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.