Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pitch Dark

A few years ago, I was a finalist in the pitching competition at the Sydney Writers Festival. For the final, competitors had to stand in front of a crowd at a Festival event and, well, pitch their story. The pitch judged to be the best by the panel of respected literary types would land a small deal to help the writer get their story off the ground.

I'm a reasonably confident public speaker, so the delivery of the pitch in front of a crowd didn't bother me in the slightest. What did was that I get the content spot on - I had to make the very most of the yarn's best features in what amounted to a very short time indeed. (If you strayed over your time limit, you'd be cut off, no matter where you were in your spiel).

If I knew then what I know now, I'd probably have done a few things differently - stressing the 'high concept' more and the story less, for instance - but all the same it wasn't a bad effort, I believe.

Then came the judging. One of the esteemed panel opened with 'I switched off as soon as you said "thriller".'

Which had been about the second word I'd uttered.

So that was that.

I learned a few things from the experience, of course, the most important being to always know the person to whom you're pitching. Presumably, if Dan Brown had stood up and reeled off his pitch for The Da Vinci Code, he'd have been shit-canned too, simply because the judge didn't like thrillers.

(The Da Vinci Code isn't, as you've probably realised, all that good, but I can see how it would make for a blinding pitch.)

Still, a few minutes finding out who going to be presenting to and what they like would have been worth more than all the time I spent on the pitch itself.

The other thing I learned was pointed out to me by a spectator after the event. Australian publishing is a niche market. If you want to get anything published that isn't twee, worthy and Aussie-centric, take your stories abroad.

And you know what - I did, and they have been. Even if I'm still only starting out and have barely blipped on the literary radar, I'd never have got even this far if I'd not looked to Canada and the UK for my first pitches.

The reason this particular memory has bubbled to the surface is my New Year's Resolution to read a book a week. As a corollary to that, I'm trying to read books I've always wanted to read but that I've had sitting around gathering dust for months (or even years).

This week's book is What Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman, who penned films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Marathon Man. It was recommended to me a couple of years ago by my mate James, a rising star in computer animation with all the attendant love of the movies.

The book is rather wonderful - a mixture of anecdotes from Goldman's career as a Hollywood writer and tips for the prospective scribe. It's his words on the pitching process that got me thinking about that old competition, especially his revelation of the origin of the word 'pitch':

"Hollywood, as we know, has zero sense of history and there is a feeling pitching is relatively new. Total nonsense. If you've read any history at all, you know it was invented by Torquemada to make his days pass more happily during the Spanish Inquisition. He would tell imprisoned playwrights that if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they didn't, he dropped the fellow into a large vat of boiling tar, which of course is where the term 'pitch' comes from."

Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman, pg 269

He could, of course, be making that up, but really, it's such a great tale, who cares if he is?

By the way, the eventual winner of the competition, way back when, acted out an impassioned scene from her extremely worthy tale of aboriginal life.

Still haven't seen it on the shelves.


Blogger Peter Pan said...

I thought 'The Code' was ok for airport pulp..... one of those odd books that you think will make a great film .. then that was shite too .....

6:43 PM  
Blogger Pete Kempshall said...

No arguments about the film.

The book, though ... I can understand how it appeals to people (my wife loves Dan Brown. Even she thought the film sucked), but I was always going to be at a disadvantage because I suffer from Four Weddings Syndrome.

I was the last person on Earth to see that film, and was hugely disappointed - after weeks of everyone banging on about how wonderful it was, in my mind it could never live up to its rep.

Same with The Da Vinci Code - read it after 90% of the population did, finished it, said 'Meh' and forgot about it.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:20 AM  

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