Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Which way to go?

Photo: Andrea Kalteis

What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, 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? Or?

by Dietrich

I like to start with the easy part, writing the novel. It grows from an idea to a first draft, to a second draft, then to a third. Timelines and facts get checked, then the whole thing gets polished until it’s ready to send out.

Then I write the pitch. And for me, this is the tough part, boiling several hundred pages down to just a few lines. 

I learned to have a pitch ready the hard way when I went to my first Bouchercon. Another author came up and asked me what my debut novel was about, and after stammering out a more fizzle than sizzle answer, I realized I just sounded like I didn’t know what my own story was about.

Since that time, I have the spiel ready as soon as the novel reaches completion. Whether I’m pitching to an agent, publisher, or a reader, and whether it’s written or spoken, it needs to be fresh and compelling if the pitch stands a chance of being followed by a hit.

I avoid writing an unnecessarily long one, the kind of thing nobody’s going to remember. As I said, getting it down to a paragraph is a challenge, and condensing it down further, to just a line or two, is even more so. There’s a lot to be considered here: main characters, desire, conflict, what’s at stake, does it have a hook — something to leave the reader or listener wanting more.

When I think I have it right, I bounce it off my wife and son. They’ll let me know if it’s any good.

And while it’s often good to keep to a formula, making sure the key ingredients are in the pitch, sometimes it pays to think outside the box. I read somewhere that when a young James Cameron was pitching the sequel for Alien, he stepped into the boardroom to sell the project to the studio execs who he knew weren’t excited about it and were set to turn it down. Instead of getting into his spiel, all he did was walk up to the chalkboard, and he wrote the word ALIENS, drawing a vertical line through the S – ALIEN$. Then he turned to the room and grinned. The studio green-lit the project that day.

Since we’re on the topic of pitching, let me give you the long and the short for my latest, Under an Outlaw Moon — it’s coming in early November.

The long: The novel’s based on the true story of depression-era bank robbers, Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson. He’s a few years older and he’s trouble. She’s a teenage outsider longing to fit in. They meet at a local skating rink and the sparks fly. Soon they’re planning their new life together. 

They marry and Stella dreams of a nice house with a swing out back, while Bennie figures out how to get enough money to make it happen. Setting his sights on the good life, he decides to rob a bank. Talking Stella into it, he lays out his plan and teaches her to shoot. The newlyweds celebrate her sixteenth birthday by robbing a local bank. 

They pull it off, but the score is small, and Bennie realizes the money won’t last long, so he plans a bigger robbery. What lays ahead is more than either of them bargained for. After J. Edgar Hoover finds out they crossed state lines, he declares them public enemies number one and two, making Bennie and Stella the most hunted outlaws in the country — wanted dead or alive. So much for the good life. The manhunt is on, and there’s little room for them to run.

The short: Meet depression-era newlyweds Bennie and Stella. He’s reckless, she’s naive. Longing for freedom from tough times, they rob a bank. Soon they top the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. So much for the good life.


Brenda Chapman said...

Well said, Dietrich, and I think you've got a great pitch worked out for your latest book.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thank you, Brenda.

Josh Stallings said...

I love the pitch for your new book. You lay out the value and need for a solid pitch. The ability to nail the pitch eludes me.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Josh.