New York Pitch Conference II: Forster’s Gold
At first glance it’s not obvious what a twentieth-century English novelist EM Forster, best known in our century as the writer whose work inspired three Merchant Ivory film productions, would have to do with a blog about a New York Pitch Conference. But as fate would have it, EM Forster explored themes far beyond the English romantic oeuvre signposted by Howard’s End, A Room with a Viewand Passage to India. Curiously, his short stories included a science fiction dystopia, The Machine Stops. In this, he paints a scenario where the earth’s surface is a wasteland, and people now live in underground in cells, isolated but with a Machine to connect them to music, information and amenities, as well as other listeners. It seems extraordinarily prescient that a work published in 1909 could anticipate the coming of the world-wide web. And it’s more compelling than ever to know how Forster’s protagonist, Vashti, fares in the face of this so-called utopia. Having being served by the Machine all her life, Vashti is at a complete loss as to how to conduct herself when the Machine stops functioning. Now humans have no choice but to communicate with each other through face-to-face encounters. It is a prospect so terrifying that people see suicide as the preferable option.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss his story as hysterical hyperbole, a work pitched at the extreme end of a spectrum where humanity is polarised against technology. It would seem hysterical because, as we all know, technology bestows so many advantages. Take, for instance, the process I used to book for the New York Pitch conference, an event I attended in September of 2018. Rather than meeting face to face with a travel agent, I used Airbnb to book accommodation, a web service to buy airline tickets, email correspondence to connect with hosts and conference attendees, and Twitter to find interviewees for the research-related aspect of the journey. No tasks required face-to-face contact. I could justify the transactions because they were convenient and competitive. If we accept these advantages as fact, why should I be troubled over what Forster has to say? Why do I feel as if his cautionary tale, however hyperbolic, is psychologically honest? Why am I invested with the sure sense what he is saying is vital and relevant to my personal circumstances?
Instinctively, I think, humans take for granted the idea that face-to-face relationships are more meaningful than alternatives. The values lies in all those benefits of non-verbal communication. We can make a more thorough stocktake of his or her personality. We can better assess a person’s body language, clothing, deportment, nuances of voice, and how he or she interacts with others. With more comprehensive input, we’re in a better position to know whether to respect, like and trust the person we’re focussing on.
But is an instinctive reading on this enough? The question becomes a vital one in the instance self-funded artists, and probably even more so for emerging novelists, who invariably work in isolation, with little financial reward. Surely it’s more convenient and cheaper to attend a virtual conference than a real one? If such a writer were to push for face-to-face format over virtual reality, how can the argument be won when the benefits are so hard to measure and quantify?
Though it might be hard to measure, I wanted to try, regardless. The perfect case in point was the New York Pitch Conference of September 2018. Flying over from Australia, I had secured a grant but also invested several hundred dollars of my own. I would pitch to four editors, face to face, over the same number of days. On the first day, all conference attendees, fifty-odd strangers, gathered in a reception room at Ripley Grier studios to receive our name badges and sign the attendance roll. The conference convenor outlined the agenda – we would divide into three groups, of at least 15 participants, separated according to our genres. The convenor assigned each group a workshop leader, and in the case of myself, and fellow Australian writer and conference attendee, Suzie Strong, we were assigned Ann Garvin, an experienced writing teacher and New York Times bestselling novelist. It was Ann’s job to help us craft a pitch that would best promote our work to the editors. The first day’s work involved pitching before Ann and the others in our group. The other three days would involve pitching to our four New York editors.
The process of face-to-face pitching, as you might imagine, is more daunting than submitting via exposition. There are more variables to control: is my hair right, my make-up adjusted, my voice calm and my manner confident? Is the passion for this story being adequately conveyed?
Ann rallied to our side, sitting alongside us in the pitching process. With a trusty note taker at our side, we didn’t have to panic about writing down or forgetting the advice coming from our editors. We could gauge the editor’s body language and observe where we’d specifically gained traction or lost it. This information could lead us to adjust our pitches in preparation for the editor on the following day. In mastering a face-to-face pitch, we put more of ourselves on the line, and the pay off, compared to exposition, was a good deal more accurate feedback as well as the confidence gained in achieving a more strenuous goal. Most of us walked away with a fair estimation of whether we’d impressed our editor or not, although some editors kept their body language close, and were harder to read than others.
Back in the pitching workshop, Ann used her dynamic personality to create a group atmosphere of mutual support. If we did not reach our ultimate goal, the holy grail that was a Request to see more, then we had the group support to buffer against the loss and rise up for the next challenge. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where, using technology alone, this collective quickening could occur.
A third advantage to face-to-face format is the style of learning we could adopt. Group collectives, when they work well, expedite trust, which, in turn, encourages each member to disclose more, which then facilities more learning. A specific case in point was the crisis I’d suffered on the second day over plot point in my pitch. When I asked for group advice on the way forward, responses were immediate and consensual. Feeling I could trust the group consensus, I took their advice. I am sure that a second Request was aided by the fact that I’d received this collective advice.
There was a further, unanticipated benefit to the face-to-face format. As part of the acquittal process for the grant I’d received to attend, I presented my conference notes to Sunshine Coast branch of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Arguably there is a lot more interest and enthusiasm from listeners when they understand that the speaker has immersed herself in the city and conference atmosphere rather than simply sitting behind a computer. Furthermore, for any writers group on the Coast thinking to run a similar pitch conference, I can now offer advice on what worked and what didn’t.
By the last session of conference, Ann Garvin turned the paradigm around and pitched to myself and Suzie about coming to Australia to present a workshop next year. At first, I offered a laboured smile, thinking of all the hard work involved: accommodation, venue, transport, catering and funding logistics. But after I’d had time to reflect on the idea, I considered how much I’d learned from being in her presence, and how much I could trust her to deliver. When I arrived back in Australia I discussed the idea with Suzie Strong and other local writers, including the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance, where I’ve recently become a member. The president, Phil Smith, offered encouraging feedback about how Suzie and I could go about funding the project and now we’re keen to apply for funds.
EM Forster, were he alive today, would most likely applaud this face-to-face prioritising, and the work of organisations like the Sunshine Coast Council, who through the Regional Arts Development Fund, continue to fund conferences where face-to-face connections are cherished above all else.
*I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and the Sunshine Coast Council through the Regional Arts Development Fund.