One minute to pitch a dream

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ASHBURNHAM, Ma.

They call it the "American Idol" for writers: Pitcha palooza. The judges call themselves the Book Doctors. Pitchapalooza is their brainchild, and they traverse the country helping writers get their books published.

I signed up right away before I could think about it, like I did last week when my doctor asked if I wanted to get my tetanus shot updated. Inside my head I said, "Run like the wind, like Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games.’ Save yourself. Your life is rust free. You deplore needles, faint at the sight of them. Get the hell out of there. Out loud I said, "sure." I signed up for Pitch apalooza then I freaked out. "Do what you fear," I chanted.

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Hundreds of people show up for Pitchapalooza. I discovered this when I googled the dickens out of it. The venue, Northshire Book Store in Manchester, Vt., is a few hours from my house. It is the independent bookstore I love most since Pittsfield’s Either/ Or Bookstore left North Street years ago. The Book Doctors pick 20 names randomly from the list of would-be pitchers who have signed up in advance, and each gets one minute to sell his book idea. The person who does the most convincing job gets a sit down with a publisher and an agent. I wanted to do it so much. I did not want to do it so much.

For one Pitchapalooza min ute, hundreds of people listen to you. That is no easy thing to come by, one minute of others’ rapt attention. I well know. I have tried to talk to people about my project, a dark novel about a real-life mass murder of 14 female engineering students in Montreal in 1989. People are always polite, but they slink away, proffer platitudes like "good luck with that" or "oooo -- sad -- tough stuff -- yeah..."

Even my own parents struggle. Drinking coffee on their front porch recently, my mother said, "tell us about your trip to Montreal. How is the book coming?" Before I could answer, my father spoke up. "Lou, have you seen my glasses?" "Ralph, where did you put them?" "I put them right here," he said, pointing to the windowsill, staring as if jilted at the altar.

"How many times have I told you," Mom admonished, "to put them in the same place every time..." "Just give it to God, Lou. The good Lord has a plan for everything," he said.

My mother jerked her head to the side and stared at me. I took this to mean we were a team, in full agreement that dad had given up the hunt for the missing glasses and was entering metaphysical mode.

Suddenly, he pulled out his glasses, placed them on his face, and perked up.

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"Enough about us," Dad said. "You know, my swim class was asking when you were going to write some of those funny pieces again. Remember..."

"She has a new project, Ralph." interrupted Mom.

"New shmew. This new book sounds awfully -- dark."

Coming to my aid, Mom said, "You know how Donna is about her women’s stories..." "These women ... well -- they’ve passed on, Lou."

"Can’t she write about something happy? When you get to be this age, kiddo, you want all the happy stories you can get," Dad said.

"This is not about you, Ralph," Mom shouted to be sure Dad heard her. "She wants to write about the thing that happened at that school. Do you think you can muster some support? Lou, I am just saying..."

I went to the kitchen to get more coffee. Mom had new curtains that said, "Be still and know." I thought about those curtains for a long while, heard my parents whispering loudly on the porch. She must have guilted him something awful because the next thing I heard was, "You’ll be on Oprah soon, honey, mark my words." Oprah was over, alas. Mom’s curtains fluttered in the afternoon breeze. "Be still," they said.

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Among the hundreds at that Vermont bookstore, I got called to give my pitch, number 18 out of 20. I had my ONE minute. I grasped the microphone, shaking and perspiring, and pitched my heart out. Heretofore, the pitches had been charming -- about precocious crickets, the Peace Corps, how to survive your husband’s retirement. My one minute was rife with mayhem and Rugers and unbearable grief. No charm, no endearing insects. No laughter.

Scotty McCreery never wanted to win Idol more than I wanted to win Pitchapa looza. That didn’t happen. The Book Doctors said en couraging things. That was nice, but for the glorious 60 seconds before they gave their verdict, many someones listened. That’s winning.

Donna Decker is associate professor of English at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. She grew up in Pittsfield and visits her family which still resides there. She is on currently on sabbatical, writing a novel about the 1989 Montreal Massacre.


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