July 13, 2009

I saw this show for the first time, quite by accident. Pitchmen turned out to be a real eye opener, and I couldn’t help but make some comparisons to writing. I’m hard-wired that way. The idea behind the show is that Billy Mays (RIP, Billy) and his sidekick, Anthony “Sully” Sullivan, listen to people pitch their inventions in the hopes that they’ll find something worthy among the “slush pile” that they will take back to their offices, kick the idea around, and eventually pitch the product.

They sit for hours listening to pitches in the same way that we sit at pitch sessions at writer’s conferences. Their hard work finds them very few gems among the drek. I listened to one guy pitch his fart deoderizer. Pinky swear. I nearly coughed up a lung laughing at Billy and Sully’s expressions of disbelief. It reminded me of the time when an author pitched his story as “the next big thing in toilet humor.” Ah, yah, I’ll get back to you on that.

As I watched person after person pitch their inventions, I couldn’t help but feel how much authors would glean from watching this. Think about it; they’re pitching a product where no one knows what it is, so they need to explain it. Clearly. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end – just as a log line,  cover letter, and synopsis must have. If the person pitching can’t clearly get their message across, Billy and Sully aren’t going to waste time trying to pull it out of them because that’s not their job. they’ll just wear very confused looks on their faces. Sound familiar?

The show followed one possible gem in the bunch (called The Handystrip – a strappy thingy that makes it easier to lift heavy objects) as Billy and Sully took the product back to their offices for further review. This is much the same as we do when we see a good query letter and we ask to read the full. Billy and Sully tried out the product to make sure it delivered something they felt would be marketable and reasonably priced. They tried lifting various items, including people sitting on ladders – and the ladder itself. We are, in a literary sense, also kicking the tires when we read the full manuscript. We need to see if it delivers as well as the pitch said it would.

The product was eventually rejected after much discussion – much like what we do at submissions meetings. Their reasons were that they felt the retail price was too high in this rough economy. The inventor pleaded with them – as many authors do. He was willing to drop the retail price. Authors do the same thing by offering to do massive rewrites or yank out thousands of words of their bloated stories. Billy, Sully’s, and my answers were exactly the same; “if you’re willing to do that now, then why didn’t you do it in the first place?” Sage question worth thinking about.

The inventor had no answer for them, as authors rarely have an answer for me. But in both the inventor and authors’ cases, they all learned a valuable lesson from being “almost there.” They got to see a deeper layer of what goes into the decision making process. We always hope the experience won’t be squandered and that they’ll be that much smarter  the next time around.

Something that Billy Mays said really stuck with me because it’s so applicable to the writing world.  He said there five elements that go into his decision to pitch a product:

  1. The Wow Factor: does the product make us utter, “wow, we gotta have this”? Oh yeah, that’s a biggie for us. Does it make our mouth water to where we rush to the bookstore at 5 a.m. and pound on the door in order to buy that book?
  2. Mass Appeal: does the product have enough appeal to excite a huge audience? What am I always blathering on about in terms of knowing and defining your readership?
  3. Demonstrable: is the product easily demonstrated and explained? As an example, I watched one poor guy stumble all over himself because his invention was too complicated. Sounds like many of the stories I read. If you, the author, can’t explain it your query letter or your synopsis, how can I possibly sell it? Heck, chances are I don’t even know what it is.
  4. Solves a Problem: obviously a product has to solve a problem, whether it’s dusting dirty ceiling fans, cleaning dirty toilets, or digging garden holes or whacking weeds in hard soil, something has to be accomplished. Same goes for writing. Does your story have a hearty plot with a satisfying ending, or does it leave the reader feeling like the beagle forgot to add the tequila to the blender? Too many books that cross my desk are a jigger short of a full margarita, so this is a huge element.
  5. Instant Gratification: does the product instantly make the consumer happy? That means those dirty toilets are instantly bright and shiny, the ceiling fans are spic and span with a wink of an eye, and digging those garden holes and weed whacking is done with the flick of a button. We look for that in literature as well. If a reader closes the book and has to think whether they enjoyed it or not, they are less likely to recommend it to anyone else. Word of mouth in both industries is a powerful tool, so we look for books that scratch every literary itch. The breathless reader will blab within minutes of finshing a gratifying book. When I finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain while on vacation, I blubbered like a fool, then proceeded to tell five or six people around the pool to drop what they were reading and go buy this book.  Author Garth Stein’s words bathed me in OxiClean. And don’t worry, I’d already fed these people around the pool some of our margaritas – they were indebted.

It’s funny how we stumble upon something seemingly unrelated and yet we can draw upon the similarites to become better at what we do.  I recommend watching Pitchmen because its in-your-face platform is a great visual of how to pitch your story, how to think about the marketplace, and how to create like a winner.

Now, go out and write a bestseller!

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