Write (and Pitch) a Story, Not a Theme

Recently I’ve been fielding pitching questions from authors planning to attend conferences. One writer in particular told me he was concerned about pitching his “theme.” My response: You don’t pitch a theme, you pitch a story.

You don’t write a theme, either, I hope. You write a story and themes arise and develop. It should be an organic process, not something you build around.

If you approach your work with this mindset: “I want to write a story based on the theme of [fill in the blank],” it’s not going to be a good story. I realize that’s a huge generalization, but I can safely say I’ve yet to read anything written for theme that wasn’t clunky and heavy handed. And readers can tell the difference. They know when they’re being lectured and preached at.

Story should always, always come first. I don’t mean plot it to death, but I do mean there had better be interesting people and some stuff happening. Else it’s not a story. At least not one anyone will want to read. (As an aside, some people do start with plot. I start with character. I think either way can work, but starting with a theme or message does not.)

As for pitching, I approach it from this angle: I have a book [my own] that I’m trying to convince a friend [or agent or publisher] to read. First I’ll tell them why I think they’ll like it. “Oh, if you liked that John Le Carré book, you should definitely read The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller.” The next natural question they’re likely to ask is, “What is it about?” So I attempt to answer that in a natural fashion, same as if they’d asked me about any book. “It’s about a British spy in the 1960s. He’s gay, and his lover gets accused of being an enemy agent. So then Peter gets them both out of England, and after traveling for a while they end up in Austria. But then Peter starts to believe maybe Charles is a counteragent, so when Peter gets invited back to London, he starts to dig into Charles’ records . . .” And so on, depending on how much the agent or editor wants to know. They may ask more questions; when pitching Changers I had an editor ask questions about the world I’d built. After I answered them, she told me, “Good. You were able to answer all my questions, which shows you’ve put thought into why things are the way they are. I hate hearing, ‘It’s just that way.'” So be prepared for that, particularly if you write fantasy or sci-fi, anything that requires world building!

And do Peter and Changers have themes? Sure. Peter is about love and trust and being caught between one’s duty and one’s heart. Changers is about loyalty to one’s friends, and also about figuring out your true nature and accepting who you are. If an agent or editor were to ask, I’d be able to tell them that. But their first question is always going to be, “What’s it about?” And they don’t mean theme when they ask that. They mean story.

DFW Writers Convention

Here in the Big D (that’s Dallas) for the writing convention and having a lovely time. It’s much smaller than the San Francisco conference, which has its pros and cons. On the pro side, I was able to actually talk to Kevin J. Anderson and Charlaine Harris.

With Kevin J. Anderson . . . And, no, I don't look at all like an insane stalker, right?
With Kevin J. Anderson . . . And, no, I don’t look at all like an insane stalker, right?

On the con side, much more limited class options and only one pitch session is included in the price of admission; there is the option to purchase more pitches, but I’ve done that with screenwriting to very limited results, so I’m not inclined to try it here.

Still, my pitch went well, and the editor requested three chapters. I’m going to polish them ’til they shine and then send them off to her.

Me Ra Koh did an informative talk on using social media. In particular, she showed us what to do on Facebook to reach more readers and gave suggestions for what should be on our Amazon author pages.

Kevin J. Anderson (see above) gave a great keynote on the “popcorn theory of success” in which he demonstrated how you never know which kernel might pop next or where it might land. In that way, keep as many kernels in the oil as possible. Don’t just put one kernel in and watch it and wait for it to pop.

There was a panel on asking agents questions, but I didn’t learn much that was new. I think agents get a lot of the same questions over many conferences. I did find it interesting, however, that most of the agents on this panel think “New Adult” is a passing fad that will probably be subsumed by the overall romance genre because most NA books are heavy on the romance angle.

The workshop on understanding rejection letters was really helpful, though. It was a workshop for people who’d queried and even had several requests by agents for their manuscripts only to be ultimately rejected. So where is the disconnect there? I learned that, based on the feedback I’ve received of how well written Peter is, and how much the agents like the story, character, setting, etc., it’s quite possible that they just don’t believe there’s a market for the book. It’s a moot point now, since Peter went to Tirgearr, but it’s nice to know that it [possibly] wasn’t me or my writing. The agents also said that, as a rule, the offer to submit something else to them is a genuine one, not just a courtesy. If an agent says, “Feel free to query me with your next project,” they usually see something in your writing and voice that they like. That makes me feel good, since I’ve had several such responses from agents.

Tonight is Charlaine Harris’ keynote and a reception. Should be fun. And tomorrow another day of workshops, though not as long. I fly home tomorrow evening, too, which means I’ll be wiped out. But so far it’s been a good conference.

Weekly Stats

I had a somewhat better week than the past couple. No outright rejections this week, though I also have not had that magical offer I’m seeking. But! There has been progress on a number of fronts.

1. The agent who favorited my #pitmad tweet from last week requested my full manuscript.

2. There was a similar exercise on Twitter called #PitchMAS, and even though I hadn’t planned to be pitching, I got a couple more partial requests from it.

3. A producer requested to read 20 August.

4. I applied for an unpaid internship with a literary agent—I think it would be a great learning experience, and also a lot of fun—and she’s sent me a manuscript to evaluate as part of her screening process. Hey, even if I don’t get the job, it’s nice to be considered. And I’m enjoying the feeling of having options. Of not being stuck with just one project or outlet or possible path to . . . Wherever I’m headed.

Of course all this means I’m a tad behind on my word count for Changers. But it’s very exciting to be in demand.

Expectations, Great and Otherwise

Okay, so today I’ve only written 240 words. I could make excuses, but . . . I may yet do a bit more writing later, but my brain feels fried right now.

It’s been a busy day. Two of my three children received awards at school, and then there is the pool we’re putting in (saw the first designs today and really like them). And I stumbled onto #PitchMAS and, not having planned to participate, threw my hat in the ring anyway and was excited to get several favorites from literary agents. Funny how that works. I had planned for #pitmad and only ended up with one request. Today, doing it on the fly, my results were much better. Is it that my pitches were more natural and less stilted when taken off the top of my head? Or is it more that, with few to no expectations, I am more easily pleased by even a few indications of interest in my manuscript? Probably a combination of the two.

But seriously, think about it: When you go to a movie with high expectations, the movie has to work that much harder—be that much more magnificent—to please you. (Unless you’re one of those blind, slobbering fan people who eat up anything and everything in your fandom. Sorry, but blech.) But if you go to a movie with low to no expectations, you’re way more likely to walk out going, “That was better than I thought it would be.” The movie only has to be mediocre to gain your good word.

Keep in mind I have a psychology minor. I love this kind of thing.

Anyway, a fair start to the weekend. And I promise to put in more writing time and make up my word count.

Unhappy Writer

Feel free to skip this. It’s just me letting off some steam.

I’m frustrated because we’re told all our lives that hard work will pay off. But it doesn’t really.

And I’m frustrated because people tell me I have talent, as a writer, but . . . I can’t seem to get anywhere with that. Despite all the hard work.

So maybe I don’t really have talent. It’s easier, I suppose, to say nice things to someone than it is to be honest with them. Right?

But am I wasting my time here? Am I destined to be always disappointed and frustrated? To never reach my goals or attain my dreams?

Because if that’s the case, I’d like to save myself the trouble. And some money.

I’ve used a pitching service to help get my scripts in front of producers, managers, etc. The results have been mixed. Of 13 pitches (at $45 a pop), 7 have requested scripts to read. None of those requests has turned into anything more substantial. I’ve actually done better on my own networking and getting indie directors interested in my scripts. Not that any of those have gone into production, or even pre-production, but at least there is interest. Well, and I do have that one short film currently in post-production. Again, all my own doing.

But I’m tired. Because I have been working so hard to try and line things up, and it seems like the Universe is set on knocking me around.

And of course that pitching service would gladly help me clean up my scripts . . . For a price. Sure, I get they’re a business, but most writers can’t afford that kind of thing. It’s not like we rake in the dough. If we did, we wouldn’t need a pitching service anyway.

I assume, of course, that if I were to use their editorial services as well as their pitching services they’d maybe go the extra mile to put a nice word in for my work with all these big shots, thus getting me more reads and more chances at production. Funny how that works.

Then the pitching service asked me to write them a testimonial. Really?! Get one of my scripts optioned—hell, just get me a meeting—and then we’ll talk testimonial.

But honestly, I just don’t know. Am I not meant to be a writer? If not, what? This has always been my goal and dream. I don’t have anything else. (Don’t give me that, “You have your family” crap, either. Yes, I know I have them and they love me, but they cannot be my reason for living.)

I feel like the Universe is closing a big door in my face. But I look around and there are no other doors, no windows. Nowhere else for me to go.

SFWC: Pitching

So when I arrived at the hotel Friday morning, I dropped my bags (room wasn’t ready) and went to the conference registration table and was told I’d be pitching at two o’clock.

Today?” I asked.

Yes. Last year pitching had happened on Sunday morning, but this year they’d moved it up to Friday. Which makes sense for a couple of reasons: (1) less time to agitate over it, better to just get it out of the way, and (2) the agents themselves were fresher, not so exhausted.

But still! Very little prep time, plus all my documents were in my luggage, which was in hotel storage because I didn’t even have a hotel room yet.

Turns out, though, this was all a good thing. Instead of sounding rehearsed or like I was reading something (and I actually saw a woman read her pitch aloud from a written piece of paper), I was able to just sit down and say, “Here’s my story.” It was far more natural, more like a real conversation. Like the kind of thing you do when telling a friend or new acquaintance about what you’ve written. Think of it this way: If you hadn’t written it, if instead it was just a book you’d read and you wanted to tell a friend the plot . . . But first you want to make sure your friend is really interested. You don’t want to bog them down with details.

Friend: “So what was that book you just read about?”

Me: “Oh, about a 1960’s British spy whose boyfriend gets arrested for espionage. And then the spy is in trouble too, because they think he’s in on it.”

Friend: “Really? Sounds interesting. What happens in it.”

Me: “Well, the spy talks his way out of it and is able to get his lover free too. But then he starts to worry his lover really is an enemy agent.”

Friend: ” . . . Well? Is he?”

And so on along those lines. Replace “Friend” with “Agent” and that sums up my pitches. I only pitched to three agents and all three were interested in reading some of the manuscript. But I do want to tidy it up a bit first. And they all told me to be sure it really is sparkling as much as possible. “Even if it takes a year, send it to me when you’re ready. But don’t rush it. Be sure it’s done and it’s right.”

Because that’s the biggest problem, I learned. Overeager authors return from the conference and fire off pages the very day they get home. Which causes a glut for the agents. And here is the fallout:

1. The authors have shot off pages without bothering to even look and make sure they’re really ready. (Admittedly, though, if you’re pitching a well and truly finished manuscript, this may be less of an issue. The key is to be sure it really IS ready and finished.)

2. The agents now have even more stuff to read. As if they weren’t already busy enough.

3. Because the agents are cramming in so much stuff, they may not be able or inclined to give each manuscript as much attention. I’m not saying they’re purposefully slacking. I’m saying this is a reality of the situation.

4. Also, because there is so much, the competition becomes that much more fierce. Your writing is now being compared with dozens of others’ because it is being read in close proximity to those other authors’ works. Meaning if yours gets picked up right after something fabulous, it may pale in comparison. Something that otherwise might have been seen as promising is now colored “not as good as the last one.”

So I’m going to finish up this screenplay I’ve promised, and then I’m going to tidy up my manuscript. Make sure it’s ready to go out. Just not too quickly.

(Oh, and I did finally get a hotel room. They gave me a complimentary upgrade, in fact, because of the delay. So at least I had somewhere to sleep!)

The Pitching Session

So at SFWC they have an event called “Speed Dating with Agents.” It costs extra, but it gives you one-on-one face time with the agents at the conference so you can pitch your book(s) to them. Or, if you’re not ready for that, you can also just ask some questions.

If you sign up for SDwA, they put a colored sticker on your conference badge. There are four colors = four groups, and each group has a specific 45-minute period for their pitch session. Mine was 11:00 to 11:45. There’s no limit on how many agents you can talk to, aside from picking short lines, else you’ll spend all your time standing in line to chat with one agent. Some people see as many as seven, the average is probably around five, and I saw three—not because I ran out of time but because I ran out of people I wanted to speak to.

That may sound ludicrous, but two of the agents who supposedly cover my book’s genre had already rejected me via e-mail, so I assumed they wouldn’t want to hear the pitch in person.

Anyway. I’m not going to give names, but I’ll say the first agent I spoke to I did really like. And she flattered me by remembering she’d seen some pages from my book as part of a writing contest. “It won, didn’t it?” she asked. No . . . But I’m flattered she remembered it as “winning” or “a winner.” She was open to me sending her the first 10 pages and a synopsis. I hope she doesn’t revise her thinking about it being a winner when she reads them!

The second agent I also liked, but felt less connection with in a way. Like, I felt like her eyes might be glazing over when I gave her the quick version of my book’s story. After asking the word count, her concern was that the manuscript is too short. If it’s fantasy, she’d want it to be at least 75k words (it’s not nearly); if it’s a romance, it being on the short side might be fine. Thing is, if I were to market it as a romance, I’m not convinced romance readers wouldn’t be a little disappointed. There are many romantic elements, but nothing steamy. It might be what some would call a “sweet” romance? All about the attraction between two characters, not about any sex. And it’s second to the plot, I think, anyway. But this agent was also open to me sending her something, though it sounded as if she wanted to see it only once I’d decided which market and tailored the manuscript as such.

That leaves the third agent. I didn’t pitch him my book. Instead, I wanted to pick his brain about the situation with my screenwriting. (This agent is known for his book-to-film work.) He was extremely helpful in outlining my rights as writer, and what’s more he told me to e-mail him when the screenplay I’m working on is done.

After that, I’ll admit I hesitated and considered trying those two agents who’d rejected me. But I try to make it a rule not to go where I’m not wanted. I know they say persistence pays off, but I don’t want to be a pest—pests get swatted.

Still and all, a useful experience. Though I worry that any pages I send will be turned down and I’ll be back where I started. But . . . Gotta try. Right?

San Francisco Writers Conference: Day 2 (Part One)

I was up very late last night (long after I published the previous article) at a “pitchathon” wherein Michael Larsen and Katherine Sands worked to help authors refine their book pitches. I didn’t pitch, but hearing all the feedback on everyone else’s pitches helped me whittle mine down a bit. I was very, very lucky when I ran into Mr. Larsen this morning and he remembered me (maybe there IS something to that adage about success being 90% showing up) and invited me to sit at his table for breakfast and try out my pitch for The K-Pro on him. Aside from it being a bit long, it was pretty solid, and I’ve used it a couple times today to pretty good effect. The consensus seems to be that it’s a unique premise for a book, and there’s probably a market for it, though whether it’s fantasy or paranormal women’s fiction remains in question. It could go either way.

My first session this morning was about blog tours. Stephanie Chandler (who’s just fantastic, really knows her stuff), Tara Gonzalez, and Pam van Hylckama Vlieg were the panelists, and the key thing they pointed out was: How do you choose what you read? More often than not: recommendations. And besides getting them from friends and family, you find those recommendations on blogs, review sites and the like. So the goal really becomes getting bloggers and reviewers to recommend your book.

Ideally, these bloggers will have regular readers and credibility when it comes to their suggestions. Meanwhile, you can use Google or Technorati to search for bloggers who cover your topic or genre. Don’t only aim for the highest hits because they’ll also be the most difficult to get to read or review your work; so long as a site looks legit, you should query them too, so you have a better chance at wider coverage.

And querying these bloggers is similar to querying an agent: be polite, etc. It helps if they already know you as someone who comments on their site or follows and retweets them on Twitter. However, never put them on the spot by requesting a review in a public forum; always send a private, personal e-mail. And while it’s okay to ask that they post about your book within a particular period (“the next two weeks”), you should never say it has to be a specific day.

This all seems like common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it. The keynote address by Guy Kawasaki was next, but I’ll go over that in a separate post because he did a great top 10 list.

I then went to a panel about e-books. Mark Coker from Smashwords, Brian Felsen from BookBaby, and Randy Kuckuck from PublishNext were there. (As an aside, I’m so over intra-capitals in brand names.) These guys posited that the stigma of self-publishing is evaporating, though e-books are sometimes still seen as a “lesser” product because they are not tangible, are harder to lend, and are so comparatively easy to create—they cost little to nothing if someone is keen enough to do it themselves.

I think it’s interesting to pause here and consider independent media as a whole. It happened with music: the artists got sick of the way labels were treating them, of how little of the money they felt they were getting, of the gatekeepers holding them back, and now indie music is huge (Grammy award winning) business. And film: once again the studios stood in the way, but as technology made it easier and less expensive, people began making their own movies. So why not publishing too?

Buying something on a Kindle or iPad or computer is easy, it’s fast, it stimulates that sense of instant gratification. BUT. In order for an author to be successful, he or she still needs to get that book in front of people. If not in physical bookstores than virtual ones.

Best ways to monetize an e-book? Well, as with any book, the content needs to be good. Write a great book. But also put an amazing cover on it. Remember, the cover is your key marketing piece. And price it low. A study Smashwords ran showed that books priced at $2.99 sold 6.2 times more copies than those priced $10 or more. And if one price isn’t working for you, don’t feel bad about changing it to see what does work.

These were the two pre-lunch sessions. Post-lunch sessions will come in a later post.