Friday, May 4, 2012

Pitch Under Fire: An Interview with John K. Patterson by Rob Killam


For the past two decades, writers of nearly every vein have converged at a central point in Colorado Springs like golden moths drawn to the refining fires of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. In the midst of Colorado’s own miller moth season, the metaphor is especially fitting in consideration of one of the aspects of the PPWC: pitch appointments.

A pitch appointment requires a few things: a full manuscript (ready to go at home), solid determination, a sound stomach, a nice set of clothes, and—as John points out in the interview—a few breath mints can’t hurt. In a pitch appointment, hopeful writers put themselves at the mercy of agents and editors to present a preview of their latest creations in hopes that the agents or editors will give them a shot at the dream of publication.

I have yet to attend my own pitch appointment, but I have had the pleasure of knowing a young writer who recently had the experience firsthand. John Patterson is a man I have known since childhood, so his personal success as a writer is an endeavor that is near and dear to my heart. The fact that he’s one of the most talented writers I know makes his recent success all that much more exciting for me as I struggle to pound out my own novel.

Shortly after the adrenaline high wore off (at least for me), I took five minutes to sleep, then caught up with John for a short interview on his recent experience in his pitch appointment with agent Weronika Janczuk.

Q: How were you introduced to the PPWC, and what made you decide to start going?

A: I lead a workshop at the local library, and a member recommended the conference. Around the same time, I started attending a weekly writing workshop that happened to include a lot of the conference's volunteers among its ranks. Pretty much everything I heard about the PPWC indicated that it was one of the best things a young writer could do for himself. However, I was also hesitant about joining up with most writing organizations. Not that there was anything wrong with them; I worried that this conference might not be for me, or that I wouldn't be among friends. All of that changed when I discovered many of my writing friends were, in fact, going. And I was impressed by the faculty. Donald Maass and Kevin J. Anderson especially got my attention, because I love their work. So, I decided to dive in. And I couldn't be happier with the results.

Q: How has the influence of the PPWC changed you as a writer?

A: It gave me incentive. Procrastination is no friend to the writer, of course, and I knew that if I cared about being a novelist, I would give myself that shove. If you come to the conference, it also sends the message that you can work with other people. Most writers can no longer afford to be recluses who hide from sunlight, pounding away on a typewriter with one hand and clutching a fifth of whiskey in the other. They need to venture out from their manuscript-littered cave to share themselves and their projects face-to-face. And as for the drinking...that's what the bar was for.

Q: What would you consider the highlight of the PPWC 2012?

A: There are many. My biggest personal highlight was definitely the pitch appointment. Much to my surprise, agent Weronika Janczuk not only didn't turn me down, but she requested the full manuscript. It was wonderful to learn she took an interest in my work, and it reminded me that risking rejection is absolutely worth it. I also loved Donald Maass's keynote speech about how great books will always be needed (and it didn't hurt to hear him congratulate me on the successful pitch). The most important highlight, however, is far and away the people you meet. I got to connect with some wonderful human beings in that conference.

Q: Describe your pitch appointment, before, during, and after. How did you prepare, what were you thinking during the appointment, and what advice would you give those considering a pitch appointment?

A: I had taken a couple of the pitch practicing workshops beforehand, and they were invaluable with the experience and expert advice (don't give the agent any pages or synopses she doesn't ask for; dress like it's a job interview; know your work inside and out). I was still nervous, though, and almost didn't go through with the pitch. Right beforehand, I decided that I would go through with it and get rejected, but it would be excellent practice for next time. During the pitch, I thankfully didn't freeze up. Much. That practice had trained me to give quick answers, and to remember that the agent is not deciding your novel's everlasting fate. They're simply telling you whether they'd love to give your book a chance. And fortunately, in my case she was extremely interested. So I grabbed a pint of Guinness, celebrated with some friends at the conference, and resolved to have the novel emailed to her by five weeks after we had talked. If you want to pitch a book, there's no need to worry about it. Just study, practice, and have some breath mints with you. Keep calm and carry on. You'll do fine.

Q: As anyone who has tried to slam out a manuscript knows, it's a difficult endeavor. What kept you motivated? What keeps you motivated for the next steps in the process?

A: Two factors finally got me to finish: treating PPWC as a "deadline," and having professionals in the writing industry who expect to see something from me. Procrastination and distractions plagued me for quite some time, and they still do. What finally pushed me to finish the fantasy novel was hiring a freelance editor and setting the conference as the date by which it needed to be sent off to her. And right now, I have that five-week threshold before I email the manuscript to the agent, whether or not my brain tells me there's something else in the novel I need to tweak or fix. On the fifth Saturday after the conference (May 26, 2012), out it goes. So, again, there are my motivators: deadlines and people expecting something from me. And I will work hard to make them happy.

***

Though I don’t know the statistics, I would say that John’s experience was atypically fantastic. Pitch appointments are a trial by fire; when I saw John the morning of his appointment, he was a picture of composed enthusiasm. Optimistic hope is a staple of John’s attitude, and it’s served him well in his journey from writer to soon-to-be novelist. With a publication credit to a magazine already under his belt, it’s encouraging to know that there are others who see the excellence and potential that I’ve seen in John over the past twenty years.

John Patterson is a freelance writer currently working on his first fantasy novel series, “The Wolfglen Legacy.” He also owns his own self-titled blog on WordPress.

About the Writer: Rob Killam works as a customer service representative and freelance writer. He is planning to pitch his own debut zombie apocalypse novel in a series at PPWC 2013.