Impatience and Ignorance: The Algonquian New York Pitch Workshop

It was a dark and stormy night ....
It was a dark and stormy night … in New York


Many of my friends and those who  follow me on Facebook and Twitter are aware that I spent the last long weekend in New York City attending the Algonquian New York Pitch Workshop.

I’m happy to report that I’m back, so I can tell you about the conference, its pluses and minuses, what happened and what’s next. First off, let me advise you and the other writers out there considering a workshop like this to read the site and try to explore the web sites that talk about the conference. These comments and opinions led me to apply for the workshop in the first place.

Next, I want to talk about why I went and the reason why I plunked down my money (not a small amount) for the workshop, a hotel room in New York near Penn Station, food and train travel (and a trip to the kennel for my dog).

This year in particular has been one of great hope and great disappointment for me as a writer (and yes, there are some major personal things happening too). I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest for the second year in a row, hoping I had a real contender. And I did, as I placed in the semi-finals again for YA (just like I did with Zak Corbin the previous year).

Armed with my contest ranking and a Publishers Weekly review, I set out to find my fortune sending queries for VANQUISH to many literary agents. I received a huge number of no responses, some firm nos, a few maybes and a couple of requests for manuscripts. I spent a lot of time waiting, and even more time wondering why the reaction wasn’t as hot as I hoped it would be. Did the contest not have the clout that it once had? Were agents genuinely uninterested with my cool concept? What was missing from my submission?

Most of the agents who read the manuscript said the idea was indeed unique and the writing was enjoyable, but there was no connection. Something was missing: be it the characters, plot, conflict, resolution–something. The agents weren’t helpful. I realized that I was experiencing writer’s tunnel vision and I needed outside help. I hired an editor (the wonderful Sarah Cypher, from The Threepenny Editor) to review my entire manuscript and try to figure out what was going wrong. Sarah found some real issues which I tackled in a massive rewrite intended to be ready in time for the NY Pitch Workshop (oh yes, that thing).

The reason why I wanted to go to the Pitch Workshop was to nail down, once and for all, why VANQUISH wasn’t winning hearts and minds with agents and editors.  The purpose of the Pitch Workshop is to craft your pitch (a short book-jacket “blurb”) that’s supposed to get an editor excited and say “Yes, I want to read that!” And then you sit in front of three editors (it was supposed to be four, but the last person had an issue), face-to-face, and you give them your pitch.

That was the plan as I believed it was supposed to be. What actually happened during the workshop was unexpected. [What I’m trying to lay down here is that some writers who pay for these things might expect one thing and end up with another.]

At the onset, our workshop leader told us that our manuscripts–no matter how finished or polished we thought they were–weren’t.  Writing is in a constant state of flux: the agent may request rewrites, the editor will want rewrites, and so on and so on. We were warned that no published work of writing is ever finished–until it hits the typesetter. The other thing we were warned about was that our ideas, no matter how grandiose or thought-out, probably couldn’t be sold to any publisher in the form they were in. Our stories–in their current state–were not “high concept” enough. They needed a strong hook. They had to be cinematic. Selling a book was like selling a movie.

For nearly every person in our workshop group, including me, this was a slap in the face. We conveyed our pitches to our workshop leader and we were given brutally honest assessments of their marketability. Just to let you know about the format: a pitch consists of telling your story’s titlecomparables and the actual pitch. (No more than two hundred words)

Nearly everyone’s title, including mine, was shot down. I had to wrap my head around that. I thought for sure that VANQUISH portrayed the characters’ heroism and their bravery. It was a strong word (it’s the name of a British luxury supercar). Well, in hindsight, the word is perhaps is too close to the word “SQUISH”. Nothing heroic about that. So I needed a new title. Right off the bat.

Secondly, we needed to have on-the-mark ‘comparables’–published books that our work could be compared to, but not so huge that they were laughable.  For example, you can’t say your work is comparable to Harry Potter AND The Hunger Games. That’s ridiculous (and also called Divergent). Those works are too big, too popular. So you have to tone things down and set your sights on realistic  expectations.  Luckily, I had good comparables: LEVIATHAN and WARLORDS OF THE AIR. Some folks didn’t and they had to figure out ones that were.

Last was my pitch. Immediately there were problems. My pitch was too long (taken from my query, which is a different tool). My idea was cool, but one editor declared that readers of YA are young girls. Some bestsellers (yep, you know which ones) have crossover appeal with boys and adults, but a majority of the readers are teen girls.  My story was about World War II (or an alternate history of it) and the main protagonist is a girl who becomes a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. Those things have no shelf appeal.  (So girls and vampies, yes; girl who shoots a bow and arrow in a dystopian future, yep; but a girl flying a Spitfire == no)

The workshop leader sat down with my pitch and tore it to shreds. The story became something about a giant flying battleship with a “Sink the Bismark” tone. The girl main character was gone, now there was a boy who flew the fighter plane and the (Viking) sky pirate became a girl.  This became the “high concept”. The title was changed to, well, I’m not fond of the new title so I won’t mention it here.

And that was the pitch that I presented to the editors at the workshop. Not VANQUISH.  It was an idea for a story that got nods from the three editors I met with at the conference. So the pitch worked. But it was for a very different book.

Which I would be excited about, except that for the entire past year I’ve been trying to get agents to say yes to VANQUISH.  So I’m confused and torn. I have a completed manuscript, with edits, that I could continue to send out to agents as queries.  I could write the story I pitched and send it to the editors who requested it. Or I could put VANQUISH in a drawer (sad but true) and try something else.

Finally: Was this all worth it? Many writers at the conference said they had a worthwhile time, but everyone is facing extensive rewrites or worse: their work was rejected by all three editors. That’s a huge dilemma. The conference forced us to rewrite the concepts of our stories in the space of a few hours, something that might have originally taken weeks or months. My story certainly changed in so many aspects to the point that it’s a completely different story. Nothing about the previous story can be salvaged. Of course, there’s nothing stopping people from dismissing the workshop’s findings and sending out their works as is. Which will probably happen.

The workshop leader professed that many participants will fall into one or both of two pitfalls: impatience and/or ignorance. Writers will impatiently rewrite their story, hoping to get it out as quick as possible, without taking the time to craft their best. They will ignore the warning signs, use cliches, fall into plot traps and basically commit the same errors that befell their work the first time.

As for me, I’m just going to spend my Christmas relaxing and thinking. I’ve labored and worried too hard this year. Time for a little mental fitness break.











20 Replies to “Impatience and Ignorance: The Algonquian New York Pitch Workshop”

  1. I don’t know how old this article is, but I’ve been looking into attending this conference this year (2014) and I find it quite intimidating, especially after reading this. I don’t have a thick skin and it seems to me that the editors aren’t opened to new concepts–not that mine is new or anything. How do they know your story wouldn’t sell? I mean, I think the idea of the heroine flying planes is great.
    Anyway, I hope your Vanquish has vanquished the shortsightedness of those editors.

    1. I’m thinking of attending as well. I have been scouring the internet for info about this conference but it seems that there are two camps of info 1) reviews from the conference’s marketing department, or 2) people frustrated with the conference. Anyone else considering going/going?

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  10. I went to this conference and left after one day, having wasted a lot of money. I’ve been suspicious because all I find on-line are rave reviews, but I’m saving this. You got it exactly right.

    Before anyone plunks any money down (and I realize this is an old thread), ask many, many questions. Be sure to take the requested phone call interview with Michael Neff, preferably before you pay, if you can wangle it. I didn’t bother because I was busy during the time periods he was booking, and I had planned to observe, mainly, at the conference (which you really can’t do, although this was not made clear to me until after I’d gotten there.)

    Very sarcastic environment – not sure if this was mentioned in the article in so many words. I can’t believe anybody stayed.

    1. Hello. Do you still feel the same way now as you did in March? I did have a personal phone call with Neff. Seemed nice enough. But it is quite expensive. Many thanks!

  11. Tony Russo,
    I hope that you eventually found a publisher for Vanquish book. As for successful YA books with women aviators in WW II as main characters, check out Elizabeth Wein’s “Code Name Verity” and “Rose Under Fire.” Both were critically acclaimed and best sellers. I thought Code Name Verity was one of the best books I read that year.

    Regards, Pamela

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