Journey to Getting Published Part One: The Pitch (or, The False Summit)

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I finished writing the memoir I’ve been working on since 2007. The feeling for exactly twelve hours was one of cautious elation. Then I started telling people that I’d reached a “false summit.” Growing up on the East coast, we spent a lot of time in the summer in New Hampshire, where we hiked something called the Baldface Circle Trail. Hiking the Baldfaces is a lot like writing a book, which is to say: beautiful; soul-wrenching; difficult; stressful; at times scary; absolutely worth the work; and most of all, a real slog. You climb steadily up South Baldface through the buggy New England forest until you reach about a half mile of exposed, steep ledges. Incredible views, if you have the stomach for heights and can look up from your fingers gripping the granite for a minute. Then you emerge over the top of the ledges, feeling exhausted and happy, only to realize: false summit. There’s another mile or so to go before you reach the top (and another six or seven miles, over North Baldface, to descend).

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

I’m at the false summit, folks. I did all that work, all that beautiful, soul-searching, difficult work, and now I have to climb the rest of the way up the mountain.

This metaphor is cheesy, I know. But it’s also apt. The top of the mountain, for me, is getting published. Because having done all that work, I can’t just rest here (i.e., let the book sit in a drawer). I have to press on. And I thought I would document, here on this blog, that process.

Part One: The Pitch.

After I finished the book, which is to say, after my to-do list was all crossed off and I’d successfully resisted the urge to tinker with it again and again, I worked for a solid week on my pitch. Depending who you read and how you’re hoping to get published–through an agent? With a small press?–you’ll hear many different things about the pitch. Here’s the basic definition: the pitch is the language you use to describe your book. It needs to be concise. It needs to be attention-getting. It needs to be elegant. Many websites focus on the one-sentence “elevator pitch,” just in case you’re lucky enough to meet an agent in an elevator, I guess. I worked on one of those, because sure, I might need a one-sentence description of my book sometime. It is extremely difficult to condense an 85,000-word book into one sentence. But dammit, I tried.

Then I worked on a one-paragraph pitch. At this stage I found helpful this post, “How to Craft a Winning Book Proposal.” Editor Chuck Sambuchino says of writing a pitch:

  • Introduce the main character(s).
  • Introduce something interesting or what he/she wants (or both).
  • Introduce the inciting incident (that moves the story forward).
  • Introduce the hook (plot)–in other words, say what the story is about or repeat the log line.
  • Explain the stakes, or complications (ex. innocent people die, they get lost).
  • Describe the unclear wrap up.

(Note: I’m not sure why the wrap-up is described as unclear.)

Following this formula, I was able to at least get down on paper all the important elements of my book: main character, me, comes first. Then she meets the other main character. The something interesting: he wants to travel around the world; she realizes she has to go with him in order to keep him. Then the conflict! And then, the sweet wrap-up.

At first, I wrote everything in third person. But some sage advice from another website suggested that memoirists always write their pitches in first person. I found I agreed. Much as I wanted to hide behind a character whose name happened to be the same as my own, I couldn’t: I had to be “I.” So I rewrote. And tinkered some more.

Once I had a one-sentence elevator pitch and a one-paragraph pitch that felt pretty workable, I started to write THE LETTER. I knew agents would want different things, and I knew that I would personalize each letter, but it felt important to me to have a template to work from. That’s when I found Agent Query incredibly helpful. On this page, they tell you how to write a query letter. Here’s their pithy advice:

A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not a rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god, it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.

Agent Query suggests a simple formula: hook, short synopsis, bio, done. I’m not much of a formula person, but on this one, I took their advice. I wrote a hook, I attached it to the pitch/synopsis (fleshing it out a little at this stage, adding some tiny juicy details), and I wrote a one-paragraph bio. I agonized a little over the bio, and ultimately left it quite bare: past publications, including one excerpt from this memoir that was a finalist for a literary award. I did not mention my blogging, my teaching, or my son.

Then I said thank you.

Next time: Researching agents, sending it off, prayer. Stay tuned!

Ghost Frogs & Imagined Worlds: An Interview with Author Katie Williams

This interview first appeared on popcorntheblog on June 11, 2013.

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Absent, the latest young adult novel by Katie Williams, imagines the world of seventeen-year-old Paige Wheeler, who has died in a freak accident at her high school. Trapped in the school, she keeps the company of Brooke and Evan, two other teens who died there. When Paige hears a rumor about her death that she believes to be untrue, she tries assiduously to right it, learning along the way that she can possess the living when they think of her.

katie author photoKatie Williams is also the author of The Space Between Trees (2010). Her short stories have been in The Atlantic, American Short Fiction, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications. I caught up with Katie over a cocktail and an email.

Q: How long did it take you to write Absent?

All told about three years. That seems like a long time for such a slim book, but my editor and I were committed to getting it right.

Q: You and your agent Judy Heiblum had to decide whether to market The Space Between Trees as young adult (YA) or adult fiction. With Absent, you clearly wrote from a YA perspective from the beginning. What challenges does writing YA present? What do you enjoy about writing for that audience?

Young-adult readers are smart readers, and the worst thing an author can do is condescend to them. But it’s also true that YA readers are newer readers, which means more immediacy, an even balance of plot and character, and sleek prose. Honestly, I think adult literature could take a note or two from YA.

I love writing YA because this is the age where most people become readers, where you reach for a book not just because it’s required for a class, but because you realize that you love to read. It’s an honor to be part of that.

Q: In Absent you create a world of the dead, a world with its own set of rules. Paige can “hover” by putting her mind to it; she can’t step off school property or she winds up where she died; and she can’t touch anyone, feel anything, or taste anything, at least not at first. How did you decide what that world would look like? Was it great fun to create, or did the logistical challenges feel overwhelming?

One of the powers of fantastical writing is the ability to literalize the abstract, to take an emotion, a concept, or a wish and make it real in the story. For example, before her death, Paige felt very much trapped in her life in high school, so the rules of the ghost world make this feeling literal: She is physically trapped in the school. When she tries to leave, she is brought back to her most terrible moment. If you’ve experienced a terrible moment, you might identify with the idea that a small part of you always lives in that place. While many of the fantastical elements came from this concept of literalizing the emotional, other rules came from the simple need to apply logic to the world. How can a ghost both stand on the floor and also be incorporeal? I felt there should be a reason for this. One of the challenges of fantastical writing is applying logic to the illogical, sense to the nonsensical. As you might imagine, this is sometimes great fun and other times headache-inducing.

Q: It’s funny, because another thing you do in the book is create the world of the living, specifically, the world of a modern-day high school, with all the requisite groups (the stoners, the popular kids, the nerds). How heavily did you draw on your own high school experience when you created this world?

Sure, my high school had these sorts of social groups. It’s interesting to me that high school is so very codified. I think it’s because young people are putting together their sense of self, and so there’s a lot of false sorting that happens as a way of negotiating identity: If she is like this, then I must be like that. Part of what the story tries to do is see the use and limitations of this idea and to ultimately move past it.

Q: One thing I notice—and admire—about your writing is how remarkably visual it is. For example, in the novel there’s a scene where Paige and a boy named Lucas Hayes meet in a circle of trees. He leaves before she does, and she says, “It struck me that someone later, seeing them, would imagine two people walking side by side.” When I read that line what struck me was that I might never have thought of that. Do you consciously write with a very visual eye or does this just come naturally to you?

Aw shucks. Thanks. I’ve always considered storytelling a visual art, that language is a code to communicate images. One of my first writing teachers, Charlie Baxter, encouraged me to begin a story by closing my eyes and calling up an image. It could be anything—let’s use your example from the book, two sets of footprints next to each other in the snow—but whatever the image is, it’ll have dramatic potential because your subconscious mind has given it to you for a reason.

absentcoverQ: Another thing I really loved about the book was the subtle and not-so-subtle animal symbolism. The basement of the school overflows with croaking frogs killed in biology class, and there is a great presence of flying creatures, in particular, a moth. In fact, that moth graces the cover of the book. What is the moth supposed to symbolize?

Thanks! The ghost frogs are my favorite.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t decode the moth here; I want to leave that for the reader. I will say that the moth is introduced because one of the characters, Evan, used to put his lamp to the window at night to draw moths to the light. Paige thinks that the moths’ batting is senseless and pathetic, but Evan finds it beautiful.

Q: Can you say anything about your writing process?

Hmmm…I write four days a week, six when I’m on school break. I find it best to write in the morning before my mind is full of the day’s detritus. I’m good for about three hours when I’m writing new material, longer when I’m editing. I usually write first drafts in chronological order, and I only kind of, sort of use an outline.

Q: Do you read reviews of your work?

My editor sends me the reviews from the professional outlets—Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and such—and I read those. I don’t look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews, though this is to take nothing away from my readers’ opinions, which I’m sure are often observant and smart. To paraphrase (the most excellent) YA author Melina Marchetta, I’m not the intended audience for those reviews; other readers are.

Q: What’s next for Katie Williams?

I’m working on two new novels right now. One is a low-magic historical fantasy about a woman who arranges marriages for picture brides; the other is a near-future science fiction about a teenager cast in an empathetic reality TV show.

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Bay Area folks can hear Katie read from Absent twice this summer:

Reading and Signing at Books Inc. Berkeley, 1760 4th Street, Berkeley, CA, Wednesday, July 24, 7-8pm

Reading at Chronicle Books Anniversary Party, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA, Sunday, August 18, 11am-2pm (exact time TBD)

Also check her out at www.katiewilliamsbooks.com.

The Wednesday Chef

My friend Carla sent me this blog post yesterday, by The Wednesday Chef, a blogger I mentioned briefly in my popcorn post “Still Hungry” last month. Her blog is beautiful; her writing has urgency and accessibility, her blog’s look is professional and warm, and she shares great recipes, to boot. I think I sense a new favorite food blog coming on.

Yesterday’s post “Q&A: Writing My Berlin Kitchen” had this piece of wisdom, which I just had to share on a foggy NorCal morning:

I don’t think I exaggerate things when I say that finding discipline to write may be the very hardest part of any writer’s job. Read any book on writing or any memoir of a writer’s life and you are guaranteed to find many, many sentences devoted to the fact that the writer is convinced, at any given point, that they are a fraud and a waste of space and spirit and utterly incapable of writing, so there’s no point in even sitting down and trying because it’s never going to happen anyway and you might as well give up and become a garbage man or a middle manager or go hike the Camino de Santiago or something. At least then you’d be useful. That having been said, a set routine really helps: forcing yourself to sit down at your desk at the same time every day (and then ending at the same time every day) is a must.

–Susie