It’s about a boy, see? He has to…uh…save the world

Why is it so hard for us authors to talk about our work?  Maybe I’m alone in asking myself this question, but I doubt it.

Does the following apply to you:  You labor and labor, painstakingly plot, world-build, and develop characters.  Revisions pile up, entire chapters fall to the editing scythe.  The final product gleams.  You love/hate it, and know, therefore, it’s time to send it out into the world.  But….  Though you know your story inside out and backwards, when it’s time to sit down and write that query letter or pitch the novel to someone at at a Con, or – hell – even explain the thing to a friend…verbal vomit ensues.  Stumbling, awkwardness, um-ing and ah-ing.  You struggle to articulate what makes your work special, and it all just comes out sounding lame.

Part of this is due to the rather vast gulf separating writing and marketing.  When we create something – a painting, a book, a sculpture, or whatever – it’s all about the details.  We’ve polished each verb, tinkered with every sentence, shaded and re-shaded our protagonist’s personality.  It’s hard to pull back from that, hard to look at the big picture.  Someone asks, “What makes your book special?”  Our response, “Everything!”  But you can’t (and shouldn’t) include everything in the pitch materials.  You’ve got 4, maybe 5, sentences to encapsulate your work and make it shine.  Impossible!

Of course, it’s not impossible.  It’s about letting go of the strict factual (extensive) account of what happens in the book and crafting a thrilling paragraph designed to entice someone to read it.  But what to leave in?  What to gloss over?

As you might guess, I’m struggling with these questions as I prepare the pitch materials for my very soon to be finished novel, “A Blood Red Sun.”  Troll the web and you’ll find countless articles, blog posts, and the like offering advice on how to write query letters, synopses, and outlines.  Here’s Nathan Bransford on the subject, and Lynn Flewelling (via SFWA), and a few words from the folks at AgentQuery.  But still, I’m finding it quite hard to step back from the novel and look at it with a marketer’s eye.

Any tips or advice, dear Reader?  Or even just commiseration?  I could sure use it.

6 thoughts on “It’s about a boy, see? He has to…uh…save the world

  1. Matt Hughes

    I hate the bloody things. I once said that query letters and synopsis are a pre-emptive strike by Agents and Publishers for us making them wade through so much crap.

    I agree with much of what you say. You spend 6, 12, 18 months working on a novel and then they want you to condense it into 6, 12, 18 words or sentences or paragraphs? Yeah, not gonna happen.

    I believe a lot of it has to do with the way the writer’s brain is wired. I don’t think the same way as a marketer and I have a really hard time selling myself. It feels like I’m bragging or showing off. It’s a hard think to shake.

  2. EF Kelley

    At Taos there was a lecture on querying. Make the query letter a bit like a short story. Open with a statement about the book that isn’t immediately answered. For my Demon novels it would be:

    “What does a demon do when he can no longer call Hell his home?”

    Move into the setting and mood.

    “The year is 1187 and the Holy Land is embattled in the third great Crusade. Knights clash with Saracen horsemen by day, demons and angels wage their shadow wars by night.”

    Get back to your character (possibly naming another important character).

    “Enter into this setting the Nameless Demon, stripped of his titles and powers, and befriended by one small boy, a failed wizard’s apprentice.”

    Put them in trouble.

    “Pursued by avenging angels, scheming demons, and elements of two armies, the Demon must dodge rampaging crusaders and conniving wizards to discover the truth behind his exile.”

    Then answer the question while possibly posing another question that can only be answered by reading the book.

    “When the Demon ultimately confronts his persecutors, he discovers, somewhat to his dismay, that he wasn’t their target at all. They were after the whole of creation.”

    And there you go. My example isn’t the best in the universe, but hopefully it’s enough to give you an idea.

  3. John P. Murphy

    Huh. I guess I don’t really think of queries as marketing, so much as distillation, kind of the way EF Kelley describes it above. Have you ever tried the exercise of writing a query letter for someone else’s book? That can be fun.

    Oh, and Query Shark is also an educational (if sometimes painful) read.

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