The Pitch, Part 3: Let’s Just Write It, Shall, We?

This blog post first appeared on Amorina Rose Writes.

So, after two weeks struggling with writer’s block, I’ve finally realised I’d be better off doing something else: I’m going to send The Sapience Assessment off to Agents and Publishers (A&Ps).

Which gives me a good excuse to write another diatribe about pitches. Sorry if this is a long one!

It turns out that most A&Ps don’t request a pitch, as such. They all want a synopsis and at least part of the manuscript, perhaps with a cover letter. My advice here is: write the pitch anyway and put it in the cover letter. For the reasons why you absolutely need a pitch see Part 1: managing expectations.

Engineer that I am, to me a pitch has a logic to it. First, make sure it conveys all the information the A&P needs to know, and second, emphasise the key element of the story (as discussed in Part 1). To get all the information in there, the simplest way is just to use a check-list of question words. Here’s the recipe I’m using for my pitch:

  1. Genre statement
  2. Background to the series
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Series theme
  1. Pitch for this book
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • (How?) optional
  1. Genre Statement

I already discussed the importance and pitfalls of the genre statement in Part 2, so I won’t go through that again. Just be aware of the implicit assumptions that a genre statement generates so be as specific on the book type as you can.

  1. Background to the Series

Most books will not need this section.

The where? and when? questions are only relevant if your book has a historical or geographical setting which forms a point of interest. So if you’ve written a historical drama you ought to mention the period, if your book is set in Mongolia, that’s important, but you would not normally have a separate section, you would probably mention them in the main book pitch.

In my case, I have this separate section because my book is part of a series set in the future on different planets and I felt that was important information to get across before delving into the main pitch.

Also, my series has an overarching theme, which I wanted to mention. It’s increasingly common, especially since the Harry Potter phenomenon, for a series of books, while stories in their own right, to work progressively towards solution to an overall issue.

  1. Pitch for this book

Books in different genres are likely to have different styles of pitch, so my recipe may not work for you. You might, for instance, keep the question checklist but change the order, or you might want to just run with other concepts.

            Who?

I put the who? question first is a way of indicating that this is character-based fiction. This is showing that, in my mind, the most important aspect of my story is the main character and her arc.

In this book, I only have one main character, so this part should be easy. In later books I might mention two key characters, but I suspect any more than that would be too cumbersome for a brief pitch.

Who? Means the character’s name and some indication of who they are or what they desire. So in my book, I have Thea Hyde, an intelligence operative who is desperate to get back to fieldwork after an injury.

Examples in other genres: a young woman, dissatisfied with her life in some way, is seeking escape, excitement, or love (romance genre); someone with a special skill is chosen (perhaps unwillingly) to fulfil a role or quest (fantasy genre).

What?

This is where I put the ‘plot question’ – what is the driver of the plot, the problem to be solved, or the threat to be overcome?

This is a tough one for me. My book has several plot threads, each with their own question.

Ostensibly, Thea’s mission is to find out whether a certain alien species is sapient, so that they can be saved from extinction. The trouble is, most readers don’t seem able to generate much sympathy for giant talking termites, so they don’t care. It’s a weak question.

As it turns out, the mission is a front for political manoeuvrings, with other aliens trying to sabotage it for their own ends. At the start of the story, though, this is not known, so the only question I could pose might be: who is trying to sabotage the mission and why? Again, it seems weak.

My main character has her own question to solve, too. An amnesiac, she is trying to recover understanding of who she is and why she has elevated duty to the Federation above all else. Perhaps there is another question: will she rediscover herself?

As I write this, I still don’t know which question I’m going to use (sigh).

Why?

This introduces the stakes. Why is it so important for the Who? to overcome the What?

Be careful – I find many people neglect this one. There’s a temptation to assume that readers will understand the stakes without being told.

Don’t assume. We actually need to be told that if the young woman in the romance does not find love, she will fall into depression / slavery / poverty / succumb to the evil stepmother. We need to be told that if the fantasy quest fails it will mean the slaughter of innocents / fall of the kingdom / extinction of the dragons/elves/race of men. We need to know that this story is important.

Now I’ve written that, I’ve realised I have no mention of the Why? in my previous attempts at pitches. Haha. Guess I’d better learn to walk the talk.

How?

I tend to present the pitch as a teaser, telling the A&P what the protagonist needs to do, but not going as far as how she does it, or even whether or not she succeeds. I think that’s best left to the synopsis, so this is optional.

3…2…1…Lift-off !

Here we go:

The Sapience Assessment (science fiction, 81,500 words) is the first book in my Transhumanity Series. These are soft SF adventures aimed at a new adult readership. The overall theme is a questioning of what makes us human, following a young woman who, over the course of four books, is transformed into a cyborg.

The series is set in the 24th century, a time in which transference links provide instantaneous travel between planets. Humans are one of dozens of species in the Sapients’ Interplanetary Federation (SIF), run by the powerful Sowers. The human government has developed a strong presence in SIF through its military arm, Exforce, and intelligence service, Macropol, but the Federation is under threat from the H!ane (Hakkannay). 

Macropol Recorder Thea Hyde, who’s been sidelined for a year by injury, jumps at a chance to recover her self-esteem and field agent status. She is to use her neural implants to record the work of a scientific team, sent to assess the sapience of an alien species and decide whether they will be granted asylum and saved from extinction. When someone attempts to sabotage the mission it is up to Thea to discover who and why. The treachery she uncovers will have implications for herself and the entire Federation.

Hope that’s helpful to people, to see my take on writing pitches. Comments on my pitch effort will be very welcome!

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The Pitch, Part 2: Dispelling Genre Myths

Okay, so in Part 1 of my little diatribe on pitches I was talking about managing expectations.

The little snag here is that as soon as you mention the genre of your book you’ve already set up expectations. The reader already has a preliminary opinion on whether or not they’re going to like the book, and that’s even before they get to the pitch.

This is a real bugbear for me because I’m calling my books science fiction.

So the first thing this is saying is that this is ‘genre’ fiction as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. Literary being taken as synonymous with quality, with serious novels of the sort one calls ‘works’ rather than ‘books’ and whose authors can add the prefix ‘critically acclaimed’.

To those who buy into this literary snobbery, the term ‘genre’ means a book of no inherent worth except as light entertainment for the unwashed masses.

Okay, so we’re probably facing an uphill battle persuading anyone otherwise, but if you’re looking for ammunition, take a look at these:

This one is what Patrick Rothfuss (Author of The Name of the Wind) had to say when a lecturer deemed fantasy novels not worthy of study – the interesting thing for me here is his insistence that ‘literary fiction’ is itself a genre:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFI30pcv4sM

Then there’s this classic example of literary snobbery of the sort which can dismiss an author on the basis of writing style without even bothering to read one of his books (referring to the late Terry Pratchett):

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-is-not-a-literary-genius

and here’s a response (one of many):

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-opposite-of-ordinary-potboiler-jonathan-jones

What am I taking from this personally?

That I have to stand up to literary snobbishness. My books may not be literary fiction but they are of no less worth. I will not apologise for the fact that the ideas within my novels are wrapped up in (what I hope is) an appealing story written in a commercial style.

This is deliberate on my part because I want people to read my books because they enjoy the story not because they are studying my use of language. I try to explore societal issues in the background rather than hit the reader over the head with them. Do I care that my books will never be set reading for an English lit course? Not in the slightest.

Okay, I’ve gone off topic a bit there, so back to genre expectations:

What else do people think when they see the label ‘science fiction’?

Space battles seems to be a common expectation. Or something futuristic packed with incomprehensible techno-babble. But then there are the time travel stories. Steampunk. Post apocalyptic, dystopian. Alternate universes, alternate futures, alternate political realities. Adventures, thrillers, romances, fairy tales. You name it, science fiction has it.

It can be hard to get across just how wide a genre science fiction is. If anyone were to ask me how to define science fiction I would probably through my hands up in despair. Luckily for me, other people have taken a shot at it:

To quote from this article http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140729-what-is-and-isnt-sci-fi

“…there seems to be as many definitions of science fiction as there are imaginary worlds dreamed up by its creators. Just sticking with leading authors, Isaac Asimov offered that it “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology”; Thomas M Disch argued that it all stems from the premise that “absolutely anything can happen and should”; and slightly more philosophically Brian Aldiss has claimed it’s ultimately “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge”.

I’m rather fond of the last one, probably because I’m not entirely sure what it means.

And here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty, saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”.

I wish I had an upbeat conclusion to this part but, to be honest, I can’t think how to give any practical advice to overcoming genre prejudice. Genre distinctions are inescapable.

Perhaps all we can do is break it down.

May I present my New adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

The Pitch, Part 1: The Importance of Managing Expectations

A pitch sounds like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? Just a few sentences describing what your novel is, essentially, about.

If only it were that easy.

Synopses are hard enough, giving us the challenge of condensing tens of thousands of words into one or two pages, complete with all major characters and plot threads, but I maintain that pitches are harder. The difficulty is all in that word up there: ‘essentially’. Somehow we have to submit our story to filtration, fermentation, distillation, whatever arcane chemistry we can think of, to reveal its ‘essence’.

There are no shortcuts here, it has to be done. The pitch is crucially important.

I know this because I recently finished a novel with which I was very pleased. It was one of those in which the story just seemed to flow from fingers to screen. In just a few months I had a complete draft and – get this – there was nothing I was unhappy about, no nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite right.

So I sent it to my Agent. She came back to me saying she’d tried to read it but couldn’t get into it. She didn’t like the characters. She’d given up. Ouch.

With hindsight, her reaction was not surprising. My protagonist spends 40% of the novel feeling suicidally depressed and 50% being evil. Love and redemption come, eventually, in the final two chapters.

You may be wondering why I would write a story like that. Well, I could say that this book is part of a series, so the reader will be already familiar with and sympathetic to the main character, but no, that would be making excuses. In my view, every book has to stand alone.

The fact is, I never intended the reader to particularly like the characters. I wanted them to recognise that their behaviour was wrong, was deviant, and hate them for it. Why? Because the whole theme of the story was about placing people in an inhuman situation, manipulating them to despicable acts, and investigating whether they could regain their empathy and humanity. It was intended to portray a dystopian society from which my characters need to extricate themselves.

Did I make that clear to my Agent when I sent her the book? No. I had labelled it as science fiction, as a story about a cyborg spy whose mission to another planet goes awry. In my pitch I failed to get across the essence of the story, allowing her to start into the book expecting one type of story and getting another. I had failed to manage her expectations.

The last thing an aspiring author needs is a disappointed reader. It is when readers assume things about the nature of our books, and then discover that their assumptions were unfounded, that we get those one- and two- star reviews.

This is why the pitch is so important – it is our only tool to manage the expectations of the reader (or Agent or Publisher) so that they are mentally prepared for the type of story we are giving them. If it is a thematic story, they should be reading with that in mind, looking for the underlying theme and delighting when they find it. If they are not supposed to like the characters, they need to know that, and we need to offer them something else instead – some point of interest to keep them involved with the story.

I could go on, there is so much more to say on the subject of pitches. I’ll be back…

 

Review of Wild Thing by LJ Kendall

(This review has been posted before on Amazon and on the blog Amorina Rose Writes.)

This book has an intriguing premise. Suppose you take a child and make her an experimental subject, moulding her in a particular direction over years of training. Suppose her teacher has magical abilities (and a moral deficit) that allow him to subtly alter her neurological make-up towards this end. And suppose you do this in the surreal atmosphere of an Institution for paranormal dysfunction. What would this girl become?

Warning – this review may contain spoilers

This semi-dystopian fantasy is set in a future in which society is rebuilding after mage-powered storms and a plague, and in which some choose to alter themselves with animal DNA and mind-altering drugs. The girl Sara knows little of this, having been kept secluded by her adopted ‘Uncle’, Doctor Harmon. Within the Institute’s vast grounds, she grows up a wild thing, a huntress. Here she befriends a cybernetic guard dog and learns to feel the spirits of nature and others less friendly.

It’s not long before the girl is exploring the hidden depths of the Institute, drawn to one particular man, claimed to be an insane mage. Her wilful and resourceful nature find her defying layers of security to defend him. But thanks to Harmon’s meddling, Sara herself has become dangerous, displaying a disturbing and uncontrollable mix of naivety and power.

This is a fascinating story, by turns exciting and disturbing, as the reader follows Sara’s development from wild child to adulthood. If I have a criticism, it is that the plot development was overly long and drawn-out. In particular, I felt too many chapters were spent following Sara around the grounds and on a needlessly large number of attempts to assist the incarcerated mage, which reduced my surprise and excitement at the finale. In other respects, though, this is a fine first novel.

I’d recommend Luke Kendall as a new author to watch.

 

Time: an aspiring writer’s enemy or friend?

I’ve been nervous about posting this, maybe because I’m new to blogging, but this is something that always seems to be on my mind: time, or the lack of it. Since I started writing, I’ve never been so aware of the passage of time.

Is it like this for all writers, I wonder? Maybe we need to feel the sucking whirlpool of time drawing us in if we are to finish each page and every chapter, if we are to complete that novel?

Or do I feel the drag of time so powerfully because I’ve already been sucked halfway down the vortex? I’m so new to fiction writing – starting from scratch two and a half years ago – and I’m in my mid-forties. I feel like an adult in training pants. Am I too late to achieve my dream of becoming a published author?

A couple of hours’ investigation and a few statistics later, my self-confidence has taken a rollercoaster ride through shock and dismay to a cautious optimism. If you’re interested in what the statistics say, strap yourselves in and don’t jump out till we get to the station:

I started by looking at the so-called 10,000 hour rule. Apparently this was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book or the studies on which it was based, but the basic principle is that it typically takes at least 10,000 hours or approximately ten years of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a skill.

I didn’t want to hear that. Must I work another eight years to become an accomplished writer?

Perhaps not. The studies were based on chess grandmasters, top musicians and sports stars. For writers I believe the situation is different because we use our writing skills in daily life. School might not have taught us to hone our golf swing, but it gave us a grounding in spelling and grammar and creative use of language. At work we send emails and write reports – could this count towards that 10,000 hours?

That set me wondering. Suppose I’d already achieved 1000 hours from school studies, and 2000 hours from reading novels (which most authors agree is beneficial in developing a sense of plot and style). Then all those technical reports I wrote over fifteen plus years as an engineer must count for something (besides the comment on my first novel that ‘it reads like a report’), so let’s give myself another 2000 hours.

I’m halfway there already!

Is it realistic, though, to think I can drop it down to 5 years’ practice? To get a better idea I picked five of my favourite sci fi books (all published after 2011) and checked how long the authors had been writing. This is where I got a shock.

The average age at which the authors had started writing for publication (usually short stories, screenplays or comics) was 31 years. The average age at which their most popular novel was published (the one I’ve read) was 45 years. So it took an average of 14 years for them to hone their craft! (Insert expletive here).

How did I get from dismay to cautious optimism? Well, there was a lot of variation. A couple of authors were on the slow side, taking over twenty years to produce their most popular novel. Two produced a successful debut novel after 5 years and 7 years of writing. That’s looking more reasonable.

Then there’s the statistic I’ve come across (I’m not sure where it came from), that on average an author gets a publishing deal after writing three to four novels. Say it takes around 500 hours to write a novel, that’s less than 2,000 hours of actual novel-writing we’re talking about to become good enough for publication. That brings us down to about 3 years’ practice.

New studies are questioning the 10,000 hour rule as well, seeming to suggest that if one is willing to be ‘very good’ in a field, rather than ‘expert’, we might be looking at 7,000 hours. Again, that’s only 2,000 hours over my assumed base level.

I can also take some comfort in the age at which some of the most prolific genre authors published their first novels. Thriller writer Ian Fleming was 44 and wrote 17 novels, while Lee Child started at 43 years and already has 20 novels published. In the SF genre, Anne McCaffrey was 41 years old when her first novel was published and went on to write over a hundred more.

In some ways, it’s the young who are handicapped when it comes to writing novels. While the authors of debut novels are typically in their thirties or forties, there are still a significant number in their fifties (more than in their twenties) and a good few in their sixties.

So there’s hope. Maybe I won’t have to plug away at my writing for a decade or more to achieve my dreams.

Here’s the good bit, and the reason why time can be a friend rather than an enemy. Suppose I don’t get lucky and land a publisher soon. If I don’t let it get me down but keep practicing my writing, I’m only going to improve. If I keep at it with enough dedication, who knows, I might even become the writer I would so love to be, not just a decent writer but a grandmaster, who could stand up there alongside my favourite authors.

Well, you know, I have to dream.

To Write Or Not To Write

 

I’m going to post some old blogs which I first wrote for the blog of my writer friend Barb. Barb and another local writer friend, Alyson, have been the driving force pushing me to start my own blog. Barb has a fantastic way of connecting with other aspiring writers, especially in the romance and fantasy genres. Check out her blog here:

http://amorinarosewrites.blogspot.com.au/

and Alyson is a wonderful dark fantasy/paranormal storyteller. Check out her blog here:

https://blueinkonadragonstail.wordpress.com/

To write or not to write?

Three years ago I was no writer – I was a reader, sure, and a mother, and an engineer. If you’d asked me the question then I would have shrugged my shoulders, uncaring. After a day of writing technical reports I had no wish to put fingers to keyboard at home as well.

What happened? It’s hard to say – frustration with work, perhaps, or with the direction of my life. Just another mid-life crisis. I took time off work and took an idea that had been kicking around in my head and wrote a novel. In the process I caught this disease, this addiction. You know what I mean.

There was a point when my direction hung in the balance – I returned to work and set the book aside – but the condition of the local economy saw me back at home. As you can imagine, I became the writing equivalent of the alcoholic at the bar or the gambler at the casino.

Three novels finished and another three started and I’m still reeling, trying to understand what on earth I think I’m doing. Somewhere along the way, there was no denying that in terms of the direction of my thoughts and how I was wanting to spend my time, I had become a writer. So in one sense the answer to the question seems obvious – the compulsion to keep writing is overwhelming.

BUT… Whether I should write is still a question I ask myself, because writing is, frankly, terrifying. Here I am plugging away for months on a manuscript which may never be read. One of the first things I learnt was that it is impossible to judge the merit of one’s own writing. Why else are there so many unsolicited manuscripts turning up on Agents’ desks? Few of us are the writers we believe ourselves to be, and fewer still the writers we would wish to be. The odds are against me getting any decent financial return for all the effort I’ve put into my books. To know this and to continue is the greatest leap of faith I have ever taken.

This is why I’m so grateful for the support of fellow authors, like Barb and Alison, who are in the same place and understand. Between us, we will get our books published, whether through traditional publishing or self-publishing – it gets to the stage where you just need your work to be out there, rather than sit and struggle with ‘what-if’s. Just as importantly, we can kick around ideas and hopes and fears that may be incomprehensible to people like the old me, the normal one, before I developed this wonderful and terrifying addiction.

We can do this.

Introducing Myself

self-portait-jan-2017

So, here is my first experiment in blogging. In case I haven’t worked out how to introduce myself at the top of the page, I’m Kay Want Cheung, an aspiring SF author.

<— me, sort of. But not so lop-sided.

This blog is where I’m going to post the stray thoughts of my wandering mind in the hope that someone out there might find them in some way interesting or challenging or life-affirming. Or I might just settle for readable.

No doubt I’ll be blogging about writing, which has become my passion. I might share hints and tips and lessons on writing technique as I learn through trial and error. There might be the odd deviation into my own motivations and frustrations (sorry, but these things tend to spill out) and there might be the odd book review.

If there are any other aspiring SF writers or readers out there who’d like to connect with me, that would be great.