How Operant Conditioning Sold My Pitch

Kitsune-TsukiRepublished from original post at

I spent last weekend immersed wholly in words. I don’t talk about it much, but I also write fiction, and I’ve decided lately to put more effort into that area. So two things happened last week — my novella Kitsune-Tsuki came out on ebook, and I attended a writers’ conference.

I hadn’t been planning to pitch to any of the agents at the conference — I didn’t feel my newer projects were wholly ready — but a new friend listened to my practice pitch and then literally led me to the agent board and signed me up for a pitch. Now it was on.

I hate pitches. I think all writers hate pitches, really. Just as Isadora Duncan famously protested, “If I could explain, I wouldn’t have to dance!” I feel that if I could sum up a story in five sentences or so, it wouldn’t have to be a hundred thousand words of manuscript. Pitches and queries are setting years of hopes and work out to be judged in literal seconds by a stranger. No one likes them; everyone gets nervous about them.

So I practiced. I got in my car, turned on some epic music, and rehearsed. I had carefully chosen my words (of course!), and I back-chained them to guard against stuttering or forgetting what came next. I made a focus point of one key phrase which kept tripping me. And like a good trainer, I ignored mistakes to avoid packing frustration into the endeavor, and I simply practiced and improved.

So when pitch time came, I felt confident and fluent. Fluent enough that when my pitch appointment was re-scheduled at the last minute, I wasn’t unduly rattled and knew I could get into the zone again. Fluent enough that when the agent interrupted with a question, I could answer relevantly and pick up again without stumbling. Fluent enough that he requested my manuscript.

That’s a long way, of course, from a signed contract. But it’s also a long way from being politely rejected outright. But honestly, even if he hadn’t been interested, I was pleased with my pitch performance — and I knew where it had come from. Good behavior analysis had made me fluent and confident in minimal time.

(Two hours later, my novella Kitsune-Tsuki was announced as winner of the 2012 Luminis Prize, which was another healthy dollop of delayed-but-much-appreciated reinforcement!)

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  1. So this just popped up as a ‘post from the past’ and I’m really curious — how do you back-chain something like a speech? Is it sentence by sentence?

    • Yep! At least, that’s how I did it. I started with the last sentence and built up one sentence at a time. Sometimes even one clause at a time, in the case of a complicated list. But it worked!

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