Monday, June 9, 2008

Questions During a Pitch

In our last post on pitching, which feels like two years ago, I gave you the opportunity to post questions about a pitch. Questions are an essential part of the pitch process. From my perspective, they accomplish several goals.

Questions let me tease out the essential stats.

I've said this often enough by now that I feel like a skipping record. (Does that analogy still work in the digital age?) I need the vitals on every single manuscript. Word count. Subgenre. I know that you're passionate about your characters and plot, and that passion counts in your favor, but I still need the vitals. Find a way to work them in.

Questions let me fill in the blanks.

It often happens that an otherwise good pitch will leave out some important piece of the plot, such as the way it ends. Or maybe you've alluded to a subplot without resolving it. Or maybe you gave me a great understanding of your premise and characters, but not so much about the plot. Actually, there are dozens of variations on this theme. Questions allow me to take your skeletal outline and flesh out the parts which interest me.

Questions let me control the meeting.

Occasionally, a writer will come into a pitch meeting and just start babbling. I know it's nerves, and I don't hold it against you. It happens. But if I take control of a rambling pitch by asking targeted questions and forcing the writer to stop and focus, a lot of times it helps us get on track. This way, the brief time allotted for your pitch won't evaporate, and maybe a more natural give-and-take dialogue will help you overcome your nerves.

Questions let me get you moving.

The flipside to the babbler is the freezer. I've had writers seat themselves, look me in the eyes, and literally freeze. Jaws open. Eyes stark. Faces white. Whenever this happens, I want to check the mirror to see if I've suddenly grown scales over my skin or something. I mean, I know I'm no supermodel, but small children hardly ever run screaming from my presence.

With a freezer, first I try to ask some neutral questions about the conference to loosen them up. Are you having a good conference, did you have to travel far, were you in the bar last night? Anything to get their brains and mouths moving again. Once they appear to be breathing, I'll try to lead them to (and sometimes through) the actual pitch.

Questions let me make you talk while I think.

Sometimes, I'll hear your entire pitch and get that nagging feeling. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everything looks the same, but you know something's been moved? It's like that. I can listen to a pitch and know something's not adding up, but not be immediately able to pin it down. So I might ask you a question about something less important to buy myself a few moments of thinking time. You talk, and I nod and ponder your plot and characters until -- aha! I see it! Somebody moved the sofa two inches to the left! -- and then we'll come back to a more meaningful question.

Questions let me test how well you know your own story.

It's my experience that a writer who knows her own manuscript very thoroughly will generally deliver a more cohesive manuscript. If I can ask a tricky detail question and get a fluid answer, I know that this is more likely to be a well-thought-out story. But if my question draw silence or a stammering non-answer, it might make me a little suspicious. It doesn't mean the product will be bad. Not at all. There might be angles that haven't been fully explored or developed in the manuscript, but those can usually be corrected on revision.

Or, possibly, it means that I'm dealing with one of those extremely rare creatures who generate manuscripts so intuitively that every aspect fits together perfectly with almost no conscious thought. Personally, I'm skeptical of people who claim to fall into this category. I'm sure there are those who can legitimately compose a book out of whole cloth and without much thought. It's just that I've had a few experiences with writers who claimed to fit this category, but in fact, they were just resisting revisions.

In any event, an author who knows her manuscript thoroughly won't make me suspicious. Be prepared to answer my questions. If I ask you a question you can't answer, it's okay to say, "I haven't thought about it. Guess I'd better think that through before I submit."

Questions let me shape an unwritten manuscript.

Admit it. You all know of writers who've pitched ideas with the intent of writing the story only if they get a request. I'm the fish, and your story idea is the worm on the hook. Some editors are annoyed by this. I honestly don't care because I figure that anyone who's fishing is letting me direct the formation of the manuscript. So if your pitch is a little too pat, a little too focused on premise and not so much on plot, and if you can't answer my questions, I might start telling you how I think it should go. If you think I'm being officious, well, that's my prerogative when you pitch an idea on spec. Just ask movie and tv writers. They know all about this.

All of this is to point out one important way that you can prepare for pitches. You're prepared pitch is important, but so are your answers to my questions. Think about the kinds of questions an editor or agent is likely to ask during a pitch. Get your critiquing partners to help you. Practice playing editor for each other -- if you have to be the one asking the questions, it might help you also think of questions for your own pitch.

So, when I asked you to post your questions for Pitch #4, this was where I was leading you. Let's refresh. Here's that pitch again:

Gaining acceptance by the Rhiaton Crowd was not a problem for Kinush. Admittedly they had helped him to celebrate his elevation with a bath in the sheep dip, but now their world of elegant balls and magical discussion was wide open to him. When the Crowd drive his boyhood friend Meriok into hiding, and his best friend shows more interest in the cut of his sleeves than the fate of his brother, Kinush must make a choice between all he ever wanted and the friend he had served badly.

But magic is more than an elegant pasttime: with the right spells a group of mages could take down whole cities. Inevitably, the ambitions of the Rhiaton Crowd begin to attract unwelcome attention. As he gets more and more entangled in the politics of magic, Kinush - whose idea of hardship is a bed at a country inn - finds himself camped in an olive grove playing stare-me-down with two powerful mages, and he cannot afford to blink...

We could ask, what do we know about this book? And we could answer -- magic, childhood friends torn apart, political fights, a character out of his element.

But let's ask instead, what don't we know about this book? The answer to this question prepares you for your meeting and for the inevitable questions.

So here is what some of you would ask. (I'm rephrasing some of this for clarity and conciseness. I'm an editor. It's what I do.)

What genre is this book?
Who or what is the Rhiaton Crowd?
What is Kinush elevated to?
Whose brother's fate is at stake?
Is the book more about the friendship or the politics?
What's the target audience?
Why does the Rhiaton Crowd drive Meriok into hiding?
Why does Kinush become 'entangled in the politics' - ambition, accident of birth, destiny, bad luck, or...?
What's his real goal - protection of his friend, survival, leadership, personal gain, or...?

To this list, I might add:
How long is it?
How does it end?
Who are the two powerful mages?
Does Kinush ever break with the Rhiaton Crowd?
Do they actually "take down" any cities?
Are Meriok and the childhood friend the same character?

The thing about Pitch #4 is that it's a decent premise-based pitch. Someone else mentioned that it reads like compelling jacket copy, and I agree with that. Jacket copy sets up the premise and then raises story questions (and also, we hope, creates an emotional need to have those story questions answered). Jacket copy has a different goal than pitch copy, though. Jacket copy is meant to entice without spoiling the story.

But I'm not a browser in a bookstore. I'm an editor trying to evaluate your skills without seeing your product, and in order to evaluate your story, I need to know what the story is. So my questions would be designed to probe the plot. I want you to lay it out in plain English and tell me how it ends. Go ahead. Spoil it for me. Reveal the biggest surprises, the cleverest twists. That is what will dazzle me in a pitch. That is what will leave me wanting more.


1 comment:

Natalie Hatch said...

"I know I'm no supermodel, but small children hardly ever run screaming from my presence"
Now are you sure? The Wicked Witch Industries Incorporated would like you to take a quick walk down the park to test it out, they think they might have lost a member or two... lol
Thanks for the insight into pitching live... it still sounds scarey as all hell, but then hey if you can get through a dentist appointment how hard can pitching be? she says not really wanting to know that answer, but, hiding behind her safety blanket she still asks...