Before a reader can cherish a book with all his heart, the book must get its ass kicked quite a lot. Any decision along the way can crush the book into a gritty paste. The author must decide to write the damn thing, and to not quit before the story’s done. He has to decide to stop compulsively revising the story and show it to other humans, exposing his soul to annihilation should someone say that he chose an adverb poorly.
At some point an author has to decide to toss the story’s fate into the hands of other people. If he doesn’t, it will be appreciated only by his mother, his college roommate, and his basset hound. This is a risky proposition, since those people might be mean, and they might know more about the book business than he does. Agents, editors, publishers, bookstore owners, and people who want to read books will all judge his cherished creation. Sticking the story in a snappy-looking binder and dropping it into a desk drawer for all eternity can seem a lot more desirable.
I’m struggling with that decision today. I intend to expose my manuscript to the uncaring scrutiny and possible condemnation of agents in the next few days. And I’m preparing a proposal that I hope will cause them to decide that my story is just what’s needed to lift the spirit of humanity in desolate times. Or at least that a fair number of people will buy it, read it, and smile.
I will include something called a “pitch” in this proposal. It’s sort of like the description you’d find on the back of a paperback book. It should sell the book. After a person reads the pitch, whenever he thinks about the book he should feel like he’s just shot up heroin. The pitch is really important. The first pitch I wrote for my story was:
When five young mice of Briarcliff Manor venture into the harrowing barnyard, they want only three things: to find enough food to eat, to avoid becoming something else’s food, and to create as many little mice as possible. They don’t want to get involved in the travails of young Cinderella and her cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a carriage from one pointless place to another pointless place. But the world doesn’t seem to care what mice want. The tiniest mouse, Abernathy, along with his siblings and his friends, must employ recklessness, subterfuge and sarcasm in their struggle to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.
When I read over the pitch, I realized there was a chance that it might not be perfect. Since I hoped that other people would be mesmerized by its brilliance, I decided to use the brains of other people to help me improve the pitch. I sent it to a passel of my smarter friends and asked for their help. Some of them had even read the manuscript before. My friends delivered all the help I could have desired. In fact, here’s a selection of the guidance they provided to me:
Friend 1 – “I don’t like the sentence in the middle. It doesn’t fit with the rest of it.”
Me – “Wow. That’s my favorite sentence in the whole thing.”
Friend 1 – “Get used to working with editors.”
Friend 2 – “Saying ‘Cinderella’ straight out is giving everything away. And saying ‘tiniest mouse’ makes it sound like a children’s book. And I know it’s not a children’s book. You must have said damn a thousand times in that book, and you mention some really frisky mouse behavior.”
Me – “I wasn’t sure agents would spend more than four seconds looking at this, so I didn’t want to make them try to figure out it’s Cinderella. But I guess I should give them more credit. Good point about the children’s book. Maybe I could say ‘horniest mouse’ or something?”
Friend 3 – “Saying ‘pointless place’ twice is kind of awkward.”
Me – “Yeah. I guess you’re not telling me that saying it three times would be better, are you?”
Friend 4 – “Why should we care about these mice?”
Me – “Great question. I care about them because I’ve lived with them for months. They’re like penniless relatives I can’t get rid of. I don’t know—maybe you’d care about them if you spent eight bucks for the book? Okay, I’ll work on it.”
Friend 5 – “Even though it’s a ‘sales’ paragraph, it sounds too ‘salesy.’”
Me – “Ouch. If it sounds too much like a sales pitch then I’ve screwed up. I need to go more for, ‘Would you care to see my etchings?’ and less for, ‘Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?’”
Friend 6 – “I stumbled over ‘becoming something else’s food.’”
Me – “Yeah, that whole sequence is crap. I need something more like, ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ or, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’”
Friend 7 – “There needs to be something between the part about the world not caring what mice think and the part about the tiniest mouse and his friends. It seems disconnected.”
Me – “But Friend 1 told me to take out that sentence! Crap. It sucks when you write just 125 words, and the first part’s disconnected from the second part.”
Thanks to my smart, generous, and extremely honest friends, I have created a newer, more irresistible pitch:
The mice of Briarcliff Manor want only three things: to find enough to eat, to escape being eaten, and to have as much sex as possible. They don’t want to get involved with some stupid girl and her two cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a damned carriage from one pointless place to another. Faced with these threats to their dignity and lives, the audacious mouse Abernathy and his friends must employ subterfuge, bold stupidity, and strategic cowering in order to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.
Now I shall finish up the proposal and deliver it into the hands of as many harsh, bitterly practical agents as possible. Let the annihilation of my soul begin.