Welcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.
Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.
With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):
- Identify what makes it unique. What are the elements of your book that are unusual or fresh? What do you bring to your cookbook/memoir/mystery novel/romantic suspense that I haven’t seen in others? One way to identify these unique elements of your book is to ask your beta readers what stood out to them/what elements of the book they found most interesting or exciting. Though readers tend to read within the confines of certain genres, they still appreciate and are drawn to novelty within those genres– that’s why people read more than one of the same type of novel, after all. Do romance readers really want to read the same story over and over? Well, yes, in the sense that they want boy to meet girl, boy and girl to overcome problems, and boy and girl to live happily ever after, but the unique details of each basic romance story are often what determine which novel a romance reader will pick up next– if a reader has a choice between nine romance novels in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of one child and one in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of eleven children, they’ll probably pick up the one that’s a little more unexpected, a little more surprising, a little less familiar.
That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.
- Make modified or combined comparisons. One of the best ways you can communicate a lot about your story to me in very few words as well as making it memorable is to make a comparison to something I likely already am familiar with. “It’s like ________ plus ___________,” (“It’s like Pride and Prejudice plus vampires”) or “It’s like ________ meets ___________,” (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor”) or “It’s like ___________ in _________” (a different setting– “It’s like Romeo and Juliet in outer space”) or “It’s _________ if ________ were different” (“It’s Bruce Wayne’s story if his parents had never been killed and he’d never become Batman)– etc. Hang your story on a story or franchise that is already in my memory and then tweak it so I remember your part, too, not just the big name. Obviously, you’ll still need to do a little more explaining– “It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor; a sailor is shipwrecked on an island and lives there alone for years until a second shipwreck brings five sheltered New York debutantes on their way to tour Europe to his island.” Beware unrealistic comparisons– don’t drag in a hugely successful franchise just because you think that makes your project sound more salable. It mostly just makes you sound naive. Make sure a comparison is actually justified and that it actually helps describe your book before say that your book is “like Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings,” which doesn’t really tell me anything and makes you sound a bit like a raging egomaniac (and is an excellent example of being memorable for the wrong reasons).
- Tell me the twist. Think about some of your favorite books or movies with surprise endings or twists to them– chances are, those twists would be some of the first things that came to mind if you were telling a friend how great such-and-such was. No one left “The Sixth Sense” and told their friends that they should go see it because “the single mom storyline was very touching and honest.” The word-of-mouth on that movie was, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE TWIST AT THE END!!!” If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on an agent or an editor and your book has a great twist, a great “wow” moment, tell them about it. I’m not going to remember your cryptic, “There’s a surprise at the end,” I’m going to remember, “My main character is actually dead the whole time!” or “The narrator is actually the murderer!” Tell me right away that cool thing about your story that I would remember vividly after I’d read it, because it will also help me to remember it before I’ve read it.