R. Shapiro photo

Be Ready to Pitch Your Story at Any Moment

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

December, 2011

"Try to imagine that you might, at any time, meet up with a top literary agent or a producer…"

Try to imagine that you might, at any time, meet up with a top literary agent or a producer or even the editor of a small, but respected literary magazine. The bigwig is busy. He (or she) only has three minutes to hear you out. What will your spiel be? You’d have to come up with a sentence or two that tells the major theme and maybe, if you’re a fast-talker, you can’t get in all the subplots, every character. If you can think that way, it will help you write your book, story, article, play, screenplay….

The first question you have to ask yourself is What is it about? This might sound way too easy a question, but when you think of all the locations, events, and characters, the answer might not be at the tip of your tongue. Sometimes the answer is easy. Peter Pan is about never wanting to grow up. The Wizard of Oz is about learning that there is no place like home. Maybe if I searched the net for what those stories are about, I’d get all different interpretations, but regardless of what others think it’s about, you have to decide what you think it’s about or you’ll never be able to pitch it, and might not even be able to write it. There may be secondary themes such as, in Peter Pan, the power and loyalty of friends can help you achieve the impossible as Peter does when he defeats Captain Hook. Secondary themes are valuable to the story, but might blur the pitch.

"Another thing you need to know is Whose story is it?"

Another thing you need to know is Whose story is it? The answer might not be in the title. The Wizard of Oz is about Dorothy while Peter Pan is his story and not Wendy’s nor the lost boys. In choosing your main character, you have to know what you want to say about the world. In Writing Your Own Plays (Scribner, 1986), Carol Korty points out that some stories can be interpreted in more than one way. Some versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears make the bears the main characters. You have to decide who your main character is and develop your story accordingly. It is possible to have more than one character be the primary characters. For example, in the Marx Brothers, each one has his own unique character, but you can count on them to make an uproar in every situation they meet, and you expect and want to have them as a trio. Doesn’t The Marx Brother sound tragic?

Besides identifying your main character, are the other characters clear and compelling? Are they different enough so that the reader can identify each one with “he or she said?” Think of Sex in the City. Samatha Jones is the insatiable sex goddess. Every thought, every action, every gesture reflects that quality while Carrie Bradshaw, the writer, a romantic, a fashionista who is particularly nuts for Manola Blahnik shoes and one guy, Big, who she can never let go of, no matter how many other crushes she has. Miranda Hobbes, a career-minded lawyer, is a cynic . about male-female relationships. Charlotte York, an art dealer who graduated Smith, is much more conservative than her friends and believes emotional love trumps lust. The way she dresses, her posture, her speech, all reflect this. Like the Marx Brothers, we know them well and look forward to what each will bring to a situation.

With individual heroes, there’s always a fascination with a character that is downtrodden and different but ends up a hero. Orphans are especially popular from Jane Eyre to Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn, where the orphaned hero, Lionel Essrog, an outcast with turrets syndrome who barks and counts his way through life, ends up part of a detective team that doesn’t do everything, shall we say, kosher. When the head of the detective team is killed, the others vie for the position and somehow, the least likely Lionel Essrog rises to the top by solving the case. A recent (10/31/11) New Yorker short story, The Tenth of December, by George Sanders, the hero, a boy who not only isn’t orphaned, but has a devoted mother, is autistic. Sanders never comes out and tells us this, but it’s obvious from the boy’s thoughts about the Netherworlders and the description of him. “The pale boy with the unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms…” Imagine how interested an agent would be to hear the pitch “an autistic boy manages to save a man who is dying of cancer from a suicide attempt?”

The same formula (forgive me for talking formula with great writers) can be used for animals, too. In the novel, Timbuktu, Paul Auster created two outcasts, Willy G. Christmas, a mentally ill homeless man and his sidekick, an old dog named Mr. Bones who is the actual teller of the story. When they start off to Baltimore in search of Willy’s high school English teacher and a new home for Mr. Bones, Auster wove an extraordinary tale. Imagine Auster’s agent pitching this book to his publisher?

"Look at the jacket of books—where are the jackets in the days of Kindle and IPads?—to see how the publisher pitches the book…"

Look at the jacket of books—where are the jackets in the days of Kindle and IPads?—to see how the publisher pitches the book to the reader. See if you can create a book flap for your book. It will not only help you write it. It will also ready you for meeting a literary Mr. (or Ms.) Big.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/