Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.
Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.
This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.
A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less.
Lorna and Larry Collins have been practicing their pitches for assorted memoirs, short story anthologies, mystery and romance novels for quite some time. In their presentation at the California Writer’s Club they explained that the world of publishing has changed, but the need for a “perfect pitch” has not. Agents, readers and friends want to know what great novel is in the works, and the writer must grab attention in one sentence. While polite friends may enjoy a rambling explanation, today’s socially-media minded readers are too busy for niceties. Agents are even more impatient. They are looking for reasons to triage their monthly work pile from three hundred manuscripts to a single pertinent manuscript.
So, what is a pitch? A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less. It is a description of the arc of the story, covering the beginning, middle and end. It should introduce an interesting character and that character should have a goal or a crisis. The setting, place or situation should intrigue your target audience. Examples follow, and note that more detailed information can be found on their website:
- What if four little guys go on a dangerous quest to destroy a stolen ring? (Lord of the Rings)
- What if a matchmaking young woman focuses on her friends but misses her own perfect match, who has been there all along. (Emma)
- A tornado blows Dorothy to Oz, incurring the wrath of a witch. A scarecrow, woodsman, and lion seek a powerful wizard to send her home. (Wizard of Oz)
Consider your pitch successful when it generates follow-up questions. Try it. When people ask for details, you’ll know it’s working. If the response is, “Oh, that’s nice. Wanna get coffee?” you should probably purchase something stronger than a coffee to drown your sorrows (my opinion, not the presenters.) Seriously, go back to the keyboard to make it perfect. The pitch is often an introductory line for the “back book” description which is then expanded. Even if your manuscript is unfinished, having a solid pitch keeps the writer focused on a powerful storyline.
Debra Eve, always wanted to write but started her career as a technical engineer, training lawyers in technology. She tired of the corporate milieu and returned to school to become an archeologist only to discover that she didn’t have deep enough pockets to finance any digs. Disappointed, she attended writing workshops, martial arts classes, and traveled. She was learning, exploring, taking mental notes, but not writing. One day, when she was fifty, she asked herself when she’d get around to it. There was never a good time. She’d have to make the decision to write.
So she did. Not knowing where to start, she researched any other writers that got off to a late start. Contrary to the myth of gifted “born” writers, many successful authors “got around” to writing well after the age of forty. Eve wrote mini biographies about these well-known writers and posted their stories on her blog, laterbloomer.com. She had created one of the first repositories that listed “re-invented” writers. In 2012, she published these biographies as an anthology and it is still a high-ranking seller on Amazon.
What do these late blooming writers have in common? They are people with too many disparate interests. Often, they are unusually industrious and responsible people, working and slaving away even if they feel stuck in unsatisfying careers until there is a change in their jobs, routine or personal life. They take this opportunity to reflect and release themselves from their duties to explore new directions. Like writing.
Hmmm, I wonder what percentage of bloggers are later bloomers?
This article was compiled from a presentation Debra Eve gave at the California Writers Club – Inland Empire Branch in October 2014.