I think I’m recovered from my New York Pitch Conference, a week in the city trying to learn how to pitch a novel manuscript. I came back with a mission: to re-write my manuscript, incorporating all that I’d learned. Trouble was, I couldn’t face it, couldn’t even open the file. Maybe the manuscript was really no good. Was I capable of turning it inside out? Wouldn’t that ruin it? Did I have the creative spark to completely reconceptualize my hard-earned and carefully assembled story? Maybe I should forget the whole thing. And worse than that.
But after a week my emotions settled down and I went through my notes from the conference. Some of the notes were impressions I had jotted after evening events in various “happy hour” settings, shouting over the din at people only two feet away. Every bar in the city was thronged with pre-holiday celebrators and in one Irish pub we were told we had to leave in thirty minutes because the whole bar was reserved for “a function.” The workshop instructor, who apparently knew his way around, marched us all like ducklings to another place on 38th street, smaller, louder, with no place to hang your coat.
It was bar-talk, or bar-shout, unproductive, the instructor telling anecdotes about stupid students he’s had and crazy pitches he’s heard. I had hoped for something else, I don’t know what, but it was useless so I withdrew to a table where another cluster of classmates jabbered on, coats in lap.
One was a woman from Ontario with a degree in film studies who had given a great pitch on the first day about King Tut’s girlfriend (historically accurate, apparently). She was small and cute, with a face that reminded me of a young Nicole Kidman. She was drinking Prosecco like a fish and she commented on how imaginative my beachball alien was. She said, “I wrote a really imaginative story too, not long ago. It’s about this guy who has a huge asshole, and gradually the asshole acquires a personality and becomes a character, and it talks and everything. So the guy develops a relationship with it and of course he ends up having sex with it.”
I almost snorted beer through my nose, but she nonchalantly sipped her bubbly and glanced around the room distractedly.
“Anatomically difficult to imagine” I remarked.
“It was kind of a surrealist piece,” she said in all seriousness.
My 3P-close narrator in FID mode echoed inside my skull, “What the hell?”
At a loss how to proceed in that conversation, I switched my attention to a tall, thin Mexican-American guy with a grey ponytail. He had pitched a western theme set in the civil war era, that nobody could understand. He said he was giving that up and now wanted to retell the story of the birth of Jesus as a spaghetti western in the style of Tarantino.
“I’m obsessed with Tarantino,” he confided.
We brainstormed, and I knew this was why I love hanging out with writers.
I left after an hour and met my wife for dinner. We went to a “moderate” Italian place I had read about. We were told we could only have the table for 60 minutes but we went for it and each noshed a small bowl of rigatoni and squash, with a dinner salad. A hundred and fifteen dollars! With no alcohol. New York prices! I admit the food was exquisite in every respect but still. An experience worth having once, we told each other.
That night, I scrapped my beachball alien and wrote a new pitch involving chatbots circulating on the internet. Of course they go rogue. The instructor liked it. “Do that one,” he said. “Humor doesn’t sell.”
So I had heard.
I pitched rogue chatbots to three successive editors over the next two days. On the last day, results were tallied. The instructor told me I had received a request for a “full” from a New York publisher. That’s a score. Wa-hoo!
King Tut’s Girlfriend received two requests. Other stories, incomprehensibly to me, also got multiple requests from the editors. These invariably involved stock superheroes and what seemed to me cliché sword and sandals adventures but what do I know? One sword-wielding hero had deer antlers growing out of his skull, so I guess that was something. Nothing for “High Plains Jesus.”
I was elated. A request for a full manuscript is essentially a promise to read it. It’s a guaranteed detour around the slush pile. On the down side, I had to write the manuscript I had pitched. I’d said it was “completed” but everyone appreciates that is a relative term in the writing business. I do have a manuscript that involves rogue chatbots but I’ll have to swap the old main character with what was a secondary, move the substory up to first position, and drop much of the thematic material and dialog.
“It’s hard to imagine the life of a chatbot on the internet,” both the editor and the instructor had advised me. “What does a chase scene look like? No abstraction. People need to see things, especially when technical material is involved.”
Right. No abstraction. A chatbot on the internet. “No problem. I can do that,” I’d said. “Two months max.”
How the game is played, I learned, is that I do NOT send the rewrite to the editor who requested it. Instead I query some very carefully selected agents with the opening message that a New York publisher is already interested in this manuscript and is the agent interested in getting on board or what? What I have is leverage, not a sale.
Okay, I can do that. No problem.
So I’ve dropped everything else for the rewrite. I’ve got six thousand words done. I’m going to need a lot of new material. It’s easier than writing from scratch because I’ve already got characters, locations, and some scenes, but it’s not much, not enough. Two months. No problem.