My head was pounding. My heart was thudding. My hands were sweating. My throat was dry. And that was just for the pitch coaching session.
Last week, I gave my first, honest-to-goodness author pitch to an agent. It was one of the most terrifying, anxiety-inducing experiences of my life. Two weeks earlier, I had no idea what a pitch WAS, much less how to write and deliver one. What I found online was contradictory, and in spite of the assurances of my critique group, I felt woefully unprepared.
Spoiler, the pitch went well. I didn't keel over dead, and the agent asked to read my manuscript. Woo!
Along the way, I learned a few things that I think will help other writers looking to pitch.
First: Your pitch needs to be short.
Everything I found online suggested that a pitch should be a couple of paragraphs. So that was what I prepared. I took it to my pitch coach the day before my pitch and she scrapped the whole thing.
"It's too much detail," she said.
She had me tell her about my story and wrote down details. Afterwards, she constructed a single sentence:
"A group of engineers in the Arizona desert loses contact with the outside world, only to discover that they are being hunted by a creature of animated stone who feeds on the blood of the living."
It was simple, straightforward, and incredibly accurate. It also highlighted the primary conflict (overcoming the creature) and the main characters (the engineering group). Even better, it focused on what makes my story different (a creature of animated stone). It was also easy to remember (a HUGE plus).
When I repeated this line to the agent, her eyebrows went up, she wrote some notes and asked for more.
Second: Be ready for a conversation.
After rewriting my pitch, my pitch coach (the awesome author Susan Spann) walked me through a conversation about my book. She helped me identify the key points I want to raise: where the creature comes from, why the engineering team is in the desert, what books/movies/TV shows are comparable to my book.
While not every one of these questions came up in the actual pitch session, some did. It also made me think about short, to-the-point summary sentences that helped me pitch better.
Third: Practice, practice, practice.
The night between my coaching session and my pitch, I practiced. A LOT. The morning of my pitch found me making laps through the conference hotel halls repeating my pitch line and reenacting potential conversations in my mind.
Another conference attendee saw this, recognized what I was doing, and stopped me to talk. She asked me for my pitch and engaged me in a conversation. It was awesome, because it helped me see that the pitch worked OK for others. I don't remember her name, but I am very grateful for her help.
Finally: Just do it
In the end, you just need to do it. The very next week, I found myself at another conference. I had a chance to talk to other writers and agents. I used the pitch. The result was some awesome conversations. More important, I will be better prepared the next time.
I'll probably still be terrified.
Sixteen years and one week ago, I was walking across a parking lot when a plane flew overhead. I froze. My heart beat faster, and a chill went through me as I turned to watch the very normal 747 make it's way toward the airport. I watched until it had completely disappeared from view.
It was the first plane I'd seen since 9/11.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were horrific and all-but indescribable. For weeks afterwards, I walked around in a haze, a hollow pit in my stomach. I subscribe whole-heartedly to William Faulkner's declaration in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail." I tend to see the best intentions, even if I don't agree with the actions (even for politicians). So 9/11 shook me to the core. I couldn't believe that humans could be so violent and filled with hate. It was, in short, an eye-opening, life-changing event.
The shadow of 9/11 would haunt me for years. Later, it would become the focus of my research as I looked at how it impacted our world through the lens of superheroes, which I published in my first (and only) non-fiction book: The Superhero Response. In that research, I learned a lot about heroes and a lot about villains. Because of that, I remain more convinced of the goodness of men and women than ever before.
The night of 9/11, President George W. Bush said: "Today, our nation saw evil -- the very worst of human nature -- and we responded with the best of America." In so many ways, that was true, though it extended well beyond America's borders and culture. Over the last sixteen years, it has felt like our world is under siege from man-made threats, to natural disasters, to political upheaval, to cultural wars. It feels like the world is so much darker than it was even twenty or thirty years ago. This feeling of darkness resulted in a large number of people hoping to "Make America Great Again" and caused many others to rise up stronger than ever against perceived oppression. I am convinced that Charlottesville and other moments like it are the inevitable result of this growing perception of darkness.
But darkness cannot exist without light, and the darker things are, the brighter the light shines.
Even as our world seems to grow darker, we have seen heroes rise up to stand against it. For every evil or terrible moment, there are countless deeds of heroism and kindness that counteract it. Hurricane Harvey was devastating, but led to an outpouring of support. Charlottesville brought thousands into the streets to protest racism and white nationalism. And on and on and on.
Sixteen years ago, watching that plane fly across the sky, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I didn't know if I could ever restore my faith in humanity. Now it is stronger than ever.
Today, as we remember that awful morning that revealed so much evil to the world, let us also remember, that we are stronger than the darkness and better than we believe.
A few years ago, my very astute children coined the term: "Nervicited." It describes the state you are in when you are both very nervous and very excited about something. It also describes exactly how I've felt all week.
Late tomorrow, I'm off to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference (#RMFW2017) for the rest of the week. This will be my very first writers conference and I'm very, very excited to meet all the awesome people I'm certain will be there and to spend 3 days focusing on nothing but writing. While I'm there, I will be participating in a critique group with a real agent, pitching my book to another agent, and reading the first chapter to a ballroom full of strangers.
I. Am. Terrified.
I don't know if non-artists fully appreciate how difficult it is for artists to share their work with others who might criticize it. My writing is a part of me. If you don't like it, that can feel very personal, even if it isn't.
I know. I know. What's the worse that can happen? Probably nothing. I'm going to have a cool experience no matter what, but knowing that hasn't reduced my anxiety even a little bit.
Maybe I'm just overly dramatic.
Maybe I'm just nervicited.
Wish me luck!
It's fun to tell people you've written a 100,000 word novel. Their eyes grow huge and they stare at you like you are some kind of freak of nature.
"I could NEVER write that much," they say with an expression of awe usually reserved for rock stars or Deity. We can discuss my opinions of THAT statement another day, but in a way they are right: Stringing together 100K+ words into a coherent plot is a challenge, not to mention the difficulty of actually making said 100K+ words good. But even that is nothing compared to trying to write a pitch.
For those of you not in the know, a pitch is a 1-2 paragraph description of your book designed to hook an editor or agent. I will be pitching my book to an actual agent at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference next week (I'm very nervous), and so I've spent many hours over the past few weeks writing my pitch.
It is so hard!
How am I supposed to distill 350 pages of sweat and tears and ups and downs and life and death into a couple hundred words? And then, to top it all off, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO MEMORIZE IT!
I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like so many of my hopes and dreams are tied up in these 2 paragraphs. This feels like make-or-break time. Do or die. Fish or cut bait. Paper or plastic!
Okay. Maybe that's a bit much, but it is still amazingly hard.
Incidentally, I'd love to share my pitch with you, but I can't. An unfortunate reality is that, by its nature, it has to spoil the ending. So you'll just have to wait to read the book.
The last couple of weeks, I have been working on incorporating beta reader feedback into my book. It has been an amazing experience.
For those of you not in the know, beta readers are readers who get to read a manuscript before it is pitched to an agent or publishing house. They provide feedback to the author on what they liked, what they disliked, and any suggestions on improving it.
Handing your manuscript off to beta readers can be nerve wracking. Imagine handing off one of your children to someone else and asking them to tell you everything wrong with that child. Beta reading kind of feels like that. At the same time, it can be awesome.
If they like your book, you get some awesome praise. Authors love praise. Some of the praise I received included:
I really like the "monster". I read quite a bit of horror and this was unlike anything I've ever read. Really unique and creepy as hell!
Or how about my wife's comment after finishing the book for the first time:
Well, that was horrifying.
And one of my favorites:
This was one of the best horror books I have read and I would definitely recommend others to read it.
And then there is the ultimate compliment for any writer:
Yes, I would definitely read the next book in the series (and the next, and the next) and I would recommend it to everyone I know.
And then there's the part where they make your story better. My beta readers found a couple of small plot holes. Filling them has really improved the story, even if they weren't gaping craters.
So, even if they can be absolutely terrifying, they can also be one of the best parts of writing.
Last week's post got me thinking about genre again (it's surprising how many things do that). Specifically, I was thinking about the horror genre and the age old question: what makes something horrific?
I don't know that there is a real answer to that question, but my personal favorite is a quote I read somewhere that I can't appropriately attribute because I haven't found it since (though I think it was credited to either Alfred Hitchcock or Guillermo del Toro). It's a very simple definition that I also think accurately sums up what I find horrifying (please note, I'm paraphrasing because, as I said earlier, I can't find the actual quote):
Horror occurs when something is present that should not be there or when something should be there and isn't.
I LOVE this definition! Think about the most horrifying movie you've ever seen. Which parts were the most terrifying? Were they the moments when you fully saw the monster? No, usually, they are the parts you can't see.
Due to serendipitous technical difficulties, Steven Spielberg's Jaws became the masterpiece that it is because they couldn't show the freaking shark! While seeing a fin heading toward a boat would have been scary, it was far scarier to see the barrels pop up out of the water and head toward the boat. Or, even worse, when the barrels disappeared when that should be impossible! An amazing bit of horror.
An interesting example is the old miniseries of Stephen King's IT, which is appropriate given the upcoming movie. I saw this miniseries on VHS when I was in high school--probably a sophomore. I hadn't transitioned to my enjoying horror phase, yet, so watching with friends was an act of stupidity I lived to regret (going into gym locker rooms still gives me the shivers). In my opinion, the first two-thirds of that movie worked exceptionally well. True, you did see Pennywise (sometimes), but he was so out-of-place, so "something that is present that should not be" that he was absolutely terrifying. The same thing with the balloons. In-and-of-themselves, they are not scary, but put them in a sewer with the words "We all float down here" and suddenly your skin crawls. And yet... And yet the last third of that movie was a major disappointment. Why? Because we finally saw the monster and it just wasn't that terrifying. It felt in-place in the deep underground, and we were expecting it (sort of). So in the end, it just wasn't that scary.
The trick, I've found in writing, is how do you create that feeling of alienness about something normal. Even a jar of peanut butter in the right setting with the right description can be horrifying. If you can figure that out, poof, you're a horror writer!
To my amazing wife's chagrin and to my surprise, I'm a horror writer. Looking back, I can't really say how that happened or when. I remember, as a 6-year-old, being so terrified of the movie Poltergeist that I was scarred for life. Ghostbusters had me terrified to go into my parents' back bathroom for fear that the Library Ghost would be waiting for me (NOTE: I have also never figured out why I thought the Library Ghost would haunt my parents' bathroom). I can even remember, as a child, the first time the horror of death really struck me (it was while I was watching Superman II). So I was a pretty sensitive kid who pretty much avoided everything horror, and I'm not sure when things changed.
By the time I was in high school, I was working on a series about a kid who saw monsters everywhere and set out to kill them. The first book--the very first one I ever completed--was about him stalking a poor town doctor that had the misfortune of looking like a vampire (read the first chapter). The story was played for laughs, but looking back, there were elements of horror in it, so sometime around there I started delving into the darker side of things, but it wasn't until recently that I went full on horror.
The thing is that, even as a kid, the idea of horror fascinated me, even if it scared the crap out of me at the same time. There is something incredibly cathartic about facing fears and coming out victor in the end. There is something inspiring about watching people struggle against Hell. Whether they succeed or not seems less important than the fact that they struggle. In spite of all the odds and the dangers and the pressing darkness and the betrayals, they keep fighting.
And then there's just the fact that monsters are cool. But that's a topic for another day.