Rich Chiappone: The Windup and the Pitch

Last week I
arrived home from the Algonkian Writers’ “pitch” Conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada in time to catch Andromeda’s post on thesubject of pitching your novel. As always, Andromeda’s advice and commentary
were right on, mostly mirroring what I’d traveled several thousand miles to
hear experts tell us for three straight days.

I’d never heard
of pitch conferences until Anne Coray—poet, founder of North Shore Press, and
old friend from Lake Clark—emailed me a couple months ago with thelink to the Algonkian event.  Anne remembered that I had family in that
part of the world. She had also read my novel manuscript and knew I needed to
start looking for a publisher. Not coincidentally, Anne has her own novel ready
to publish, too. We agreed to meet in Niagara Falls.
I’ll admit that
after twenty years of publishing stories, fifteen years of teaching writing, and a
decade on the faculty of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, the thought of
attending a conference as a paying customer was a little hard to swallow. But studying the exigencies of publishing a novel today, I realized I needed all
the help I could get—like every other first-timer.
The thing that
convinced me to make the trip—aside from the opportunity to visit my two
brothers, two daughters and two grandsons in Niagara County—was the comment on the Algonkian website
that says: “It is not our goal to provide a feel good atmosphere.” These are
serious people. I liked the sound of that. I’ve spent ten years working on this
novel. I don’t want to feel good about it. I want to publish the bastard.
While Andromeda
is absolutely right that having a canned pitch is not good enough, it is a
place to start. For the first two days, we forty or so attendees worked on
perfecting our 150-word pitches. On Saturday, two agents and three editors were
coming to hear them. We would have minutes to talk to each of them. Minutes to
convey the essence of our years of work, to condense our hundreds of pages and
thousands of words to an irresistible, bite-sized snack. Minutes to convince
them they should read our manuscripts—never mind that they had thousands of
other writers telling them the same thing about their novels. One
estimate I read claims there may be thirty thousand unpublished novels washing up
against the doorways of agents and publishers at any given time.  Minutes.
That is why
Michael Neff, the founder and director of the Algonkian conferences (there are
several annually: San
L.A., NY City, Niagara Falls) hammers home the importance of a
succinct, immediate, seductive pitch. All day Thursday, attendees read their
pitches to the group, and Michael critiqued each one. He does not coddle. At
times he’d shake his head and say, “No, no. That’s not going to work!” He knows
there is no time to explain the whole story to an agent or editor, no time to
describe all the characters. Thirty
thousand unpublished manuscripts.
“One minute,” he says. “A minute and a
half, tops.” That’s all you’ll have to get an acquisitions editor to ask you to
send your novel to him—or even just the first fifty pages. Anything. “Ideally,
you should be able to sum it up in one sentence,” Michael Neff says.  He’s serious.
How can it be
Time and again,
Michael and our guest author/speaker, Barbara Kyle (400,000 books in print!),
drove home these points.
1.)Establish who
the protagonist is and what he or she wants, needs, or must accomplish.
2.) Establish
who the antagonist is, the obstacle our hero faces.
3.) Convey why a
reader should care about this story.
A young man (call him Ishmael) signs on
with a Nantucket whaling ship and discovers it’s captained by a madman in
pursuit of a giant white whale that may be the Devil, or God Himself.
Nothing to it,
right? Try it with your novel.
Thursday night
we read our pitches out loud in the bar after dinner. Friday we scrambled all
day to revise and perfect them, to shave them down.
antagonist, story.
Being a
first-timer, the thing that struck me was the urgency in the air. As the moment
neared for the agents and editors to arrive, a feeding frenzy ensued. Forty
first-time novelists paced the meeting room, pitches in hand, hopes soaring (or
wavering, depending on personality and neuroses), each one needing to hear
someone in a position of power say he or she would read their manuscript. This
wasn’t about getting contracts. This was just about being added to the slush
pile. Yet there was no denying the feeling that your book lived or died in
those five minutes on that little piece of ground that was the tabletop between
you and the publisher. And so did a little bit of you.
All day, spirits
soared or faltered on the basis of a smile or a frown—God forbid, a yawn! We
flocked together like chicks in a downpour, encouraging each other when skies
looked blue, commiserating when storm clouds loomed. In British Columbia an enormous earthquake rocked the
coastal islands, while Hurricane Sandy approached the U.S. coast a couple hundred miles to the east
of us. But what were mere earthquakes or hurricanes compared to our turmoil? We
all went out for a spectacular Italian dinner and discussed our chances at the
bar until late in the evening.
The agents and
editors had fled back to New York on Saturday afternoon, visibly
distracted by the imminent storm—our pitches certainly the farthest things from
their minds. By Sunday, eastbound flights departing Buffalo were being canceled; the airlines did
not want their planes on the ground at LaGuardia or Newark when Sandy hit. Even so, my intrepid friend Anne
Coray ventured east on a train to Syracuse, where her brother lives. (Poets are
fearless!) Being a mere short story writer, I scurried from Buffalo to
Cleveland to Denver to Anchorage, thankful to be heading west and away from the
monster storm—and away from the emotional typhoon of the pitch experience. I
arrived in Homer midday
Monday, exhausted and drained, but relieved to have it behind me.
Was it worth it?
Yes. Absolutely. I needed the slap in the face the conference provides for
those who are willing to accept the truth that it has never been harder to
publish a first novel. Upon arriving home, I saw that publishers Random and
Penguin are merging.  Anyone who doesn’t
know that “merging” means fewer employees in the building, has been asleep for
the past ten years. Would the acquisitions editor whom I thought I’d made a
connection with still have a job by the time my book landed on his desk?  Who knew?
How much does it
really matter? I asked myself. It’s not the only thing I have to live for. I
have a wonderful wife, three great cats, nine well-behaved goldfish. I have
fine students, friends, colleagues, even a trout stream in my back yard.
Several thousand miles away from the pitch-or-die environment of the
conference, the intense importance of finding someone to read my manuscript
faded. Those poor publishers were up to their necks in seawater in Manhattan. They’d never remember me or my book.
Still, just in
case, I plunged into revising it, yet again, using the things I’d learned at
the conference about structure, pacing, character development, and plot. What’s
the point of establishing a connection unless the finished book is as good as
you made it sound in your pitch? The tail will only wag the dog so long. So,
I’m still working on it, but in the peace and quiet of my home now—calmly and
steadily, without all that frantic neediness and urgency.
Two days ago,
the email came, saying the editor wants to see my manuscript. The whole thing.
So much for
calmly and steadily, without the frantic neediness and urgency.
Rich Chiappone is the author of Water of
An Undetermined Depth, and Opening Days. He teaches in the MFA program at UAA,
and at the

Campus of the
Kenai Peninsula

5 thoughts on “Rich Chiappone: The Windup and the Pitch”

  1. Thanks for the great post, Rich! You perfectly captured the struggle and solidified (at least for me) to never attend something so gut wrenching as a pitch conference!
    Knowing your work, I'll start a wager that your novel won't be one of the THIRTY THOUSAND…
    We're all rooting for you! Good luck!

  2. Hi, Rich! Great post and great news. Looks like your pitch got a tug, eh? Good luck with seeking out a publisher. I'm not at all worried. Soon you'll be fighting them off. P.S. I'm sending some good cat-smelling, dog-chewed, running-shoe-energy your way.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow–this was great, helpful, and inspiring. Antagonist-protagonist-story. Good formula. Practicing over and over, and condensing into 90 seconds: makes sense. Getting interest from an editor: priceless! Thanks for sharing this with us, Rich.

  4. Congrats on the request! May it lead to great things! And thanks for the post–never heard of pitch conferences before, good thing to know.

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