Monday, August 26, 2013

Writer’s Workshop: Perfect Pitch Part 1

This is part one of Bonnie Grove’s shoot from the hip writer’s workshop on selling your work. Part two will run this Wednesday, August 26.

I open with this caveat: No one writer has the market of knowledge cornered when it comes to selling fiction works to agents/editors/publishers. I certainly don’t. What follows is simply observations from my years as a writer and writing mentor. Glean what works for you, what speaks to you, what stirs you, and disregard the rest.

The one line pitch: When a writer prepares material used in a typical pitch, she often begins with the one line, or elevator pitch. That snappy sentence meant to make publishing professionals swoon, gush, and produce a contract for you to sign on the spot. This is a terrible place to start. I’ve never met a writer who, upon completing a 100,000-word manuscript, had a clue what the thing was about. My advice? Don’t start here. You will spend hours futzing with words and come up short. Worse, you’ll start thinking you can’t do this, shove the manuscript in a draw only to be remembered fleetingly throughout the year always with a strong pinch to the heart. Who needs regrets like that? Not you. Don’t start with the one line pitch (we will return to the ins and outs of the elevator pitch in part 2.)

The One Sheet (CBA fiction writers): If you’re writing for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market, there’s a chance you’ll use this marketing tool as part of a pitch to agents/editors. The ABA (American Booksellers Association) does not use them. A one sheet isn’t what most writers think it is: a slick, attractive sheet highlighting your story. It does contain those elements, but that’s not the primary purpose or use for a one sheet. If you’re tempted to begin your proposal writing with the one sheet, I say—again—don’t start here. You’ll miss the purpose of this tool if you try to begin here.

The synopsis: Finally, the place to begin your proposal writing. If you haven’t already constructed a chapter outline (something you could do as you write, revising the outline as you revise the manuscript), you’ll be starting from scratch, pulling together the main plot points and relaying them with dazzling clarity and punch. Easy right?

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern of errors writers make when attempting to condense their novel down to two pages. (Oh, if you’ve wondering how long a synopsis should be: rule of thumb says two-three pages, never exceeding five. I say, except in rare cases, two pages is plenty long. I’ll explain why in a minute.)

The first error is that the synopsis does not contain the plot of the book. This is a large error, as you can imagine, and I bet it’s one you’ve made, too. Instead of plot, the writer waxes long on themes, adding editorial comments along the way, which serve to muddy the waters, drowning any chance of sparking interest or excitement in the project. 

Let’s break this down.

Themes: We love reading novels with rich, complex themes that linger long after we’ve finished the book. We work hard to ensure our novel incorporates, expounds, and defines important themes that bring the story to life, give it legs. When we attempt to condense our novel into two pages, we feel we’re shortchanging our work convening nothing but the plot. The plot, after all, is simply This happened, then this happened, then that happened, then this happened. How dull.

It’s not dull. It’s killer important that you convey the plot in detail in your synopsis. When an agent or editor reads they synopsis, they are looking for the plot. Why make them slog through theme to get the to the stuff they want to see?

Does that mean we save theme solely for the manuscript? Not at all. You impart theme in a synopsis the same way you do it in the manuscript, through careful word choice, stringing together nouns and verbs that, while spelling out the plot, infuse depth of meaning, feeling, setting, and themes to the synopsis.

An exercise: You can do this no matter where you are with the actual writing of you manuscript.

Use bullet points to write out the plot points in your story.

e.g.:      Mary finds a pickle on the street.
            Mary tries to eat the pickle, but the pickle speaks to Mary, begging for its life. It promises to grant Mary three wishes
            Mary takes the pickle home and hides it.  
            Mary goes out on a date with her boyfriend Harry and breaks up with him.
            Mary comes home from work one day to find all the furniture in her apartment has been rearranged.
            Mary is certain someone is watching her.
            Mary comes home and all her kitchen utensils are in the fridge.
            Mary confides in a friend, and they decide not to call the police.
            Mary makes her fist wish, and the pickle grants it: a handsome new boyfriend.
            Mary is followed home from work, but she doesn’t see who it is.
            Mary’s apartment is ransacked. Nothing is stolen, until Mary checks the hiding place and finds the pickle missing.

Not exactly riveting reading-yet—but it is clear.  There’s a good chance you’ll need to rearrange the plot points from the way they appear in the novel in order to present a straight plotline. Often, in the writing of the novel, we play with plot points, hiding and revealing as needed. Go ahead and rearrange the plot points in the synopsis so that one action follows another.

Also, notice that above we have a novel about Mary and a magic pickle. Except the manuscript has a great sub-plot about Mary’s friend, Anna, and her dealings with an enchanted piece of toast. And what about all the nuance between the ex-boyfriend and the new, handsome boy friend? Oh, and there’s all this great stuff between the pickle and Mary’s dog, Bones. None of it goes into the synopsis. Only include the plot points from the MAIN story.

The next issue is editorializing. This is massively common because it’s so natural when trying to condense the story down. We include phrases such as: She was terrified. Everyone hated Billy. She felt desperate and alone.

Editorializing is anything that attempts to explain why a character acts the way he/she does in a scene, explains a character type (mean, angry, silly, careless), or otherwise injects the author’s point of view or intention into the plot outline.

It takes a great deal of control to write a simple plot outline that allows the plot to stand on its own without embellishments of theme and editorializing.

Know what else it does? Reveals holes in the plot, highlights spongy sections in the story that sag and bore readers, and lets you, the writer, take a clear-eyed look at the bare truth about the story you’ve written.

A good synopsis will very often lead to going back and editing the manuscript.

So, you have your plot points, you’ve edited the manuscript to fix holes and fill in bogs in the story. Next, you pull out your largest toolbox, your vocabulary, and begin building in theme, setting, and even the occasional editorial comment through word choice. Let’s revisit out plot outline above, infused, but still clear:

            Mary blusters out of the fifty-story office building where she works, and onto the crowded Chicago streets. She muscles her way to the bus stop to catch the 517 that get her home by 6:23. Something green and white catches her eye, and she kicks at it with the toe of her sensible shoe, while she ponders the date she has tonight with Harry, her boyfriend of six years.

Words like “blusters”, “muscles”, and the specificity of the bus number and the time she will arrive home all paint a fuller picture of the setting, Mary’s character, and set up some of the themes explored in the novel. This continues, solidifying our suspicions with words such as, “sensible shoes,” and “boyfriend of six years.” The picture is coming together quickly without bogging down the rapid-fire delivery of the plot. 

Try this exercise on your story. We’d love to hear the results!

Part two, on Wednesday, will look at the one line pitch, the one sheet (briefly), and the query letter.

Write on!


Megan Sayer said...

ah Bonnie you're brilliant. Okay, I'm ready for wednesday's post now!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Wow! I waited all day to get to this post and now I feel like, like, I worked a 10 hour day, did my chores and then went to class - a hard hitting meaty writing class - at 10:00 pm. My brain is fried, but this is obviously good stuff and I will revisit it tomorrow.

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: This is old school for you, girl.

Cherry: Sorry about your brain. ;)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Thanks Bonnie! I am new to these waters. You explain synopsis so clearly I begin to imagine I might..just...maybe...try.

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: Yes, try! Too often we writers buy into the idea that pitch our work is ominous and onerous. The trick is we need to access the other side of our brains and approach it with the vigour of a tax return.