Friday, April 27, 2018

What's your book about?

The first draft of this post started in Minneapolis, Minnesota at The Loft Writing Center's pitch conference.  It's Friday morning.

I've managed to swill enough coffee to stop thinking about chewing on writers just for fun, but only barely. The hotel where I'm staying has a very fancy exotic coffee maker, and I of course ended up with some sort of oddly named, weirdly sized, steamed drink when all I wanted was a plain cup of joe. Turns out there are two coffee stations; I was at the exotic one. When I found the regular folks one, I may have hooked up an IV while no one was looking.

But the lesson here is when you just want coffee, you don't want fancy.

And that applies to you, writer fiends, when asked about your book.

I attended an event last night that was chockablock with writers, all of whom seemed to think I was someone they wanted to talk to. As you might imagine, I found the nearest isolated corner with a bench and squirreled myself away. Fortunately I was soon joined by a writer who felt the same way I did about crowds and noise (YUCK) and we had a lively conversation. Turns out she knew quite a few people there, so through her I met some other folks, all of whom had books in one stage or another.

One woman, whom we'll call Prepared, was able to entice me by simply telling me the title of her book. (I need to be discreet here about specifics.) We spent a bit more time talking about what the story was, rather than just what happens.

A man, whom we'll call Almost Published, when I asked him what his book was about, seemed pretty determined NOT to entice me to read it. It was very clear he was uncomfortable talking about himself or extolling himself in any way.

When you're published by a small press, and will be your own press agent, this is the kiss of death.

You simply MUST be prepared to tell people, in a compelling way, what your book is about.

And that's a whole lot easier said than done.

First thing to remember is start NOW. No matter where you are in the publishing cycle: querying, sold, pubbed, you need to be able to say what your book is about.

And it's not about what happened. It's about what changed.

The best way to tackle this is to write your way through it. You'll need 10,000 words to get 100. Write a lot, pare down.
Let it sit, pare down again.

Then tackle it word by word. Is this the best, most vivid word.

And the final task: can you say these words out loud?

Then memorize.
Then use.

And the acid test: when you're sitting with a sharkly agent who asks you what your book is about, and you tell her, does she say "oh gosh, I want to read that!"

This is REALLY hard to get right, so it's imperative you have enough time to revise and polish. Starting is better than not starting, even if you think you're too late.

Don't try to be fancy. Fancy does NOT work in pitches. A plain cup of joe, that's the ticket.


Timothy Lowe said...

This is the best advice I've heard in a long time. And a coffee analogy too!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay, I’ll bite. Oh wait, that’s what you do.

You are sitting there, taking in the scene rather than being the scene. My butt fills the chair next to you.
Janet Reid?
Hell yes chum, what’s your book about?
How do you know I’m a writer?
You’re here? What’s your book about?
Yup. Not the gray beast that roams the African veld or one the likes of Sara Gruen’s Rosie, but about the huge animal in the middle of the room about which no one speaks. It’s also about the gentle gray shadow which settles quietly in a corner, sometimes dozing. That one is so silent, people often forget it’s there.
Doesn’t sound like something I rep.
It isn’t. You already turned it down but you did say nice things about my query.
I said nice things? I must have been having an off day.

(Pitch? Less than 60 words. Conversation 152. Opportunity priceless)

Janet Reid said...

Since I'm at yet another writer-laden event today,I'm going to burst into laughter whenever I ask someone about their book.

And since I will be laughing at this lovely 2ns comment, rather than what anyone said, I will be soon carted off to the loony bin.

I hope they have wifi.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This blog post is reason 64,589 that I am grateful to have crossed paths with a writer hungry shark. While my query skills are still shy of shining, I have learned to talk about my book. I can never adequately express my gratitude to this place and Janet’s wonderful and curative torture of us writerly types.

Three years ago, I would be terrified to approach anyone about my book. I would let opportunity after opportunity simply walk past me. Now, I can pitch at any moment, to anyone at all, even Brandon Sanderson, poor guy just minding his own business, and entice some highly recommended beta readers, as well as get a nice recommendation for an agent who has already requested a full from a previous pitch.

I am not sure if this will help further my cause, but it did boost my confidence. I am not sure what Brandon thought. He politely meandered away to talk to other fans and who can blame him? I did catch the attention of some wonderful folks that are really in love with my genre.

There is one thing I am wondering, ok, two. I love Carolynn’s comment. I am still laughing. I hope she has a book full of this wonderful humor. You do have something in the works, right Carolynn? I will read anything you write.

The second is cart way ahead of horse, but when the time comes, the book sells after I have been torn apart multiple times in the query world, would it be crazy to get one of these beta-readers put me in touch with Brandon for a book blurb? Would that be aiming too high? Do book blurbs come only from authors at same agency/publisher? Can you extend your reach outward? Would it be offensive to ask? Hey Brandon, I met you once at JordonCon. You were super nice, and I have read everything you have written. I read Mistborn series twice. Would you write a blurb for my book?

He probably gets that a lot. Still, it couldn’t hurt to ask, right? When the time comes? Am I being an ass? That’s fine. I am used to it. I have zero social graces. I try to fake it, but when nervous, well, I am a walking disaster.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

E.M GOLDSMITH and JANET, you have made my day.
I knew today would be a good day. Off to buy a lottery ticket.

Unknown said...

I'm much more comfortable writing queries than pitching my book in a conversation. Though at this point my conversations are mostly with non-writer friends who are trying to figure out why I'm spending so much time not talking to them. I haven't really figured out how to do it other than say "it's like x book but with y instead." Sounds like another thing I can work on to avoid working on the actual novel. Wahoo!

I joined Critique Circle a while back and they have a forum called "Describe your WIP in 3 words" which can be a fun little exercise.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I confess: I've spent several commutes talking to myself, trying to hone this answer in the most intriguing and compelling manner.

I don't think I'm there yet. I WAS almost there, once, but I forget what I'd decided on...

Julie Weathers said...

I've told the elephant poop story before, so I won't bore everyone with it again, but it's the first things that came to mind. No wonder that poor woman was getting turned down by everyone she pitched to.

Two N's you never fail to amuse.

Cowgirls is easy to pitch and when it's finished, it won't be hard to write a query. It practically writes itself.

I've been thinking about Rain Crow. It's certainly not Cold Mountain, though it might appeal to readers who liked it. I pitched RC at Surrey and he said he wanted it, but he was a multiple reader of Gone With the Wind. It certainly wasn't my pitch that sold him. I'm terrible at them.

I'm a lot more concerned about getting it down from 180,000 words to something manageable than a pitch down to 100 words, to be honest. This is why I need a fainting couch. And smelling salts. I get vapors just thinking about it. So I shan't.

Nothing ventured nothing gained. That being said. I seldom read blurbs. I'm in the acknowledgments of four books, some bestsellers. I won't be approaching the authors. I don't like asking favors of people and holy crow can you imagine how many requests these people get? You're in a different position. He already knows about the book. His beta readers will have read it.

Writing isn't for the faint of heart even if you do have a fainting couch.

LynnRodz said...

I am lousy at queries, lousy at telling people what my book is about, so this is a great post to work on, but going from 10,000 words down to 100! Jeez, I have trouble going from 150 to 100 for the ff contests. Another way for Janet to torture us into becoming better writers. Thank you, Janet. (Btw, I mean that sincerely.)

Jill Warner said...

I can talk the ear off my immediate family and writer friends about my books, but as soon as someone who I'm not close to asks me about it, I turn about as coherently vocal as my 10-month-old.

I once heard/read somewhere that the best pitches don't sound rehearsed. So I guess I better get used to talking to strangers.

InkStainedWench said...

When I'm asked about my book, I find myself saying what it isn't. It's not literary fiction; it's a mystery. But it's not a police procedural or an edgy superhero type (no explosions). It's not quite a cozy (no recipes). This post encourages me to turn this bad habit on its head and define what it IS.

Sam Mills said...

Are there any examples of what a good in-person pitch looks (sounds) like? Is the content basically a query but in a conversational style? Like many writer-kind I spend a great deal of time in my head and on paper. Somebody asks me what I'm working on and I go deer-in-headlights.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Julie I am sure you are right. I do notice blurbs, but usually after the book has already been recommended to me by word of mouth. I noticed George RR Martin did a blurb for Robin Hobb’s first Fitz and the Fool book. It made me more curious about her and she quickly became my favorite author. I also read in one of my resources (maybe Dana Kaye) that blurbs is another part of publicizing your book. You know, because I don’t have enough to worry about.

I pitch well. I struggle with the query because I trap myself between the pitch (which is too short for a query, 50 words at most), and telling too much and it all coming out in a jumbled mess. However, I could not believe how easy my synopsis came this time (thanks Colin for that). I think I will work out the query – might get a couple of beta readers to look at it as well as one of those agent offered workshops.

Julie Also, if it makes you feel better, Brandon said he too struggled with word count his whole career. He seems to have overcome that obstacle. His latest tome, Oathbringer, is easily over 500K words. It is long, and it is the third book of a trilogy where the other 2 books were probably in the 250-300K range. People who know our genres, fantasy and historical fiction, understand that the world-building is what makes these kind of books work. We need a larger word count. Even Janet admits that. The big ass word count simply has to be the correct words. And you know all the best words. I bet you even know about garderobes and smudge pots. 

Julie Weathers said...


Ha, yes, I do know about garderobes and smudge pots.

And that's the trick, they just need to be fascinating words. On that note, I got an encouraging message from an author who's read some of my stuff this morning. That gave me a shot in the arm I need.

Colin Smith said...

I think this is why "write what you love" is so important. Think about the things you can talk about all day. Chocolate. Your kids. Your significant other. Coffee. Tea. Kale. All things you love. And you can talk about them with passion because you're expressing yourself from your heart. You can get others excited about them until they want to meet your kids and eat kale salad with you.

That's how I see the most effective pitching. If you love your book, you can talk about it with excitement and passion. Now, granted, you can't just babble endlessly to an agent about your novel. But if you can "talk" your query from the heart (assuming your query does its job--i.e., describe the MC, the crisis, and the stakes), I think you'll be okay.

As for blurbs, I intend to hold Jeff Somers's pants and whiskey hostage until he writes me one. Of course, I'll gladly pay Gary Corby copious sums of money for a "Buy this book, it's better than Vegemite!" ;)

Janet Reid said...

Oh Sam You've given me a great idea!
"Pitch me your book in 15 words!"
I think it would be a GREAT contest!

Oh, that funny sound you hear? Me cackling with evil laughter.

Tell me what you think of the idea, all y'all.

Julie Weathers said...

Is it sad that the first thing I think of when I read Janet's last post is she uses "all y'all" correctly?

This leads me to believe she'd understand "Y'alld've" perfectly.

Since I am the resident contest cheerleader, I think that's a great idea for a contest.

Sarah said...

Jonathan Maberry gave a fabulous workshop about pitching, and the biggest takeaway for me was that it's a matter of practice.

I'd roll my eyes if someone said they couldn't write a book because the first draft sucked, but I've had that attitude with pitching.

Jonathan suggested that once it's written down, you practice talking your way through it. Multiple times. Fast. Slow. Then try it on friends. Have them interrupt you and then make sure you can pick up the narrative thread again.

Somehow, thinking of pitches as a matter of practice/revision and not talent really helped me.

Sarah said...

And yes to the contest!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Your majesty, I am game. I mean chum. Oh, I have no idea what I mean. But yes, lovely contest idea. You did mean 50 words? Oh dear, you actually mean 15. Ok, do it.

Unknown said...

"Pitch me your book in 15 words." I'm in. I'd like the chance to force myself to do this. Mostly though, I want to know about everyone else's books.

Adele said...

Janet? minor housekeeping: Your penultimate paragraph: imperative

Also - you're planning another fiction contest? Did I miss the place where you told us who won last week's contest?

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Yes to the contest! I agree with Kathy Joyce's comment. Even if I don't have anything ready to enter, I would love to read everyone else's pitches.

Mary said...

Oh man, the elevator speech. I am still not great at it after all this time.

Colin Smith said...

Wait... would this contest mean I have to actually decide what project I'm going to work on as my next novel? Or are you limiting the contest only to those people who are query-ready, i.e., with a completed novel?

JMO said...

*delurking* Yes to the contest. I think it's a wonderfully terrifying idea. *lurking resumed*

KariV said...

*Howls in frustration*

I just spend the last 20 mins painstakingly typing out my comment on my phone while oldest child snuggled on my lap. Way more difficult that it sounds.

And Blogger ATE me!!!!

Take two:

Yes! Bring on the contest.

FTR I’ve been practicing Twitter pitching. This has helped me finally be able to talk about my book. I used to struggle with what to say and especially how to start. I saw the Twitter pitch as a challenge – pitch your story in 280 characters. After a few practice rounds, I think I'm getting somewhere. If anything, it's boosted my confidence. Try condensing to three core sentences about your book. Think 1-character 2-problem 3-stakes

I LOVE today’s blog post. It’s great to get insight into what happens at these writer events as I will probably never go to one. That being said, the hubs and I hit a major personal milestone yesterday and are now debt free! Woot! I was going to pencil in a “buy more books” category into our budget, but now I might start squirreling away for a writing conference...

@2N’s – Your elephant story is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year. True gold! *applause*

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

....and Friday just got exciting. Yes to the contest!

What's the prize? Dun dun duuunnnn

Colin Smith said...

Cecilia: The prize? Maybe... the name of the person who won the last contest? ;)

*slaps wrist*

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

15 word pitch contest, I love it.
PLEASE let us enter multiple times.

CynthiaMc said...

Janet, every time I think you've posted the best post ever, you top yourself. This is my new favorite.

My favorite place to pitch to strangers is in line at the theme parks. Lines (even the express lines) could make a bungee cord to the moon and people are bored enough to listen - at least at first. If you hold their interest, that's a Plus 1. If they start asking you questions, that's a Plus or Minus depending on what they're asking. Sometimes you're lucky enough to find out that person is an expert, at which point I always say "tell me more" and shut up and listen.

If they leave the line entirely...your pitch might need a tune-up. Try the next person. Three in a row, definitely needs work. Start asking people "why do you think they left?" If it gets you to the head of the line, hurrah!

Heck yes to the contest!

Claire Bobrow said...

Can we say 17 words? I just did an "insta-pitch" writing session and it doesn't want to go lower...

Lisa Bodenheim said...

KariV: never say never (not even probably never). I had thought it'd be another year before my WiP sparkled but...Janet mentioned The Loft Pitch. And I thought, I gotta. It's now or never!!

Janet: YES to the contest!

More work on pitching is a good thing. In Minneapolis, my pitch was a couple memorized thoughts/themes pulled together, then I got nervous and had to read the rest of my short but written pitch. manalive. But it was my first workshop. Practice is good.

InkStainedWench said...

Claire: Just leave off the last two!

Craig F said...

I haven't really contemplated a pitch. I wasn't planning on having a place to use one. I refuse twitter pitches and I am going to wait to be an invited guest at writing conferences.

When friends ask I say it's sci-fi about the greatest invention ever and a President who cuts off his nose to spite his face in the extreme.

Maybe tonight, after a few drinks, I'll turn my attention that way.

Craig F said...

Oh, if you are thinking about a new contest, it would be nice to know who won the last one.

BJ Muntain said...

This is something I always have problems with. I have a pretty good elevator pitch that I start all my pitches with... and then the agent says, "Tell me more." And I freeze. I have a hard time talking about my writing, about my stories, but I am getting better.

And I'm going to try Janet's suggestion here, to get to the best 'tell me more' (aka "about my story") that I can get.

Thanks, Janet!

Unknown said...

Count me in the "excited to find out what all of these talented people are up to but terrified of trying to find a way to describe my book in under 15 words without using 'trunk novel'" group.

Yes, it's a long group title. We are working on shortening it, but are finding that surprisingly difficult. It's inexplicable...

Mister Furkles said...


Thanks for this prescription for developing a query. My 'book' is yet in 'progress'--or is it in regress? Not sure. I'd given up on writing a query until the book decides it's done. Now I can work at it again.

Gretta said...

If "writer fiends" is a typo, PLEASE DON'T FIX IT! It's my favorite thing today!

Sherry Howard said...

True story: I thought I could pitch easily, based on a long history of being in front of people and public speaking, etc. I had my query in hand and sat down with an agent (not even one I cared much about) and the way she asked me threw me off. I KNOW that no one would get excited about the book I pitched. I’m sure I didn’t sound excited. If I EVER enter that situation again, I’ll be better prepared.

April Mack said...

I just attempted to write my logline (isn't that what "describe your book in 15 words or fewer" essentially means?) and it was hard, but I did it! However, the story doesn't sound as interesting as it does in synopsis form.

Still have my work cut out for me...

Kate Larkindale said...

Love the contest idea. Being able to distill a novel to 15 words and make it sound interesting is a real art. One I'm not sure I've mastered yet, but an art nonetheless...

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I would also love this kind of contest. I'm not sure, though, who could participate?
Have already pitched the Queen in the form of a query letter, got a form rejection, and don't think she'd want me to try again (and again...).

Or would this be a contest that doesn't result in anything more than the 15 words?

Anyway, I'd love this. Sounds pretty much like the two days of #DVpit on Twitter yesterday and the day before.
Did anyone participate there??

Julie, what is a "resident contest cheerleader"? I know every individual word but the meaning in this case?? I mostly struggle with "resident" here.

Janet Reid said...

Writer fiends is NOT a typo *insert evil smirk of self-satisfaction*

And thank you Adele for noting imperative. (Fixed!)

And yes, we will have "pitch me your book in 15 words"
Enter on Saturday, and if you're lucky I'll let you know who "won" (although I intend to comment rather than announce just one winner)
before I announce the results of the last contest. Which I know but
am just playing with you. (no I'm not, I forgot)

Anonymous said...

Good grief. I just spent way more time than I care to admit trying to write a 15-word pitch of the WIP. Managed two versions, one 15 and one 16, and both are godawful. No spark, no life, flat and boring as hell. I'm completely demoralized, seeing my story reduced to this.

This is even worse than the four-part New Year's contest.

Can we have a rule that words of 3 letters or fewer don't count?

KariV said...

A question for those Reiders also crafting pitches:

I started working on my pitch for this much anticipated pitch contest and ended up stuck on the difference between a pitch and a logline.

To me pitch seems like the answer to the question: What's your book about. A: It's about a boy, etc, etc, etc

But a logline seems like something more snappy and exciting. Eg: Daring swordfights, far-away lands ...

Which strikes you as a "pitch"?

BTW I have some of both, but would love to hear others' opinions.

Sam Mills said...

Yes please!

Janet Reid said...

Here's the link to the post for Pitch Me Your Book in 15 words.
It opens tomorrow (Saturday)

Unknown said...

kdjames and KariV I am right there with ya. I've got two versions and then three sub-versions for each of those. They all sound like bad movie trailer lines, too vague to be interesting.

But also this very post we are commenting on advocates for plain over fancy when it comes to pitches, so maybe we are overthinking? Super excited for the results of this one, it might be the most enlightening contest yet!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

15 wprds? So more a tag line than a pitch. No title right? Because 15 words. So few to say so much.

Julie Weathers said...

One of Us

I'm the one who cheers on the others who enter the contests because I really do NOT have a knack for writing shorts and have accepted that.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Julie, now I understand :). Thanks! And you taught me another new word, just had to look up "knacks" (guessed from the context but made sure ;) ).

I may not have them either for the Flash Fiction; not sure at least. But I am really happy with my 15 words for tomorrow :). Will see what (IF!!!) the Queen says, though. *swallow*

But I have done quite some research on how to do DVpit on Twitter (although I did NOT participate yesterday/the day before!). How to show conflict 'n stuff...

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Oops, how come I took it as plural?? A knack... a talent, I suppose...

Sam Hawke said...

Elise, re blurbs, as someone who's in your genre and just had to go through the blurb process, I can tell you you definitely don't have to be from the same publishing house or have the same agent. Having said that, it's a LOT easier to have your editor or your agent do the asking for you so you don't have to craft those awkward emails. :)

So, when you have a publisher, they might ask you if you have any ideas for who you'd like to shoot for for a blurb, and you can tell them that you met Brandon at a con and he seemed interested and might be willing to give it a read - either your agent or your editor might have a connection to him already (editors move around a lot and the fact that you're not necessarily at the same house now doesn't mean they don't know each other already). If they don't, they might suggest you approach him directly.

I can't give you much advice about the approaching process (other than to say obviously be polite and non-pressury and go in with the expectation that they're busy and don't take it personally if they say no, or nothing) because I didn't do any of it myself - I had a grand sum of one connection, which was that Robin Hobb is a personal friend of mine, but I never wanted to impose on her or make her feel like our relationship meant she had to read it so I would never have asked her about blurbs. Because she is an incredibly generous friend and supporter of new writers, though, I didn't have to - she not only volunteered herself, she teed it up with my editor without even telling me until she casually mentioned my MS was on her desk. So we had that blurb early on. The rest all came from my editor or agent asking authors they thought might like it or whose readership might overlap with my potential one. I ended up with some ridiculously great people on my wee book (Robin, Terry Brooks, Kate Elliott, John Gwynne, Adrian Tchiakovsky), none of whom I know, but all of whom I'm very grateful to!

Good luck. Don't stress. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Sam Hawke Wow, I love Robin Hobbs. She is amazing, especially with her depth of character. Nobody does dragons quite like she does. Fitz and his Fool are two of my favorite fantasy characters. What a great friend to have, and those are some powerful blurbs. I can’t wait to read your book. I have already pre-ordered it.

Thanks for the insight. Like I said, it’s cart way before horse. I still have to break through that first wall. At least, I now have some decent beta-readers to tell me exactly how delusional I am. That is a good thing, right? Well, I still have to get another 1500 words tonight so I better get back to it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I'm still in trunk novel land with my trusty manuscript. Deleting detritus. Making new detritus. Staring at the computer-shaped dent in my wall wondering "I know this is a mess, but what's wrong?"
Then, eureka! After reading this post, I realized I don't know what my novel is about anymore.
Off to fix that—and my wall.

John Davis Frain said...

You wanna know how fast you can cruise through fifteen words?

Yep, it happens this

LynnRodz said...

Darn, I've got to come back here more often than once a day. Look what I missed! I came here Saturday afternoon and saw the pitch contest for the first time and not wanting to miss this wonderful opportunity before the comments were cut off, I just scrambled to get something on paper. I let it sit, Janet, like you said, but not for long. (I should've let it sit longer, n'est-ce pas? *rodent wheel spinning at maximum speed*)

Sam Hawke said...

Elise - me too, she is the absolute best. Anyone here who's interested in giving some fantasy a go, Robin Hobb is the best out there. :)

Thank you so much for pre-ordering! I hope you like it!