As a professional marketing consultant, I have written elevator pitches for products; I have relentlessly honed messages until they are crystal clear and easy to communicate; I have helped clients focus in with laser precision on their audiences.
Why, then, has it been so hard for me to do these things for my own fiction?
Yesterday at the San Mateo County Fair’s Literary Arts Stage, I finally realized why. It’s because authors, like parents, have an awfully hard time shutting up about their kids.
This revelation came during a workshop given by Beth and Ezra Barany called “How to Pitch to an Agent or Editor.” (Beth is an author as well as a creativity coach for writers and Ezra is author of the successful self-published thriller, The Torah Codes.) As I was working through one of the exercises we practiced during the workshop, it suddenly hit me. Here’s what’s been going on.
The art of not telling all
Writing a novel is about about creating an emotional experience. Over hundreds of pages, you let readers inside your characters’ lives, make them care about what happens, give them a feeling of inhabiting a different world. You do this with scores of scenes, tens of thousands of words—all of which are vital to the telling of the story, or else they wouldn’t be there (you did edit ruthlessly, didn’t you?)
Describing your novel—whether at a cocktail party or in a pitch letter—is about promising an emotional experience using as few words as possible. You don’t have to give them the whole experience. Well, duh! But for someone who has spent years creating that emotional experience in the form of a book, it can be awfully difficult to say one thing, say it well, and shut up about the rest.
Pitch-craft: Leave it out!
One of the exercises we did yesterday was to create a pitch with five components, including: the initial premise; the main character; the primary objective of the main character; the antagonist or force preventing the main character from getting what they want; and the disaster that could happen.
For a few seconds, my mind was blank. I had written a whole book, but I didn’t know how to describe it because I was afraid of leaving something out. Then, because we only had a few minutes, I just went ahead and wrote something: “A middle school science teacher with a quiet, orderly life suddenly finds God. Struggling to reconcile his newfound faith with his belief in science, he becomes fixated on a sculptor whose blasphemous work drives him to an unforgivable act.”
The workshop audience (yes, I was brave enough to volunteer to read it aloud) “oohed” positively and Ezra Barany said it gave him a feeling of the emotional experience the book promised. Yay! Still, there was a little voice in my head saying, “But there’s so much more! It’s written from the points of view of various characters! I didn’t tell you about the runaway teen, or the documentary filmmaker, or the science teacher’s girlfriend…”
It doesn’t matter. Readers will find out all that when they read the book. I know I could hone the pitch further, but the main point is that it doesn’t tell all.
Beth did have a helpful tip for books with multiple characters/viewpoints (which all of mine seem to be). She suggested writing a pitch for each of the main characters, which I think is a brilliant idea and plan to do.
Best of all, now I know how to work on the pitch for my current novel while I’m still writing it. Maybe by the time it’s done I’ll actually be able to tell you what it’s about.
Have you learned the art of the pitch? How? Leave a comment and let me know what works for you.
An award-winning author—me!
I am thrilled to say that my short story, The Boy in the Window, won me the California Writer’s Club award for Most Promising Writer of the Year and also won second place in the San Mateo County Fair’s Short Story division.
I’m headed off in a few minutes to a giant autograph party and reading for the anthology Carry the Light, which contains my story along with hundreds of other stories, poems, and essays and is published by Sand Hill Review Press. If you’re at the Fair, you can purchase a copy for $10.
Audrey, Great job on your pitch! And congrats on your award! Lastly, thanks for mentioning Ezra and I in your post. Readers of your blog can get the formula we taught here: http://www.meetup.com/Get-Published-Now/files/. You do need to join this free group to access the files.You can also go here to learn another piece we taught at the workshop: Clear Message: http://www.writersfunzone.com/blog/2011/01/04/your-clear-message-get-your-potential-readers-curious-now/
Thanks! NOW I remember where I wrote it down… on my blog 🙂 Our conversation was inspiring and I’m already hard at work.
Congratulations on coming up with a pitch system that works for you. I coach authors how to get on TV and of course that is the core of the issue for them as well. Of course the pitch line for getting on TV is different than to sell the book directly, but it is just as hard. In the case of fiction authors trying to get on TV, they must learn not to talk about the book, but instead on the “expert” status they gained on a subject related to the story. TV producers want experts not authors, so that is what you give them. And of course they need to retain the ability to “pitch” the book by itself when that is called for. It is all hard work, but as you know the rewards are incredible. OK, thanks and good luck. Edward Smith.
I don’t write the kind of fiction that would be easy to sell that way… but thanks for the thoughts.
Congratulations on the win. That’s super!
Your comments on the pitch actually do help. I can see what I need to do, it’s just doing it that’s difficult.
Ah, yes… isn’t that always the hitch!
Well done Audrey and congratulations. Hope the autograpgh party and reading went well. Your advice on pitching is spot on – and it is amazing how, as writers, we struggle with this most basic of tasks. Like you say, it’s because we carry the whole book inside our heads – it’s so hard to distill it down without making it sound less than the whole!
It really argues for getting outside help, doesn’t it? I am going to do more of that!
Congrats on the writing award! Well-deserved I’m sure. They say you should be able to pitch your novel in a sentence or two, but it’s amazing how difficult that can be. I intermittently “practice” mine so that it will flow off of the tongue when I need it to, not an easy feat given my propensity for tongue tie!
I imagine it’s a challenge for a self-admitted introvert. I will definitely be practicing once I’ve honed my new one.