Monday, January 29, 2007


As part of this thread over at making light, there was some discussion of the pluses and minuses, real and perceived, of pitching a book to an editor. Perhaps most notably, a number of people were wondering why a writer might want to do this, since it's really the book that makes the sale anyway. I'm going to use that as my departure point for a multi-post discussion of pitching, pitch sheets, synopses, and proposals, none of which are any fun.

Let's start with the personal pitch. I'm not too fond of them myself, for reasons I'll explain below, but I can see a number of reasons why someone might want to do this.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows a writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting their own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help a writer feel that they're not up against some giant inhuman system, empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give their novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on the writer's skills on that front-a related but not identical skill to novel writing-they could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they're interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I'm sure there are many other reasons, and I'm sure some of you will tell me about them in comments.

Okay, so here's my promised explanation of why I don't like to pitch my novels. First off, I'm a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I'd have stayed in theater. I really really don't miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I'm not fool enough to decline to talk about it and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That's because if I have to improvise I turn into a babbling cretin. The question "What's your novel about?" induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into "wit" mode and tries to say things like "it's about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?" This is not a good idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor's nightmare, wherin the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it's in a terribly important performance and that it doesn't know its lines!

Perhaps worse yet is the writer half, which immediately starts whining to itself. "If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn't have had to write a book." This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice-or at least that's what my internal writer voice says.

So, what should you do when you're on the spot? I'll talk about that next time in part II, Synopses Suck. And, of course, the floor is always open.


Bill Henry said...

Octavia Butler insisted that writers should be ready to pitch their writing anywhere, anytime, at any length. Her basic tool for this was the carefully crafted one-sentence pitch: the ultimate suave answer to that impossible question, "So, what's your novel about?"

She was good at it.

I'm not.

Kelly Swails said...

I am so not, either. I can write it, though, watch!
Big Important Editor" "So, Kelly, what are you currently writing?"
Me: "Funny you should ask, BIE. I'm about thirty-thousand words into a contemporary YA novel about a magical family that's hiding from the magical mob."

Now, could I do this in real life? No. I'd feel the need to explain myself right away--let me tell you why the family's hiding, what Max-the-protagonist can do, and oh, yeah, did I mention he has boy/girl anxiety about Zoey?--instead of letting the editor ask these questions if she's interested.

I'm interested in your next post, Kelly Y, because I really suck as synopses.

Erik Buchanan said...

I have friends in the film industry, and the pitch is hideously important.

I think the same is true for novelists, though I'm just beginning the marketing process. If someone says to you, "You have a book out? What's it about?" you need to have a good answer, because you're the first selling point for your work. Same for whatever you're writing at the moment. Got to be able to pitch it to the BIE, as Kelly Swails said.

So with that in mind, here's my shot at a one sentence synopsis of my book. Critiques welcomed:

"Small Magics is about a young man who discovers magic in a world where no one believes in it except for the one who would kill to possess it."

tate hallaway said...

Romance writers are expected to be able to do the classic "elevator pitch."

Science fiction authors, IMHO, have much more choice in this matter. In fact, it is kind of expected that you DON'T bring up your writing at a conference.

I agree, though, that being ready to pitch when asked is a massively useful skill.

Naomi said...

I realized this when an editor I had a personal connection to said, "So, tell me about your book," and I turned into a babbling idiot.

I went home, came up with a one-sentence description of the book, and then rehearsed it.

"It's about a student violinist who leads a peasant rebellion against the magical ruling cabal."