Never, Never, Never Give In ~ Pt. 2
We are on the journey toward publishing which is that magical, terrifying, and oddly discordant time in a writer’s life when she realizes that her work may (or may not) be read by those who occupy the larger world.
My last post left us in a living room with a Rolodex, a telephone, and my resolution to jump over the prescribed and required route to a book deal (via a literary agent). My goal that afternoon was to pitch my memoir to a few old contacts in NY and when the day was done, to have at least three editors willing to read.
Two had agreed to look at the book and I had one more to go…only there was a problem. It was five p.m. on the East Coast.
Though it was late, maybe too late, I dialed a division of Simon & Schuster in hopes of reaching Claire Zion, another editor who had looked at The Messengers and later (after Bunick self-published and sold a good number of books himself) acquired it for six figures.
Claire was a terrific lady; visionary and kind.
“Pocket Books,” a young woman said on the line.
“Oh, hey, hi,” I said. “I’m looking for Claire Zion.”
“Hmm,” the young woman said. “This is Nancy MIller’s office but hang on. I’ll check around.”
Two clicks later and Muzak played on the line; Donna Summer singing Love to Love You Baby. The extended version.
My goodness, I thought, listening to Summer whisper and carry on, and for a moment, wondered when Steve was getting home.
“Hi again,” the woman said. “I think she’s gone.”
“Gone?” I asked, back to business. “Like for the day?”
“No, like she quit or maybe was…” the woman’s voice trailed off.
“Laid off?” I said. “Fired?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “The office is closing up for the night. There aren’t a lot of people around to ask but I’ve been here a while. I’ve never heard her name.”
I folded the corner of Claire’s card in my Rolodex. She was now a dead contact.
“That’s a shame,” I said, on the brink of admitting defeat. “I wanted to pitch her a book.”
“Hmm. What’s the category?”
“Ooooh. I love memoir. You can pitch me if you want.”
I looked around the room I knew so well; the double-hung windows that flanked the vintage fireplace Steve and I had restored. The two rose-colored easy chairs set up with cozy throw pillows. And Carmel, my old Cocker Spaniel, who snuggled on the sofa next to me and rested her snout in my lap.
I petted over Carmel’s silky head and rubbed around her floppy ears, and at the same time delivered “the pitch” which is a two to five-minute spiel…like you might read on the jacket copy of a book in print…“Little girl orphaned who overcomes insurmountable odds,” I said, “like Angela’s Ashes and Liar’s Club because the writing is cinematic, but different (and better) because it’s set in middle-class America, and the adults aren’t alcoholics who leave their children to die of starvation or try to shoot them. This book is more subtle than that. More elegant.”
“Wow, it sounds great,” the young woman said. “Send it over. I’d love to read it.”
My hand stilled and Carmel opened her big dark eyes, looking up at me.
“I can acquire too,” the woman said and then told me her name. She was Kim Kanner. Assistant editor. And while relatively new to the editing business, had pull enough to take a book through publication. “This project sounds perfect for me,” Kim said. “Who’s the author?
I looked at the dog looking at me and realized this woman thought she was talking to a literary agent.
“Um. Well. The thing is, I’m the writer,” I said.
“You’re kidding?” Kim finally said. “You sound so normal.”
“I am normal,” I said, laughing with both relief and the realization that writers had a certain reputation out there. Oddballs. Recluses. Introverts.
“I mean articulate. Most writers are awkward and they have a tendency to ramble…don’t get me wrong. I love writers, but…”
“I get it,” I said and soon we were chatting it up like the best of friends. I explained I was shopping the book myself, having worked in PR and as a journalist for several years. I also said I had two other editors interested over at Penguin and Crown.
“Oh my God,” Kim said. “I need this book now. Promise me you won’t accept an offer until I see it.”
An offer? Was Kim for real?
“Sure, okay,” I said, voice calm. Inside, I thought: OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod.
“Do you have a pen?” Kim said. “I want you to overnight it to me and use this postal code.”
In writing this post, two things come to mind that I’d like to take a closer look at.
Do you need a literary agent?
I don’t know.
If you plan to publish…probably.
If you want to publish nationally…yes, you will need an agent eventually (I did as you will soon learn).
And before I continue this tale, I’d suggest you get started while working on your book. You don’t have to go crazy. But a little research is a good idea. Think of it like cruising real estate sites for your dream home or searching for vintage jewelry you hope to buy on eBay or Esty.
Great places to start your “dream agent” research include Poet’s and Writers, Writers Digest, and Publishers Marketplace. You can also meet agents at book fairs and festivals in your area or at the national level (AWP, which is the biggie in the U.S., comes to mind). One writer I know makes a wish list of agents from the acknowledgment section of books she loves. After writing down these names, she will go online, print articles written about the agent, go to the agent’s website, read other books the agent reps, and so on.
Bottom line, finding an agent is a bit like dating. You’ll need to meet a few, learn who they are, and eventually decide if your chosen person is someone you can trust. Also, he or she needs to adore you and your work. An agent, in many ways, is as important as a loving and supportive spouse. He or she will be your artistic advocate for years to come. Take your time. Find the right match.
What is a pitch?
This is the concise wrap of your book. You’ll sometimes hear people call it “the elevator pitch” which means you should be able to describe your book in about two to four hundred words (or the length of a ride on an elevator).
You can see a “pitch” right now by reading the flap copy of any book in a store or on your shelf. I’ll offer three from memoirs I love—one that I’ve reviewed here on Substack (see link below) and two I will review in future posts:
Exquisitely observed, Four Seasons in Rome describes Doerr's varied adventures in one of the most enchanting cities in the world. He reads Pliny, Dante, and Keats—the chroniclers of Rome who came before him—and visits the piazzas, temples, and ancient cisterns they describe. He attends the vigil of a dying Pope John Paul II and takes his twins to the Pantheon in December to wait for snow to fall through the oculus. He and his family are embraced by the butchers, grocers, and bakers of the neighborhood, whose clamor of stories and idiosyncratic child-rearing advice is as compelling as the city itself.
Flap copy: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
This spellbinding memoir by the National Book Award-nominated author of The Bird Artist begins with a portrait, both harrowing and hilarious, of a midwestern boy’s summer working in a bookmobile, under the shadow of his grifter father and the erotic tutelage of his brother’s girlfriend. Howard Norman’s life story continues in places as far-flung as the Arctic, where he spends part of a decade as a translator of Inuit tales—including the story of a soapstone carver turned into a goose whose migration-time lament is “I hate to leave this beautiful place”—and in his beloved Point Reyes, California, as a student of birds.
Flap copy: I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman. Read the review here.
From the age of three, Norman Ollestad was thrust into the world of surfing and competitive downhill skiing by the intense, charismatic father he both idolized and resented. While his friends were riding bikes, playing ball, and going to birthday parties, young Norman was whisked away in pursuit of wild and demanding adventures. Yet it was these exhilarating tests of skill that prepared "Boy Wonder," as his father called him, to become a fearless champion--and ultimately saved his life.
Flying to a ski championship ceremony in February 1979, the chartered Cessna carrying Norman, his father, his father's girlfriend, and the pilot crashed into the San Gabriel Mountains and was suspended at 8,200 feet, engulfed in a blizzard. "Dad and I were a team, and he was Superman," Ollestad writes. But now Norman's father was dead, and the devastated eleven-year-old had to descend the treacherous, icy mountain alone.
Set amid the spontaneous, uninhibited surf culture of Malibu and Mexico in the late 1970s, this riveting memoir, written in crisp Hemingwayesque prose, recalls Ollestad's childhood and the magnetic man whose determination and love infuriated and inspired him--and also taught him to overcome the indomitable. As it illuminates the complicated bond between an extraordinary father and his son, Ollestad's powerful and unforgettable true story offers remarkable insight for us all.
Flap copy: Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad
A challenge now is to write a pitch. Follow the examples above, and see if you can make your book sound interesting, intriguing, and irresistible in two to four hundred words. Finally, post your pitch in the comment section. I’d love to read it.
As always, thanks for flying with me here at Flight School and I’ll see you in a few days.
~ Jennifer, 🍎