Describe Your Book in Two Sentences: Q&A with Ann Garvin

Photo of author Ann Garvin with the quote: While a good marketer tells a story, she doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s where it can get complicated for someone who just wrote a book.

Today’s post is by author Laura Bird (@laura_at_the_library).

Writing a book is one thing; marketing it is quite another.

Before my debut middle grade novel was published, people would ask me, “What’s your story about?”

I’d bumble through a response as their eyes glazed over, shinier than two Krispy Kremes. I desperately wanted to impart the heart and soul of my book to them, but all I could do was nervously stutter.

I quickly discerned that I needed to hone my marketing skills, or I’d never sell a single copy of my novel. So I called my good friend Ann Garvin, who taught me how to convey the essence of my story in a few punchy sentences.

When we do this, people actually listen, and then they go out and buy our books.

It’s the simplest thing, but also the hardest. Let’s dig in.

Laura Bird: Why is it so hard to describe a book in a couple sentences?

Ann Garvin: A writer who has finished a novel has taken a glimmer of an idea and expanded it into an entire book-length project. They’ve created multiple characters, plot lines, and scenes filled with emotion critical to the finished book. A pitch asks the writer to keep all these things in mind and craft one or two juicy sentences that entice a reader to ask for more. To do this, they must leave the role of creative writer, memoirist, or nonfiction expert and dip their toe into another profession entirely. They have to learn how to market their work. And while a good marketer tells a story, she doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s where it can get complicated for someone who just wrote a book.

What’s the ideal length of a good pitch?

Two sentences, maybe three, if they are short. Literary agents, editors, and even loved ones are busy, and we all have short attention spans. Writers need to be able to talk about the core of their story, using the fewest, most impactful words possible—or they risk losing their audience’s valuable attention. We’re trying to hook them into asking them for more, rather than explaining everything they might miss if they don’t read our book. One is a flirtation, the other is a monologue, and I don’t know any dating sites that use the monologue system to find love.

What are the components of a good pitch?

An effective pitch will address things like: Who are the main characters? What are they doing and why? Why should I care about this story, and what’s at stake?

I have a pared-down formula that might be helpful. It looks something like this:

[protagonist] + [inciting incident] + [protagonist’s goal] + central conflict

If you start with this formula, you can work your way into a second one that fleshes it out a bit more:

When [inciting incident] happens to [protagonist], they must overcome [central conflict] to get [what protagonist wants]

But this seems to leave out almost everything! 

It feels like that, yes, but a pitch gets down to the very core of the story. It’s not a plot summary, a timeline, or an inventory. A good pitch hints at what the character in your project might need to overcome to get what they want. It allows the reader to imagine what it might take to survive and grow from a situation; this imagination is the most enticing thing. The good news is the reader brings their imagination to the meeting; you just need to spark their vision.

What mistakes do writers often make when pitching?

They try and give a complete summary of their book and end up in the weeds, or they write a review of the themes found in the book, leaving out the essence of what characters are doing on the page in order to get what they want.

What is the hardest pitch you’ve ever written?

My first book is about Maggie Finley. Devastated by the loss of a pregnancy, she has returned to her hometown newly pregnant and discovers that a sex offender lives on her street. Maggie rushes from the sublime to the ridiculous to keep her family safe, only to discover her haven is in the unlikeliest of places.

The most challenging thing about this pitch wasn’t that the story was potentially grim; rather, it was how to communicate that this story had quite a lot of humor. So you can imagine it was a very challenging pitch to write! Although I sold it, I’m still not sure I had it right.

How did you figure out the art of good pitch writing?

Each time I write a pitch, I have to work through the process—repeatedly. But I’ve been a professor since 1995, and whenever I’m faced with figuring out a new skill, I teach it. I break it down as if I’m presenting it to strangers, and in the process, I learn it myself. I’ve also spent the last decade teaching and working at pitch conferences and universities to hone my skills.

In the end, though, the writer knows her book best and has the most skin in the game. She knows what her book is about—she just needs to put it in the right words.

You teach a class and run a pitch contest. Why?

There are so many talented writers with compelling manuscripts who need help with the next step toward publishing. When I was a new writer, I felt like there was a fire wall between me and agents and editors. It was frustrating, and I didn’t know how to get past it. Maybe it’s the nurse in me, or the educator, but I want to open the gates for other writers to bring their dreams to reality.

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