Ok first of all, let me be clear about what this entry is not – this is not an entry about how to pitch a manuscript or write a query letter. The reason it isn’t is that I am not the least bit qualified to give advice along those lines. I think I would need to have more than one success under my belt in that regard before I felt prepared to suggest that I really knew what I was doing. I guess the one thing worth noting is that if you are trying to pitch a book to an agent or publisher, even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still only need it to work once to get where you want to be. So, even not knowing what you’re doing, have a bash at it – you don’t need your pitch to work on everyone, you only need it to work once.
Damn. That was advice. Changing course.
What I really wanted to write about today was a piece of advice given to me about pitching that got me thinking about stories in a way that I hadn’t before, or at least I don’t think I had. I went to a panel session on ‘How to Pitch your Manuscript’ and one of the people on the panel was a guy from Bundoran Press, whose name I have utterly, shamefully, forgotten. Nevertheless what he said stuck with me – he said that a good pitch needs to say what the book is about, and (crucially) that that is not the same as the plot.
I had to give that one a think for a second. But (of course you will have instantly recognized) he’s right. The plot is all the events that happen in a story, but those things, added all together, isn’t what the story is about. I imagine my former English teachers being deeply dismayed that I had somehow failed to take this very fundamental point onboard (or, equally possible, that I had done so and then lost it in the overfilled ship’s hold of my mind) until this exceptionally late date.
However, here we are. One of my very favourite books, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, has plot about AIs and drugs and Rastafarian space communes and chicks with razor blade fingernails, but that’s not what it’s about. Mostly the book is about humanity, and how it is lost and regained. Wolf Hall is not about the machinations of Tudor politics, primarily. It is about power. My own book is not about all the pretend things (that I hope you will soon get to discover) that happen through the course of the novel. It is ultimately about adversity, and whether we despair or persevere in the face of it.
Up until I got that nugget of advice, my attempts at a pitch or query had been uniformly terrible, because I was trying to summarize a lengthy plot in a paragraph or 2 minute talk. It doesn’t work, or at least I can’t make it work. Once I stopped doing that and started telling people what my story was about, I had something that at least made a kind of sense.
In a grander scheme, the separation between plot and what a story is about is an interesting point of view to keep in mind. The project I’m writing now does have a plot, but I’ve already figured out that it is about our responsibility for the things we create. Figuring that out has already helped me determine things that need to be in the plot, or really shouldn’t be. I’m not saying a writer should ruthlessly strip everything out of a story that doesn’t fit its central theme – I enjoy some little side trips and meanderings – but there’s a clarity from knowing the overall flavour you want your creation to have, an opportunity to keep giving it a little more seasoning in that direction, or not throw in stuff that will clash.
Anyway, this is probably all quite elementary and I imagine a lot of ‘Yes, AND?’ going through the minds of readers. I’ll try to do better the next time. I am very grateful for the advice I got, though. I think it helped me find a home for my story, and I think it is continuing to help me write a little better.