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,

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you,

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!