Those pesky three questions that can stop your heart

My thanks to Gutsywriter for sharing her experience at a writer’s conference. Now it’s my turn to share with you. The whole weekend Gutsy heard the three questions that stop the hearts of most writers because they haven’t given it any thought:

1. “Why is your book unique?
2. “Why would anyone want to read it?”
3. “Who is your target audience?”

I ask these questions all the time when I’m doing advanced submissions because I can see authors are stumbling with their pitch.

“Why is your book unique?

When we ask this question, we’re not looking for a completely new story that no one has ever written before because, face it, it’s been done before in some fashion. We’re asking for the unique elements to your fantasy/memoir/biography/romance/mystery that hasn’t been done before.

For instance, there are a million Alzheimer’s books already on the market, so why did I want Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story? I wanted it because this is about Early Onset Alzheimer’s, which is a whole different set of books – it’s more virulent, attacks far more quickly, and affects people at a much younger rate. Those books you can count on one hand. Talk about unique.

Same goes for Janice Eidus’ The War of the Rosens and Doug Light’s East Fifth Bliss. Each had unique elements that aren’t in the mainframe of fiction. They spoke to me, above the din of all the other novels that cross my desk. And this leads me to the second question:

“Why would anyone want to read it?”
These books kept me riveted in my chair. As I read, I could make a case for why readers would love these books. With Rosens, Emma grabbed my heart with her innocence. She was the white flower in amongst a family of weeds, and it was her brave little soul, her resilience that kept them together, even at the worst of times. I never saw this as a Jewish book, but a book about questioning beliefs in general. That’s a powerful message – to question, even if you’re attacked for it. I could say that I was a better person for having known Emma. She represents that large population who ask questions and wonder if anyone is listening. That has universal appeal.

Same thing for East Fifth Bliss. Poor, haphazard Morris…that man takes procrastination to the limit. And don’t we all? Aren’t each of us “fixin'” to do something? Lose weight, paint that fence, weed the garden, pay the bills? Bliss taps into that unspoken angst that, yah, we realize we need to take action but we keep sweeping it under the rug. Only Morris does it with hilarity and disastrous results because he’s strayed for far too long. I cannot WAIT to see how Michael C. Fox plays Morris in the movie. Again, this has universal appeal, and I have to say that I’m a better person for having met Morris.

Pulling out the elements that have universal appeal is a marvelous way to capture an agent’s or editor’s attention because it shows that you understand what makes the marketplace’s mind tick. Sure, many of us read for escapism, but deep down, are we always looking for some element that we can tap into? Don’t we hear that all the time? “Man, that book really spoke to me.”

“Who is your target audience?”

In 0rder for us to get readers to say “that book really spoke to me,” we need to define exactly who is most likely to say that. That’s why mainstream fiction is so tough to sell – it doesn’t speak to a definable audience. And that’s why it’s so important to go deeper. By pulling out those reasons why someone would want to read your book, you’re defining your audience. Some books are easy to define – Barry’s Jan’s Story, for instance, has a built-in audience.

But what about mainstream fiction? Sometimes it’s near impossible to define. That’s why pulling out the universally appealing elements is so important – it gives you something to build on.

Let’s say that East Fifth Bliss decides to play up the procrastination elements. Author extraordinaire Doug Light could develop a talk about procrastination and give it some silly title; “I’m Fixin’ To Jump Start My Life.” Maybe he would write about what he shares with Morris, what all of us share. Perhaps he could talk about what lit the fire under his own lack of inertia (provided he suffered from this!). He could write articles to magazines or give this talk at book events. It all leads back to his book.

His readings would start with, “hey, who among us isn’t sweeping a bunch of crap under our personal carpets?” And watch the hands go up in the air. What he’s doing is whetting people’s appetite by appealing to a common problem we all share. He would zing that with saying, “Well, Morris Bliss is a shining example of what can go wrong if you sweep under the carpet for too long.” Then he’d launch into one of the many cover-your-eyes scenes where poor, adorable Morris encounters yet another disaster.

What he’s doing is hitting on something we all share and before you know it, people want to read the book because we want to laugh at something that plagues our lives as well.

Smart stuff.

Authors who figure out these three questions are miles ahead of the game. Is it necessary? Well, how badly do you want to be represented or published? Publishing isn’t easy. No one ever said it was. There are no shortcuts. Sure, there are those Cinderella stories out there, but for every one of those, there are thousands who have to do it the old-fashioned way. My feeling is that authors who are willing to analyze their work this deeply are serious about their craft and are better able to promote their books because they understand the marketable factors.

I asked an author these same questions at a conference, and she really stumbled through. At the end of our time together, she looked at me and said, “You know? I don’t have a story here. I have no unique elements, no audience, and no reason why someone would want to read my book. I need to go home and write something better.” She wasn’t at all bitter; just enlightened.

Wow, what a rush!

4 Responses to Those pesky three questions that can stop your heart

  1. I shall be attending my very first such conference next year. So thank you, Lynn, for alerting me to more things I’ll need to say about the novel I’ll be pitching.

  2. Gutsy Writer says:

    Thanks for answering those three questions with specific examples. I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason writers find this so difficult is that we think like a writer rather than a listener. Audiences like simple, straighforward snappy phrases they can remember, and share with others. Just think of the ads that work: “Just Do It,” snappy and simple. As a writer, we’re looking to share too many details. Perhaps we think that by simplifying, we’re not telling the entire truth. We’re trying to hard to sell. But is there anything wrong with selling your book, especially if you believe in it?

  3. But is there anything wrong with selling your book, especially if you believe in it?

    Gutsy, I think that passion is what sells a book. If readers listen to someone talk about their book, they get caught up in the whole behind the scenes stuff and the author’s personality. That’s why I personally adore public events. I’m much duller in writing than I am in person.

    Your book is a total no-brainer in terms of those three questions. Why do you think I keep kicking your butt???

  4. GutsyWriter says:

    I know Lynn. My butt is getting a little sore from sitting in my chair for hours, and from getting kicked.

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