Gay romance fiction

Meet Market… pitching without panicking

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

Con season is almost upon us in Romancelandia. In the past few months many RWA members will make pilgrimages to rooms full of ugly carpet and nice people who love our genre. At writing cons in particular, pitch sessions remain something of a staple for good or ill. They date from a time when publishing looked quite different and business was done with snail mail and boxed manuscripts. Some still work well, some seriously suck, but all of them are a big, greasy stressburger with pickles and extra agita.

This month, I want to talk about the scourge of pitch panic, but (just like a superhero movie) first I want to talk about the origin story of the modern pitch session…those big rooms of pros meeting anxious and aggressive mobs of eager creators.

See, back before the nineteen hundred and eighties, working screenwriters operated inside the system if they wanted to eat regularly. Nobody wanted to do “spec” work if they could help it, aka drafting a speculative screenplay without a contract or a sale in place. Only a complete beginner would risk that. And beginners didn’t have the access to get specs seen. But then the death of disco, the rise of cable, and the post-Jaws gospel of the summer tentpole movie set the stage for something… diabolical in showbiz.  

In 1985, a screenwriter named Shane Black did something that changed entertainment forever. He’d been knocking around Hollywood revising scripts for production companies. In six weeks, he pumped out something he called an “urban western” with regular-joe heroes and crazy action. Lethal Weapon made him a screenwriting celebrity and instigated a fevered rush for surefire “spec scripts” that could bolster a studio’s bottom line.

Imagine: a big summer blockbuster that no studio had to pay to develop. No encumbrances or headaches baked into the cake. No “elements” attached, not stars or directors or producers. Studios in the 1980s went bananas over this idea that millions of willing writers would crank out stellar product without being paid a dime. All the suits had to do was trail their line in the water and catch a guaranteed moneymaker.

No prob!

In Hollywood, pitching mutated. Anyone (but anyone) might pen the next worldwide juggernaut. Every kid fresh out of film school could be the dope who saved your job. Every lunch, every cocktail was a chance to pitch and be pitched.

Over the next 10-15 years the Hollywood “spec” rush created a few legitimate overnight millionaires. A couple major careers were launched by savvy lunches at showbiz hotspots. And naturally, the moment many, many zeroes began appearing on checks, shills and shysters popped up to teach other eager newbies how they could “crack the system” just like Shane Black. Pump out an action movie—bing-bang-boom—and then do backstrokes through all the cash in your Olympic pool.

Because no movie ever flopped, right? Because sensible professionals would risk a hundred million dollars and four years on a hundred pages a first-timer cranked out in Pennsyltucky without ever setting foot on a soundstage. Yeah.

Fiction went through a similar crush around the same time. Blockbuster paperbacks helped redefine publishing in the late 60s and 70s. The rise of tentpole movies was tailor-made for tentpole titles. The frontlist behemoths got major marketing and killer placement. “Big movies” could use the media from those “big books” for “big openings.” More eyeballs equals more money. Everyone wins. Uh huh. Of course, the book has be good and ultimately people have to buy it.

For fiction and film using this mindset, the hook was all. You needed to be able to summarize your story and its sexiest tropes in a logline, 25 words or less. Buyers used those same loglines and hooks to choose titles and fill shelves (and cinemas). No one had time to hear this pitch fully before they heard the next. Studios had the money to make those movies happen, publishers had the muscle could place you on the right shelves. The predator pressure set the pace.

Truth be told: hooks work. And many legendary books can be summed up in 25 fascinating words. That doesn’t mean that’s how the deals got done. Whenever you sit down to talk about your work, skip the backstory, forget the long anecdotes. Tell them what they need to know to love it as much as you do.

Gang, I’m not certain about publishing but in Hollywood 90% of that spec script boom was blatant puffery. Mostly popcorn movies have always been written by 20-something white dudes working inside the system, with a high-ticket rep team and serious access to the Hollywood Powers that Be. Unfair, but undeniable. Shane Black managed the spec-sale hat-trick. F’realz. A handful of others squeaked through too. Still, if you look at the big money movies from 1980 to 1995 when this trend was supposedly booming, the exceptions prove the rule.

The hidden truth is that Shane Black didn’t make Lethal Weapon happen in one lunch; that deal was the culmination of years and years of education, preparation, and strategic connection with industry folks who laughed at the same kinds of jokes. The ONE PITCH nonsense makes great copy, but it isn’t how entertainment works. The spec boom just gave Hollywood a way to hype scripts that didn’t arrive with a lot of hype behind them. It was a sales tool, not a production strategy.

Nonetheless, the MYTH of the million dollar pitch session persists to this day, the ONE PITCH to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. If you could just get into that room, with that person for two minutes you’d be a zillionaire. Even as movies and television have pulled themselves inside out to adapt to technology. Most of America believes that anyone can write a script and see it on the silver screen…if they just get lucky.

You should pitch your projects, whether you’re chatting in the elevator or sitting across a cocktail round in a ballroom with 200 panicky peers, doing the same. Have that hook ready to dangle:

  • explain how meaningful choices and conflict transform the main character.

  • hint at the emotional ride by how you meet and exceed expectations.

  • use no more than 25 dynamic, unforgettable words that evoke your voice.

  • practice it until you can deliver it casually and calmly without effort.

Tell them the story…not the sidebars, not the headaches, not the generics. Clichés are death. It shouldn’t take but a minute, and you want to make that a fascinating minute. No one will ever sell your work as clearly as you can, if you wrap your head around the process and the pressure. Every moment that you are talking with your colleagues at an event you should represent the voice and the viewpoint that makes your books unforgettable. Full stop.

What you shouldn’t do, is expect ONE PITCH to make or break you. It won’t.

The addiction to dramatic reversals and sudden success is something you’ve picked up from fiction and film. Expecting life cough up a convenient peripeteia whenever you have a hankering will leave you miserable. All show business is based on relationships, because it’s collaborative. Even the most introverted self-publisher has to work with people at some point. The folks who know you, the assets and insight you bring to the table will change the course of all your work.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, American Idol doesn’t make anyone a pop star. They exploit pop stars who exploit them right back. No one in a pitch session can turn you into a bestseller. Respect your own talent and time, your voice and vision. If you have a brilliant book, and they have a space for it, together you can cooperate to make money and move the genre needle a few degrees. Shortcuts are for suckers; mostly they lead towards snakes, swamps, and bandits. Expecting your career to unspool like a Hollywood puff piece is bananas.

We’re smarter than that. As an RWA member, you know relationships are everything, not just with your fellow writers but with all the other critters in the genre-publishing jungle. Give yourself permission to develop those relationships over time. Our whole genre is predicate don the idea that relationships are the most powerful thing in the world, so avail yourself of the opportunities to build positive connections in all directions. You never know which one will pay off.

When you sit down at a table to pitch a publisher, an editor, or an agent…you might find that you’ve both been seeking each other all along like twins in an opera. This book in these hands at this moment… PERFECTION. Or you may not. Any number of factors might not align. Markets shift. Tastes change. Audiences migrate. That’s not what matters. The moment you share is what matters. As a professional you’re in this for the long haul and that means playing the long game.

A career is an accretion of small, mindful, positive shifts toward your bigger goals. You work for years to become an overnight success. Pro tip: being in a hurry to make it happen right this second, will not boost your odds.

Why panic about something that happens in slow stages in several locations. Instead of obsessing about everything happening right now, articulate what makes your work special in clear, supported specifics. You can set yourself up for pitch success by:

  • developing your craft so that each book outshines the last

  • clarifying your brand so everyone “gets” your voice before they’ve read anything

  • cultivating meaningful relationships with professionals you respect

  • refilling the well so that you aren’t recycling or regurgitating

  • understanding the current state of the industry and your place within it

Instead of thinking of those precious minutes of your pitch as the ONE MOMENT when everything will change (as if you’re in John Hughes movie), think of it as another chance to find common ground with this professional you respect. Another moment you can share the special something you bring to your stretch of the romance shelf. Set the hook, engage their heart, and share your humanity and your professionalism.

You can dramatically boost your odds by taking a breath, knowing your books, and building rapport with folks who laugh at the same jokes.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2018. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.