Yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders, campers: I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”
I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert.
Perhaps especially if.
Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? In that spirit, I’m going to tackle a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers. (Keep ’em coming, folks!)
Sharp-eyed reader Colleen wrote in to ask how one adapts the 2-minute pitch format to stories with multiple protagonists. That’s such a good question — and such an appropriate one, after last month’s lengthy discussions of the particular problems faced by novelists juggling a mob of lead characters — that I wanted to address it here, rather than just in the comments section.
Here’s the short answer: tell the story of the book, not the characters.
Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain.
For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — it has to be, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always a point of commonality.
That commonality should be the focus of your pitch, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.
Why? Well, there’s a practical reason — and a different kind of practical reason.
Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from a pitch-viewer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together.
So if you started to pitch a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Artic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out. There’s just too much to remember.
And if remembering three names in two minutes doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my June 14 post on pitch fatigue.
But it’s easy to forget that, isn’t it, when you’re trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? From the writer’s POV, the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.
And rightly so, really: the reader’s experience of the story is inextricably tied up with how it is written.
I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”
That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves. And that, really, is the charm of the book.
So does that mean it would be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?
In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.
So even though the elevator speech above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use the speech above, then add, “The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.”
Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.
But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.
And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.
Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: POV choices are a WRITING issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself.
In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.
Which is why, in case you are curious, so many agents seem to zone out when a writer begins a pitch (and believe me, many do) with, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”
It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing POV, they’re substantially less so.
Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just yearn for multiplicity of perspective.”
I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.
I have a bit more to say on this subject, but if I don’t post this soon, it will be tomorrow’s blog, not today’s. (Speaking of being over-literal… and over-tired) Get a good night’s rest, everybody, and keep up the good work!