I always get nervous before pitching or teaching, and it's because I recognize that it's an opportunity and that there's a chance I'll blow it.
This is no fun to say or think, but let's be honest. Sometimes I have completely failed. I have received requests for a full manuscript that is still full of first draft ickiness. I once gave a talk in front of 200 high school students that I completely botched. I've walked away from editor appointments and thought, "That didn't go well at all."
I have completely failed, and if you're human, I'm guessing you will to sometimes. It sucks, but it's the way things are.
Some pep talk, huh?
Here are a couple things I've learned from my failures:
Before you start knocking on doors, make sure you've done your research
When I was 16 and had finished my first full-length manuscript (or so I thought - the "book" is actually 17k, which I think is somewhere between a short story and a novella) I hopped on the websites of some publishing houses to find their address.
I discovered an odd phrase during my address hunt - "unsolicited manuscripts." The big houses did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. But some smaller ones did.
So without any regards for what quality these houses were or what books they published, I jotted down their address. I printed my manuscript, filled out an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope - also a new term to me), and dropped her in the mail. I think I submitted to four. Two of them ignored me, one jotted some kind of "no thanks" on the first page of my manuscript and mailed it back to me. The fourth wrote an incredibly nice note to me saying I seemed very talented for my age but my manuscript didn't fit in with their current needs. They even offered advice about my poor ending. (The further in this business I go, the more I'm amazed they even read it.)
After that experience, I decided - gasp! - maybe I should do a little research and figure out how exactly one goes from being an aspiring writer to a novelist.
Wait until the manuscript is "done" before sending out queries
This was the next big mistake I made. So I had discovered there were these people called "literary agents," and that I needed one of them first if I wanted a shot with a big publishing house. And that I should determine what "genre" I wrote. And that instead of printing off my manuscript and just mailing it to people, I should instead write a "query letter" and include an SASE. I think discovering all that took me about 10 minutes.
The book listing literary agents suggested I pick out five, send them my query letter, and then wait for my rejections before sending out more. It sounded like the whole process might take some serious time. So, practically the moment I typed The End, I perfected my query letter and mailed it to 5 agents.
Shockingly, within a week two of them requested full manuscripts.
I was at least smart enough to realize that my manuscript (this time a respectable 61k) was in serious need of revisions. I also knew I should get back to those agents as quick as possible.
I allowed myself a week to revise and take care of the other strange requests the agents had (what should go in a n author bio? And what's a synopsis???) and then I put everything in the mail and just hoped for the best.
They were rejections, as you might guess. But I learned I did not want to experience that particular brand of stress again. Before I sent out query letters next time - I vowed - that manuscript would be pristine.
Accept where you are writing-wise
This was hard for me. Because I wanted to be publishable, and I wanted to be publishable now. Here I'd had two agents ask for my full manuscript, and if only I had been smarter about when I sent my query letter, I might already be published! I definitely viewed it as a blown opportunity.
But I still had so much to learn. I wasn't even close to being ready to be published. I didn't know about POV or action beats or showing rather than telling. AND THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Every writer starts somewhere. It's okay to not be ready yet.
I didn't get second chances with those agents. But everything has still worked out just fine.
As I'm typing this it seems obvious, yet it's advice I tend to neglect. If you have an opportunity on the horizon - a writer's conference, a chance to pitch your novel, a request for a book proposal - be as prepared as you can.
If we're talking about something written, like a book proposal or back cover copy, the good thing is you don't have to get it right the first time, you can edit. Just make sure you're not putting off edits, that you're giving yourself plenty of time to polish your prose.
But if it's something verbal, sadly there's no editor. Freaked out about your "elevator pitch," the 30 second spiel that will hopefully entice an agent or editor to ask to hear more? Then practice it! Fine tune it on paper and recite it whenever you can. Practice it on anyone who is willing to listen and give constructive feedback. Recite it when you're driving or showering.
If you've been given a fifteen minute appointment with an editor, make the most of it. At a conference, I had pitched my project and the editor had requested I submit it to her ... and we still had ten minutes left before my time was up. Fortunately I had prepared a list of questions about the writing market. We chatted casually about writing and publishing for the next 10 minutes. I learned a lot about her house's views and needs, plus we developed a deeper relationship.
We all tend to put off tasks that are unpleasant, or at least I do. But whatever it is I'm nervous about - that class I agreed to teach or that dreaded question "what's your book about?" - is gonna happen whether or not I'm prepared.
Know your limits
There are some parts of my job that I don't like but that must be done. Like elevator pitches.
But after failing a few times at some publicity opportunities, I have learned a lot about what I can handle and what I can't. Like that vague motivational speeches to 200+ teenagers is not a good scenario for me. Nor should I agree to six 45-minute classes (back to back) in which I talk to English classes about my life as a writer. Turns out my mind gets mushy around class number four, my voice gives out in the middle of class five, and my stress headache lasts until the next morning.
It's great to say yes to opportunities that come your way. It's also okay to say no if you figure out something isn't your thing.
So those are my thoughts. Be prepared for the opportunities you can predict and learn from your mistakes.
|This is me headed to my first real writer's conference. I am unprepared, terrified, and wearing jeans. But I learned a lot!|
Have a great Wednesday!