Literary Pitches… and Timing

I’m committed to do a story for The Razor’s Edge, an anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains. The theme of the anthology is about just how little the difference is between the freedom fighter and the insurgent and the question of when fighting for a cause slips from right to wrong… or whether that’s just a matter of perspective.

As part of the PR for the anthology, the editors asked the contributing “anchor” writers if they’d be willing to write a blog post on one or all of the topics of creating an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis for one of their projects.

This posed a problem for me. Strange as it may sound in this day and age, I’ve never done any one of those things in order to sell a book or a story. I will admit that I’ve often managed to develop a plot summary or an “elevator pitch” for at least some of my books – after they’ve been bought… and I’ve hated doing either, and still do.

Why? Well… some of you who read my books might have a glimmering of an idea, but my personal problem is that any “short” treatment of a book – whether it’s an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis – has to focus on a single element. For what I write and how I write it, this is a bit of a problem, because focusing on a single element tends to create massive distortion of what I write.

Sometimes, questions help, or so I’ve been told. And some of those questions might be: What’s the most important facet of the book? What’s the hero’s journey? To what kind of reader does it appeal? The problem, for me, is that such questions make what I write come off as one-dimensional.

One of my most popular books is Imager, the first book in the Imager Portfolio. It features Rhennthyl – or Rhenn, who at the beginning of the book is a journeyman portrait artist in a culture vaguely similar to 1840s France, except with later steam-power. Rhenn is a good artist, good enough to be a master, but it’s likely he never will be for a number of reasons, and especially after the master painter for whom he works (under a guild system) dies in an accident that may have been caused by Rhenn’s latent magical imaging abilities.

Now, the book could be pitched as “young artist develops magical abilities and gets trained by mysterious group to use magical imaging powers.” And if it had been pitched that way, it would likely have flopped as a YA imaging-magic version of Harry Potter, because Rhenn is far more deliberate, not to mention older, than Harry Potter. Also the Collegium Imago makes Hogwarts look like junior high school.

Imager could also have been pitched as “a magic version of Starship Troopers,” since it does show the growth and education of a young man into a very capable and deadly operative, but Rhennthyl is operating in a far more complex culture and society, and one that’s far more indirect than what Heinlein postulated.

Then too, Imager could be pitched as a bildungsroman of a young man in a world where imaging magic is possible. And that, too, contains a partial truth, but ignores the fact that Rhenn’s basic character is already largely formed and many of his problems arise from that fact. Such a description also ignores the culture.

Because I never could find a short way to describe any book I wrote, not one that wasn’t more deceptive than accurate, I never did pitch anything I wrote that way. I just sent out the entire manuscript to a lot of people, and, of course, it took something like three years before someone finally bought my first book.

And… for some kinds of books, as it was in my case, letting the book sell itself may be better than trying to shoehorn it into a description or pitch that distorts what the book is all about. Now, authors aren’t always the best at describing their own work, but over time, I discovered that even my editors had trouble coming up with short pitches. So… if those who read your work also can’t boil it down into a pitch… then it just might not be a good idea.

7 thoughts on “Literary Pitches… and Timing”

  1. Matthew Runyon says:

    I tend to describe your writing overall as “Fantasy and sci-fi that actually makes political, economic, and cultural sense.”

    I admit that trying to come up with a short version of any of your books is…Difficult. I think the closest I came was talking about the Fall of Angels for roughly an hour to my wife. And I’m pretty sure it was mostly incoherent.

  2. Antonio Carlos says:

    Hum I like this description very much, but I understand how it could provide very little information about how the story will develop:

    “IMAGER: features Rhennthyl – or Rhenn, who at the beginning of the book is a journeyman portrait artist in a culture vaguely similar to 1840s France, except with later steam-power. Rhenn is a good artist, good enough to be a master, but it’s likely he never will be for a number of reasons, and especially after the master painter for whom he works (under a guild system) dies in an accident that may have been caused by Rhenn’s latent magical imaging abilities.”

    For someone non native english speaker, how the above could be described?

    1. Rhenn is an everyday portrait painter working for a master painter in a fantasy world where steam power is just developing and where a few individual can use imaging magic to create objects. Because the guild system rewards painters whose parents have money or political connections, it is unlikely he will ever be granted master status, even though some of his work shows that quality. He discovers he has that magical imagining ability by accident, and in the process creates a situation that kills the painter for whom he works. That’s about the best I can do, and that’s leaving out a lot.

  3. rehcra says:

    Mr. Modesitt, your problem isn’t that your books are deep. It’s that you think your books are deep. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about their art but they manage a synopsis all the same. Your complaint sounds similar to what I would expect your wife has to deal with from her students on a weekly basis. I am sure she can help you get over your youthful hubris.

    -rehcra

    1. I’m not complaining. I stated a fact, one that’s been corroborated by every editor with whom I’ve worked, and I’ve had editors with Ph.D.’s and 50 years experience in the field who admit that my books are impossible to summarize accurately and succinctly. Anything can be summarized, but when an accurate summary takes more than a page, it’s useless for the back of a book or a cover flap. Whether it’s an elevator pitch, a query letter, or a plot synopsis, the idea is to accurately sell the book in a compressed format. If compression results in misleading editors or readers, it’s not in the author’s best interests.

      1. Rehcra says:

        Your right. I came at it as a complaint when the post is an observation, My comment also comes across a lot more negative then I intended.

        Do I feel your books are ‘deep’? Yes.

        Do I feel your plot lines and non-stereotypical settings could lead to difficult long winded synopses? Yes.

        Do you or a single one of your editors(not even accounting for any Ph.D.’s)know more about this than me? Indubitably!!

        So your right and I am wrong on every point. But in my defense…. you sound just like other people who have trouble writing synapses for their own writings. And people who write longer tend to have a harder time writing a synapses of any kind. Your books are long so I hope you can forgive me for assuming you were just being one of those people.

        Maybe ask to read a couple of the other stories that are going to be in it and write a synopsis for one or multiple of those? Then post that on your site.

        -rehcra

        1. I can summarize the story that I’ll be submitting to The Razor’s Edge, but not yet, since I’ve only finished the first draft and since the editor hasn’t seen it yet. And I was likely too general in the post, because there are a few of my books that do summarize, succinctly even, particularly some of the SF. But I wanted to address those writers who do write a book that doesn’t compress… and feel like it’s somehow their fault. As you pointed out, there’s a narrow line between being self-indulgent and actually being in a situation where a summary can hurt more than it helps… and that, too, is a question every writer faced with a request for a summary must try to answer accurately.

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