Pitches and Promises: making our writing visible

Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain
Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain ©Laurel Decher

Pitches and promises that align the story, the agent, the publisher, the reader and ourselves will make our work visible. Last year, I participated in some writing contests for queries and for pitches and for the first 250 words and 5-page excerpts. Agent feedback surprised me:

“If you use a comp title I love, I will request more, BUT you are more likely to disappoint me, unless you can DELIVER at the level of that comp title. A hook, a comp title, a pitch: these are all promises.”

Alignment seems to be the key to becoming visible. When I write a short story, revision is about combing the story from front to back, looking for unity and reinforcing it when I find it. Making metaphors match word choice match internal character change match story problem. The same process happens in a longer book on a slightly different scale.

“Be yourself,” someone told me when I was writing a query the other day. “It’s the only way to get the right agent.”

The trouble is: we are all writers of fiction. There are so many characters inside us to choose from. How do we choose the one we will still be in 10 years?

It’s not possible. The “marriage” with an agent will have to grow as we do. So, we choose one of the people we are now. Paul Tournier’s THE MEANING OF PERSONS writes about the different personas we all are capable of assuming. This is not lying. How many children know their parents as their peers do? Or vice versa?

So, the process to find the agent who can connect to the publisher who can connect to our ideal readers is not that different from the process we use to create and refine and align our work with itself. I think people used to call this integrity. It might be less intimidating to think of it as alignment. We will certainly fail. We will certainly present ourselves in ways that we regret or that will be misunderstood or both. This is the risk of art.

We can choose to be visible, but we can’t choose to be partially visible. I recently visited the picture book museum in Troisdorf and admired the wonderful paintings of the illustrator, Janosch. A beautifully imagined city street with cobblestones and lampposts and windows that rang delightfully true. Our tour guide pulled another sketch out of her bag that was much more controversial and—dare I say?—ugly. It revealed a side of Janosch’s character that was off-putting and it did it clearly.

If we try to cover up the ugly parts of ourselves, we become cloudy and confuse people. An artist’s talent is about communication and a good artist—like a good teacher—shows his or her quirks because it is unavoidable. In high school, my friends and I used to say that the best teachers were all a little odd. This is because excellence doesn’t come in beige.

This is why we hide, even though it is fruitless. The things that hurt us and keep us from growing are under wraps. If we let them out into the light, we may not conquer them at once. We can recognize them when they ambush us. We can call them by name. We can ask for help. And the people we are asking will be able to hear us because we are not hiding.

If we want to get something across, we have to become visible and risk showing what everyone else probably already knows about us. We think our foibles are hidden, but every child knows what his or her parents can’t quite do. Every spouse knows their partner’s blind spots.

Spending so much time with our work can blind us to its strengths. Alignment might help us find them again. Tracing the chain of related character motivations, images, plot points and our own original inspiration might make the strengths visible to us, and to agents, publishers, and readers. It’s re-vision–a process we all know well–only a little more challenging because we have to re-see ourselves as well as the work.

So what does this philosophy have to do with finding a publisher? It’s the same problem we have when we write a novel. First we set readers’ expectations with the opening hook. Then, after an enjoyable ride, we keep our original promise.

These common questions are about finding connection points for the agent, publisher and reader:
•    Why did you write this book?
•    Why are you the best person to write this book?
•    What inside of you drew you to this topic, this story problem, this main character?
[Thanks to the amazing literary agent, Marietta Zacker, for this insight!]

The connection points must be true of our story. Imagination is a way of knowing, but it needs a corrective. The things we dream at night don’t necessarily work in the world we live in during the day.

There is no one right way to describe a story. It is like choosing the scale for a map or unraveling the threads in a Turkish carpet. There are probably many solutions that work. I’m guessing that the ones that work best have resonance and unity. But maybe the contrast of dissonance makes it richer. We’re back in vulnerability territory.

Advertisements

How to make something invisible

Think how much writing–and reading–you could get done if no one knew you were there. This is eerily simple: just use 4 lenses to bend the light around the thing you want to “cloak.”

  Will we resort to deep sea fish later to help us find things in the “dark”?

Exploring: Hatzenport to Eltz Castle on the Path of Dreams

Grassy trail above Germany's Mosel river valley in a little bit of characteristic mist
Grassy trail above Mosel river valley in Germany.

One morning, in early spring, my husband and I decided to walk to Burg Eltz (Eltz castle) from the tiny village of Hatzenport. We had asked the innkeeper if he thought Burg Eltz was do-able and he said, “Why shouldn’t it be? It’s only 2 1/2 hours.” Oddly enough, that reassured me.

It was an unexpectedly sunny day with a cool breeze, miraculous after weeks of rain and gray skies. We set out on little goat trails and followed the course of the Mosel river, far below. We barely needed our topographic map because everything was so well labeled. That’s how many people live in this part of the world. The trail was called “Traumpfad”, the path of dreams.
We traversed the vineyards on a tractor-wide track, feeling like Heidi and Peter. A sign said goats were used to clear out overgrown vineyards when someone wanted to begin again. Abandoned, overgrown vineyards were called “Brazils” after their owners left for Brazil to start a new life.

In earlier times, wagons must have collected the grapes from the rows of vines. A rusty winch in one village must have been used to pull heavy loads of grapes up and down the steep slopes. In another, a tower near the Mosel supported the cables to run a ferry across. The ferry needed no power other than the river current.

At some point, we left the Mosel to turn into another valley. The path climbed gently until we found ourselves on a high plain. The Mosel cut a valley into the plain, so that the river bed was actually in a canyon. The broad meadow was just as inviting as the earlier paths and the sun was just as delightful. There was a ring of standing stones, either old or modern, in the distance. It was almost unreal.

A group of eight deer leapt across the meadow in front of us to cross a road in the distance. Seven made it across but the last one was spooked by a car and couldn’t find his way. He bounded back to the safety of the forest. The others didn’t come back for him, so maybe that was the beginning of his own adventure.

An older pair of hikers passed us. They didn’t seem to be going fast but they were soon in the distance ahead of us. We saw them much later, having a picnic by the trail side, just before we got to a lot of boring pavement. Experience must help people pick out picnic spots. Role models for adventure pop up in surprising places.

By the time we had walked a few hours, we had gotten less tired or had found our stride or felt virtuous because we didn’t need parking, because we felt we could walk forever. When I was 10, I used to explore with my brother in the same way. A peanut butter sandwich in a backpack, a walking stick, and eyes to see what is in front of you.

Burg Eltz actually has a longish–by American standards–hiking trail from the parking lot to the castle. On the trail, three miniature knights came toward us brandishing wooden swords and painted wooden shields. A baby in a stroller was teething on a wooden sword. We were getting close.

Stone castle on a hill surrounded by the river Eltz and more hills near the Mosel valley in Germany.
The Eltz castle

The castle gift shop was full of swords and shields and castle-related memorabilia. A hearty soup lunch at the castle and we were ready to continue down the valley. Here the trail looks down on the river Eltz below—a gray, green, glacier-colored river—but I think the color comes from algae, but not in a bad way.

We hiked down to the village and took the train back to the tiny village of Hatzenport. It was a dreamy day of talking, walking, taking things in, and spending time together becoming whole.

The next morning, I took a walk in our own neighborhood. At the far meadow, a black and white horse whinnied and trotted, then pounded the grass with his hooves and galloped the perimeters of electric fence. Was he going to leap over it? Did the sunny, cool weather make him long for wide spaces and adventure?

Then a shaggy, brown horse appeared on the trail and the black and white nodded his big black head up and down emphatically. He had been calling this friend.

My day with my husband was perfect for me. The weather and the availability of food made it a very convenient adventure, but not one I will forget. A perfect life is an adventure with a friend.

Exploring: the vineyard-covered Ahr valley

Vineyards in Mayschoß, GermanyThe village of Mayschoß in Germany’s lovely Ahr valley says “spring” all over. The name of the village means “lap of May” and even though it’s only April, you can see why.

It’s easy to imagine an earlier era. On top of the hill nearest the church tower is a ruined castle. One vineyard advertises horse-drawn wagon rides through the vineyards. My daughter told me they have to muzzle the horses to keep them from eating the grapes during harvest. I never thought about a horse eating grapes before.

Blast from the past in the National Park

Wear a hat and long-sleeved shirt against ticks and sunburn and cover your skin against frostbite. Don’t leave your toothpaste or bacon out where the black bears can smell it. Leaves of three, let me be. Stinging nettle. Geothermal activity–stay on the boardwalks. These are the dangers and adventures I associate with wilderness.

This sign in the Dreiborn area of the Eifel National Park made me think.

This sign says: "Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden. Vogelsang was used for military exercises until 2005.
This sign says: “Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden! This area was used for military exercises until 2005.

My husband’s parents played in the forest in Germany as children and found old tank parts and unexploded grenades. It felt very different to find one myself. I never understood what war on your own soil means.

An unexploded grenade lying on leaves in the forest in Eifel National Park

Writing Process Blog Tour

It’s fun to follow the epic and perhaps infinite Writing Process Blog Tour backwards. My favorite description is by Bethany Hegedus. “[T]his collection of blog posts offers tips of the trade, confessions on what makes a writer’s process unique.”

Thanks to Jenni Enzor who tagged me for the Tour. Jenni’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and I met her on the SCBWI discussion boards. She writes YA historical fantasy, MG mysteries, and historical nonfiction. You can see her answers to the epic Tour questions here.

Here are my answers and a link to Amanda Hill’s blog where she will answer the same questions:

What are you currently working on?

I’m querying THE WOUNDED BOOK, a middle grade historical novel, right now and starting to think about what I want to write next. A novel in the same vein or something in a different genre that popped up after a visit to a natural history museum in Bologna? It’s relaxing to dream on an empty slate.

The front of the Museo di Zoologia in Bologna, Italy

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

THE WOUNDED BOOK is a historical fiction for upper middle grades. My main character was inspired by the innocent and intrepid Philippa Somerville of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles. Dorothy Dunnett’s series is set 600 years later than THE WOUNDED BOOK and her work is definitely not middle grade. An award-winning historical writer, she is a master of the genre I call “overly complicated with a fine sense of humor.”

Tracy Barrett’s Anna of Byzantium has a similar setting but is written for older readers than THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Both Tracy Barrett and Dorothy Dunnett have more knowledge about history, Latin, Italian, byzantine literature and geography in their little fingers than I will ever have in my head. The best spin I can put on this is to hope that readers will find my work accessible because I am forced to stay on the fringes.

Men in medieval dress, shield and spear and long, blue, and red and orange tunics parade through an Arezzo street as part of the jousting festival.

I love a snappy, witty exchange between characters when I’m reading and am delighted whenever my characters spontaneously oblige. Dorothy Dunnett is amazing at this.

Why do I write what I write?

I’m still guessing, but the things I don’t seem to be able to stay away from are Italy, music, libraries and cultural differences. It always interests me to know that there is more than one way to do everything–with all the tension that can create.

Story ideas tend to come to me as metaphors, helping me understand one part of life by comparing it to a very different part. Life is fairly mysterious and writing helps me metabolize my experiences. I like to read about characters who are working out their courage to try new things and to take risks in their lives. I hope this comes out in my stories.

How does my individual writing process work?

It would be so convenient to know this. A few things I’ve noticed: 1) When I get uncertain, I look for tools*. As if there were one right answer. It is dawning on me that it is more productive to acknowledge the risk. 2) A fast draft helps me get out of my own way and find out what the story is about. (NaNoWriMo) 3) Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit) writes about detachment and engagement. She’s so right! I call this the Hokey-Pokey school of fiction writing: you put your whole self in to draft, then take your whole self out to revise.

Walkway on top of Bad Münstereifel city wall, Germany
Walkway on top of Bad Münstereifel city wall, Germany

*I use outlines, spreadsheets, markers, notebooks, and collections of flashbulb moments for the rough draft. My favorite tools are Scrivener (for writing and revision) Toggl (for time tracking), Hiveage (for invoicing) and libraries.

TAG, you’re it!

Amanda Hill, author of a rollicking, fairy-tale mash-up I can’t wait to read: THE WOODSMAN

See Amanda’s answers here.