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Creating Your Book Talk

PHOTOCREO: Michal Bednarek

With my third book, The Fifth Petal, coming out tomorrow, I’ve finally put the finishing touches on my  elevator pitch. I come from a marketing background, so you’d think it would have been the first thing I’d do, but, for each of my books, there could have been at least 5 different quick pitches: some seemingly contradicting others, some so vastly different that you wouldn’t have thought they were for the same book. The one I settled on was this: With modern Salem now home to thousands of neo-witches, could the hysteria happen again? What would a modern day witch-hunt look like in Salem?

I’m not a big fan of elevator pitches, but I understand that they’re a necessary compromise. If you have just a moment to speak, and someone asks what your new novel is about, you’d better have some polished verbiage ready. If you don’t, you’ll have lost a valuable opportunity to spread the word. Not that it does the story justice, there’s always so much more to tell, but a concise pitch can offer a potential reader an invitation to a broader, deeper conversation.

But what do you do when you need to tell them more? As I set out on my book tour, something I haven’t done since 2012, I find myself trying to see the bigger picture. I have one hour at each location to tell my story, do a reading, and conduct a Q&A with the attendees. That all sounds good, but to really talk about the book would take days. So what parts should I reveal, and what should I leave for the reader to discover? What will motivate audience members to read the book for themselves?

Let’s start with a dose of truth. This book took five years to write, and it’s not a simple story. It contains three mysteries, winding through three time periods that move all the way back to Salem’s witch-trials of 1692. The subject matter touched on is vast as well: colonial and European history, witchcraft, murder, music therapy, alcoholism, sound healing, tree lore, biblical references, Norse and Celtic mythology, banshees, non-linear time, psychology, and complex trauma. Even PBS would need a month of nightly specials to cover the same territory.

So how do you include those subjects in your talk without confusing a potential reader? When is less actually more? The elements I listed above weave in and out of the story, providing imagery and building texture, but they in no way describe the narrative. If I tried to speak about them all in my presentation, potential readers would probably run screaming from the building. So how do you find a balance between discussing the broad scope of the novel and getting lost in the weeds?

I’ve learned some of the answers through trial and error. Hopefully, I can make the process easier for you. At least I can let you know what works for me. I’ll share a few dos and don’ts and, wherever possible, I’ll give examples that tie-in to my new novel.

Tip One: Keep any readings short.

This advice was given to me by my first publicist. Readers think they want to hear the author read, and you need to give them that, but unless you’re incredible at it, reading for more than a few minutes generally falls flat.  The few times I suffered a bad case of overconfidence and chose to disregard my publicist’s advice, I saw for myself how right he was. Trust me, there’s nothing worse for an author than the realization that your audience is tuning out. The last thing you want to hear yourself say is: “Hey everybody, why don’t we all stand up and stretch?”

Tip Two: When describing the plot, stay in the present tense.

This is a trick learned from my screenwriting days, and it works just as well for an author event. Describing the narrative elements in present tense makes it far more active, which, in turn, pulls the reader in. That’s why most book jacket descriptions are written this way. In fact, if you’re having trouble describing your story, take a look at your jacket copy. It’s often the best way to get started and is usually easy to tweak (if necessary) to suit your current needs. This way, you’ll have a high level of confidence that you’ve covered all the important elements in a relatively short time frame. Think of it as a road map for would-be readers.

Example: When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night, Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty, now married to gifted lace reader Towner Whitney, wonders if there is a connection between his death and Salem’s most notorious cold case, a triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, were slashed on Halloween night in 1989. He finds unexpected help in Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the victims newly returned to town. Neither believes that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, respected local historian, is guilty of murder or witchcraft. But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of an all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? Can Callie and Rafferty find the killer without becoming victims themselves? And if they cannot discover what truly happened, will evil rise again?

Tip Three: Don’t confuse the reader.

Who, what, when, where, why, and how?  To varying degrees, these are the questions that need to be addressed. A mystery might just hint at some of these answers, while other genres might reveal more. But in all cases, the reader needs to have a basic idea of where the book is going and the essential question it’s seeking to answer. If you’ve used your jacket copy, you’re probably more than halfway there. But if you decide to go another route, I urge you to address these questions before you get to any of the more obscure subject matter in your book. If you don’t, your potential reader will be confused. And if you can’t lay out a logical progression of ideas in your presentation, there’s no way your audience will be able to understand what they might experience by reading your book.

Tip Four: Consider the audience.

Ideally, the presentation should change a bit with each audience and location. Talking about Salem to New Englanders is very different than trying to explain this quirky city to an audience in the Midwest. You don’t need to rewrite your entire presentation each time your audience changes, but it’s important to consider what might be of interest to them. Ask yourself these questions: Why would this group be interested in the topics your book addresses? What are the common elements between your book and this audience? Are there events, people, history, etc., associated with this place that are addressed in your story? Is there a universal conflict or belief that you share with them?

Example: History casts a long shadow in Salem, dividing the city in half. Many people long to erase the memory of the witch-trials, but it is that dark history that fuels our economy, drawing tourists from all over the world. Those who want to “ditch the witch” find themselves at odds with the merchants who rely on the tourist dollars to survive. “The Fifth Petal” is a classic story of the haves vs. the have-nots. An alternative title for the book could be: “A Tale of Two Salems.”

Before getting to each tour location, I will try to determine what burdens of history or economics their city carries, and whether Salem shares any of them. This can be a great topic for discussion during Q&A.

Tip Five: Introduce the main characters

This is one of the most important elements, because if a potential reader isn’t hooked by your characters, they probably won’t read the book. So how do you do this succinctly, without delving into full biography and backstory? A quick description of the main characters will usually do it.

Example: Rose Whelan, once a respected writer and historian suffered complex trauma when three young friends were brutally murdered in 1989. Now homeless and publicly blamed though never charged for the murders, she roams the streets predicting the death of everyone she meets.

Example: John Rafferty, once a New York City detective and now Salem’s chief of police moved north because he wanted a simpler life, but what he finds in Salem is far more complex than what he was trying to escape.

Rule Six: Make sure your presentation includes the reason you wrote the book.

Writers don’t write simply to create a bestselling novel. While that would be nice, no one can anticipate the market, and I can’t imagine spending years of one’s life just trying to create a book that’s been crafted to exploit some unknown future trend. It’s not money that drives us but our own inner need to communicate and share some element of our experience of being human.

At the WU UnConference this year, Donald Maass asked us to consider the one thing we really believe and want to communicate. He challenged us to get that one thing into everything we write. Though it took a long time for me to drill down to that one thing, when I got there I found it was quite simple: We are all one. It seems that each of my novels deals with this belief, usually in a way that suggests the opposite and requires some kind of healing and understanding to bring people together.

Example: The Fifth Petal is a story about the “other,” and the power of history to both hurt and heal.

I’ve finally finished putting together my book talk, though I’m sure it will change along the way, as it always does when faced with an audience. But this one’s already different, and it hasn’t even left my office yet. Since Salem is really a character in the novel, changing and growing as characters do, I’ve created a slide show of images that depict the two Salems, alternating those with meaningful quotes from the book, mostly uttered by Rose.  I’m starting with the book jacket copy, then I’ll show the slides, each one a cue for me to speak about something I feel is important to the story. I have no idea whether or not it will work. I’ll have to let you know.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping you can tell me how you put together a book talk. What do you say about your story if you have just thirty seconds? What do you say if given an hour?

Are there any tips you’d like to add to my list? Any you’d like to remove?


About Brunonia Barry [1]

Brunonia Barry [2] is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal, chosen #1 of Strand Magazine’s Top 25 Books of 2017. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. Barry was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia served as chairperson of the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee, as Executive Director of the Salem Literary Festival, and as a member of Grub Street’s Development Committee. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.