Hands down, the absolute worst question a person can ask me is, “So what is your book about?” And hey, it’s a fair question! I mean, it’s what I’d want to know. And yet for years I have cringed even before the question is asked. I see it coming, and my brain begins to shut down! As a writer I should actually have a pretty thought-provoking, articulate way to express what I’m writing about. Yet this question signals a wad of grey, cotton-flavored gum to materialize in my mouth and grow to enormous size. I have no words, I have no breath, I fear I look like an idiot.
I did, however, come up with a disclaimer that I’ve used for the last year or so. I say, “Believe it or not, that is the hardest question for all writers to answer. I actually don’t talk about what I’m working on until it’s finished because I find that drains the energy out of it.” That’s all true. I leave out the part about how most of us are actually writing in order to find out what our story is about. Feel free to use my disclaimer until you figure it out!
Meanwhile, in private I’ve kept a secret Word document that has grown to 8 single-spaced pages where I practice writing my pitch –that elusive one sentence summary of my story. It includes clusters of key words, dictionary definitions, lists of descriptors I cannot use because time and politicians have ruined these words for me –words like maverick. Additionally, in my journal I often write about my story. After reading Sarah Zarr’s essay Hold on Loosely at Hunger Mountain, I wrote for pages about The Question my first chapter raises about the white hot center of my story. I made a few discoveries, circled them, and they found their way into my Pitch Document.
The other day, I think I got it! No kidding! I think I got my pitch. (Dance of celebration!) I wrote it down, and I felt a physical ZING through the marrow of my bones. Here’s how it happened. While my manuscript is out to some readers, I was working on a query letter –which necessitates working on a pitch, and I learned two things.
First, in his publication How to Write a Great Query Letter, Noah Lukeman boiled it down to the bare bones for me.
• SPECIFICS • NAMES
• LOCATION • SUB-PLOTS
• TIME PERIOD
• COMPARISON to
another book or character
He also suggested writing a one-sentence version, as well as, several other expanded versions –three sentences, five sentences, a paragraph summary, a page summary, all of which have different uses. But if you can write the one-sentence version it straightens out your priorities, and the expanded versions get easier. That just helped me focus! Thank you, Noah! I needed that. Boom. Boom. Boom. I could do those things. The hardest was sticking to the white hot center and avoiding the subplots.
The second thing that helped was a trip over to the awesome YA Highway site, where if you click on Agents and Editors you can read published authors’ query letters that worked, as well as, the author and agent’s comment on why! So I was reading Kirsten Hubbard’s query to Michelle Andelman and Michelle’s analysis. Right off, the letter broke a lot of Noah Lukeman’s rules, but Kirsten had the bare bones of what Lukeman asked for, and I don’t think the letter would have worked without them. What sparked my own personal epiphany was reading Kirsten’s letter sentence by sentence, stopping at each period to consider what I would say for my own story. I read: Grace Carpenter longs to stand out, and it sent me directly into my character’s white hot center.
Now I don’t think I could have arrived at my pitch without:
1) practicing pitches even when I was still drafting
2) writing about my story
3) focusing on Lukeman’s bare bones
4) or chasing down the marrow of the story like Kirsten Hubbard.
The biggest benefit? Honing my pitch has inspired the absolute best revisions of my manuscript –especially chapter one. I feel like everything I write now has something to aim at!
So what did I finally come up with? Click on my Works in Progress link to see! I’d love to know what you think and how your pitches are coming along! As for me, next time someone asks me what I’m writing about, I’m going to try out my pitch! (Nervous!) I’ll let you know how it goes!