Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Word of Mouth Beginnings: Your Proposal and Your Agent

On Monday, Ariel Allison, from our sister blog SheReads kicked off Marketing Week here on Novel Matters by reminding us that the most powerful tool in Marketing is Word of Mouth – when readers, lots of readers, fall in love with a book and help other people to fall in love with it too. She pointed out that the genesis of the word of mouth phenomenon begins with years of dedication to the craft. The determined, consistent effort to write, and then write better.

If step one of creating unstoppable word of mouth is honing the craft of writing over years, then step two is harnessing, and wielding the power of two indispensible marketing tools: Your proposal and your agent.

Since the proposal is often the means by which a writer attains an agent, let’s start there. We’ve all heard about the ‘hook’ – that definitive, defining sentence (how many times have we heard it needs to be a sentence? We have even been told how many words this magical sentence should contain – seven. I have to roll my eyes at these ridiculous formulas that would have writers believe that their creativity must be conscripted to jots and diddles of certain size. But that is another blog post). The hook portion of our proposal is not meant to be some catchy jingle, some dazzling display of Jazz Hands to show off how clever and gifted the author is. It is meant to breathe the first contagious strands of Word of Mouth excitement about this novel. It is designed to convey the emotion and depth of meaning contained in the novel. It’s crafted to get the reader excited – not by the jiggle in the writer’s walk, but though conveying the pure power of story.

Arielle Ford, in her article How to Create A Bidding War for Your Book Proposal, says the hook should be “[. . .] something so fascinating or cutting edge or heart warming that publishing VIPs can't help but turn the page.” In other words, it needs to convey the power of the story so strongly, that no one, not even word weary publishing VIPs can resist.

The goal of the hook isn’t simply to get you noticed and published, it’s to get you noticed, talked about, and published. Word of mouth excitement about your novel is fueled in-house. When publishing professionals get excited about a novel, they talk about – to everyone they know. Other pub pros, friends, spouses, book clubs, booksellers.
You want to be talked about in-house, but for the right reasons. Not because of razzle-dazzle misfire, but because of your ability to present the experience of the story in abbreviated form.

Ah, but what if you are not “in-house”? What if you have no ability to gain the attentions of publishing VIPs? Enter the literary agent. Your knock out proposal, including that pitch perfect hook, needs to reach out and grab the attention of agents. Preferably lots of agents. Because when it comes to creating word of mouth, finding the right agent is key.

A writer friend recently confided to me, “Experience has taught me that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.” Online lists abound on what constitutes a good or bad agent – but for the purpose of this post, I will assume you are aware of the agents who are truly connected, recognized, and established in the publishing world.

Snagging a great agent is no easy task. It can take all sorts of time, lead up all sorts of blind alleys, and leave the writer exhausted. But it is worth every moment, every e-mail, every conversation, and every failed lunch date. Because the three most powerful qualities of an agent are these:

1. The fit
2. The excitement
3. The agents dogged efforts to promote your work to publishers, both before and after the manuscript is sold

Fit refers to the mutual relationship between writer and agent. Is the agent ticking your boxes? Can the two of you communicate well? Do you like each other? Do you understand each other?

The excitement belongs the agent, not you. Is the agent genuinely excited about you and your work? (Hint: Has the agent read your work? Or did they have an assistant read it? Can the agent point out specific parts of the novel that he loved?) This goes hand in hand with fit (I’ve heard of many, many times when an agent has been over the top excited about a writer, but the fit wasn’t there for one side or the other, the writer needed to keep searching), but it also stands as it’s own point. An agent who demonstrates his affection for your project, communicates and articulates what it is about your work that gets his juices flowing, is an agent you want on your side. And for more reasons that the obvious. Remember, we are talking Word of Mouth Marketing.

The agent who is excited about a work is the agent who will fight for it. She will sell it with all the emotion of a new parent. She will take hold of the ear of publishing pros and pass on the joy – and get the novel sold. Hurray! But hold up, it doesn’t end there. In a knee knocking article entitled
Necessary Agent, Jofie Ferrari-Adler speaks both on and off the record with editors from major publishing houses on the subject of agents as in-house advocates after a project has been acquired. And it brings us back to the question of what constitutes a good agent. Ferrari-Adler offers this definition:

An agent who understands that at a time when there is an industry-wide blockbuster mentality that makes it harder than it’s ever been for editors to find the institutional support it takes to publish serious work well, it is more important than ever for agents to be fearless, savvy, and relentless advocates for their clients after their books are under contract. An agent who understands that the long and winding road to publication is fraught with trouble, and that her role has evolved into a symbiotic partnership with your editor. An agent who understands that in today’s publishing industry, your editor needs her constant presence and support—needling, brainstorming, cajoling, and sometimes even harassing. An agent who understands, in short, that your editor needs her help.
Word of mouth marketing is truly organic. It is the ever widening ripples of shared human experience. And while aspects of Word of mouth will likely forever remain a mystery, there are foundational beginnings – the rock first thrown into the still waters – that set things in motion long before the book hits the shelf: The time you take to perfect your craft, your proposal which encapsulates all that is unique and moving about your story, and your agent who works tirelessly as an advocate of your work both before and after the manuscript sells.


Katie Ganshert said...

Wow! This is a great post! Filled with wisdom. :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

There are so many reasons why I love this blog. Let me count the ways. :D Okay, maybe I'll just name a few.

The comment about not following the rules to the T. Can't wait for that post.

The Jazz hands comment that accompanied that point.

Finally, every single thing mentioned about finding the right match in an agent. I'm praying to find that. The idea of an agent getting fired up and excited about my work thrills me.

So, I pray. I wait and I keep writing.
~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Katie, I agree! I learned a lot too. And Wendy, you and Katie and others who comment often are reasons we count for why it is so rewarding to share our ideas with others.

Our Bonnie lies over the ocean -- or at least, she's out of Internet range today. So on her behalf, we thank you!

Bonnie Grove said...

Katie: So glad you enjoyed. Many thanks!

Wendy: Let me see your Jazz Hands, girl! heh heh. Keep writing. And re-writing. And writing. . . .

Latayne: I've managed a brief moment with a keyboard and an internet connection - thanks for shoring up the comments section today. I appreciate it!

Steve G said...

The writing itself, and then the agent. The top two things a writer needs to be published?

Great post, lovely!

Bonnie Grove said...

Hey Steve - I'm laughing as I write this comment, given the fact that you are sitting five feet away from me as I answer you (but I know you're asking for all of us to think and respond to).... still... It's funny!

1) The writing. YES - the writing matters most. If it's not there, the rest won't matter much.

2) The agent. YES - the agent is your best friend in the publishing world. Your in, your advocate, your sales person, your shoulder to cry on, your pit bull, and your first PR. I know it sound discouraging if you've been pounding the pavement for an agent. I know it's not easy - but 99% of great art is perseverance. You'll only ever make it if you stay in the game.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I'm really struggling with creating a hook for my current WIP. I dread the question, "What's your book about?" because I know I can't yet answer succinctly or provocatively. Instead I launch into an apologetic ramble through a series of plot points, never quite succeeding in capturing the essence of theme and conflict.

I KNOW my theme and conflict inside-out. They just seem too complex to reduce to a nutshell. I also realise that this is a problem.

Is it okay to beg for a real-life example? Bonnie, would you mind sharing the hook you used for TALKING or for the novel you're currently shopping? (Unless that one's a secret. But hey, I'm curious! :) Would you other authors perhaps be willing to share also?

(Hope this is an appropriate question to ask.)

Bonnie Grove said...

Karen: Great question. And thanks for being so open about your struggle with this. I think all authors struggle hard with the proposal for just the reasons you've stated. We know so much about the novel, it's characters, it's themes - how can it be reduced???

My first recommendation is to condense the novel into a premise. A premise condenses a novel into a single character arc (main character), his/her basic issue, action, and outcome.

So a premise for a novel is HERO+PROBLEM+ACTION to OVERCOME+OUTCOME.

So, a premise for the novel my agent is currently shopping (SIX LETTERS IN TIME) could look like this:

HERO: A man who time travels uncontrollably + PROBLEM: is held prisoner in a medical facility + ACTION: He begins a secret correspondence with a psychologist in the facility + only to fall in love with her through their letters.

This sounds simple - but I'll share this: There is another entire voice I'm cutting out of the premise. The psychologist has her own chapters. But that's not the point of the premise. The point is to reduce the novel to it basic actions. From there, you can build a compelling hook like this one:
Time Travel: His curse. Her only hope.

Latayne is finishing a masterpiece (no, I'm not overstating this. It's simply brilliant). In her proposal she has used the classic "What if" question to frame her hook for this complex novel filled with themes, symbols, etc.
HOOK:   What would it have been like to be a woman, a Gentile, and someone onto whom the Holy Breath moved – to produce what became the book of Hebrews?

We'd love it if other writers who read this blog could share their process, or their example of a compelling hook!

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! Loved the jazz hands comment! Gave me the mental image of an author, whipping out jazz hands after delivering a pitch to a potential editor. :)

Anonymous said...

Karen, your question is one of the hardest to answer, at least for me. I know exactly what you mean about having the question put to you, "What is your novel about?" I too find it difficult to reduce it to a sentence or two. Or twenty. And a hook? Ugh.

Bonnie's formula is something I'll certainly use, and try here for the first time.

HERO - A woman whose young daughter disappeared a year ago PROBLEM - attempts to go away alone to take her life on the anniversary of her child's disappearance.
ACTION - But the three women who love her most, unaware of her intentions, conspire to get her through that critical 24 hour period.

HOOK - The one that's on my proposal is "What happens when God says no ... and means it." But if I were to draw a hook from my premise it might be: The deepest pain can be survived when love just won't let go.


Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: Because I know a little about your novel, I would suggest you have an amazing built in hook found in the structure of your novel - the colors.
A great hook for your wonderful upcoming novel could be (and I'm totally making up the content here - so ignore that)
Pink: The color of her cheeks when she walks in the rain.
Green: Shamrock bows on daisy dresses.
Yellow: Post-it notes with pencil marks and 'I love you' stuck to every surface in the den.
Red: The sky the day she left - bright like a warning.
Blue: No matter what they tell you, the color of sorrow isn't blue.

(Obviously, you would have amazing content and would use the colors and the action in the book to create a mosaic of building suspense and emotion. Forgive my feeble content. But it gives the idea I'm getting at)

Remember, when you're creating your hook - it doesn't have to be a sentence. I know they say to have your elevator pitch ready - but really, are we writing novels here, or are we pitching ads for TV? Editors aren't looking for your jazz hands. They are looking to fall in love.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Wow... thank you so much for sharing. Bonnie, your premise grabbed my attention instantly. I love psychological themes and fantasy elements. This sounds like my type of book! Can't wait to add it to my TBR pile once it finds a publishing home.

And Sharon, your hook, "What happens when God says no... and means it." - that gave me goosebumps. What a powerful statement to draw the reader into the story. Also, thank you so much for your empathy! It's kind of comforting to know that "real" writers struggle with this stuff too.

Well, Bonnie, you have simplified and clarified something that has boggled me for ages. Thanks for pointing out the difference between a premise and a hook. I'll give it a go for my WIP:

HERO: A woman obsessed with the memory of her dead father inherits a rare black pearl,
PROBLEM: propelling her into a world where powerful forces will stop at nothing to make the pearl theirs.
ACTION/ OUTCOME: As she fights to possess the pearl, her increasingly devastating choices lead her to question what she is living for and how much of her life she is ultimately willing to give.

Hook: What price would you pay for the thing you want the most?

Ugh. Trying to think this through while dealing with a crying baby and finding it hard to make any sense at all! I think it's still too wordy and yet the more I simplify it the cornier it sounds. I don't like the phrase "stop at nothing", so cliche, I'm making my book sound like a bad action movie instead of a subtly layered psychological drama... help!! LOL

Any feedback welcome!

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay, Karen. You're on to something - but, yes, too wordy as you said. And you're still adding too much info for the purpose of the premise. Let's see if I can help you out a wee bit (I sure sympathize with a crying baby and an over tired imagination!). I'm going to have to surmise and guess a bit at the actual premise, because you were a tiny bit vague - but you can forgive my foolishness and replace it with the clarity of the story.

A grieving woman inherits a rare pearl, only to discover that claiming it may cost her life.

Isn't it amazing how this exercise can help us reduce our huge concepts into capsules of story?
No matter how huge our stories roam, or how many volumes they fill - the premise is that kernel of story that we build from.
John Truby's example of the premise of all the Harry Potter books? "A boy discover he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians."

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

That's IT!!! Bonnie, thank you!! I love it. Sometimes it really does take a fresh outside perspective to see what we can't when we're tangled up in the middle of all those words and ideas.

Feeling a huge sense of relief and gratitude right now. Thank you so much for taking the time to help. This one is a keeper.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

You people have a great 'premise' ministry here! When I am all finished I'll submit mine for editing (I've only been at it for 8 years. Only 27 more to go). It was really inspiring to read the development of Karen's blurb and I especially enjoyed seeing her prayers answered.

Bonnie Grove said...

Karen: You are so very welcome. I hope I've helped a bit to set you on the right road for building your hook. I know you'll take these lessons and make something wonderful of them.
There is nothing as wonderful as the creative mind when it's on to something.

Henrietta: Thanks for popping in today! I hope we'll all be around here in 27 years when you get that puppy done! :)
It thrills us here at Novel Matters to know we have brought inspiration.

erica_henry said...

This was a great post. Thank you for sharing :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Erica: Thanks so much for popping in!