Pitch and Spin

This past week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) Writer’s Conference in Seattle, Washington. This was my second time attending the well-organized conference. It’s been going on for 60 years, and I clearly see why it is so popular. As a PNWA member, I’m proud of the fact that we have one of the best conferences going. According to the PNWA President, the conference is one of the longest running of its kind in the nation and the world. That’s pretty amazing if you ask me.

One of the best things about the conference is the opportunity to meet agents and pitch your book to them. These “Pitch Blocks,” as they’re called usually have about 10-15 agents lined up on one side of a long string of tables, and you have four minutes to pitch (or sell) your book to them before you have to get up and move onto the next agent (or get in line for the next agent) and do it again.

Pitch sessions are a great way to meet potential agents. It’s way more effective to meet someone in person and convince them to consider your book than it is to send an anonymous email to an agent and get them to respond. They are very busy people, and they receive hundreds of book queries through which they must sift trying to find the next great novel. You have a much better chance of getting noticed if you can begin your query letter with “It was nice to meet you at the PNWA Writer’s Conference. Thank you for asking for more details on my book…”

That being said, there’s no guarantee that a request for more information will get you in the door with that agent. During my first PNWA conference, I pitched eight different agents and received eight requests for more material (e.g. first 3 chapters, 50 pages, etc.), and no one requested the full manuscript. This year, I pitched to eight agents again and received five requests for more information. I’ll be sending my responses out over the next week or so. Only time will tell if I break through. After talking with other writers, I don’t think my experience is unique.

Despite the low success rate, I like pitching much better than I do anonymous querying. For starters, you get feedback in pitch sessions. It’s very rare that you get feedback from query letters. Often query letters receive silence or a simple “No.” It’s unreasonable to expect much feedback from query letters because agents, like you and me, have to make a living, and they only want to spend time on books that they think they can sell. Every moment spent on books that aren’t really for them is lost income. Unless you are in a position to do your job for free (if so, congratulations), you shouldn’t expect agents to give you free feedback. It takes a lot of time to read a full manuscript and provide useful feedback. They’re only going to do it for books they want to sell.

Nevertheless, with pitches, you get feedback. A good agent gives you something that you can take back to your work. They will tell you whether the story has legs, in their opinion, or if your plot is too complicated or over-the-top. They may even give you insight into the market you’re targeting that will help you understand whether or not you are on the money. This feedback is invaluable even if it’s not what you want to hear. At the very least, the body language will give you more than enough to go on during your pitch. If the agent looks disinterested or bored, you know you have work to do.

As every writer knows, the act of writing is a lonely activity. Most people don’t understand why someone would spend hours on end writing a novel that may have little chance of getting published. Unless you have a writing group or an active group of beta readers, it’s hard to get feedback from the outside world and even harder to get objective feedback (good or otherwise). Pitch sessions give you that feedback even if its just a small nugget of insight. That insight alone is worth the effort even if the pitch itself fails to land an agent.

A Writer’s Conference

This week, I will be attending the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association Writer’s Conference for the second time. I joined the PNWA three years ago when I got serious about writing. The association provides many resources to help writer’s learn and make the right connections in the industry. Its annual conference is one of the best according to what I’ve read. I haven’t widely attended other writer conferences, so I don’t really have much of a reference point, but I can say that the conference is flush with opportunities to learn and find an agent.

My favorite part of the conference is the “Pitch Block.” Pitch blocks are opportunities to meet with agents one-on-one and “pitch” your book. These meetings are invaluable opportunities to meet an agent and get a response on your project almost immediately. Even if you don’t ultimately land an agent through the pitches, you learn a lot from the experience. I enjoyed my last pitch block a couple of years ago. In the end, nothing came of it, but I learned more about pitching and what agents are looking for. I hope that helps me do better this time around.

Aside from the pitch sessions, there are numerous sessions about the writing craft. The chance to hear from agents, publishers, and fellow writers may be just the advantage you need to get over the hump of publication. It takes persistence to get published, so why not learn a lot along the way. I find the advice from those “in the know” is usually helpful, and at the very least, it gets me thinking in different ways.

All of that thinking reinvigorates my enthusiasm for pursuing publication. In many ways, my writing experience has been one of simply writing every day and experimenting with what works. I enjoy writing immensely and could continue doing it indefinitely even if I had no desire to publish, but I want to get my work out there, and if I’m going to do that, I need to work through the channels to make it happen. I haven’t spent even a fraction of the time necessary to get published. That needs to change.

By the end of the long four-day conference, I’ll likely come away with a bunch of ideas and a few more connections that will push me closer to my goal of being published. I know it’s only a matter of time, but everyone needs a little help now and then. This is my help. Wish me luck.

Character Evolution

When I begin a novel, I typically write character summaries for each main character that includes descriptions such as what they look like and what their personalities are like. I include any backstory that I think may have a bearing on how they interact with other characters or change throughout the story. I consider this the baseline for my characters, but I don’t let it dictate the story too much.

I view these character summaries in much the same way as I view my outlines. They are guideposts in the writing process that can be moved or changed to accommodate the story as it evolves, and much like the original plot idea, characters often evolve in unforeseen ways during the writing and editing processes. Sometimes, I’ll go back to my original character summaries to see how much the characters changed from the beginning of the writing process – the change may be very little or it may be a lot. It’s fun to take a look back.

Why even bother with these summaries if I know I’m going to change the characters? I need them to keep me consistent throughout the story. As I write these novels, six months typically pass. I’m writing an hour or more a day for five days a week. If I didn’t have the summaries, my characters would be inconsistent in the novel in how they appear or behave. For example, in my last project, one of my characters had blonde hair in one chapter and brown in another. I could have justified that with the fact that women often change hair color, but it didn’t really make sense. I went back to my character summary to check the color and kept it consistent. This is a simple example of how the summaries keep me in line, but the same holds true for any major attribute for my characters.

The paradox in all of this is that my characters have to change. I write these summaries before I even begin writing the novel, but it’s impossible to capture every element of their being before I begin writing about them. As I’m working through the scenes and determining how they react to the things being thrown at them, I learn more about who I want them to be, so I change them. In my current novel, Origins, I decided that I wanted one of my pivotal characters to be more confrontational to add more conflict to the story rather than be the introspective type I described in my character summary. Her role is very important to the novel because she discovers the thing that totally twists the story and sends the reader for a loop. I needed her to be more obstinate and determined to fit the arc of the story, so I changed her.

As I get deeper into a story, I feel like I get to know my characters better. Just like when I meet someone for the first time and get better acquainted with them, I learn more about my characters as I write the story. I can describe them better than I could at the beginning. I know more about them and see how they change as they interact with other characters and are influenced by the story. It’s a virtuous cycle that bears fruit as the story progresses.

While I have a process that I follow, I’m not married to the result. I let my characters evolve to fit the story, but I remain grounded in who they are or were in the beginning. It gives my stories consistency and keeps me focused on the story I want to tell. In the end, I hope it produces the best story possible. It’s certainly fun to watch my characters evolve.