Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pitch Slammed

So, when I flew up to New York City two weeks ago, my stomach twisted in knots. This step was the first one I could call Active in the pursuit of my dream. Yes, I completed the manuscript, and yes, I had revised a ton, but before attending the conference, my steps toward publishing were more like blind gropes in a dark room.

I had no idea how to turn the light on.

What drew me to the conference finally, beyond my completed manuscript, was the opportunity to sit before agents and actually discuss the story I had crafted, on and off, for the better part of ten years. Sure, there were notable speakers, and sure, the chance to be in NYC and catch a Broadway show and a Knicks game was great, but the selling point for me, the bit that opened my wallet, was the opportunity to participate in the so-called "Pitch Slam".

I suffered somewhat from small-fish syndrome, as there were over 600 attendees at the Conference. While everyone was incredibly friendly, and a real sense of camaraderie permeated the place, I couldn't help but feel minute. Chuck Sambuchino provided perhaps the most timely presentation at the Conference, when he discussed tips and strategies for a good pitch. As I mentioned in my last post, a Pitch should last no more than 90 seconds. In those 90 seconds, the pitcher needs to avoid generalities and give specifics while doing the following:

  • providing the details for the story, including genre, title, word count, and level of completion
  • providing a "log line", or basically, the entire story in one m-f-ing sentence
  • introducing the main character
  • introducing something interesting about the MC, and his/her Want
  • describing the "inciting incident", or the scene that gets the story going
  • providing a "hook"
  • discussing major plot points and the Stakes
  • describing the Complications
  • providing an unclear wrap-up, or basically, don't give away the ending you big-dummy
Yeah, so, you can imagine if before arriving my stomach was tied up in a simple overhand twist, before the Pitch Slam it was a veritable Gordian Knot. While I felt a twinge of confidence because of my preparation, two things threw me off initially. First, the snow that coated the city Saturday forced more than ten agent cancellations (including a handful of agents I had researched--one of which was my absolute "must" see), so the pool was considerably more shallow. Second, the wait. This was really a development stemming from the cancellations, but the lines to see the agents were sometimes thirty to forty-five minutes long. And when you're operating in a three hour window, that's a significant investment for a potential rejection.

The best way to describe Pitch Slam would be to make the comparison to Speed Dating; the tables, the time, the bell, the desperation--all of it. With the agents arrayed throughout four different rooms, I joined my first line with map in hand. Twelve names were highlighted, my course was plotted out, and the stomach somersaulted. In the months leading up to the conference, I played out any number of different scenarios about the Pitch Slam--successful ones mostly, though I did try to convince myself the conference was more about learning than being discovered. I worked so hard, and now my fate, as it were, rested in the hands of complete strangers. But I can't help but agree with the assessment of NaNoWriMo founder and closing keynote addresser Chris Baty when he said each table was like a life-changing portal, only the lines were nine deep.

Then the doors opened.

A mad rush followed. I staggered through the first room, searching for the first name on my list. When I found her, I joined the line and waited. While fidgeting with my notes, my pitch, and any number of the articles of clothing I had on (it was cold outside, people), I chatted with a fellow aspiring sci-fi/fantasy writer. We waxed poetic about comic book heroes, but begrudged many of their feature films. We discussed the finer points to our own stories, and very much realized we might well have been the Jersey-Miami doppelgangers of one another; both of us writers, teachers, nerds, etc. The conversation helped settle my decidedly gummy nerves, and I was glad for it.

When it was finally my turn, I sat down before a gargoyle of a woman. Stone-faced and intense, she patiently waited for me to finish my 90 second fumbling before saying she didn't think my character sounded "active" enough. *Ding Ding* No time for rebuttal. No chance for explanation. Rejection #1.

Dizzied from that first encounter, I trudged to another line in the room. This one was considerably longer than the first. Standing there, listening to the excited chatter of the people surrounding me, I checked my watch. Nearly forty minutes had passed and all I had to show for it was a floorplan with scratched off names and a rejection that stung. I couldn't help but feel that the first pitch was a monumental failure on my part. I didn't think my main character was passive, so for gargoyle-agent to say as such meant a failure to communicate on my part. And now time was ticking.

It was at this point that fortuitous happening #1 occurred. Chuck Sambuchino strolled by and mentioned to the throng of people I found myself enveloped in that the lines in the other rooms were shorter. After checking my watch and my map, I bailed on Room 1, leaving behind a wake of disappointment and failure.

Room 2 sucked worse. The lines were shorter, I'll give it that. The windows displayed the steady snowfall that had dampened my experience already. It was that same snow that had kept the agent at the top of my must-see list away from the Pitch Slam. And it was that snow that lengthened the lines in which I toiled. The next two agents I met with greeted me with blank-stares. I adjusted my pitch to make sure my main character sounded active, but much to my chagrin, I left each table business card-less.

Rejection #2 heralded the first "young adult" reference to my story. The agent felt it sounded "aged up", that it was essentially a book for pre-teens and teens instead of the adult audience for which I claimed it was written. Ouch. I stepped away from that table and the seed of doubt that was planted by gargoyle-agent was watered with a fire hydrant by this one. A grotesque flower sprouted as I merged with the next line, and although the agent helming this table was amiable, I still stepped away with Rejection #3.

The torture of Room 2 continued with the next agent. Despite an animated pitch that adjusted for passivity and age-appropriateness, I stood from the table staggered by Rejection #4. I felt like Hulk Hogan had raced into the room and body slammed me through one of the tables and was now running from side to side, cupping a hand to his ear and waiting for more riotous applause.

The flower of doubt had not only sprouted, but it was in full-on bloom as I tottered into the next line. I was wasting my time. I wasn't ready--the story wasn't ready. I should just sneak out, exchange my coffee coupon in the lobby, and wait for my friend Mark to finish his pitches. I mean, there was only an hour left to Pitch Slam anyway.

But as I sulked in the line, listening to those around me discussing how this agent had given them their card or that agent had requested their first fifty pages, fortuitous happening #2 occurred: my friend from the first line joined this fifth line right behind me. We quickly got to talking about our experience so-far and I described to him my malfunctions. I felt the problems were more on the pitch-side than the story-side. I didn't (and don't) think the story should be considered "young adult". And to his credit, my friend made only one suggestion, and that was to visit a specific agent he had already pitched in another room. He said even the line was short.

The name he had provided happened to be one I had highlighted in my original research, and I decided to take his advice. Moving to Room 3, I found the agent-in-question had only one person in line. As I waited, I wasn't sure if I could stand another rejection, but then the bell rang and I couldn't dwell on my failures any longer.

This woman didn't smile. She huddled behind the table, arms cuddled beneath her coat. I set down my bag and coat, exhaled, then began my pitch. I was maybe ten seconds in when she stopped me.

"Is it cold in here?" she asked.  She wasn't listening. She was shivering.

Having whatever false-bravado I mustered washed away with the interruption, I stammered my way through a "yes", then restarted my pitch. No doubt, Rejection #5. I managed my way through the bulk of the pitch and started in on some of the complications. With my story based very much based in mythology, many of the characters come from different pantheons. It was at the mention of an Indian god, Vishnu, that the agent perked up.

"Vishnu," she said, "he's the preserver, isn't he?"

"Yes," I replied, but this time, the interruption felt different. She was intrigued. I finished my pitch and she nodded. She slid her business card across the table and requested I send her the first fifty pages of my manuscript.

I must have been a sight. Doe-eyed, I sat frozen, and she asked if I wanted to write the request down. It jolted me back. I scribbled her instructions on the back of her card, thanked her, and angled away from the table unable to hide my smile.

Someone was interested. And holy shit did it felt great.

Floating to the next name highlighted on my list, I couldn't help but marvel at the paper I clutched between my fingers. I finally held one of the precious business cards. As I waited and chatted with the authors in front of me, I noticed a line-less agent to my left. I flipped to her bio in my book, saw she represented my genre, and decided to pitch to her despite the fact I hadn't highlighted her name originally. She, too, was interested. I left her table positively beaming.

The two agents that expressed interest gravitated toward the aspect of the story that I felt was the strength all along, the mixing of the mythological pantheons. It was a welcome vindication. However, with the doubt-flower was all but withered, I entered a line I thought would be my last. The conference employees were already closing certain lines, giving the final person in the line a sign that read: "Last". And despite my soaring confidence and steamlined pitch, my would-be final agent, after a few questions, passed by saying: "I think your story has those mythical elements, but I think those stories have been told and are better as myths." Rejection #5.

The sour taste in my mouth forced me to check Room 1 for a final time. I saw gargoyle-agent fixing her stoney-gaze at the author across from her and I couldn't help but want to sit down with her one more time. She wouldn't remember me, would she? After so many pitches?

My Last in Line sign.
I decided against the futile attempt at affirmation and entered the line I was in when Fortuitous Happening #1 occurred. Chuck was there to greet me again, this time asking me to wield the Last in Line sign.

As the bell tolled for the last session of the Pitch Slam, I sat down with mixed emotions. It had been a whirlwind of three hours. After that last rejection, my doubt-flower wasn't quite dead. I gave the agent the pitch, being sure to focus on the strengths and cleaning up the other messy bits I had tried adding after the first few rejections.

That last agent was interested and I left the Pitch Slam smiling.
In the end, three of the eight agents to which I pitched showed interest, and after digesting the hasty feedback from the rejections, even those interactions shed a light on my story that will only help for the next draft. I chided myself for almost leaving, and couldn't help but find the irony that an interest in Vishnu, the preserver, managed to keep my hope alive.

Mark and I left the Pitch Slam and treated ourselves to a nice steak dinner before catching a game in Madison Square Garden (another wonderful experience). I've since forward the first fifty pages of my manuscript to the agents who requested them.

I find myself waiting again, but this time I know I'm not groping in the dark for the light switch. The light is very much on. Now, it's time to see where this light will lead.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Gone in 90 Seconds?

As I put the finishing touches on my material for my trip to the 2012 Writer's Digest Conference, I am preoccupied with the idea that I will finally sit down vis-à-vis with an acutal literary agent. While I've been a terrible, no-show blogger of late, I have been focused on preparing my work and researching the different agents I will have the opportunity of meeting on Saturday. I've prepared the all-important query letter, assembled a synopsis, and polished the draft. After working on this novel, this idea, for more than ten years, I will have 90 seconds--that's right, 90 seconds, to pitch the work.


The distillation process has been a long one. Working my idea, my 93,000+ word manuscript into a single-paged query letter was an arduous task. Despite the ability to hit two or three pages, the synopsis did not prove to be any easier than the query. Thankfully, I've had some help and some great support. But when I find myself sitting before an agent, 48 hours or so from now, I need to be ready to present my work in a concise, coherent, fascinating fashion with a sprinkling of vivid and engaging plot points that encapsulate the crux of the story and reveal the main characters and conflicts. 

In 90 seconds.

90 seconds, so that the agent catching the pitch can have a moment to provide feedback on the presentation, and, presumably--hopefully, show interest. Then it's time to hustle off for the next pitch with the next agent, trying to incorporate the previous agent's suggestions on the fly. Just writing about the prospect loops my stomach in knots. I can only imagine how I'll feel before the flesh and blood people and not just the abstract idea of them.

When I dwell on this abstract idea, I can't help but think of one of my top-5 favorite films of all-time, "Ghostbusters" (1984). ASIDE: not that you're interested, but "Ghostbusters" slides in at #4 of my top-5 faves. "The Matrix" (1999) is #1, the original Star Wars trilogy is #2, "Braveheart" (1995) is #3, and "Casablanca" (1942) is #5.

I've worked all of this time to piece the narrative together, to develop the characters, to imagine and paint the setting, and now I have to scale the mountaintop and secure someone's attention. But will I be ready to perservere beyond this final obstacle? It's this idea that I'm standing outside of the publishing world and can only be legitimately admitted by a publisher, after working with an agent and an editor, that takes me to the climactic scene of Ghostbusters. Dr.s Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler, along with Winston Zeddemore, are standing on the roof of a building, facing off with Gozer the Gozerian. 

Here's the dialogue that follows:
Gozer: Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then... DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!

I have this irrational fear that I'm going to sit before these agents, these gatekeepers to the world of publishing, and they'll find me wanting.
They'll ask, are you published? And of course, the Ray Stantz in me will reply honestly with a "No."
Then I'll be blown off the roof to be consumed by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

I realize this is silly. I'm going to this conference not with the expectation of landing an agent, but with the hope of learning enough about the industry to better polish my writing for publication. Still, I can't help but imagine a scenario that I completely wow someone at the conference and they find my work ready to take the next step in the process. And if they do blow me off the roof, I might be in some trouble. My inner-Ray Stantz won't be able to keep its mind clear, either. And God knows what form the Traveller would take for me.

Since a big part of this entire process involves crafting a query letter, I've copied the one I put together below. What you'll read is a general form that will be personalized for the different agents I submit it to. I'd love some feedback. Wish me luck on Saturday.

Agent’s name

Dear     ,

Adam Anderson has been tapped to be the conduit through which the gods and goddesses of ancient empires seek to regain a foothold in the world of modern humans. As he comes to realize these deities are as weak and broken as the people who once worshipped them with blood sacrifices, he struggles to ascertain whether he is a new kind of hero or another head on the altar.

Visions of a striking woman, a shadowed warrior, and a shriveled wise-man plague the sleep of Adam Anderson. As he wakes shaken for the third time in three nights, he finds nothing in the dream but additional questions to his already quandary-filled existence. When Adam is approached by Hermes, it is the Greco-Roman messenger god who promises the answers in exchange for the rescue of the very real goddess of his dreams. While preparing Adam for the quest, Hermes finds himself accosted by deities from other Earthly realms. When tidings of murder echo in the halls of Olympus for the first time in millennia, Vishnu, Indian protector of the world’s moral balance, angles against the new Council of Deities to stabilize the scales that have been tipped by a mysterious malevolent force.

But can the envoys of these distinct cultures unify in time to prevent this shrouded evil from begetting a war that would destroy them and all of mankind?

Mythos is a completed 93,000 word contemporary fantasy adventure. Written in 3rd person limited point of view, the narrative weaves multiple perspectives while remaining focused on the journey of Adam Anderson. It is Adam, beginning his journey against the tropical backdrop of Miami Beach, who is assaulted within the glistening spires of Olympus, trapped beneath the ageless stones of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and stalked through the lush forest of the Ōu Mountains above Sendai, Japan. While he fights to save the goddess of his dreams, he doubts whether he is the hero the world needs or a sacrifice to the labyrinthine corridors of the Underworld.

I am a life-long lover of story, in all its incarnations. I hold a bachelor’s degree in English from Florida International University, where I concentrated in Creative Writing. While there, I studied under acclaimed authors Les Standiford and John Dufrense. I have spent much of the last ten years teaching Literature, Mythology, and Creative Writing at the high school and middle school levels. I thank you for your time and for your consideration of this proposal.


David Fernandez