by Lauren H. Smith
If you had been in Veronica Park’s session, “All Hook and No Plot: How to Tell If You’ve Got a Good Story,” you would have learned the most valuable reason for writing nonfiction: It gives you supervillain powers. Just kidding, sort of. Although she did mention this tasty tidbit (with a mischievous grin, I might add), she quickly reminded us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” (You’ve seen Spider-Man, right? You know exactly how he feels…) Great responsibility begs the following action steps:
1) You have to decide if your story should be told.
2) When your story is ready, you must learn how to sell it.
Because Veronica is an agent, she often spoke specifically to the writers looking to pitch book ideas. I’m not at that point yet, but she was full of darn good advice—some I’ll apply to writing essays, and some I’ve filed away for future reference. I appreciated her explanation of a good idea versus a great one. A good idea is, “thought-provoking, interesting to a variety of people, scalable, and timely,” but a great idea “encourages audience creativity, impacts real-life goals, inspires passionate emotions, applies to the human condition, and is both timely and timeless.”
— Elane Johnson (@ElaneJohnson) August 13, 2016
If your good idea fails, perhaps you didn’t do enough soul-searching. You didn’t uncover why it’s the story you need to tell. It can also fail because of market trend ignorance. “Read widely,” Veronica said. “You have to know where your story would fit.” And then—sticking to the supervillain theme—came my favorite advice: “It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘Who do I want to murder, so I can write his/her book?’”
Good ideas also fail when ambition doesn’t match effort. You know, the eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach type of thing. You have to do as much as you can before reaching out to an editor or agent. After all, they are not fairy godmothers. (I thought I’d magically transport us into another fictional land.)
The final reason a good idea fails? Execution. The hook may have sounded intriguing, but on paper, the plot…well…sucks. Before you think you’re ready to pitch, you must question your uniqueness; your narrator’s likeability, reliability, and passion; the relatability of your topic; and what’s at stake in your story. “It’s not enough to only share your crappy life,” Veronica said, which reminded me of something I’d heard before: There can’t just be a situation; there must be a story—a deeper meaning for the reader to grasp. (I recommend reading Vivian Gornick’s aptly named book, The Situation & The Story.)
During her session’s final minutes, Veronica explained how to give a book pitch using the 4W+H model: Who, What, When, Where + How (optional). Each segment should pack a powerful, under-ten-words sentence. After all, it’s vital to “use the Batman version of yourself to get someone to care about your work.”