The Product or the Pitch, Part One

I get a lot of emails describing various manuscripts and submission scenarios. This is also something I’ve noticed a lot when I used to speak at conferences. Writers have this brand of magical thinking where they imagine that there’s an easy fix for their particular issue. (This is not an insult specifically about writers, I’ve noticed this is a quirk of human nature. Everyone’s looking for the kinder, softer answer, and understandably so!)

“Did I say too much at the Agents Breakfast?” they wonder. “Did I say enough? Was I wearing the wrong thing? Is it my title? Ugh, it’s definitely my title, isn’t it. What is wrong? Why am I not getting published?”

The answer is simple, but it’s one nobody wants to hear: It’s either the product or the pitch.

Shark Tank is one of my absolute favorite shows in the world. If you watch enough of it (and I do actually recommend this as homework, so it counts as writing and revision time!), you’ll start to notice some patterns. Who are the most successful entrepreneurs on the show? The ones who get the attention of the Sharks?

To hit it out of the park, they have the product and the pitch.

Let’s discuss the first part of the successful formula in this post, and save the pitch for later. So, the product. In your case, your product is a book. And yes, as much as we hate mixing art and commerce, your book is a product. That’s how a publisher sees it, at least. Sure, they hopefully also see it as something valuable to contribute to the literary landscape, but all that aside, they still want to sell copies. Contrary to popular belief, publishers don’t spend millions of dollars a year on fancy NYC headquarters, editors’ salaries, designers, photo shoots, marketing, and distribution just for the benevolent warm fuzzies of making your childhood dreams come true. Sure, that’s a side benefit for the authors who get to work with them. But publishers are in business, whether or not you think their business model makes any damn sense. And they want to make a profit. And for that, they need product: your book.

So, the toughest question to answer about what’s wrong with your submission is this: “Is the product any good?” Because when asked about their manuscripts, just like a mother asked about her kid, writers tend to think that it’s brilliant, the cutest, the most important, and anyone who doesn’t think so just doesn’t get it. But we are often terrible judges of anything we’re personally invested in.

The answer to this question often comes from feedback. And this isn’t a pitch for my freelance editorial services. I don’t care where you get your feedback, as long as it’s honest and the person knows (more or less) what they’re talking about. For many writers, this comes from a critique group. Or maybe a conference where they’ve purchased a critique.

The answer also comes with time. Your first few widgets as a widget designer aren’t going to be very good. That’s just a fact. Widgeting (and writing) takes practice. Many people have many dead manuscripts lining their desk drawers. Some let insecurity keep them in the drawer for too long, but I’ve found that they are in the minority. Most spread their “It’s time to submit!” wings quite early. Perhaps earlier than is prudent. But submitting early is another way to figure out if your product is any good, and so the slush is filled with product that’s not yet destined for its star turn.

There are a million resources on how to improve your product. Unfortunately, a novel isn’t a widget. It has 50,000-100,000 moving parts. Unlike a hard plastic widget, which is already cast, you can go in and screw around with a manuscript pretty much until your sanity gives out. This can get dangerous. One of the facets of learning to write is learning balance. Do you edit? Do you put it away for a while? Do you get feedback? How do you incorporate it? Do you set the whole damn thing on fire because ugh-ugh-ugh you can’t write your way out of a paper bag? …Are you, perhaps, a secret genius?

Watch some Shark Tank. What do the successful products have in common? How are they different from the duds? One of the biggest separators, for me, is that the winners are clear and have a reason. This is what it is, this is how you use it, this is why. Boom. Now, a novel is certainly more ephemeral than that. It’s not a toilet bowl brush, for Pete’s sake!

But when I’m reading a manuscript, a question that often comes up for me is, “Why?” As in, “Why is this story being told?” A lot of writers will joke that they pretty much had to exorcise some characters and adventures from their brains. That’s all fine and good, but we all had imaginary friends, and so I don’t necessarily need yours in my life. What about these characters-on-adventures can open my eyes. Tell me about life. Show me something larger about humanity. In other words, is the product just for you, or is it for all of us?

On Shark Tank, I once heard a pitch that sounded like an inside joke. The product was so specific, that it really seemed to exist to solve a very small problem that the inventor was having. And yet the inventor was convinced that it was a world-shattering idea that would find its way into every home and office.

As much as you’d like for everyone to need your characters-on-adventures, the big question is, will they? Is there enough of a theme? Is there a big picture? A sense of common humanity? Does your story look inward or outward? Why would I spend five hours of my time following it?

I’m thinking big these days, trying to dig into the bigger questions of what it all means and why we’re all so driven to write fiction for other people to read. I’m going to keep thinking about the product, and in the meantime, I’ll talk about the pitch.

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