Closing out a great conference was an event called Pitchapalooza. Now, I'd learned quite a lot yesterday, and I learned quite a bit before 3:15 today, also, but what I received from Pitchapalooza dwarfed it all.
I learned why I've been getting so many no's.
At least, I think so. I'll explain, but first, a little more about the event. Pitchapalooza is the brilliant creation of The Book Doctors (www.TheBookDoctors.com), the company formed by agent Arielle Eckstut and author David Henry Sterry for the purpose of helping aspiring authors get published. I heard each of them present, and will sometime later tell of the sessions they led, but for now I'll just say they both seem like extremely smart people, so much so that I ordered a copy of their book. I'm looking forward to receiving and reading it.
Meanwhile, the event in question is described on their web site: http://www.thebookdoctors.com/workshops
Five years ago, we created an event that has drawn thousands of people into bookstores, writing conferences and book festivals all over the country. It’s called Pitchapalooza, the American Idol for books (only without Simon) and it works like this: Anyone with an idea for a book has the chance to pitch it to a panel of judges. But they get only one minute. Eckstut and Sterry team up with two guest industry insiders to form the judging panel. The Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapaloozas are educational and entertaining for one and all. All attendees come away with concrete advice on how to improve their pitch as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. At the end of each Pitchapalooza, the judges come together to pick a winner.
Certainly, it's not the event for anyone nervous about public speaking. I'm not, after fifteen years of having my nerves beaten out of me in adult education, so I signed up as soon as I could. I don't know what the odds were of being called up, but I was one of the lucky ones who got to present.
I'd prepared fairly extensively. My one-on-one with an agent was also today (and it went particularly well; the agent I'd picked was very engaging and "got" my story) so I'd written both a long-form pitch to go within 7 minutes for the one-on-one and a short-form Pitchapalooza version. I finally printed out version three of the long-form pitch, which used as its core my query letter verbiage, this morning as I prepared to walk out the door. By lunch, though, I'd already rewritten it long-hand on the back. Later, I was glad I did, as that pitch went extraordinarily well. The other one?
Here's (more or less) what I spoke into the microphone at Pitchapalooza:
Return of the Gods: Cataclysm is the story of Crystal, a suburban housewife who survives a destructive cataclysm through the powers of her husband, who she learns in the process is actually Mars, the God of War. (pause for laughter) She's conflicted, as most of us would be; who is her husband, really? Who are her twin daughters? Who is she, and how does she fit into the relationship with an immortal? Meanwhile, her husband's servant, a shape-shifting dragon who spends most of her time in stunningly beautiful human form, provides Crystal with several jealous moments. (another pause for laughter) Crystal soon learns, however, that her true enemy is Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who is her husband's ex-wife and has now set her mind to rekindling the flame with the God of War. (another pause for laughter) The story blends the classic mythologies in a manner designed to make sense of the western world’s history of deities and their pantheons in a realistic setting. In doing so, it transports the reader to the dive bar of the gods known as Olympus, as well as the ancient kingdom of Atlantis, before ending in a tumultuous battle between the God of War and the Goddess of Love. I think that Cataclysm will appeal to the many lovers of dragons and their lore*TIME* damn.
I had one sentence to finish, so the pauses proved to be my undoing. To be fair, though, my not finishing probably wasn't the main reason I didn't win. First of all, the guy who won did a perfect job, finishing an engaging pitch right at the sixty second mark. Second, the comments the panel gave me on my pitch weren't entirely wonderful. They were pretty good, actually--the judges said they want to read my book, as did several audience members as I sat back down. But there were some "room to grow" comments that, in a few seconds, made it clear why I haven't been having much success so far.
First, the title isn't gripping. I'd known that, but I didn't have many better ideas. Mr. Sterry did, and I'm now renaming the book and acknowledging his help on the ack page once I get it published.
The second problem is more subtle, yet more fundamental at the same time. I'm so so so so glad they put their finger on it, though, because it's something this newbie writer had already felt but may not have ever seen.
The pitch loses Crystal. It introduces her, certainly, and even engages the reader in her emotionally to a certain degree at the beginning. But then it heads off into action-land, telling all about what happens in the book. In doing so, any emotional connection the reader had with Crystal (my main character, remember!) is lost, set adrift in a sea of "then they went" and "there was a great battle" and other activity-related prose.
No wonder I've gotten a dozen (ish) query replies complaining about not loving it. There's nothing to love about a story where they go here, and then they go there, and then, like, this other thing happens. People love characters, not events. I've worked on this in the novel itself, raising the tension by showing the emotional impact upon Crystal that the events are having. Sadly, I then got caught up in the structural requirements of the query letter and neglected to do the same thing there.
As I said, it's subtle, but it's fundamental. The agent who's trying to fall in love with my (short) description of the story wants to know that Crystal is angry and frustrated over the attacks by Mars's ex-wife, and that she's involved on several levels in the final battle, and that she is caught up in and amused by the trip to the gods' dive bar.
Ah, well--that's what Sundays are for, yes? Query letter rewrite, coming up once again.