Writing conferences are always a good time. I’m fortunate to have conversations with brilliant, creative types all over the country. That’s the kind of thing that sustains me. Recharges my battery.
That isn’t meant to suggest that every conversation is a blue ribbon. As sure as I am that there will be something exciting, I’m almost as sure there will be a pitch or two that kinda bums me out or has me thinking about dinner plans before I’ve heard the title of the book. Are all of those pitches for bad authors or bad books? Not necessarily, many of them just aren’t good fits for Tyrus/me, and because the inside of my brain is a poorly constructed county fair, I am easily distracted by things off the Midway.
So, Mr. Barnum and Bailey, what DOES keep your attention? you might ask. Here are five things that keep my attention—they are, by and large, completely unscientific and subjective, but so are many other parts of this process. I guess it’s par for the course.
(1) A bright and sometimes crazy glint in your eyes.
Sometimes I’ll be sitting at a table waiting for the next person who is going to pitch me, and in will come some guy or gal, wide eyed and engaged, ready to go, already going (I imagine there is a similar county fair blinking and ringing in their brain). They’ll hit me up with a genuine, “Well hello!” and not in a Dale Carnegie way, but in a full on “Damn, isn’t it amazing that we’re all alive and doing things and people read books, and we can talk about my book?” way. Not infrequently this person will pitch a book to me that sounds batshit crazy, but intriguing if done right. These people seem to be fascinated by the same kind of fringy cultures and oddball characters that I know and love. Most of the time I can tell the difference between “bright and crazy” (good) from “dude who is going to mail you a raccoon skull crazy” (bad).
(2) I don’t feel like I’m dealing with Al Gorythm
Every now and then I run into people who think it best to test market their protagonists and plotlines before writing a book. “But, Ben!” you may protest, “It’s good to know what the hot trend is!” I’ll address that issue later. In this case, I’m talking about literally test marketing characters and plots with focus groups. During my publishing career, I’ve been told, on more than one occasion something like—“I’ve got a friend over at Cretty Bocker who let me throw in the first ten pages of my novel when they were doing blind taste tests of apple strudel. Strudel makers share 85% of recreational interests with the reader I’m writing for. 73% of the strudel tasters gave my book an 80-89% ranking. 47% said they would buy the book today if given an opportunity. That number increases to 54% if Cretty Bocker throws in a 10% off coupon towards future strudel purchases, and my guy over there said he’d talk to the VP of Special Promotions to see about making that happen! Do you want to buy my book? Do you like strudel?” I get that publishing is a business. I still cling to antiquated notions that writing is not. To that end, I don’t believe in calibrating to the point of market testing.
(3) “This isn’t my first book written, it’s my first book pitched.”
Everybody has to start somewhere. When it comes to writing, that often means with a crappy first book that ends up in a locked drawer. There is no mark of shame in writing a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time first novel. It’s a rite of passage. It is an invaluable learning experience. And it is something to be celebrated. That said, it isn’t necessarily (or even likely) that it’s something to be published. Having the humility to know the truth about your book, is a big deal. You’ll note the fraternity and sorority of high fives and snickers that come when many successful authors talk about their first (and unseen) books. When I hear that an author is pitching his/her second or third written book to me, but that it’s still eligible to be a debut novel, I get butterflies. When that same author tells me that it’s the third or fourth DRAFT of that second or third BOOK, I’m even happier, because I know the author didn’t simply sprint to the finish line of some cross country trek, but took time to look around, stretch, examine the scenery, and contemplate what exactly is the finish line? Gold medal approach, writer. Gold medal.
(4) When I ask, “Have your characters ever talked back to you?” You nod.
This is one of those questions that, if posed to the general public, would likely result in a bunch of deer in headlight stares. Sounds all illogical. You, the author, have created this story. You set the protagonist down on paper and you push him from Point A to Point B. You are an omnipotent God of literature. Right? Well, except for the crazy phenomenon when the Rebel Angel turns around and shakes his head and says, “But that’s not what I’d really do,” and then you, as OGL actually listen. Ever have a conversation with a person you’ve created from Make Believe Land? Ever feel like you’re not controlling both sides of the conversation? Good, take a seat. Let’s discuss.
(5) Write the book in your gut, not the book you just read or the tv show you just watched.
I know I’ve beaten this point to death over the last six months, but I can’t stress it enough. For this guy right here, sitting on the other side of the table, I don’t want to hear about Archeologist Masons looking for a lost Picasso being held captive by teenage vampires in Washington. (I’m sure somebody somewhere just got a plot idea, but feel free not to pitch me). When your cop is an obvious mural of Sipowicz, Crockett, and Officer Poncherello named Lieutentant Jackhammer Strongchin, I am DIALED OUT OF THE CONVERSATION IMMEDIATELY AND MY PHONE LINES HAVE BEEN PERMANENTLY BURNED TO THE GROUND AND MY TELEGRAPH MACHINE GOT LOST IN THE MOVE. Derivatives were bad in the financial crisis. They are likewise as bad in writing fiction. But I’ve always been broke, so maybe that’s why I’ve never understood the need for either.
Anyway, there are five things for you today. Take them. Leave them. See you on the road. I'm probably already there.