Monday, February 2, 2015

Four Things Football Taught Me About Pitching a Novel - by guest Andrew Swearingen

Pepper here, and we're SO glad to have Andrew Swearingen back with us. He's bringing some of his own football experience to the playing field today so join us in the fun. Whether your cheering for the Seahawks or Patriots last night proved beneficial or not, this post brings tips worth a touchdown.

Fifteen minutes.

That was all the time I had left. All my preparation came down to how well I performed during those critical moments. I hoped I wouldn't choke.

 I sat amongst a slew of other writers at a writers' conference in St. Louis, all of us waiting anxiously for an appointment with one of the agents. I was okay until I sat down. Then the old anxieties flared up. I ran through my pitch over and over again, but then I started forgetting things. “Wait...what's the name of  my book again?”

 Another writer struck up a conversation with me and it didn't take much for her to see that I was loosing my nerve. She gave me a pat on the back. “Just remember,” she said “Be excited when you talk about your story. Your excitement about it will help them get excited about it. And if nothing else have fun with it.”

 The part about “having fun” stuck with me. The whole situation reminded me of my high school football days, pacing the locker room before a big game. And before every game, no matter if it was sure to be a blowout win or if we were playing for a state title, our coach always ended his pregame pep talk by saying “Guys, just go out there, be physical and have fun.”

 Encouraged, I wrote those words in my notebook. When it came time to pitch, I hopped up out of my chair, feeling a little shot of adrenaline pulse through my blood, and marched down the hall to let that agent know what my story was all about.

 Don't worry. Things didn't get 'physical' during my appointment. But the meeting went really well. Not “Oh my gosh! We love your book and want you to make it into a trilogy!” good, but not bad considering it was my first time pitching my story to an agent.

 The whole thing got me thinking about what other lessons from my playing days I could use in my writing career.

Be physical – If you are in front of an agent, that is your time to shine. There's no use in holding back. Know what it is you need to say and say it.

 Put together a playbook of the things you need on gameday: your pitch, a proposal, some well polished sample chapters. Also make sure they remember you. Pay them a complement or tell a joke. Mention something interesting about yourself that will make you stand out in their mind. (Don't linger on this part. Your not there to talk about your life. You're there to pitch a novel. Get to it.)

 Then practice. Before the season even started, we practiced our top plays until they were engrained into our minds...then we did it again. Practice your pitch all the time. Don't clam up when a friend asks you about your book. Practice your pitch on them. They are literally asking for it!

 Have an in depth pitch ready for your appointment and a twenty second pitch ready in case you bump into your dream agent in an elevator.

 That way, you will know what to do when you find yourself sitting in front of an agent and you can hit them with everything you've got.

 Have Fun – My defensive coach told us “Practice is hard. It's supposed to be. Knocking a guy to the ground on gameday, though? That's fun.”

 Writing, like anything worth while, isn't always fun. Getting up at 4am to write? Not fun. Agonizing over a chapter that just won't come together? Not fun. Burning vacation time, making travel arrangements, and dropping a bunch of cash to go to a writers conference? Not fun. It's all a lot of work. There's no getting around it.

 But taking a step back from things and letting yourself breath can do a lot of good before a big meeting.

 It isn't as easy as declaring to yourself “My appointment shall be a joyous romp!”.

 If you're like me, you need a bit of a running start to something if you are actually going to enjoy yourself. If you're at a conference, grab a friend for coffee just to give the day a good start. Browse Pinterest or Youtube (briefly!) and find something to give you a good laugh. If nothing else strike up a conversation with someone while you're waiting and ask them about their book. Give yourself something positive to think about so that you don't end up sitting there dwelling on all the things that can go wrong.

 Remember, this is your chance to talk up your book. It's your baby and like any proud parent, you shouldn't mind bragging on it a little bit.

Play Like Champions Today – Outside my team's locker room sat a sign that read “Play Like Champions Today” and before every game, every guy would slap the sign on his way out to the field.

 Don't go in with the mind set of “well maybe I can write”.

 Of course you'll have some doubts going in. Who doesn't? But at some point you've just got to take a long look in the mirror and tell all the doubts you're feeling to just shut up.

 This is just “mind over matter” or “positive thinking”.

 Even if it's your first time pitching, you've done the work to get there. You've committed yourself to getting your book published. If you've even started your novel you've done more than most people with aspirations of becoming a writer. So many people dream of writing a book and never get past the first page!

 You deserve to be there, so put on your game face and act like it.

 And also keep in my that just because the agent doesn't fall in love with you on the spot does NOT mean that you didn't “play like a champion”. One disappointment does not make you a failure.

 Finish – You've done all this work. Time. Energy. Money. Don't let it go to waste.

 I played offensive and defensive tackle, which meant it was my job to hit people...a lot. From the snap of the ball until the ref called blew his whistle you were moving, running, hitting. If we slacked off during the play, one of our coaches would make sure we heard about it. “You play until the whistle blows,” they'd say. As long as the play was live, you could do something to advance your team to the goal.

 In your story, you probably have a moment where your hero or heroine is near end of the quest. They've fought long and hard to get there. Then, as all hangs in the balance, they have a chance to quit it all and abandon everything for which they've fought and suffered. Every hinges on whether they buckle under the pressure or if they rise to the occasion.
That's the moment that you'll be in. Part of you will want to walk out or just sit there and play it safe.

 Don't let that happen.

 Keep your wits about you, do what you came to do, and finish strong. Afterward it's too late to do anything.
Okay. Enough from me. What about you? Maybe you didn't play football. Maybe soccer was your sport. Or chess. Or...I don't know Russian roulette.

What insights can you share from your favorite sport, hobby, or activity?

Andrew Swearingen is a blogger and aspiring Sci-fi writer, living in the hidden kingdom that is Southern Illinois. He  spends his days working for a landscaping company, occasionally working as a substitute teacher, serving in his church's kid's program, and has on several occasions saved the city from robot invasion.

 (One of those isn't completely true, but we'll let you guess which one.)

 He blogs at and tweets as @WittySwearWords


Mary Vee Writer said...

Great points, Andrew, especially the day after the Super Bowl.

This is also great resource for us to keep.

Joy Swearingen said...

Thinking about your senior year in football makes me proud and sentimental in so many ways. And that continues. This post brings back lots of fun memories.

Dana Black said...

Great post! I love sports analogies, and these were really good reminders for me, because I get a lot of pitching anxiety.

My high school "sport" was theater, but your question made me realize there are lessons to be had there, too.

We have the practice phase, too, where you spend weeks with the script, learning your lines and where to move, and what the director wants you to do in a particular moment, but once opening night comes, you're on your own with your cast mates. It's not like how theater is portrayed in movies where a nervous actor will call for a "line" in the middle of a performance, and the stage manager will feed it to him.

My point is, the prep stage is what helps us to survive once we get out on our own at the appointments. There comes a moment where we have to just pray, breathe, and trust our own instincts and what we know, because that is what will make for the most honest presentation. If we truly know our stories, they will pour out naturally. Will we mess up a line here or there or not explain something as clearly as it was in our heads? Sure. But chances are, you're not going to completely blow your pitch. You improvise something until you can get back on script, and smile when you finish. You can pick it apart after you get "offstage" (because actors always do), but don't let it ruin your moment.