Friday, December 07, 2018

So, you think you can dance?sell War and Peace?

Hi Janet!
You said last year that you could sell War and Peace. I’ve been wanting to know ever since: how would you do it? Please tell me. It’s Christmastime. :) Happy holidays!
Because agentsplaining is one of my great skills: War and Peace is a novel by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1869. It's a novel only because it's fiction and not a poem or a short story. (In other words, the structure and content doesn't conform to any kind of "a novel must or can't" edict.)
It has 1200+ pages and 100+ characters.

Impossible to sell, right?

The first thing is not get bogged down talking about who the main character/s is/are. That's the road to madness.

Nor are we going to talk about the plot, cause see above.

Talking about a book like this is akin to writing a caption for Guernica by Pablo Picasso

The first draft of the pitch:
Set during the time of the Napoleonic wars (1805-1820) this swashbuckling epic ripples and reverberates across five aristocratic families. While the invasion of Russia was the turning point in the Napoleonic wars, it was cataclysmic for Russia. The price of victory was higher than defeat.

Often novels are the only way to see the beating heart of history. This novel will be one of those.

Think The Crown flavored instead with vodka, snow, ermine, and the savagery of absolute power in the hands of a despot.

Then I'd draft a submission list with every editor who acquired a novel in the last five years that was called epic, sprawling, or saga.

Then, I'd swim off to the library and read chunks of those books if they'd been published. I'd make sure those books had sold well enough that using it as a comp was a plus.

Then I'd go through what I used to call my Rolodex of editors and ask myself if this book was a fit for the editor's tastes or needs.

Then, I'd rework the pitch for at least a week. I'd include a reference to a book that the editor bought that had page count challenges or why I thought they'd like/want this book.

Then, I'd call up the editors who remained on the list and say "just a heads up that this is a great novel, with a page count problem. It's worth a look."

my battered and bruised copy of W&P

I should also mention that it took me about an hour to write and revise this post. A challenging submission like War and Peace would get a LOT more than an hour of strategizing.

Most likely a couple people in my office would have read some of it and weighed in on the pitch and the editor list.

Our film guyz would have been consulted as a matter of course.

I'd probably have yapped about it to friends and listened to their opinions.

And of course, I'd fret about when to send it out. Is it good to send before the holidays when maybe the editor wants something to read? Or wait till everyone is back from the hols and ready to think about work?

When it was out on submission,  I'd grab my rosary, head to church, and pray.


Theresa said...

Loved the insider view of the process. Thanks, Janet!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Your Majesty, could you please write my query for me? I hated War and Peace. I love Russian literature. Hated War and Peace and now I want to read it again.

I am going to use my last query draft to clean up the coffee I just spilled all over myself. It’s probably all it is good for right now. :/

Panda in Chief said...

For some reason I woke up way earlier than I usually do, so I'm indulging in a tiny (!!!!!) internet romp.

Thanks for this glimpse of the process that goes into a submission. I never read War and Peace, but your pitch draft made me want to read it too. Also now I want to watch The Crown.
Cheers to all! Bring on the eggnog with vodka.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Wow. This is fascinating. Thank you, Janet.

And this is what writers have to pull together on their own, "the office" that provides consulting, brainstorming, weighing in, critiques of partials and wholes, encouragement in the submission. Except writers don't have the office on a daily at-work basis.

Sherry Howard said...

Loved this post! I’m one of those geeks who re-reads War and Peace every so often to remind myself what a great saga feels like! One summer fairly recently I carried it to the pool every day—that dog-eared paperback is around here somewhere! So, as a writer, it was fun to see how hard, but not impossible, it would be to position it in today’s market. I’m guessing that not many would have JR’s skills for that!

Carolynnwith2Ns said... I know why my brilliant queries are accompanied by cricket theme music...rosary, church, and prayer.

One Christmas I kicked aside the big guy in red and prayed to God that if I got a desk for Christmas, (I know, weird kid, I wanted a desk), I promised to become a Nun. I'm not catholic.

I got my desk.

Janet Reid said...

2Ns one does not need to be Catholic to become a nun. I believe there are Buddhist nuns *quick Google search* yes there are Buddhist nuns and others.

I think you'd look quite fetching in a wimple.

Amy Johnson said...

Well, dear Queen, you hooked me. I must get my hands on a copy of War and Peace today, so I can read it tonight. Ha!

OT: I so enjoyed reading the success stories yesterday. Congratulations to all, and thanks for sharing them--they're inspiring.

Mike Hays said...

I'd buy the graphic novel version of your draft pitch. A sprawling saga with vodka-sipping, savage, and swashbuckling ermine has appeal. Add an ermine origin story and you've created a franchise.

On a more serious note, I wonder how many rejections it would get, especially if the title were blinded.

John Davis Frain said...

I bet there are a lotta reef-dwellers wishing you had given your answer to this quandary:

"I'd fret about when to send it out. Is it good to send before the holidays when maybe the editor wants something to read? Or wait till everyone is back from the hols and ready to think about work?"

Hmmmm... timely question. Alas, what is the timely answer?

Claire Bobrow said...

Loved this! Thanks for giving us a peek inside the process, Janet.

I never could get through W&P. Of the 100+ characters, 50 of them seemed to have the same name. But the "vodka, snow, ermine" line has left me hankering to try again!

Kate Higgins said...

Good morning QOTKU (no, DoY, I am not talking about you).
It’s 5am when I started my reply in the Pacific Northwet and I am typing with my finger on my tiny iPhone screen, laying on my side watching the words appear with a squinty eye. I am a morning ponderer, it is my best time for insight because nothing has left their footprints on my day yet.

Why do you do this? I assume it's not just the money, is there some intrinsic value to the publishing battle for you personally? Is 'War and Peace’ an euphemism, in this case, for how to sell a book (with a page count problem)?

It is now 7am in the PNW. There are now some insistent footprints, no, paw prints on the bedspread, pardon while I feed the insistent duo and make some coffee...

However my question still stands, why do you do this?

Colin Smith said...

I have read WAR AND PEACE and I have to say I want to re-read it in a more recent translation. The version I read was one that had belonged to my Dad and the translation was at least 60 years old. I think I would enjoy it much more via a translator who can capture Tolstoy's voice while keeping the narrative engaging to modern English readers.

Your submission pitch is awesome, Janet. One might think you are trying to advertise your services here... as if any of your unagented blog readers don't already have you on their top 5 agent list. ;)

Kate Larkindale said...

I studied Russian literature at college (classic and modern) and we had to read War and Peace as part of that course. I really enjoyed the story, but the long history sections really dragged for me. Les Miserables was the same...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Janet my dear. The only nun I would want to be is a Gidget flying nun. Ha, a little wind up my habit sounds refreshing.

Craig F said...

You forgot to mention Borscht.

It took me four tries and about five years to slog through that snowy thing. The tanker trucks of vodka and Borscht are the most memorable parts. Maybe because it was breakfast, lunch and dinner every time breakfast, lunch or dinner was mentioned.

It gives me hope for the beast I am currently working on taming, though.

Bridget Paulson said...

This was so great! I loved hearing about the submission process! War and Peace is now firmly seated at the table of my 30 Day Book Challenge - Day 28 - "Classic Novel You Haven't Read But Plan To"

Barbara Etlin said...

Interesting to see your pitch process, Janet.

Your mention of Picasso's Guernica reminds me of my husband, M's, joke. I believe it is the largest painting in the world, is divided into three canvasses, and is the size of a large room. It shows the horrors of war, both the Spanish Civil War and the upcoming Second World War.

In 2010, M and I were moving from a house to a much smaller condo. We needed to make some hard decisions about which furniture to keep and which to dump. Dining tables were especially tricky. We had three. (Don't ask!) The conversation was almost at the boiling point when I tried to calm us down.

"We need to think about the big picture," I said.

"Guernica?" he replied.

Marty Weiss said...

I'd make one editing suggestion to Mr. Tolstoy, and that is, give each character a number rather than a name. Given the spelling. pronunciation and, yes, similarity of some of those names, I sometimes had a devil of the time keeping track of who was who. Jockeying/differentiating 100+ names in a novel is a heck of a task for the reader. It must also have been a nightmare for Tolstoy as well.

MA Hudson said...

I pretty much neglected my babies when I read War & Peace. For three days, my daughters got the bare basics to survive on while I devoured that book. Must be time to reread it because those bubs are teenagers now.