New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019
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 memoir 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 beginning on 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 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.
I’m now saying the book is “a mixture of the movie The Goonies and a modern-day Tom Sawyer living in an atmosphere of the 1970s.”
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 were 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, that is a former Indian burial ground. Another climbs the base water tower at 10 p.m. and play 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
“At 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 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
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, those things are pretty much set in stone. There is some fluctuation, but not much. There are so many queries sent to agents each week, their screeners, and the agents themselves are looking for the slightest anything they can find to say no to passing on your book.
Neff said he’s even seen screeners even highlighting lines of queries in email in 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 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 half way 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.
The New York Pitch Conference
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. 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 the 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….