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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Woollcott’

What makes Query Roulette so amazing? Our witty New York Bookwoman editor, Rhona Whitty, explains.


Go in Peace, and Pitch No More

If Temple Grandin were asked to design a humane format for writers to meet agents, she’d come up with WNBA’s Query Roulette. I’m not kidding. Just because writers have become inured to the humiliation of having to pitch their complex novels to complete strangers in under thirty seconds, doesn’t make it right.

Photo Cred: Al Hirschfeld

There are lots of theories as to how writers were first maneuvered into pitching their novels. Culturally accepted today, if not expected, it is of course counter-intuitive to the whole business of writing. Although like most creation myths, those seeking to explain this tradition often involve goldfish, the most convincing version I’ve ever heard has nothing to do with fish, but is closely connected to the infamous Algonquin Round Table.

Back in 1925, a few editors and literary agents, Jim, Bob, Bill and Max, tried to start their own Round Table at the Algonquin, but the hotel would only give them a tiny square table next to the kitchen; not only severely limiting their numbers, but also of course, their social cachet. One afternoon, perfectly ordinary in all other respects, three of them sat there drinking scotch, waiting for Max to arrive. They filled their time glowering at the smoke circles Dorothy Parker puffed like benedictions in their direction. When Max showed up, his head was swathed in bandages, and both eyes were blackened.

“Jeez! What the hell happened to you?”

“A writer.” Max said.

“A writer did that to you?”

“I was standing inside the door of the office when a two hundred thousand worder was lobbed over the transom.”

“Had one drop on my foot last week.” Jim said. “Only a short story, or I’d be walking with a limp for the rest of my life. I still have a bruise.”

“I’m getting out.” Max slumped into his chair. He pretended not to notice Dorothy and her vicious minions laughing at his appearance.

“No!” Jim cried. “Not you!”

“You’re the best goddamn editor this town has ever seen, Max!” Bill had tears in his eyes.

“Look at me, would’ya!” Max cried. . . literally. “Just look what those bastards did to me!”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Jim spoke, “Maybe Max has a point. Maybe it’s time to get out of the business altogether.  I have a wife and three-”

“The hell with that!” Bob slapped the table, spilling their drinks. “I’m not quitting!”

“But how can we protect ourselves?” Jim had taken a photo of his kids out of his wallet, and was considering it thoughtfully.

“Trust me. There is a way they can never hurt us again.” Bob gave them a sly smile, and tapped the side of his nose.

“They’re writers!” Max said. “They use paper! Lots and lots of it. I swear to God, I thought I’d taken a bullet when that thing fell on me!”

“I say from now on we make them tell us their damn stories. No more paper.” Bob said.

“How long do you think it would take Fitzgerald to explain The Beautiful and the Damned?” Bill said.

Max groaned, and called for a waiter who ignored him in favor of the writers at the round table.

“You know what they do to writers out in Hollywood? They make them pitch their stories. ‘Tramp with baggy trousers goes to the Yukon to find gold. Eats boots and finds love.’“ Bob grinned at them. “That gentlemen, is Chaplin’s latest flick in one sentence.”

“Sounds cruel, even if they are writers.” Jim said.

“They’ll never go for it.” Bill shook his head.

“If we all stick together, what choice do they have?” Bob told them.

So uproariously and uncharacteristically merry were the men, that the conversation petered out at the round table as the writers strained to hear what they were talking about, but the snippets they did catch made no sense:

“How about the ‘Paternoster of Pain?’”

“How about “Babble On?’”

“How about. . .’The Elevator Pitch?’”

“What the hell is an ‘elevator pitch?’” Alexander Woollcott asked the writers at the round table.

“Bring those boys a bottle of scotch on us.” Dorothy drawled to a waiter. “They look like they need it.”

The Algonquin Square Table was abandoned soon after that, but the idea of making writers pitch their books gathered momentum, and the agents and editors have had the last laugh.  Until now. . .

Register for Query Roulette, which is next Tuesday, February 28th, and take back the written word! Do it for Dorothy. Do it for all those writers who were subjected to the ‘Paternoster of Pain’ for the past ninety years. Do it for the generation of writers to come.

Most of all though, do it for yourself. Click here to register.

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