Friday, July 21, 2006

The Dreaded Question

Smarty Pants is currently out of town. I KNOW – Again! This time on a business trip to Texas. I get back tonight which will leave me just three days to get packed for Nationals. I’m having a complete panic attack. Thank goodness I don’t have an editor appointment this year or I’d be a basket-case. It’s bad enough worrying about clothes and shoes and not sounding stupid when people ask the dreaded question. What is the dreaded question, you ask? Picture a large ballroom filled with hundreds of people eating lunch. Picture me sitting at a linen draped table with a bunch of strangers because I’ve been separated from the rest of my herd. After minutes of awkward silence, one of the women at the table looks me in the eye and says...

“So, what do you write?” she asked over a bite of salad.

I froze, the fork of ranch-covered tomato hovering in midair. “Uh...” I mutter intelligently. “Paranormals,” I manage to spit out and immediately shove the food in my mouth to prevent me from having to elaborate. Truth is that I write a lot of things. My current work is paranormal, although some might say it isn’t a classically dark paranormal. Too much info, however, the lady just wants a straight answer, so I leave it at that.

“What’s your current book about?”

“Uh,” I say again, trying to swallow so I don’t talk with my mouth full. How do I describe it without it sounding cheesy? It isn’t cheesy, but when I say it, it sounds cheesy. At the same time, I feel weird talking about my books to someone I don’t know. It’s ‘catastrophizing’ as Counselor Shelley would say, but I have images of a new bestseller hitting the shelves with a picture on the back of that woman and a cover blurb remarkably like what I told her.

“It’s about two vampires searching for a way back to the mortality that was stolen from them.” There. That sounded intelligent and brief.

It is at this point that the person nods with faux interest and takes another bite of salad before turning back to their friend, ignoring you for the rest of the meal.

Adapt this to an elevator ride, small talk before a workshop, standing in line for a book signing or to get into the dining room. It doesn’t matter where, its always the same. People pretending to be interested in your work in an attempt to fill dead air space. They’ll graciously accept your business card, smile and nod, but I never get the feeling that anyone cares. Maybe its just me and my ‘sincerity meter’ needs to be recalibrated. Maybe, as people have to rudely pointed out, I’m just lacking the social skills in that area.

Why, then, is it that I stress so badly over my answer when it seems people are just being polite? I guess it’s that one in a hundred chance that the person asking is an editor or agent not wearing their ribbons or nametags. I will never sell a book over a one line blurb at a lunch table, but what if I end up face to face with them at an appointment later that day. I don’t want them eyeing me and thinking “oh, it’s that girl that doesn’t know what she writes.”

So, what can you do to be better prepared when that question comes around? Playground standards include an arsenal of the following:
  • A one line elevator pitch - this is what you'd throw out for the dreaded question. If you work it out in advance, you'll be in much better shape that if you make it up on the fly.
  • A full editor pitch - this is a paragraph that hits the high points of your book that you can read off of a notecard during an editor appointment. Sure, it'd be great if you could just memorize and recite, but you've got enough to worry about. Just read it off the card.
  • A partial (2-4 page synopsis and 3 polished chapters) - have one of these ready before you leave. You don't need to have printed copies with you, but if you get a request, you want to be able to go home and mail it right away. Have one ready to go.
This won't make people genuinely interested if they're not, but at least you can answer any question with confidence and feel good about it if they turn out to be someone important to your career.

Anyway...any of you folks in CyberSpace going to be headed to Atlanta next week? If so, maybe we can practice our small talk together.


(PS. I can’t post my word count this week because I’m in Texas without a computer and WHO KNOWS what I’ve hand written. I’ll post this weekend when I get back, if its even changed! I'm inclined to let these two weeks go by and pick up my book when I get back. Of course, when I get back, I'll have gone to enough workshops to think by book is garbage.)


Playground Monitor said...

You know you'll have a captive audience in the car. You can practice on us.

Here's to a safe trip back home and a productive packing weekend. And a productive shopping trip if you still have to shop.


Problem Child said...

I still haven't figured out my one-line response.

Is "Books" too snarky of an answer?

I've been told this doesn't get any easier...sigh.


Jennette said...

I am soooo with you on the small talk! And I need to practice my one-liner too - thanks for the reminder!

Smarty Pants said...

Anyone care to share their one line pitches for practice??


Laura15SP said...

Hello All!
I just stumbled on this blog when I was doing a search for "elevator pitches" which is what I've been focused on since 2002. Many of my creative clients go through same angst that you all mention here. It's not easy to boil down what you are doing into a soundbite that is a few seconds long. We came up with a formula to try to make it a little less painful.If you'd like to check out a free and easy way to create a pitch, you can go to my website and play with the "Pitch Wizard." And I'd be happy to give you some quick feedback, (my treat) if any of you would like!

Instigator said...

You know, I prepare for this exact question but still my stomach ties in knots everytime I hear it. Maybe it'll help to remember the person asking is more than likely just being polite and not really interested in the first place :-)

Nah, probably not.

Have a safe trip home, SP.


Sandra Richards said...

You know, a one liner got me a request from Nationals last year. So, it can happen. That being said, however, I think I'd approach the Dreaded Question a little differently, this year.

Harlequin author Charlotte Maclay spoke to my local RWA® chapter in June and gave us, amongst other things, a mini-pitch that takes about an elevator ride to do. What intrigued me was one particular point: what question does your novel ask? It really sums up the plot in one sentence.

Therefore, my elevator one-liners are thus:

What if two teens at a wizards guild stole a magic harp waking a vengeful sorcerer who relentlessly pursued them, crushing their innoncence?


What if a young girl crossed over into an alternate universe and found the future survival of humanity on Earth being debated?

Just for contrast, my one-line that got the request (it was for the first question posted about the teens stealing the harp) was this:
It's Harry Potter meets Sherilyn Kenyon's Fantasy Lover.

That's it, folks.

Smarty Pants said...

So my pitch would be something like:

What if an ordinary woman woke up to find herself a vampire and the only way back to her humanity was to join the quest of the mysterious vampire that bit her?

Not bad! I like it...