Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Listen to This

Terry Shames here: The question we’re on about this week is, “What comes first, the book or the pitch? Do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? 

 I’ve always wondered how the first stories got developed. It’s pretty easy to imagine hunters sitting around a fire telling those who stayed home the story of their great adventure. How they found their prey, how they stalked it, how it fought back, and how they won in the end. 

But somewhere along the line someone decided to embellish the story a bit. From there, it wasn’t such a great leap to suddenly tell the story of something that really didn’t happen, except in the mind of the story-teller. I imagine that first person who made up the story as saying, “Listen to this. I’ve got a story about...” And his listeners either said, “Ooo, that sounds good! Tell us,” or “That sounds stupid. Shut up.” Thus, the first pitch was born. 

I have been spoiled, in that with the Samuel Craddock series, both my agent and my publisher never asked for anything more than a paragraph of what the next book was about. I didn’t pitch anything. I simply told my agent and editor what the book was about and they said to go for it. The funny thing is that after the books are written, I often find that the premise that I presented bore no resemblance to the finished book. 

Now that I have left my original publisher, things have changed. I have had to write the next book, and my agent wanted it to be dynamite before she would shop it. She sent it back to me twice to tighten and revise.
I had an agent and an editor for a long time before I discovered that they would actually work with me on developing a book. I thought I had to think of an idea, write the book, and turn it in as well-written as possible. Then one day my agent mentioned that she had been working with a client for six months on a story. I said, “Really? You do that?” She was surprised I didn’t know she would. Same thing with my editor. Someone said that the editor helped him figure out a plot. Again, I was totally surprised. I thought I had to work it all out before I showed to the editor. 

I’m still surprised when an author gets a book contract on spec. My agent has never offered to do that. She wants the complete book before she shops it. I don’t know whether that means other writers have more casual agents; whether their writing is better than mine and agents and publishers trust them to come up with a good book; or if they convey their ideas so well that their books get snapped up pre-written. Or maybe they just have better ideas. If someone has an established publisher who publishes all their books, and their books sell a lot of copies, I can understand that. But I’ve heard of authors whose books didn’t sell particularly well, but who pitched their publishers on a new concept without writing anything more than a synopsis—and got a contract. 

 I’ve also heard of authors being recruited to write a series based on something a publisher thinks will sell. 

That may be fine for some writers, but I can’t figure out how someone comes up with characters and a plot that didn’t come out of their own imagination. Again, maybe they are better writers than I am. 

 For me, a book goes through several iterations of character/plot development before I even know what the story is. So the idea of pitching it full-blown seems impossible. As I mentioned above, the finished product rarely looks like the book I had in mind to begin with. Whether that would matter to an editor, I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on how good the finished product was. 

 I’m curious to know how other writers respond to this week’s question. Stay tuned.

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