Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Can You Do With 140 Characters?

To be clear, I don't mean 140 characters in your story; I mean 140 characters about your story.

Let me 'splain No, there is too much. Let me sum up

             ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Are you on Twitter? I’ve found most people are not conflicted in their opinions of the microblogging site—it’s either love it or hate it, there is little in between. I’m a fan. I think Twitter is a great challenge, to try to distill what is usually a much longer concept or train of thought into a relatively tiny chunk of text.

As an editor, I find it to be a great challenge. I attended a conference for editors once, and the speaker at one session said that if you can tell a story in 2,000 words, you can tell it in 200 words—it’s a matter of determining the story that will be told in the end. I don’t know if I fully agree with that—can you really distill any story down into smaller and smaller pieces and get the same impact?—but I do think that it’s a good challenge to try.

And it’s an art when it’s done well.


Ramble On 

Don't let this be you. Any of them! Neither the babbler nor
the twee little birdie who sees no exit save checking out
of the situation all together be.
As a parent it’s one of my great joys when my kids find a book that truly engages them; however, it’s also a double-edged sword in that they also want to describe it in great detail to me. This is an undertaking that can go on. And on… and on some more. This is also something I’ve experienced as an editor when I’m being pitched a book or story, the pitch is like The Neverending Story, but not in a good way, in a confusing and incoherent way.

Let’s be clear; I’m guilty of this myself... so guilty.

I’m working on a NANOWRIMO project, and I’ve got a (relatively) clear idea of where it’s going. I have a very thorough outline, a play by play of the action done in storytelling sequence and also in chronological order. This has all been meticulously written out, longhand, in a notebook, that I work from when I’m writing (typing).

I know what I’m writing. But how can I describe this story to someone else? Because I’ve been asked. Several times. And I’ve seen that glazed look that appears in the eyes of those across from me when I start to explain how it all fits together. Because good stories aren’t often neatly told, are they? And the more I hear myself say "Well, there's this woman and she... oh yeah, and he doesn't know that...—did I tell you that part already? And this girl she knew from a long time ago... and I'm not sure how that part's going to resolve, but I just know it's part of the story... blah blah blah." If I confuse myself trying to explain this convoluted story of my own making (and I do), how in the world will I ever explain it clearly and concisely to anyone else? 


Perfect Pitch 

And this is where we come back to the idea of Twitter, of that 140 character limit. Because think on this—you might be chuckling over my half-baked attempt at relating my story given all the words in the world, but could you accurately or serviceably describe your story? What about in a limited amount of characters?

The idea of an elevator pitch has been around for a long time, sometimes in relation to a story, sometimes in relation to selling yourself as the right person for the job. Though you might not be able to explain your story in a tweet, you should be able to pick out the main point of your story, your theme or takeaway message. Taking your main point down to its most minimal should have the added effect of making it more intriguing, which is really the perfect elevator pitch—you leave them asking for more. Which is the most important part. Because, really, if you can reduce your story down to 140 characters and not leave the reader asking for more, why tell it in the first place?

So I challenge you: take whatever you’re writing (or if you’re not writing anything, take something that you’ve recently read or an old favorite), and develop the briefest of descriptions for it. Perfect your elevator pitch and try it out on someone. Hopefully if you’re doing NANOWRIMO (Which is not so much a month for me as it is turning into more of a quarter year at the pace I’m writing. Or not writing.), you’ll need this pitch at the end of the month so you can start querying agents and editors with your fantastic novel. In fact, your short little message could make for a perfectly captivating intro sentence for your query letter, wouldn’t it?


Writing Your Pitch

  1. What's your genre? Are you writing a mystery? Fantasy? Young Adult? Western? Where do you see your finished book on the shelf at your local bookstore?
  2. Strip it down to basics. Think of the questions that need to be answered in almost any story: WHO, WHAT WHEN, WHY, HOW? Address these first to get to your most basic main storyline.
  3. Accessorize for the occasion. Consider subplots, secondary characters and storylines, iconic places or information that can layer onto your pitch for any occasion. Add or remove these accessories as needed. If someone asks what you're working on? Offer your basic pitch. Do they want more information? Layer on the relevant information most relevant to them. Writing your pitch as a letter? Use that basic pitch in your letter, save the accessories for the bigger synopsis (likely included with your pitch).
  4. Read it out loud to yourself. After you've written it down, read it aloud. Are you really hitting on the main idea behind your story?
  5. Read it out loud to someone else. Ask for feedback—and watch for those tell-tale glazed over eyes.

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