Monday, July 18, 2016

Ready...Sit...Pitch! Part 2


The All Write Now Writers' Conference 2016 was plumb chock full of what Val does best: SITTING!

The Pony nabbed a great table, just inside the door from where blog buddy Sioux, our nervous passenger precious cargo was handing out registration packets. We had a great view of the podium for Opening Keynote Speaker Jill Marr, of the Sandra Djikstra Literary Agency. We were one table back, which I think is better than being right up under the speaker's nose. Of course I had the best seat, facing the front, with a chair at my left saved for Sioux, and The Pony on the other side of that, facing the front and the rest of the ballroom.

We had enjoyed our table for two about 20 minutes, when a diminutive gal asked if the seats were taken. Nope. She left an empty chair beside The Pony, and took the next one. Kind of at the front of the table, where she swiveled her seat to look toward the podium. She was a bigwig with a hair-cutting chain, and talked briefly about a conference which she had just attended in Texas, with 7000 other hair folks. They had taken up five hotels just by themselves, she said. I refrained from asking her if she knew The Butcher of Seville, my nemesis at Terrible Cuts, who makes my hair longer when she cuts it.

Sioux joined us just before the ceremonies began. And shortly after her, an odd couple. I mean no disrespect. One of the couple was not odd at all, a young lady who ended up placing in the Middle Grade Fiction contest. But the other one we'll just call "Pat." I'm pretty sure they were not romantically involved, and not related. The first was Pat. And the second because they got along too well. I have no gripes about sharing the table with them at this opening session. We'll get to my raised dander a bit later.

We had some prize drawings first, which nobody at our table won. Bunch of losers, we were! Funny how our opening keynote speaker Jill Marr won the very first prize! I cry shenanigans! Not really. But Even Steven certainly has a sense of humor. Rather than rest on her $10 restaurant gift certificate laurels, Ms. Marr took the podium and enlightened us all on elevator pitches.

Your elevator pitch should be:

Concise-brevity is key
Clear-no acronyms, know the audience you're speaking to
Compelling-make them want to find out what happens
Conceptual-so they can imagine it
Customized-have a couple of pitches ready, depending on your audience
Conversational-the audience should be comfortable, not hearing a recitation

Nobody was more illuminated than Val! So much for that pitch I had spent all summer about 15 minutes perfecting. Even though we would be allotted 5 minutes in our pitch sessions (foreshadowing, people...don't make me whack you over the head with this pertinent fact), it appeared that Ms. Marr is a big fan of a brief elevator pitch. Or, as she pointed out, the length depends on which floor you're going to, and it's probably not the 42nd. So I had some trimming to do before 1:28 p.m.

As part of her program, Ms. Marr encouraged people in our audience to come up front and pitch. The one she deemed best would receive a critique of their first 10 pages. The first volunteers were quite nervous. Some read from a note card, voices trembling. Others recited their pitches like bible verses memorized by the kids Tom Sawyer traded his fence-whitewashing swag to for tickets. As more and more pitchers were persuaded, they grew bolder, seeing as how lightning didn't strike, and rotten tomatoes were not thrown. Even those whose pitches were gently tweaked by Ms. Marr were not scarred.

Then our very own SIOUX volunteered to pitch! She controlled the crowd like they were freshly-shorn recruits on the first day of basic training. Without the profanity. Almost. You see, in Sioux's pitch, as in her WIP WTF (that stands for Work That's Finished, right?) there is a major plot point involving a penis. And believe you me, Sioux was NOT withholding the penis from this crowd! I will not go into detail, because that is Sioux's WTF, not mine. She might want to share her penis on her own blog. So we'll just leave it hanging, with my only comment being that Sioux's penis was real, and it was spectacular, and in fact, it--nuh nuh nuh! Thought you'd get it out of me, didn't you? But my lips are sealed on Sioux's penis!

After our opening session, we all scattered to various other sessions to sit some more. Did I mention how good I am at that? The walking to and from, not so much. But the sitting I can do like a champ. The Pony and I both ended up at Jill Marr's session of "Generating Suspense in Any Genre." Let the record show that there were not many topics involving nonfiction, so I went to the ones that seemed like I could parlay into my own selfish needs. I think I have succeeded in generating suspense about Sioux's penis, so the session was worthwhile.

Among the things I learned about generating suspense were:

1. Introduce the protagonist and a few of the supporting cast so the audience will care what happens to them. Then introduce the antagonist, because a villain will raise the stakes.

2.  Don't pose the dramatic question too early, but early enough. About 1/6 of the way in. a mystery or thriller, pose it in the first few pages.

3. Build tension with small losses and small gains. Use a series of minor battles.

4. Foreshadow.

5. If the dramatic question is a test, have false success. Revel in a victory, then pull the rug out.

6. Make your protagonist fail. It helps the audience root for him.

7. Don't give away the reveal until you do!

8. Ticking clock adds suspense, especially for a mystery or thriller. It can be an illness, the end of summer before school starts again, some kind of deadline.

9. Shorter chapters keep readers moving.

10. There is no need to write how someone gets from the car to the house. We know how people do that.

After about 20 minutes of presentation, Ms. Marr said we would use the rest of the time to answer general questions, or specific questions about people's WIPs. A lady behind me had the BEST SOUTHERN ACCENT EVER! I didn't even care what she said, I just wanted to hear her talk. Seems she loves prologues, but Jill Marr says other agents hate prologues, though she herself enjoys them as well. We had several examples such as the girl killed at the beginning of Jaws, and whether that was a prologue or the beginning of the novel, since who she is doesn't matter, and she's a device introducing us to the police chief. Then talk turned to epilogues. Some people were downright surly about how they feel cheated when they don't have all the ends tied up in pretty bows. They think the author wants to sell sequels. One guy said he was so mad that he copied the writing style of an author, and wrote his own epilogue, which he put on his blog. And people asked him where he found it, because they thought the author had written it.

For the next session, I went to hear Keynote Speaker David Armand talk about "Life Writing: Personal Stories and Memoir." I got there early, secured a seat in the back, and watched the room fill up around me. Blog buddy Donna came in and sat at the table in front of me. Some random dude sat down beside me, and said, "I'm going to need to cut out of here at 11:30." Like he had to have a reason to sit beside Val! Then he looked at the info that went up on the screen, and asked me something that was probably rhetorical, but was most definitely sarcasm, laced with incredulity. I just raised one eyebrow for him, because I wasn't really listening, but rather looking around for David Armand, who looked nothing like the lady standing at the front of the room, but was wearing a red-and-white trucker cap and blue plaid shirt. I'd seen him sitting in the hall earlier, before the session.

Well. Seems that Val is such a good sitter that she needs to pay more attention to where she is going to plop her ample buttocks next! I was in the wrong room! ME! Who was even there last year, and knows the names of those rooms, and had printed out a floor plan! I got up, making sure to tell the random dude that, "I might be back. I'm going to see what other sessions there are." See how clever I was? I did not admit my idiocy, but made it seem like his comments on the looks of this session had spurred me to seek something more substantial.

Next door I found David Armand. He talked about his own memoir, and how the publisher of his three other books told him, "Memoir doesn't sell unless you're famous," and didn't want to publish it. He went on to mention several memoirs that have hit the best seller lists, like Jeannette Walls's "The Glass Castle," and Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club" and "Lit." And Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." How none of them were famous, just regular people when their books took off. And how James Frey's publisher didn't want to publish his novel, "A Million Little Pieces," as fiction, and told him, "This would be great if it was memoir." So James Frey just said it was memoir. Then had the Oprah debacle, even though people thought his book was great, until some dead people in it came forward and said they were very much alive, and this was not a true story. He never had any success with his following books, because people felt fooled, and wouldn't buy them. Mr. Armand encouraged everyone to write their life story, because even though they might think, "Nobody is interested in this," some people really are. Then somebody asked, "Isn't it true that it's almost impossible to get a memoir published if you don't have a platform?" And he agreed. But said the reward is in writing it. And maybe self-publishing.

David Armand kept us until right at 12:05, when the sessions had been ending at 10 minutes before the hour. I didn't want to get up and leave, because I was interested. But some folks were getting antsy. He said he would stay and answer more questions for anybody who wanted. I went out and found The Pony hanging around the door to the opening-session ballroom where lunch was being served. We went in and SAW THAT OUR SEATS WERE TAKEN BY PAT & CO.!

I know that seats are not reserved. That there is no reason to sit in the same place you sat in the morning session. But most people do! Like George on the white sofa with his glass of grape juice and bowl of nuts watching Breakfast at Tiffany's with a kind family who allowed him to cheat on his book club assignment with their rented video...I wanted my seat back! But NO! Pat was sitting in my seat! You could ask any of my past fellow faculty about Mrs. Thevictorian's lunch chair peccadilloes, and you would find that Val always expects her seat to be left available for her.

Not only did I have to sit at the front of the table, and swivel my neck to see the speaker...but our table was filled with the weirdos attracted to my magnet! I don't mean to be unkind. But this was a different kind of crew than what I saw at the AWN conference last year. These table folks were perfectly polite and sometimes charming. But not my fellow Backroadsians. We had Pat in my chair (!) with Friend between us. Then on the other side of Pat Not truly the paramour of Pat, as on SNL, but one who might have been. Except in our case, Pat had the long flowing hair, and Chris had the short dark bob. And a jacket zipped up to the chin, like Bazooka Joe's turtleneck. Next to Chris was Tim Kazurinsky. Not really. But a dead ringer. He you The Pony to the 10th power. Not really good in social situations. He talked about his writings as we politely remained hostage. Next to Tim was a little slip of a girl, age unknown, but perhaps in the 15-18 range, who kept her head down and several times ran out of the room. In fact, right before these exits, I'd hear a thump under the table, and a, "No! Stop!" from Chris. I don't have a clue what was going on, but I'm glad Sioux was sitting next to Thumper, not me.

Lunch was a sandwich buffet, much better than last year's boxed "Walmart-style sub" as The Pony described it. We had two breads (three if you're the kind of person who makes a sandwich on cinnamon swirl bread, though I, myself, am not) and turkey, ham, and beef deli meat. Also condiments of mustard and ketchup (which I avoided so as not to wear them to my pitch session later) and tomatoes, pickles, cheese, macaroni salad, three kinds of big cookies, and water or tea. And apparently SODA, as discovered by Sioux, over by the fruit station. The Pony trotted over and grabbed me a Diet Pepsi (ptooey!) so I had a dash of caffeine in my system for later.

The Pony told me later that Sioux had put her pasta salad on her sandwich! That, Madam, is an abomination! I can only hope that he was mistaken. He was, however, watching Sioux quite closely. As evidenced by his comment to her that, "You have something on your collar." Which, as she pointed out, was incorrect, since her blouse did not HAVE a collar! It was a peasanty affair, with a bit of a scoop neck.

"That was NOT on my collar! It was a piece of macaroni on my upper boob!" And Sioux elaborated on the upper-boob, mid-boob, and lower-boob regions on the chestal area of moderately-aged women. Though in my neck of the woods, the lower-boob region is referred to as "waist-boob."

Really, though, Sioux should be flattered, because it's not every day that The Pony actually attempts to HELP SOMEONE!

After the lunch address, which ran late by about 10 minutes, it was time to stop our sitting and go somewhere else to sit. Sioux and I stayed in the ballroom, because PITCHES were about to start. More on that tomorrow! After the pitches, it was time for the final breakout session before the awarding of awards for the writing contest.

The Pony, Sioux, and I all three ended up in Jill Marr's "Storytelling-Exposition vs Dialogue." I found out that it is NOT a compliment if somebody tells you that your book reads like a screenplay. Because screenwriters put down a couple of sentences for the setting, and then the rest is long sections of dialogue. And that if you can turn three pages of your book without seeing any dialogue, that is not good. We also discussed how an accent can be expressed with a couple of key words without long strings of hard-to-decipher Gaelic or other lingo. Because with those key words, you get the drift, and imagine the voice in that accent. Also, cliches are something to avoid (!!!). As before, the majority of the session was composed of audience questions, which I think was great, because we can read writing advice online whenever we want, but how often can we pick the brain of an east- or west coast literary agent here in Missouri?

Here are a few specifics from this session:

"You can't eat ice cream that ain't in the freezer, and by "ice cream" I mean "dead stripper." Your interpretation of that is as good as mine, but it comes from Chuck Wendig's blog, This was from an article, "25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch."

*write a zero draft and hack away what you don't need

*create a different draft for each character, then sprinkle in details later

*DON'T have two characters talking about something they already know. Example: "Sis, I know you don't like vanilla ice cream..."

*fold exposition in like ingredients in a batter

*you can use newspaper clippings, artifacts, epitaphs, journals for the info to come out

*out with the info dump, in with the info bullet

*use exposition to break tension

Let the record show that near the end of this final session, Sioux and I made sure The Pony gathered up his stuff and hoofed it down to the ballroom to reclaim our seats for the final sitting! That's because Pat was also in our breakout session, sitting right in front of Val. Magnetic attraction and all, I suppose. We (alright I) wanted to make sure that I had my rightful seat so as not to swivel to watch the proceedings.

The Pony was successful, having marked our territory with his folder and conference swag bag (he says I am not allowed to speak those two words out loud ever again). Good thing, because Pat was hot and heavy on my heels as we entered the ballroom. I think I heard an audible sigh as I plopped down in MY seat. Perhaps medium-plussed, Pat sat at my right hand. Friend soon joined us, and the diminutive pony-tailed hair professional reclaimed her morning chair. I was not sorry to see that Chris, Tim, and Thumper had graced another table with their presence. I suppose because we only had two seats left now, not three.

Tomorrow: PITCH.


  1. I did not put pasta salad on my sandwich, and it was a chip on my "collar" and not macaroni.

    You and I noticed the same things about our tablemates. They WERE an unusual group.

    1. The Pony probably lost consciousness for a minute, listening to Tim tell us all about his writing process. HE'S the dude who wrote his own epilogue in the style of the author! I was trying to be polite, because I don't think Tim was good at picking up clues that we were OVER his stories.

      My biggest gripe is that they took our seats, the seats that were available to anybody who showed up first, and did not honor the "Val's Special Chair" rule! And...every time I was getting into the speaker, with my neck twisted awkwardly, there was that mysterious thumping, and a minor kerfuffle, and that li'l gal darted out of the room.

  2. Hi Val,
    Thanks for sharing your notes. I shared some of mine on my blog, but I wasn't able to catch the "Generating Suspense in any Genre" session, so I appreciate your notes. I'm looking forward to your next post.

    1. Oh, dear! The next one deals with my pitch! I'll be watching for yours as well. For some reason, your post today didn't pop up in my updates on the sidebar. Headed there now.

  3. Don't change your style too much--I LOVE the way you write now!!

    1. Therein lies the problem: I don't WANT to change my style too much! Just de-blogify it. But is that kind of stuff marketable? We'll see...

      Let the record show that I have no intention of writing mysteries or thrillers! I don't have an imagination.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, and thanks for the notes on the sessions I missed. Oh, and just for the record, I was NOT the "Pat" sitting at your table!

    Critter Alley

    1. Whew! That's a relief! Because ever since I "came out" last week, people can find my real name. AND I would have to give you a stern talking-to about taking my seat, which you should have psychically known was a no-no.

  5. Thanks for sharing all this writing wisdom with us. Fishducky is right about holding to your unique style. I've tried to write like others or chase the market and it didn't work for me.

    1. We each have our own voice. Some more shrill than others!