That pesky ‘elevator pitch’ and why we need one

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via Wikimedia Commons

You get into a lift. An agent you’d love to sign you steps in as the doors close. You have her exclusive attention for two minutes. Now is your chance. You tell her you’re an author, and you’ve just written a fabulous book and you’re looking for the best representation. You’d love her to take a look at it. The conversation proceeds:

‘How exciting. What’s your novel about?’

‘Erm, well, its about a woman who is separated from her husband but still loves him really, only he’s with someone else, so she decides to go to London and start afresh … but there’s a secret that someone else – like, another person – has …  oh, did I say her ex works in the same firm as her brother? …  and though we don’t know it yet, if she decides to spill the beans, well, it could have dire consequences for all of them and …’

At this point you reach her floor, the doors slide open and she steps out.

‘Good luck with your book!’ she calls, as the doors close again. You’ve missed your chance.

Ring the Alarm

Don’t hit the panic button! via Wikimedia Commons

This is what’s known as ‘the elevator pitch’. You have two minutes at most to sell your story. You need to be prepared for the moment. Hone your pitch finely, rehearse it and get ready to wow your captive agent. Let’s try again.

‘What’s your novel about?’

‘It’s about digging deeper than you ever thought possible to discover what your really need, then fighting for it.’

‘That sounds interesting. Tell me more.’

‘Molly doesn’t realise how much she still loves her ex until she sees Adam with another woman, but instead of fighting for him, she runs off to London to start a new job. Meanwhile, Adam’s life is torn apart by deceit and fraud in the law firm he runs. They both make terrible mistakes, but all the answers lie close to home, if only they can see them. It’s about working out what’s really important in a complicated modern world.’

The lift door opens.

‘I have to go, but here’s my card. Why don’t you send me something?’

Writing a novel is a long and extremely intricate business and it’s all too easy to get bogged down by character, plot, dialogue, setting, pace and the many other elements that have to come together to make a great novel. In all of this, we can lose sight of the main drivers. So although spending time thinking about your elevator pitch can seem like an unnecessary distraction, the exercise can bring huge benefits, allowing you to rediscover focus and impetus.

What’s your novel about? If you’ve got a great one-liner, do tell!

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Annual Bloggers’ Bash

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Early arrivals at the Bloggers’ Bash, greeted by Sacha before registering. Picture courtesy of Hugh Roberts.

I’m starting this post by giving the bloggers among you a very important date – Saturday June 10, 2017. Put in your diary now. This is when the annual Bloggers Bash takes place – and you really don’t want to miss it.

 

I went to London for this year’s Bash; somewhat nervously it has to be said. Apart from worrying about whether, not having met any of these people before, I would find myself sitting alone in a corner I was concerned about getting lost and never finding the venue. I have no sense of direction, have serious problems in distinguishing left from right and absolutely no idea which way is south – or west or north. And I don’t have a smart phone.

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“Then I turned left…no, right, well, whatever, I got here.” I have no idea what I was holding forth about. Picture courtesy of Hugh Roberts

What I did have was several sheets of paper with directions prepared by the ever-patient DH for each stage of my journey from when I arrived at Euston Station. I walked to Kings Cross, dispensed with paper one and followed the next set of directions provided by one of the Bash organisers Geoff Le Pard. I had other bits of paper to direct me from the Bash venue to the hotel I was staying in and from the hotel back to Euston. I only got lost once.

As soon as I arrived, the warm welcomes and hugs from the organisers – Sacha (the Boss), Hugh, Geoff and Ali instantly dispelled all my anxiety about sitting speechless and friendless in a corner. People just seemed to fall into conversations. It was amazing to be able to talk to bloggers I’d never actually met but who were most certainly not strangers. I met new-to-me bloggers, too, and people I knew through commenting on blogs we follow. The place was buzzing. And it was noisy. Put 50 plus bloggers in a room and the decibel level could raise the roof!

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The all-important envelopes for the various award categories. Photo courtesy of Hugh Roberts

Blogger Awards were given out – you can see who won what on Sacha’s blog here – and there was a blogging master class by Luca Sartoni who works for Automatic, owner of WordPress. Luca was somewhat astonished to discover how much re-blogging we do. I think we were equally astonished at his astonishment.

Bloggers came from Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Lichtenstein – and I knew I shouldn’t have started this paragraph because I can’t remember where everyone came from. It was a truly international gathering.

It was a fantastic day. Online friendships were cemented, new friends met to follow online and the wonderful, warm, fuzzy (maybe that was the gin) feeling of belonging to an amazing blogging community.

Hugh Roberts, one of the organising team, filmed the proceedings. I suspect all of us granted permission without realising we were then expected to say something to camera without being given a second to prepare!

Hats off to the organisers, who did such a fantastic job. I’m so looking forward to next year’s Bash. Put that date in your diary now. June 10, 2017.

Whose story is this anyway?

I think I put so many POV character in my first novel because I didn't know it was a bad idea.

I think I put so many POV character in my first novel because I didn’t know it was a bad idea.

The people in my books are pretty pushy. Each one likes to make sure they get their story told the way they want it. That’s why I write books with multiple points of view.

If you’re not familiar with the term, point of view (POV) refers to the person through whose eyes the reader is looking into the story. The reader is in that person’s head, seeing what they see; feeling what they feel; and doing what they do.

One review of my first novel, The Farmer Needs A Wife said something like.. “there are about 6 POV characters, but it’s well handled and I didn’t find it confusing”. That was nice to know – but there were actually eight POV characters in that book.

Umm –no. There were nine. I forgot about the opening scene.

Nine POV characters! In my first book. What was I thinking?

A few fellow writers have asked how I managed them all. The answer is via a brilliant little graph. Please note – I take no credit at all for this method. It was passed on to me by the fabulous Annie Burgh – who writes complex, fascinating novels with lots of characters and plots and sub-plots. She is also a fabulous teacher. This is what she taught me to do…

Coloured pencils are vital!

Coloured pencils are vital!

When I start a new book, I take a page of graph paper and coloured pencils. The pencils are very important. I need a different colour for each character, whether they have a POV or not. I will sometimes put the colours in groups – for example a husband and wife might be dark and light green. Each has their own colour, but they are both green because they are connected.

As I finish each chapter, I draw a bar on the graph, just like back at school. The colour/s of the bar represent the POV character or characters and the height of the bar represents the number of words in each POV and each chapter… because sometimes there will be more than one POV per chapter.

The secondary characters (those who don’t get a POV) are little bits of colour above each chapter they appear in.

Thus I can make sure each of my main characters gets enough room in the book to tell their story well. I can also keep track of the secondary characters, so I don’t lose them.

If I suddenly realise that there has been too much of one colour, or not enough of another, I know I am letting one character get far too pushy – and I can slap them down a bit and put them back in their place.

If the colour representing my heroine (in the drawing below it is pink for Linda) is the most common colour, that’s a good sign.

If one of the chapters shows three or four changes of POV – that’s not so good. I do like to keep each POV section to somewhere around 1,000 words. I certainly would worry if I had a POV section less that 500 words. But that doesn’t happen often. As I said my characters are very pushy.

Here's the opening few chapters of a new Coorah Creek novel - characters old and new.

Here’s the opening few chapters of a new Coorah Creek novel – characters old and new.

I know I could do this more efficiently in a spreadsheet on my computer, but I think it’s important to reward yourself as you write. Those few minutes playing with coloured pencils are my reward for finishing a chapter.

I write the chapter number under the bar every 5 chapters , so when I am editing and referring back to something I’ve written, I know where to go. I will also sometimes write a word or two to remind myself what is in the chapter, but just for the key turning points in the novel.

Since that first novel, I have tried to get the number of POV characters down. My second book only had five. My third only three. But as two of them had two POV sections – one as a teenager and one as an adult – that sort of puts it back to five.

I really wasn’t terribly successful at cutting back the POV characters. I am currently working on a book that has… let me count them… 10? Maybe 11 by the time I have finished.

But this is a complex story! Honestly.

The important thing about handling multiple POVs in a book is that the reader must always know whose eyes they are looking through and whose thoughts they are hearing. There must be very clear handovers between POV characters. And of course, a character cannot know anything about something that happened when they were not present (unless you have someone like Trish Warren in your book – she is my Coorah creek gossip and makes sure all my characters know what they need to know.)

I truly admire writers who have only one POV character. Even more do I admire writers who first from the first person POV – that is to say, they write as ‘I’ … ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’.

I can’t do it, but perhaps that’s because for me, it’s the complexity of human nature, and the diversity of the people I meet that makes me want to write.

But I promise I won’t put more than 10 POV characters in a book. Ever…. Well, at least not until next time.

Welcome to Hug A (Writer’s) Cat Day, June 4th.

pam and lorraine with picklesActually, as any cat owner knows, cats decide for themselves the day and minute you’re permitted to give them affection, but still we’re honouring them today. Just as witches have their familiars, cats have played an important role as authors’ companions and muses.  Here are a few.

 

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Mark Twain lost his beloved cat Bambino and offered a $5 reward for his return, describing him as “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.” Immediately there was a stream of people showing up at his house, bearing cats of all colours and sizes, anxious to see the author of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even when Twain placed another ad announcing the return of his cat, the fans kept coming by, carrying moggies.

Raymond Chandler, master of the hard-boiled detective genre, found himself dominated by his cat, Taki, who he described as “positively tyrannical. If she finds herself alone anywhere she emits blood curdling yells until somebody comes running. She sleeps on a table in the service porch and now demands to be lifted up and down from it. She gets warm milk about eight o’clock at night and starts yelling for it about 7.30.”

hemingway-with-catEven macho Ernest Hemingway, despite his fondness for shooting lions and tigers, was at one time proud owner of 23 of the smaller variety of felines, whom he called “purr factories” and “love sponges”. One of his favorites was a six-toed (polydactyl) cat named Snowball whose descendants still roam the grounds of his old home in Key West.

Charles Dickens was entranced by the cat companions who watched him write his literary masterpieces and it’s said that when they wanted attention, they’d snuff out the candle on his desk. He was so distraught by the death of Bob, his favorite, that he had his paw stuffed and mounted to an ivory letter opener. He’s also quoted as saying “What greater gift than the love of a cat?

And there’s more, lots more.  The apparently misanthropic Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, vastly preferred the society of her many cats to that of people, allowing them to eat with her, sleep with her and keep her company while she wrote. That famous man of letters, Samuel Johnson used to go out personally to buy oysters for his beloved pussycat, Hodge. And of course T.S. Elliott’s book of light verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, was a peon to the infinite variety and vagaries of feline personalities, forming the inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical ‘Cats’.

As for Ellie Campbell…

kitty billyLorraine has five cats, including two black barn cats, who love to jump on her lap, purring, if she attempts to sit outside, working on her Macbook. She’s learned to type one-handed while giving them the caresses they demand. Meanwhile her shy indoor tabby Minou has replaced the alarm clock by regularly smacking her awake with a persistent paw some time around dawn.  And black and white Kitty-Billie (named after a childhood pet) assists by napping in the filing basket and pretending not to understand  if asked to move.

parkerPam’s ginger cat, Parker, now sadly deceased, spent many a day curled up on her office chair or draped all over her keyboard, whacking her hard with his claws if she tried to get onto it. Boy, was he vicious! Pam was at a rescue centre, finishing the paperwork on a beautiful long-haired black kitten when she spotted the label on his cage. “I have been here the longest out of all the cats and if I am not found a home soon, I will have to be put to sleep.” Aaah! She worried about having two cats in her small flat, but Parker solved that problem. He quickly managed to bully the other one off, never to be seen again, despite numerous ‘lost cat‘ notices.

We used an incident involving Parker in our novel To Catch a Creeper. One memorable day, he began choking and making funny motions with his paws. Pam grabbed, him, tried to look in his mouth but could see nothing. He wasn’t breathing, even though his mouth was open, so she scooped him up, ran with him under her arm out of the house, threw him in the back seat of car, and raced to the veterinary clinic.

Emergency!” she called out as she ran in with her dying cat. They rushed him to the vet’s table where Parker began nonchalantly licking himself. Back home Pam discovered a bit of gristle on the kitchen floor, which Parker had obviously spat out as she grabbed him up. In her haste she’d accidentally performed the Heimlich Maneuver. Parker continued to rule the household and dominate Pam’s two large dogs, a German Shepherd and a Lurcher, for the rest of his autocratic life.

Now excuse us, we have to stop here and give our furry friends a cuddle.