Friday, October 7, 2011

Answering the question, "What's your story about?"

If you and I are having a face-to-face conversation, and you're kind enough to say to me, "What's your story about?" you will likely be met with a groan and some jibber jabber about a girl who is in high school and having a rough go of it. Oh, and there's some boy drama. And some problems with her best friend. Plus her parents don't get along so great....

Just makes you want to run right out and buy my books, doesn't it? (Imagine me rolling my eyes.)

At the ACFW conference, I took a class by Jim Rubart, who is a rare combination of fabulous writer and natural marketer. He had many great things to say, but the one that resonated with me the most was if you are not enthusiastic about your story, why should anybody else be?

That was a serious light bulb moment for me. How many opportunities have I wasted because I groaned and rambled when a person handed me an invitation to talk about my books? I've given some serious thought about why I do this. Here are some of the reasons I've come up with:

  • I'm much more comfortable in a conversation when I'm listening rather than talking.
  • I'm nervous about any kind of negative reaction they might have. (When I'm talking to a group of moms, I don't start off my explanation of Me, Just Different with, "Well, Skylar gets roofied at a party and is nearly date raped...")
  • But the biggest is this - I'm not convinced my books sound interesting.

I think my books are good (that's an awkward thing to say...) but when I explain what they're about, I'm afraid they don't sound very good. I'm afraid they sound trite and unimaginative. I'm constantly resisting the urge to say, "I know it sounds kinda boring..." 

We talked about one-lines back in July, which is a written sentence to describe your book. But you should also have a 30 second verbal spiel ready. What works well written doesn't always translate very well to verbal, I've found.

Like if you said to me, "What's your book about, Stephanie?" Wouldn't it be weird if I said to you, "A quick-witted, intelligent teen, secretly pursues her dream of publishing a novel after being ostracized by the snarky friends who inspired her story." It just doesn't sound right.

Instead I would probably start with the title. "Out of Reach is about a high school junior whose lifelong friends have turned on her. She's really hurt by what they've done, and she devotes herself to writing a novel. At first she does it out of revenge and a desire to escape, but she falls in love with writing and begins to secretly pursue publishing it."

That clocks in at 15 seconds. It would probably be faster in real life because I tend to speed-talk when nervous. With my remaining time, I say something about why the book is special to me or what's been fun or unique about the project. I haven't test driven this much, but I did try it out at the conference, and I think it worked really well. It helped to convey my enthusiasm for my manuscript, which people like to see. Especially if those people are agents and editors.

Hands down, the best verbal pitch I've ever heard was Angela Hunt's for The Elevator. Our class asked what her manuscript was about and she told us, "Three women are stuck on an elevator as a hurricane comes in. Woman number one is a wife who just found out her husband is cheating, and she's on her way upstairs with a gun. Woman number two is her husband's mistress, and she's on her way upstairs to demand he leave his wife. And the third woman is the maid ... who just killed him."

That was about 5 years ago when she told us that, and while I might be a little off on some of those details, it's a darn good sign that this many years later I remember it as well as I do. Everyone in the class went, "Oooh."

Maybe the "oooh" factor in your book isn't quite as tangible, but when verbally pitching your book, don't underestimate the value of your enthusiasm.

What about you? Do you have a tough time talking about the project you're working on, or are you delighted when people ask?

Hope you guys have a great weekend!


  1. For some bizarre reason, both of the verbal pitches I had to give at conference (for different books) began with, "My inspiration for my heroine was . . ." Perhaps because on both occasions, the editors already knew the gist of the book and asked for "more" about it. But in general, I agree that where a good written pitch is all about punch, a good verbal one is all about ease, which usually means starting with "TITLE is about/a story of . . ."

  2. I love what you did here, transforming the written summary into the simpler (and stutter-proof) spoken one. I'm so gonna do this and try it out!

    The "I'm a writer" confession only pops out of my mouth occasionally, but when it does, it seems like half the time I'm asked this question as a follow-up. I really want to be better prepared for it, so I was glad to see this post this morning!

    This is definitely something I struggle with. I thought that it was hard enough to write out the 30-second summary/elevator pitch...well actually saying that out loud to someone was WAYYY harder. (See my comment from the other day about the sky not falling on my head.)

  3. I think your books are great, too :D
    I think my tendency is to talk people's ears off when they ask my what my story is about - I don't think I lack in enthusiasm, I love writing so much :D I actually once talked to someone about a dead story idea I had and I had already dropped for more than and hour.
    The thing I have trouble with is shutting up, I guess, and shortening the story idea to something manageable, then also being CONFIDENT. Being enthusiastic and being confident are not the same thing. I never ever think someone actually wants to hear my story. I always assume they're just asking to be polite, and they're not really interested. It makes me insecure and whenever I'm talking about something I love (like stories and writing) I ask the people with whom I am talking if they're bored at regular intervals.


  4. Actually, I think I must be the only person here who would rather TELL someone my story than WRITE the idea out. With writing, I keep second-guessing myself, and never know when good enough is good enough. So I'd much rather not give myself a chance to think about it, since I know that once I start speaking, things come out well enough, as where my words tend to come out a little jumbled on technical writing.

  5. I am the WORST at this! I cannot sound enthusiastic about my books in public - I just can't.

  6. Oh my, this is such a problem for me! When people ask what I like to do, I always say read and write, and then the say, what do you write, and I say novels, and they always ask what they're about, and then I ALWAYS say "Umm..." and stumble and stutter. It doesn't help that I have a lisp.

    Oh, and I really should thank you, Stephanie, for doing that post about favourite books. When you said how much you liked "The Apothecary's Daughter," I loved the cover art so much I went and got every single one of Julie Klassen's books out from my library. WOW. I loved them so much! Particularily "The Silent Governess." I stayed up intil midnight reading it, and then started school at ten because I just "had to finish the chapter," and then I went through my entire day thinking about until I could read it again. It's a pretty good book. :-)
    I rambled there, didn't I? Okay, I'll stop now. :P

  7. Roseanna, I think I'll use that phrase ("my inspiration for my heroine was...") to brainstorm about verbal pitches. I love what you said about punch vs. ease. Exactly!

    Book Blogger, you have totally convinced me about Julie Klassen. I'm going to look and see if my library has her books. :)

  8. I would MUCH rather write out my story idea than tell someone. I'm very unsure if someone will like the sound of my story, or will just get bored. A lot of the the times I say my little spiel in an almost apologetic tone.

    This post has helped me realize something, though. I know that God has gifted me to be a writer. And I know that none of His gifts are bad. So I shouldn't be ashamed of my stories or my writing, or even embarrassed by them because this is what God has called me to do. :)
    Thanks for this post, Stephanie. :)

  9. Micah, that's a good point. I often assume people are asking out of politeness too, so I feel kind of bad boring them.

    But as I think about it, there are times that I ask something out of politeness or just trying to make conversation, and it's nice to have those questions answered joyfully. What I'm trying to say is that even if they're asking just to be polite, I need to be better about not letting it muddle my answer.

  10. Book Blogger/Rachelle, Julie Klassen's books are AWESOME. I haven't read her latest - Girl in the Gatehouse - but my mom is reading it now and said it was the best book she'd read this year. I'm totally snagging it from her next.

  11. Becki, how interesting! I think I would prefer to be wired the way you are. If things are coming out jumbled on the page, you can edit them. Not so much in real life!

  12. Clarebear, that's a lesson I'm learning alongside you.

    I always thought I would "grow out of" writing stories about high school life, but I never did. It took me a long time to realize/accept that those were the stories God had entrusted to me, and that there was no shame in pursuing them. Only in NOT pursuing them.

  13. Oh, I read The Silent Governess! It was so much fun!!!! I haven't read any of her other books that I can think of (but I read tons of books, so it's not surprising I can't remember if I read any other Julie Klassen books). Okay, that's it...I'm headed to find more of her books. :)

  14. This it going to sound really dumb, but... It has never actually occurred to me before right now that when people ask, "How's your story going?" or "What's it about?" -- they might actually want to know. So I just kind of shrug and say something like, "Not very good," or "This girl. I don't know what else."

    Oh dear. I needed this post. A lot.

    "Like if you said to me, "What's your book about, Stephanie?" Wouldn't it be weird if I said to you, "A quick-witted..."" Made me smile.

  15. Wow...... Stephanie you're a lot more like me than I realized! There are several things in your post about why you don't like verbally explaining your book that are exactly what I would say my problems are. :)

    I think I've gotten better at explaining my books, but you should've seen me when I explained my Halloween costume last year that was made after a character of mine. My youth mentor's eyes glazed over, lol! I blushed and stuttered "so yeah..." when I saw that.

    I still don't know how exactly to shrink the explanation and still get all the details in, without giving all the details away.

    Do you have a method of doing that Stephanie?

  16. Emii, sometimes I'm not ready to talk about a project. So if you REALLY don't know or aren't in the mood to talk about it, it's okay to be mysterious. Before I was published I would usually say, "I'm still figuring it out."

    But now there's an expectation that everything I work on is in the works to be published (which is sadly false) so I can get away with saying, "I'm really excited about the project, but I'm not able to talk about it yet." If I'm in super-marketing mode, I might say, "It's different from my first series, which is about..." and then lead in that way.

    But if you DO know what your book is about, don't be afraid to show some enthusiasm and tell people when they ask :)

  17. Jazmine, I love that you dressed up like one of your characters! That's so fun.

    Figuring out the right details to share can be really tricky. I go with what my character's main goal is and the biggest thing that is preventing her from achieving it. And then I practice it on writer friends and my husband.

  18. Thanks so much! I always freeze up when someone asks me what my books about, usually starting off with 'it's umm... complicated'. Then ending by emailing them a summary.


  19. Ha, Jeanne! Maybe I'll start asking if I can text it to people :)

  20. This is something I REALLY struggle with!!!

    I once won this short story competition and I was interviewed about my story. I was asked " So what is your story about?" and I had a complete brain freeze, even though I was a winner I still got nervous and felt like my story was silly.

    I really need to get more confident when telling other people about my writing!

    P.S great post

    - Elisabeth Greenwood

  21. I CAN ramble on and on about my story, if anyone is interested, but in the past, I used to say things like "... Well, um it's like this, but I changed my mind on THAT and I'm not so sure about this part and... well, I don't really know how to explain..." Thanks for the great post, it's been very helpful to me :)

    - Paige

  22. Haha, I hope I have an awesome husband that will let me blabber things like that to him like you do. :)

  23. My brother is dating an author, and she just published her first book. When I asked her what it was about, she mumbled something about a high school girl and 'it's kind of complicated' and wasn't very enthusiastic. I love to hear from writers who love their storyline, so I found it really disappointing. I'm going to try and make sure I never end up doing that (although I am sure I will someday).