A Long Way From Home, and returned to experience the power of Big Little Lies with Liane Moriarty; experienced The Plague in Africa via Albert Camus, a non-existent war in Africa during Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and been to South America for a hostage situation via Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (I’ll read anything now written by Ann Patchett–Commonwealth was so good, too.)
I have been to Tennessee and South Carolina to figure out the mystery of the woman who stole river children in the 1900s for adoption in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. (Lisa is under the impression US senators ride around in limousines all the time. Reporters should know better.)
My thinking about trees was forever changed by Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. To think about living in the canopy of a redwood in Oregon for nine months, 100 feet off the ground. Something I’d never thought of, but might consider, given the chance and with better health. A wonderful, wonderful book that haunts me now whenever I see someone cutting down a tree because I know how long it takes for a tree to grow, the history behind it and how we snuff out a tree with a chainsaw and don’t give it a moment of thought.
Gosh, I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve been to England. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. What a great story about the power of love. Don’t forget to also read his On Chesil Beach. If you want to read some of the first murder mystery genre setting books, don’t forget John Fowles’ The Collector, who kidnaps a woman he fancies and drags her off to live in his flat north of London. The Lodger is another prolific book that brilliantly explores the murders surrounding the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje was also one of my favorites from my journey.
Then there are the books about the States. The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel remains a favorite, a story about a boy who shows up in an Ohio town the summer of 1984 claiming to be answering an ad in the local paper calling on the Devil to present himself. Steven King’s The Outsider was something new for me. It wasn’t scary, but definitely a different read. Tommy Oranges’ There There shed new light on the Native American culture I did not know about. A.J. Finn and The Woman in the Window, Ottessa Moshfegh and Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as well as Lauren Weissberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons all gave me new perspectives about the modern woman.
Celeste Ng took me back to Ohio in Little Fires Everywhere, a very good book, and Rachel Kushner seemed to have much the same thematic in The Flamethrowers—Fac Ut Ardeat (made to burn); perhaps that theme was also being explored in The Summer that Melted Everything as well. Even Stephen King’s The Outsider.
Thomas Wolfe intrigued me for days with his You Can’t Go Home Again. The language and writing is beautiful.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Funny, at times. But with an important message nonetheless.
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was strange to me at first, but I came to enjoy the writing once I got my bearings. The initial passages about the blind assassin himself, and the girl, were just strange, and I’ve found I’m not much for reading sci fi or dystopian nonsense.
I also flat out skip sections in books about explicit gay sex. Chloe Benjamin, Adam Haslett, take note. Your books were good, but I skipped large portions of The Immortalists and Imagine Me Gone and don’t think I missed anything, which means, those sections could have been left out (note to authors, agents and publishers). Those sections didn’t add anything. And in the case of Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, once I learned that’s what it was, I’d actually ordered it from Amazon, I cancelled the order. I have no desire to read anything like that. Period.
I’ve read my share of spy novels: Daniel Silva’s The Other Woman, T. Jefferson Parker’s Swift Vengeance, Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her, and the over-hyped ridiculous Bill Clinton/James Patterson The President is Missing.
In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone I spent time in Washington state and Oregon, and then the wilds of Alaska. This was not a great book by any means, but people recommended I read Hannah’s The Nightingale and I honestly believe it is the best book I’ve ever read. Goodreads has it rated at a 4.65 or something close and that seems to be the highest rating I could find. I highly recommend this book above all the rest. It is the one I described above as helping me understand what it must have been like when the Nazi’s invaded France in World War II. Maybe you should read some of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their antics in Paris beforehand to learn about how gay and charming the city was 10 years before, that way you may get the full impact.
I’m going to start revising my second novel once again, with new knowledge.
And I’m going to keep writing.
It’s my 53rd birthday today and I’m getting a copy of War and Peace. I’m planning to also read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as a study in the next few weeks. I also need to finish Anna Karenina. The movie version is good, but not good enough.
I also have asked my girls for a series of books that PBS and my local book store, Interabang Books put together this summer–100 supposed best loved novels–that I intend to read. Some of them I don’t think belong on the list and won’t read, but a good many I will. Some I already have and just have never read.
The goal in all of this is to make me a better writer, but what it’s also doing is making me a better person. Opening my mind and horizons. Making me think and relaxing my soul. My body is not in a condition to do what it once was able. I’ve been doing all I can the past two and a half years to get help from doctors to get it fixed. In the meantime, I’ve been getting my heart, mind, soul and writing ready for when I am free to walk normally in the world again.
Two years later, that’s the greatest gift I can give myself.
There are days when my writer’s doubt makes me want to load up my typewriters, cameras, laptops, iPads, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, the axe, the dog, my notebooks, and typing paper and head far into the woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There we’d be far from the silence of waiting for the next ding from Mac Mail that might be another rejection from a literary agent or might finally, just possibly be an email from an agent wanting more of what I’ve queried.
To date, I’ve sent out 77 query letters. I’ve received 31 rejections and have two agents who have asked for more. One asked for three chapters more on May 3rd and I’ve heard nothing more. Another asked for a full-on July 2. It’s now August 9, 2018.
In an effort to keep myself from going stir-crazy, I have been revising Book 3, which will be Book 2 to query. Since most agents supposedly vacation in August, I’m spending the month revising, and I’m spending the month doing what I can to work toward my goal set by Heather Sellers in Chapter After Chapter–to read 101 fictional works with the understanding that I will be a much better writer for having done so. As of today, I am on book 74, 1/3 of the way through Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
(This is an affiliate link to Amazon. If you make a purchase from this link, I may receive a small commission for the sale at no additional expense to you.)
Query Letters and The Synopsis
What I’m also learning on this quest is that there is no right answer, no one way for doing any of this.
What one agent will tell you about how to write a query letter will not match what the next one tells you.
The same goes for the dreaded synopsis.
I was taught to do it one way.
his month’s Writer’s Digest magazine is an excerpt from Ammi-Joan Paquette, who says the synopsis should be one page for every 10,000 words, meaning a good solid synopsis should be five to eight pages in length.
The only problem with that is when you get down to querying and agents ask for a synopsis, they ask for a short one of 1-3 pages, generally.
It’s all a moving target, and for someone trying to break in, it’s mind-boggling.
Then there is what to make of rejection letters. Most of them include a sentence that says, “We get so many queries, we don’t have time to provide a personal response why we are passing on your book.” So that’s of no real help.
And then when someone does take the time, it doesn’t jive with what the others have said, so there’s no consensus.
The one consensus is, “I’m not the right fit, but keep trying.”
I keep getting told not to worry about any of this until I hit triple digits in rejections. That leaves 67 more intolerable dings and quite possibly more ambiguous reasons for why my book got a pass.
And of course, there are going to be those agencies that simply don’t respond at all. No dings, I should probably call them.
What an unnerving and humbling and disturbing and troubling process.
It’s time to go get back into Ng’s book, to try to trick my mind and ears to stop listening for the ding, like a teen waiting for a girl to call him.
I’m going to get published. I’m going to find an agent. Where are you? Why is it taking so long?
The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club is a rich blend of STAND BY ME, the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS, and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. The commercial fiction work would be found in the adult section of a bookstore and is 89,000 words. (Anne of Green Gables is an affiliate link, where if you make a purchase of the book series from Amazon, in turn, I may make a small commission on the sale at no additional cost to you.)
In 1977, four teen boys on an Air Force base in Upper Michigan, led by KIRK CARSON, build a tree house near the secret hideaway of a Russian spy.
Kirk is fighting his own Cold War among friends, a bully, and himself.
To tell the story, he tries to type “I’m trying to change my life,” but instead his typewriter clacks out, “I’m trying to change my lie.” He wishes he could use white for the whole year.
How Kirk handles the ultimate test of a December blizzard and the Russian spy who has been trying to scare them all out of the woods means life or death for his friends.
The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club is a nostalgic reminder of an America where kids played outside until their mothers signaled a summer’s day’s end by turning on the porch light.
I have written in journalism and public relations and for governors and school superintendents for more than 30 years. Since 2014, I’ve been part of Southern Methodist University’s Writer’s Path program.
Ottessa Moshfegh signs my book with a funny quip
The book is number 15 this week on “The List.”
When Ottessa signed my book, she offered me encouragement to keep writing and to “Stay Nude!”
What did Ottessa Moshfegh mean when she told me to “Stay Nude!”?
Now you’re obviously wondering what in the world this could mean. Let me explain.
During the Q&A with Interabang‘s book club master Lori Feathers, the audience was permitted to ask Ottessa questions.
When it came to my turn, I had a writing-style question in mind.
Reading Moshfegh’s book, Eileen
You see, I recently read Ottessa’s first book Eileen with great interest. It is quite an odd book, with a deeply puzzling protagonist. The woman, Eileen, is troubled, there are few kinder words to offer.
Full-frontal nudity of the soul
In the writing program at Southern Methodist University, The Writer’s Path, the director of the program, Suzanne Frank, often told us that writers often bare their souls in novels. That we transform large parts of ourselves into our protagonists when we write. Suzanne has called it, “Full frontal nudity of the soul.”
And so, my question to Ottessa Moshfegh was simple. Between Eileen and the protagonist in her new book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, how much of what we’re reading is “Full frontal nudity of her soul.”
She didn’t even reflect very much before she blurted out the answer: “You’re definitely getting some side boob action.”
The book signing
So when the time came for Ottessa to sign my book, we talked about writing styles. She knows I’m a writer as well. I’ve even sent off a query to Bill Clegg at The Clegg Agency and I’m waiting for an answer. The conversation was fun. I enjoyed meeting her, we said our farewells and I walked away happy to have met her.
When I got to my car, I opened the book out of curiosity to see how she had signed it. “To Donny, best of luck with your writing. Stay nude! Ottessa Moshfegh.”
She understood my question in a much deeper sense than she’d allowed in her answer. I’m reading Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home at present but hope to start My Year of Rest and Relaxation before the weekend starts.
And of course, do some writing. I have a new mantra for when I’m in front of my typewriter making the magic flow onto the page. STAY NUDE! Thanks, Ottessa for the encouragement. You do the same, though I don’t think you’ve had any problem.
What if you were told when you were a child the exact day you would die? That’s the premise of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. The book shares the story of four brothers and sisters who all visit a fortune teller one day early in their lives and the woman tells them each, separately, the day they will die. The book then goes about telling the four separate stories about how each of the four carries/lives out the prophecy of the old woman.
As I’ve said before, I like to read books that make me think when I’m reading them and make me keep thinking once I’m done. This is a book that does that, kind of like the death of a loved one makes one think about his/her own mortality while grieving.
Chloe Benjamin’s writing style is good. The story flowed and it took me a day or two to read the book. The cover is beautiful and I’m told mixed with Jewish symbolism involving the Tree of Life. Poetic.
But there were some things that bothered me about the book.
Overt Use of Sex
For one, I don’t know why we needed the description of Varya’s pubic area, breasts and nipples in the second and third sentences. For all the talk in writing schools about needing a winning first sentence and hook, this didn’t set up a dramatic question. Didn’t answer one either.
And then there was the story of Simon, the youngest brother who dies first, of AIDS in the late 1980s in San Francisco. Writer Benjamin decides we need to be taken through explicit descriptions of homosexual love scenes. Call me homophobic all you want, but that’s not something I care to read about and quite frankly, I skimmed through most of that section and it clearly didn’t affect my understanding of the outcome of the book. Ergo, it wasn’t necessary.
I bought the book because I think I saw on Amazon it’s one of the best-selling books so far in 2018. As I continue to work toward my reading goal of 101 literary books, I’m varying the scope of what I’m reading. This book was an okay read. As I said, there were parts of it I could and did do without. But an interesting question nonetheless. Would you want to know the day you were going to die? How would it affect how you lived?
My Reading List
In 2016, I began reading like a madman. In those days, my revisions to one of my manuscripts were in full swing and I intended to get a better idea of what was selling in the way of novels.
There’s only one good way to accomplish such a feat–reading everything in sight.
And so I did, and still have a stack of books with me constantly that are in a To Be Read pile.
I encourage you to check out my Reading List.