Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pitching versus Dialogue: The False Dichotomy

Picture that you are at a conference. You get into an elevator with the guy in the picture. He's nice enough and likes to smile. It's a conference, so you ask, "What's your story about?"

It's a seemingly simple question. It's one that we ask and get asked all the time.

Well, picture the guy tells you that it's about underwear.
"Really? Underwear?"
"Yes," he says with a sly smile. "Actually, it's about moms that wear thongs and my mother's gigantic underwear!"

What do you do? Do you run out of the elevator as fast as you can when the door opens? Do you dare to ask more questions? Do you just laugh?

The guy in the photo happens to be Jess Walters and he was the key note speaker at the Wenatchee Write on the River Conference that I just attended with Patrick, Alex, a friend from my writing group in Ellensburg, a blogger that I just meet, and a couple hundred other people.

Jess Walters--the highly successful author--read a poem to the whole group that was about the shock of seeing a mom in a thong. And you know what, if you were in the hypothetical elevator with him there is absolutely no way that he could actually tell you what the poem is about. You had to just be there. He was funny delivering it. His descriptive language, especially about how he and his siblings folded his mom's underwear like it was a flag, was cracking me up. He was hilarious, but it was just as funny to watch all the ladies in the audience laugh and exhange knowing smiles.

So, how's this relate to all of us? We have to go through the challenge of explaining our stories to others, both agents and fellow writers. Sometimes the meaning is hard to translate in a short coversation. And that brings me to the point. It needs to be a CONVERSATION.

The big, big problem is that people are taught to pitch their stories more than they are taught to talk about them. So, when writers talk with writers I see that there is an unexamined assumption that we are supposed to give speeches to each other. Is it any suprise that meaning is lost? It takes dialogue to develop an understanding of story. And guess what, I'm going to say something that nobody ever says. The burden is on the listener, not the author.

I repeat, the burden for understanding someone's story is on the person that asks about it. I believe this is valid because in my experience, which includes five conferences, the agents and editors lead the "10-15 minute appointment" with questions (at least they do if you let them).

These questions are meant to be conversational.

I have learned this lesson the hard way. At one conference an agent pretty much chewed me out for giving her a speech and not giving her the chance to ask questions. Man that sucked, but it was a good lesson.

So, here's the challenge. Check out the questions that Donald Maass tells you he will ask. There's not much mystery to it, as he lays them out in his book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

What I love about the advice he gives is that he tells stories of how things go right and go wrong for people. You have to be able to explain what genre your story is in and where it fits within that genre. You have to be able to explain what the setting is, what's at stake, and what the main conflict is. He gives you all this in the form of questions?

And guess what? These are exactly the kinds of questions we should ask each other when we want to know about each others stories.

So, here's a little list of questions for the next time you go to a conference. You should be able to talk about the answers, but you should also be able to lead people through a conversation on their story. It's hard to explain so many words, and so many years of work. It's hard to explain subtle points and get across what makes a story meaningful. If you can do what you can to help people explain their story they will love you. It's a good feeling to successfully explain your story. It's a good feeling to have others understand.


What's the genre?

What's the setting?

What's the point of view?

Who is the protagoninst?

What do they want?

What would happen if the protagonist failed?

Who is the antagonist?

What's the main conflict?

How does the main character change by the end?

What authors have influenced you?

Any of those questions should be good for keeping a conversation going.


What have some good/bad experiences been when it comes to explaining your story to aspiring writers, agents, editors, ...?

Would you rather "pitch" your story or have a conversation about it?


  1. Quite often, I try to tell people what my stories or poems are about but usually only succeed in realizing that I actually have no idea what they're about.

  2. Thanks for listing those questions. I struggle a lot when asked what my novel is about. It would be even more difficult if I had to converse about it and the additional questions you listed above. So, it will be good practice for me to go through them and really get a feel for what I'd say to other people.

  3. Again, all I have to go on is my limited experience pitching in Hollywood, but there, the biggest hurdle is connecting with people who 1) have the attention span of your average Scottish Terrier and 2) are looking for any excuse to say no and move on to the next guy.

    Pitching for movies has traditionally emphasized the less-is-more approach. For starters: the ole "if you can't tell me your story in two sentences, you're out." (Or preferably, "If you can TRULY hook me in two sentences, I'm interested.")

    So your no-speechifyin' advice is dead on. Rambling leads to eyes glazing over which leads to certain doom. I'd never thought of making it a conversation as a goal in itself, but I think you're right. Keep it simple, pique their interest, and let them take it from there. (And definitely be ready to give an answer for anything.)

    I actually dread, and suck at, pitching. But pushing for the point where the listener starts directing the flow of conversation is probably a real stress reliever, too.

    Nice post!

  4. Great post!!! I love that list of questions. It's a great way to see if your story is working on the marketing level - a layer that you can't overlook. If any of those questions are difficult to answer, you don't know your story well enough or something is off...

    I need to read that Maass book. Everybody keeps talking about it. :)

  5. Yeah, Dave. Great post. For me, it depends on the situation/atmosphere I'm in when pitching a story. If it's ridiculously laid back and casual, there's no way I can take myself seriously long enough to dish it out coherently. But when I get in there with someone and the vibe is pretty neutral or serious, I usually do okay, not great.

    Conversations definitely feel better than pitching. At BEA a few years back, I went in there with 4 lines memorized, sat down, and automatically felt paralyzed. She said, 'You have some wild curly hair', and I stared back at her, only those 4 sentences in my brain, nothing else...not even a 'Yeah, it is'. So yeah...

  6. Totally agree Dave. If you can't answer the questions, you aren't done yet. Here's my answers.

    What's the genre - thriller
    What's the setting - Silicon Valley in about 10 years
    What's the point of view - 3rd person omniscient
    Who is the protagonist - William Standish
    What do they want - to control his wife
    What would happen if the protagonist failed - he'd lose her
    Who is the antagonist - it's going to ruin the story, I know, but I'm not going to say
    What's the main conflict - he wants more money
    How does the main character change by the end? You mean other than he's dead? :-D
    What authors have influenced you? Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Michael Connelly

  7. Hey Dave - it was great meeting you in person at the conference. And you are so quick at posting about it! I enjoyed sitting around at dinner having conversations about all of our stories, but I would have felt really stupid reciting a pre-rehearsed pitch at you. I think you make an excellent point.

  8. Ben: Great hearing from you. Keep in touch!

    Cindy: No problem. I struggle with explaining my story too. It is really a hit and miss experience that seems to depend greatly on who I am talking with and the situation.

    Splash: Nice comment about if you can truly hook me in two sentences. Constructing a logline is an art.

    Lady Glamis: The Maass book has many useful principles. I just started reading his newest writing book, which is called THE FIRE IN FICTION. Good stuff!

    Patrick: Thanks for the comment about the situation variable. Sometimes I don't take the seriousness of the situation into account. I take things more seriously than others and I just need to chill out and laugh a bit more. Every conversation has a function. Sometimes it's to entertain. Take note of how ridiculously brainy I made that sound. Can't seem to help it.

    Doug: Thanks so much for answering the questions. That was cool and made me think in more depth. I particularly thought about how you answered the protagonist question with just the name. At first I thought that might be too brief, but then I thought back to my latest pitch and realized that I just said the name of my protagonist and added in that it is a Native American name. The agent then took the conversation in the direction that he wanted, which had more to do with the way the story unfolded and the way the world worked than who the protagonist was.

    Uppington: It was great meeting you. And, yes, I really do like YA, fantasy, and magical realism. That's the kind of stuff I read and like to write. Feel free to tell me more about your story some time if you want.

  9. awesome seeing you again, dave! woo :) And yes, I must say that there are agents who put you at ease by being conversational and asking questions and seeking answers. I think it all comes down to the fact that we're all human -- we're all the same & we're all unique. What works for one agent won't work for another.

    I agree w/ you to a point: the burden is on the listener. But the pitch-er must effectively pitch, else the agent will shrug his shoulders and move on. Sure, we can say, "Your loss..." but in the end, the book's not published. Now, if I only had the magic formula for pitching... :)

  10. Magic formula?

    Seems like there are two important things.

    1. Common interests with the agent or aspiring writer: genre, sub genre, influencial author, ...

    2. The ability to talk about the elements of fiction (character, setting, plot, theme, conflict)in a conversational way.

    It's a formula that can produce magic. And, I have found that if you take out one of the two big requirements the experience will likely be disappointing.

    (Meeting with an agent who does not share an interest in your genre should be a discussion unto itself, because it happens all the time at PNWA.)

    I should add a third requirement. Here it is ...

    3. Make a brief personal connection ... a good handshake and a smile, a reference to a shared experience at the conference, a compliment that shows you know something about the person and their work.


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