This happens more often than I’d like to admit: I’m sitting around with friends or acquaintances or random strangers, and the fact that I’m a writer comes up. (I never noticed before just how often people say, “What do you do for living?” until I started answering that question with “I’m a writer.”) From there the conversation usually moves to what genre I write, what I’ve published, when my next book is coming out, and then like a hand grenade tossed into my lap: “What’s your book about?”
I freeze. My brain sets off alarms that sound all over my body. Panic sets in. I try to buy time by saying, “Wellllll,” and “Uuuuummm,” and “Okay, sooooo.” My first book was published seven years ago, my fourth novel is coming in August, and this still happens every time someone asks me what my book is about. When I received a PR Q&A from my publisher with the question “what is your book about?” I may have yelled out loud, “Don’t you people have a whole sales department to tell me what my book is about?”
Part of this difficulty is related to many writers’ struggles with query letters and elevator pitches. After you’ve spent months or years crafting a complex and nuanced story, now you’re supposed to boil it down to a few sentences? I’m terrible at this in part for the same reason I write novels instead of flash fiction.
The other part of why this question is so hard for me is about the panic and how my brain responds to it. More than one person has suggested that I should just memorize my official pitch word for word. Sadly most of the time the panic wipes my brain clean, and all I can find in my Things I’ve Memorized file is a few random Bible verses and the Pledge of Allegiance. Even on the occasions when I successfully regurgitate what I’ve memorized, I just sound like a malfunctioning robot. If I’m supposed to be selling my book to potential readers, that is not the way to do it.
I wish I could tell you that I have found the solution to this problem, and that you can read about it after the jump, but the truth is I choked on my one and only attempt to pitch a novel to an agent in person twenty years ago, and I choked again this last week.
I was at a gathering of booksellers and inevitably I was asked the question about my forthcoming novel. Cue panic, followed by me opening my mouth and having a few hundred words fall out in no particular order. I’m here to tell you that this is not ideal, but it’s also not a complete catastrophe. After all The Princess Bride has been successfully selling itself with a pile of random words for many years: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escape. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
All this to say that my wisdom is much more philosophical than practical. Over the years of being asked what my books are about, I have learned to accept two things:
One: a pitch is only a sales tool.
Two: a novel is rarely about a single thing.
As important as a pitch can be for securing the interest of agents, editors, and ultimately readers, it is not part of your great work as a writer. Over the years, I’ve heard several people claim that if you can’t boil your book down to a pitch, it’s not ready. This simply isn’t true, and it’s a bit like saying unless you can create a great cover for your book, it’s not ready. Plenty of great books can’t be easily summed up, and not everyone has the skill sets to create a cover or a pitch. If you struggle to describe what your book is about in a succinct way, that’s not a reflection on the quality of your writing.
Okay, so it’s not a profound personal or professional failing to freeze up over that question, but you still have to answer it, right? Right.
This is where the second bit of philosophy comes in. Because your book is not about a single thing, there is no one way to pitch it. In fact, you don’t have to commit yourself to describing it the same way every time. This is the opposite of the advice I was given to memorize my pitch, but it’s also the only way I’ve successfully broken through my panic freeze.
So what do you say when people ask? Honestly, anything you want. Are you in love with your short pitch? Can you get it off your tongue in the middle of a panic? Use it. “Total Recall meets the Great British Bakeoff.” Do you like to talk about characters? Grab hold of your main character and run with it. “It’s about a lonely pastry chef with too many cats who is struggling to recover from a deeply personal betrayal.” Are you all about high concept premises? Then do the nuts and bolts. “It’s about a medical experiment that erases peoples’ memories.”
Are you a full-blown panicker like me? Then your only job is to try to smile as you blurt out as much of the plot as you can in thirty seconds. “Okay, so there’s this guy. Pastry chef. Nine cats. He loves cats. So his husband is cheating on him. Cheating on him with his own brother. The pastry chef’s brother. So the pastry chef, his name is Kevin. Also there’s an experimental procedure that erases bad memories. Kevin wants to forget about being betrayed. So he signs up. Also did I mention nine cats?”
If you’re a panicker, it’s true that you may never successfully manage to pitch an agent or editor in person, but it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Thankfully, publishing is still a haven for introverts, recluses, and those who don’t do well at extemporaneous speaking. You can write books and sell books without ever being any good at answering “What is your book about?”
What has your experience been like pitching your book(s) in person? What do you think made the difference in your preparation or attitude?