Pitch Epiphany

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 12:24 pm
lizvogel: What is this work of which you speak? (Cat on briefcase.) (Work)
In my efforts to get back in the query trenches, I'm looking at an agent who has a long and unnecessarily-detailed (yet oddly appealing) submission form. One of the several things she wants, in addition to query and synopsis, is a one-line pitch.

Now, I've never had a good short pitch for Highway of Mirrors. The plot is highly dependent on a lot of character and backstory stuff, and it doesn't reduce down to a sound-bite in a coherent and appealing way. It would be much easier if I was pitching ...And The Kitchen Sink, which I've been known to describe as "a rollicking space-opera adventure filled with everything from ninjas to grues to a cyborg platypus." I'm fond of that pitch; it gives you a good idea right up front of what kind of book you're looking at, and if you want more details, you can always ask.

And then it hit me: That pitch for Kitchen Sink says nothing whatsoever about the plot. You can infer a little about the sort of plot from "space-opera adventure", but who does what where to whom? That's for the follow-up discussion, which is what a short pitch is supposed to encourage. And that's okay, because Kitchen Sink is not a plot-driven book. If you enjoy it, you'll enjoy it for the characters and the settings and the jokes about plural nouns. The plot holds up reasonably well, but it's primarily there as a framework to hang all the other stuff on.

And the same goes for Highway of Mirrors. Okay, not the grammar jokes. But it is not a plot-driven book either; what it's really about is the characters, their interactions, and the MC's ethical dilemma. But popular wisdom declares that you have to talk about the PLOT!!!, so every attempt I've made at a short pitch for HoM has been an attempt to summarize the plot in one sentence -- and not only does that tend to come across as confusing and/or stupid, it does nothing to tell you what makes the book worth reading.

So what do I think the point of HoM is? How about: "A spy on the run from her own agency has to compromise her ethics, her marriage, and even her daughter -- to protect her daughter." That could use a little fine-tuning, but it's much closer to why I care about this story in the first place than anything else I've tried. And if you're the right reader for this book, it might just be why you care about it, too.
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
Writer's Digest is having another of its “Dear Lucky Agent” contests, this one for adult mystery/thriller/suspense novels. Deadline is September 17. Details here: http://tinyurl.com/nk2pk9e


Disclaimer: Entry requires two mentions of the contest on social media. This is one of mine.

lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
Saw Mary Robinette Kowal's local book-tour stop Tuesday night. It was an excellent presentation, and jam-packed. (Puppetry! Books! Regency dressmaking! I don't believe the woman sleeps.) Both Without A Summer, which I haven't gotten to yet, and the fourth book, out next year, sound like they're going to be a lot of fun.

Afterward, I had a chance to speak to her briefly about pitching. MRK is something of a genius at this -- seriously, "Jane Austen with magic"? How great is that? Four words, and you know exactly what you're getting into. I'd been hoping she might be talked into doing a pitching workshop at a certain upcoming convention, but alas, it is not to be. She did kindly take the time to offer some advice, however. She made some good suggestions, among which was to focus on the "gee-whiz" factor, the thing that made me excited about the story. This is advice that I've heard before, and for various reasons it doesn't apply. In the spirit of showing willing, however, I gave it another try, and may have at least figured out why this excellent suggestion doesn't get me any forwarder.

See, the other common advice for pitching/summarizing is to practice with other media, books you've read or movies you've seen that you're really excited about. And I'm terrible at that, too. Seriously, if you ask me about, say, The Avengers movie, what you're going to hear about is how there's this great fight scene with excellent use of small-unit tactics, and Cap showing actual leadership and personnel management skills by tasking each of his team members in ways that play to their strengths.... are your eyes glazing over yet? What you're not going to get is any idea of the plot, or any kind of overall impression of the movie -- not even any notion of what kind of movie it is, beyond the kind that has a really cool fight sequence in it.

And in trying to pitch Highway of Mirrors, I have much the same problem. Thinking about the things that got me excited about writing the book, I come up with (1) the theme of conflicting loyalties, and what happens when someone tries to stay loyal to multiple forces that are pulling in different directions, (2) the idea that two people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions, without either of them being evil or stupid, and (3) the moment when the main character realizes that in order to stop the bad guy, she's going to have to run her own daughter as an asset -- in short, she's going to have to do the very thing she's been fighting all along to keep him from doing. The first two are thematic matters, much too vague and generic to use in an elevator pitch. And the third is back to the same problem that I have in trying to pitch The Avengers, an isolated scene that gives you no sense of what the rest of the book is like, and that probably loses a certain amount of its own impact in isolation.

Now, I'm not completely hopeless; in talking with the housemate, I've figured out that I can probably pitch ...And The Kitchen Sink as "the Avengers in space", though I do have to specify that I mean the old British TV show The Avengers and not the superhero movie. But Kitchen Sink is a much simpler book; it's a fun, quirky sci-fi adventure, not a... well, if I could describe Highway of Mirrors that easily, I'd have half the battle won. The basic scenario of Highway of Mirrors just does not readily reduce to a pithy sound-bite. It doesn't help that the concept is one of those things that could either be really cool or really stupid, depending entirely on how it's done. I've yet to come up with a means of conveying that I've done it the really cool way, which means that my pitch generally leaves people attacking the concept instead of asking follow-up questions. Not fun, and not useful to me or anybody else.

So, how about you, oh reader? When you're telling somebody about a story with the idea of getting them to read/watch it, what bait do you use?

The Voters Have Spoken

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 12:25 pm
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
The Backspace contest winners are posted!

It's been interesting watching this contest mutate; first, it was popular vote only, then it was half popular vote + half a panel of pro judges; the announcement date shifted from the 17th to the 20th; and now there are two partial winners as well as the initially-promised three. It would also be interesting to see the math behind the scenes, as the final results don't have much correlation to the popular votes.

As for my own results... oh, well. It was good for exposure, anyway. Congratulations to the winners; I hope they have a blast at the conference!

Voting deadline

Thursday, March 14th, 2013 10:41 am
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
Polls close tomorrow for the Backspace “This Manuscript HAS to Become a Book!” Scholarship Contest. If you haven't voted yet, now's the time!
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
Voting is now open on the Backspace “This Manuscript HAS to Become a Book!” Scholarship Contest. The top three winners get a free registration to this spring's Backspace, which is a seriously non-trivial chunk of change.

Long-time readers of this journal might notice something familiar about one of the entries, round about, oh, #58 or so. ;-)

I'm still working my way through the last-minute entrants, but so far there's the usual range of quality -- which means that while there's a lot of 'meh' and a few, um, really no, there's also a few gems that wouldn't be out of place on bookstore shelves. Polls are open now 'til March 15. Go, read, vote.
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
I'm still in the midst of re-(re-re-)writing the synopsis for Highway of Mirrors, but I find myself in need of a short pitch, so I'm taking a break to work on that. Now, working on the synopsis is more painful than the query, and I recall writing a one-sentence pitch and thinking "Hey, that didn't hurt!", so I had this theory that the shorter the form, the easier it is to summarize the work. The short pitch is proving to be anomalous data. ;-(  It's especially frustrating because I thought I already had a short pitch written, and as usual when I think that sort of thing, it's both too long and not very good.

I'm saying "short pitch" for my own convenience; this is the thing also known as a logline or an elevator pitch. Sometimes the logline and the one-sentence pitch are the same thing. In this case, the target is asking for a logline, and 2-3 sentences seems to be the standard among the examples (at least, the good ones). Unsurprisingly, I'm having trouble sounding both pithy and coherent in that small a space.

All the various short representations of a novel -- summary, outline, query, elevator pitch -- are generally lumped together as being summaries of the story, in various degrees of detail. But it's occurring to me that that's not quite right. A summary, obviously, is a summary; an outline is a summary in a more bullet-pointy (yes, I am a writer) format; a query is a briefer summary that leaves off the ending. But the purpose of the short pitch/elevator pitch/logline is not to summarize; it's to sell. Yes, the others are all sales tools too, but they do their selling by giving at least a somewhat accurate overall impression of the novel. The logline is all about the "hey, cool!" factor.

In this particular case, the only thing the logline needs to do is be interesting enough to get people to read the brief excerpt that will appear directly below it. It has to be interesting, it has to make people say "hey, cool!", it has to stick in the reader's brain -- it does not have to sum up the whole book, however briefly. And that's why my pre-existing short pitch isn't good; it's an accurate summary given its length, but it's utterly lacking in "hey, cool!"

In this particular application, it'd also be nice if the logline seemed to fit with the excerpt. However, to my surprise, I've managed to find a <500-word chunk that gives a good impression of the characters, the tradecraft, and even the theme -- despite not actually being about the theme, when it's in context. So if I nail the "complex characters doing morally ambiguous things" aspect in the short pitch, I'm golden.

Which is all a long, procrastinatey way to say that I've figured out what I've been doing wrong. Now I just need to sit down and do it right.

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