What’s Your Novel About?

By Marilyn Henderson

You have finished your novel and are attending a writers’ conference hoping to get an agent or editor to read your manuscript. You work your way through the crowd with your gaze focused at name-tag level. Suddenly you spot a gold-bordered tag reserved for editors. Heart pounding, you approach and introduce yourself and say you have just finished your novel.

The editor smiles and replies, “What’s your novel about?”

Suddenly the moment of truth is at hand. This woman knows why you’re here. The conference brochure described the reception as the place where writers could meet editors and agents. This is when you make your pitch.

Now’s your chance to convince this editor to ask you to send her your manuscript. So how do you answer her question?

Just as she had her question ready, you need to have your answer prepared. If you’re a savvy writer, you began working on your plot statement as soon as you signed up for the conference.

What’s a plot statement?

A plot statement is the hook you need to make your storyline sound like a winner so the editor asks to read the manuscript. In screen play writing this is called a pitch.

Just as she got right to the point in talking with you, she expects you to get right to the point by telling her what your novel is about. She doesn’t want a long rambling dissertation about the characters, background or details of who does what in the plot. She wants you to capture her interest by making the book sound too exciting to pass up.

Any book she recommends the publisher buy must be one she can convince others in the publishing house will sell. Publishers are in business to make money, and she hopes to find a winner among the writers at this conference.

Like a query letter, your plot statement or pitch is a selling tool. It’s time to forget all those great enthusiastic descriptions of your story you envision on the cover of your published novel.

Cover copy is written to entice the reader to buy the book. It tells exciting details of the story to entice the reader to want to read more. A plot statement is written to excite the editor enough to think the story will sell. Pitching is how you sell your novel.

The editor at that conference wants to know if the book will sell and make money for the publishing company.

How do you tell what the story is about without telling the story?

Don’t think about the story, think about the original idea that developed into your plot. What about that idea made you decide it could become a novel? What excited you enough to spend months working on it?

The initial spark usually stirs your curiosity or an emotional reaction. You may want to know who, what, when, where or how such a thing might happen. You may wonder what would happen if one of the people involved took a different turn or made a different decision. The idea may have infuriated you, driven you to tears or scared you enough to check the locks on your doors and windows. In other words, it stirred an emotional reaction. Now your pitch must do that to the editor.

The How-to’s of Plot Statements and Pitching

A pitch is a statement that conveys the main storyline in a way that impacts the editor emotionally so she wants to read the manuscript. You write it after your novel is finished because you don’t know everything that happens until then. You need to look at the story as a whole in order to recognize the most important and emotionally charged highlights of the storyline.

Six Do’s and Don’ts for Writing a Plot Statement and Pitching

  • Write it in only one sentence
  • Write in the present tense
  • Write in the active voice
  • Don’t give details of the plot
  • Don’t use characters’ names
  • Choose words that evoke an emotional response

The rules are easy, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can toss off the plot statement for your novel in a few minutes. I have challenged numerous writers to do a plot statement, and none have succeeded quickly. The plot statement is a key part of pitching. Most writers need a considerable amount of time and help. One writer sent an excellent one, along with the admission it had taken him three weeks and fifteen tries.

Once you do one well, it’s easier to repeat your success

One picture is worth a thousand words. The old adage holds true for plot statements. Paint a word picture that makes your listener form his own mental images that cause him to feel angry or sad or nervous.

Examples of this appear every day in our daily newspapers. Can you read an account of a nursing home fire in which four patients died without feeling sad or angry at the people or circumstances that led to the fire? Can you read a story about a child being abducted without heart-felt gratitude that your little boy is safe and sound asleep in his bed?

Our emotional responses to other people’s troubles develop out of our fears and concerns for our own and our family’s safety and well being.

This is true for editors just as it is for you and me. Editors react to the emotional appeal of a pitch; the plot statement is a key part.

How Emotion in a Plot Statement Works

Let’s look at a plot statement that worked and why it did. The example is a plot statement for a woman-in-jeopardy suspense novel:

“A recently widowed young mother brings her sick three-year-old home from nursery school during a devastating Southern California storm and discovers they are not alone in the house.’

I had chosen woman-in-jeopardy as the subgenre for the novel because it is one of the biggest sellers in the mystery and suspense field. Most readers and editors of these books are women. For those reasons, I aimed my plot statement at emotions women can relate to and understand.

A recently widowed young mother is a sympathetic, vulnerable heroine. Even if the editor hasn’t experienced those problems personally, she can’t help but feel sadness at this woman’s plight.

Then I add a sick child, something every parent and non-parent can relate to and worry about.

With the main character hitting these two emotional buttons, I add a setting that hits another one: “a devastating Southern California storm.” Newspapers and television have brought the horror of flooded homes and collapsing hillsides in California into living rooms across the nation. We shudder at the thought of the unpredictable destruction and losses or give earnest thanks that we don’t live in an area where they occur.

And finally I hint at the menace to come: she discovers they are not alone in the house. An unknown person invading her home plays on the fears of every woman.

Every story element included in the plot statement is an emotional trigger. Together, they create a dark mood of danger and suspense. And more important, they make the editor curious about how the story will evolve and work out.

I admit I didn’t come up with the plot statement on the first try. I didn’t count how many bad starts I had or how many refinements I made once I had a passable draft, but it took me several days to reach this one. The early ones suffered from my trying to tell too much, especially about the intruder. Eventually I realized that the less I told about him, the more sinister he became, and the more “fear” he roused.

The descriptive words in the statement also were chosen for the effect they helped produce. A “recently widowed young mother” has a “sick” child. The storm is “devastating.” These add to the dark mood that enhances a suspense novel.

This statement tells the basic storyline without any details of the action or characters. At the same time, it pushes three emotional buttons for the editor:

  • Compassion (widowed mother and sick child)
  • Worry (the storm)
  • Terror (the intruder in house)

The editor knows these emotional triggers sell books, so she may be willing to read the manuscript to see if the story delivers on its promise. The plot statement did what it was supposed to do.

If you have finished your novel, start working on your plot statement now so you’ll be ready when that editor or agent you meet says, “What’s your novel about?”

Writers’ Conferences: Are They All They Should Be?

By Jessica McCurdy-Crooks

What is a Writers’ Conference?

This is a gathering of writers, whether amateur or professional, discussing a particular subject or general information about writing, selling a novel, articles or even poetry or fiction readings. There are as many different types of writers’ conferences as there are different types of writers, such as Christian Writers’ Conference, fiction writers’ conferences, conferences for people who write for children — you get the picture. Whether or not they are useful depends on a number of factors. Perceptions and expectations are the deciding factor as to whether or not they are worthwhile. If you attend a conference expecting to sell your novel or get a major contract, then be prepared for some disappointment. Very few attendees at conferences end up selling a story.

Who attends These Conferences?

Attendees vary, from beginners to seasoned, many-time published writers. This coming together of people from such widely different writing backgrounds and experiences can add to the benefits to be derived from attending such a gathering.

Writers’ conference attendees fall into two main groups: students and teachers. Sometimes the lines between both can become blurred. A fellow writer noted that apart from teachers, students fall into three distinct groups, namely:

  • Professionals who are seeking further networking opportunities
  • Serious writers who have not yet been published
  • Those who want to ‘feel’ like writers

Preparation

What to Wear?

Dress codes vary as widely as these conferences do. For some semi-formal is fine; for most, however, the safe bet is “casual business.” Writer Del Stone is most comfortable in khaki slacks and a polo shirt; I find that a nice shirt and jeans normally go over well. There are dinners that might require that one be dressy, while at meetings something more casual can be worn. Workshops, on the other hand, allow for flexibility in dressing.

Some conferences will provide information on what to bring and wear, so it is a wise move to get brochures on the conferences you plan on attending.

What to Expect

Do keep your expectations realistic — don’t expect to come away as an award-winning writer. Your skill level as a writer will also impact on your experiences at a writers’ conference, especially if it is your first such foray. Marie Stone, a freelance writer from Oregon, noted that as a student, she “missed a lot because [she] was too busy being star-struck.” This happens to many first-timers, and even professionals are not above being dazzled by being in the same location as their heroes. However, try to remain focused on what is happening. How else will you learn?

Expect to work if you intend to get the most from attending. Work, work, work is the order of the day. Be prepared for this by taking along note pads, pencils, pens and other implements that you think you may need. Also, do not shy away from critique sessions — the feedback can help make your career.

Value / Networking Opportunities

The assertion that your expectations are the prime factor in determining “value received” is reiterated again and again by fellow writers, and even by speakers at such conferences. One professional writer, who also speaks at writers’ conferences, noted that “value for money” in terms of writers’ conferences is to some extent dependent on the attendee’s skill level as a writer, and his or her willingness to participate in class discussions.

Other factors that will effect what you take away with you from these gatherings include:

  • The opportunities that exist for networking with other writers, publishers, editors
  • How “good” the presenters are
  • How keen the students are, as this will make for interesting interactions in critique sessions, etc.

If you will be incurring major expenses, try to find people who have attended this particular conference before and get feedback from them. This can save you from disappointment and feeling that you have been cheated.

Additionally, writers can significantly improve their collection of writing resources from the many offerings on sale. In the final analysis, though, the true value is your own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction.

The most valuable reward is that of making contacts; these networking opportunities can be just the lead you need to break into a particular market. Do not believe that you only need these contacts with editors and publishers; other writers are just as important as contacts. Many writers have gotten work from being recommended to a publisher from writers they have met at conferences. How to network successfully takes skill and tact. Try to be attentive to what is being said, even if it is not what you want to hear. If you look beyond the words, something useful might be gleaned, or better yet, you can arrange to have further discussions with the speaker. You should leave a conference with e-mail contacts and business cards, but be sure to tell the people that you will be in touch. One last word of advice about networking: be polite — people will remember.

Should you Pitch your Work?

This is the most important question on the mind of most people planning on attending a conference for the first time. The opinions on this vary widely — some writers advise against pitching, while others emphatically say “yes, yes, yes.” Whether or not to pitch your idea or work will depend on the conference.

Those against feel that opportunities should be used to socialize, so that publishers will be able to associate your face with a name the next time you submit to them. This, they feel, can have a positive effect on the response to your query.

Writer Charles Pekow recommends that while it is possible to pitch one’s work, subtlety should be used. His words of wisdom are to, while socializing, “enquire as to their services, jobs and interests so that you will know if what you have to offer is what they need.”

Some conferences actually have time set aside for pitching, so if it is important to you, select conferences that offer this as part of the package. If in doubt, call to find out. Be prepared; as such, select your best work(s) and write and rehearse a pitch or query to give to the editors/publishers you plan to approach. Having your story/article well thought out will save you wasting both your own time and that of other people. It will also show your professionalism and commitment.

One final word of caution: do not give in to the urge to just approach editors and pitch your work — it can be a major turn-off and presents future obstacles to your landing work with that company. You do not want to build a reputation for being rude.

Conclusion

Those who get the most from attending writers’ conferences are those individuals who are serious about their craft, and as such are prepared for the conference and know their expectations before attending. One thing is sure — even if you do not get a solid lead to work, the networking opportunities to be resulting from attending are unparalleled.

Jessica McCurdy-Crooks trained as a librarian, but notes that “these days I provide this service only on a part-time basis. I started writing poetry as my first love, but started writing reviews on Jamaican hotels, restaurants, etc. for an online company and found that I actually enjoyed writing.”