A while ago, we interviewed one of our favorite writers, Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and nine other books. Not only is she an amazing novelist, she’s also a brilliant teacher. After reading an interview we did with Caroline, Katharine Herndon, a member of James River Writers, asked a very simple question: She wanted to know what Caroline meant by “mapping a story by moral wants and needs.” We asked Caroline and her response was nothing short of game-changing in terms of storytelling. It made us think about constructing a plot in a whole new way. Here is what she said:
I always feel that you want to figure out: What is the specific long-standing thing your protagonist has gotten wrong about herself or himself and the world that the plot will force him or her to overcome in order to have a shot at what she or he wants? For example, take Kramer vs. Kramer. Kramer’s wrong about (and he doesn’t even know it yet) that the purpose of his life is to have a high-powered job in NYC, work 16 hours a day, neglect his wife and little boy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing because he’s providing for them, and he equates that with love. His boy doesn’t know him and his wife leaves him–with the kid. So the plot forces him to be the one thing he is not–a father. And through that experience, he comes to realize that what he wanted–to be the CEO–is not what he NEEDS. What he NEEDS is to be a loving father, which allows him to be a loving friend, and then possibly, in the future, a loving partner to someone.
I call this the Rolling Stone method of plotting. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try–sometimes–you can be lucky enough to get what you need, which is usually the opposite of what you want.
-So I start out asking, what is it the character wants and why?
-What’s at stake if he (or she) doesn’t get it?
-What is the character wrong about that he doesn’t even realize yet but is holding him back?
-What is the character ghost–the thing from his (or her) past that haunts him and keeps him from moving on that he must heal?
-What is the inciting action–this is something that pushes the protagonist into an inner and outer struggle with his misbelief. (Like Kramer who has to work less–the thing he believes he has to do more of!)
All the protagonist’s plans fail and fail until what I call the Big Doom moment, when he realizes all is lost. The girl or guy will never be won. The job is finished. The funds are gone. And then, in that moment, the character has a self-revelation. He realizes the misconception he had. For Kramer, it was when his wife comes back and wants the child –the one thing he thought he wanted at the beginning of the novel. Only now he loves his child, adores being a father, and he needs to keep him and fight for him. The protagonist fights for this new idea.
The last part is the New Equilibrium, where we get to see the character acting differently now that this misconception has been cleared up. Kramer is a dad with a ho-hum job, but he doesn’t care about the job or prestige anymore. He cares about being a father.
If you give your character lots of moral choices until he becomes who he should become, you get a deeper novel. A moral choice, by the way, is being stuck between two terrible choices, like, I can rob the store to get the medicine my dying wife needs and go to jail, or I can be a good citizen, and stay out of jail so at least I can be with my wife when she dies. Both are terrible! But humans show us their best selves when they are at their worst.
Writers: Please take this most excellent advice and run with it!
We’re writing a new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully! and want to know what you need.
What do you want in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published?
- How much time do I need to put into social media each day? (14%, 8 Votes)
- Should I try to publish with the Big 5, an independent publisher or self-publish? (13%, 7 Votes)
- How do I price my ebook? (11%, 6 Votes)
- How can getting my work published online help me get a book deal? (11%, 6 Votes)
- If I hire an outside editor, do I need a developmental edit or a line edit? (11%, 6 Votes)
- Should I publish with Amazon? (9%, 5 Votes)
- How do I self-publish literary fiction? (9%, 5 Votes)
- Are they real publishers or just author service companies that want to rip me off? (9%, 5 Votes)
- How to get the most out of a writer's conference? (9%, 5 Votes)
- What is the art of selling children's books? (5%, 3 Votes)
Total Voters: 11
Have other ideas? Leave a comment below to tell us what you want in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
“Look at those mountains. Look at those trees. Look at that bum over there, down on his knees…I love LA!”—Randy Newman
As soon as we arrived in LA, sleep deprived and still high from the previous night’s triumphant Upper East Side Barnes & Noble Pitchapalooza, we remembered why we both love and loathe LA. The ridiculously Robin’s egg blue sky and the balmy breeze blowing through the postcard palm trees juxtaposed with the stinking smoggy asthtray-breath of LAX were the perfect yin and yang.
Humans are so adaptable. When you don’t fly, the whole airport/plane experience is exhausting, alienating and loathsome. But when you’re flying all the time, it becomes normal. Newark Airport looked deja-vu-ingly familiar when we arrived at 9am, having just been there 12 hours earlier. Six hours in the airplane flew by in a flash. Olive had one minor meltdown, but we were the recipient of the random act of a stranger’s kindness. The guy in front of us lent Olive a tiny stuffed dog and cat that he was bringing home for his daughters. Dog & cat were a total tonic, and soothed our girl as she held one under each arm.
It took about a month and a half to get our rental car, but we met a very cool writer named Amy J. Baker, who had also just arrived with her daughter from New Jersey. She told us her story of getting a book deal with WW Norton without an agent on the basis of a cold e-mailed query. Unheard of! She was in LA to give a lecture at Cal State Northridge. We exchanged our 411 and she emailed us that day. Her book is about a fascinating subject: Parental Alienation.
Our hotel, though neither French nor anywhere near a park, was called Le Parc. It was quite excellent, right on the border of Beverly Hills 90210 and West Hollywood. It had a pool on the roof and Olive was in ecstasy. We swam and dove and frolicked. After we’d been at the hotel a few hours, Arielle asked if there was a bodybuilding event at the hotel. David chuckled and replied, “No, baby, this is LA!” Huge dudes and chicks with silicon breasts and lips out to there!
We had a spectacular meal at Wa, a Japanese Bistro (their words, not ours). Arielle had Spicy yellow tail in a lettuce wrap, sea bass with eggplant, and grilled hot peppers that she had to pass on to David because they were TOO hot! David sucked them down & they burned beautifully. Olive had edamame, sunomono, and grilled shrimp, not to mention many bites of David’s spicy tuna roll. David had a volcanic crab dish that was TDF*. Then we went to Sweet Lady Jane for dessert. Princess cake for Olive. Sour cherry pie for Arielle. And a raspberry tart for David. Dee-Lish! There we met yet another writer: Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein, AKA the Script Broker. Devorah is a screenwriter, former studio exec and script doctor. Script doctor meet the book doctors! She drew Olive a picture of a pony on a surf board with a butterfly that will soon be hanging up in her room @ home.
Saturday it was 80 degrees and gorgeous. We had a boffo brunch at Hugo’s, simultaneously good & good4u. We met a great LA couple there with an adorable baby named Elinor. Mama had magenta hair and a wicked orange tattoo above her right breast. Dad was rocking a nose ring and man-skirt. And baby was dressed like a baby. He too was from, you guessed it, Joizy. Dad told us they were tempted to move back because his parents were involved with a great shul** there. Even book doctors sometimes forget: don’t judge a book by its cover.
After lunch more swimming with Olive. Then it was time for Pitchapalooza Hollywood-Style at Book Soup, one of LA’s great bookstores. After packing 150 people into our NY Pitchapalooza, we were psyched and stoked to Bring It at the Hotel California. Imagine our chagrin and consternation when 2 people showed up. 2!!! But we maintained our Zen detachmant, and heard a great pitch from Katie Schmidt about her years in China: marriages arranged and polygamous, old ladies playing dress-up, being rejected from a clothing store because she was “too fat” (Katie looks like a size 4). It was clearly a great book waiting to happen.
It being Hollywood and all, we did have a few guest stars show up. We had asked our friend Andy Behrman, bestselling author of Electroboy to be on the panel with us. It was disconcerting that panelists outnumbered pitchers. And so it goes. He regaled us with a classic Electroboy story about pitching his book. He was getting rejections from every agent. Couldn’t even get a bite. But he finally got a piece published in the Lives section of the New York Times Magazine. Boom, he was summoned for an audience with one of America’s top agents. He sat down. She said, “Give me your pitch, you have one minute.” He hit her with his best shot. “That was 90 seconds,” she said, “I told you you had a minute.” Despite the rebuke, she took Andy on and sold his book for a really nice chunk of change. And Andy turned that book into a bestseller through pure grit and perseverance (Andy even wore a sandwich board of his book at BEA the year it was released, to his publisher’s large & eternal embarrassment).
Our other guest star was Regina Louise, a client of Arielle’s who wrote a startling memoir, Somebody’s Someone. Regina is one of the world’s greatest story tellers. She regaled us with tales of trying to get her book made into a movie. She told us about speaking at a conference and being approached by a small man who through her eyes looked like a wannabe pimp. Regina is stunningly beautiful, so she is constantly being hit on by men men men. But this slick talker told her he was going to help her get her movie made. That Samuel L. Jackson was making a movie of his story. Regina gave him a “Yeah right!” look and sauntered off after the man gave him her card. Once she got home, she Googled him just to make sure he was the loser she suspected. Turns out he was Coach Carter of basketball fame. And sure enough, Samuel L. Jackson was making a movie of his life. Regina quickly picked up the phone. She called Coach Carter’s publicist leaving a message with who she was. She got a call back and was told that Coach Carter wasn’t interested in speaking with her. Having been through over 30 foster and group homes as a kid, Regina had been up against much worse. So instead of getting frustrated, she got her mojo workin’. She called back the next day with a fake English accent saying she was a journalist from the UK wanting to know the story of how Coach Carter got his movie deal. The Publicist, wanting to get the credit, told her how she had engineered the whole thing. Then through the powers of her charm, talent & pluck, Regina landed on the cover of the LA Times, which eventually led to her very own movie deal.
Yes, we ended up having a blast at our “event”. But still we were humbled. Luckily, as we left, Olive was there to keep us real. She turned to us and proclaimed, totally deadpan:
“I LOVE LA!”
*to die for
** for non-Jews: a synagogue
Get a free consultation with the Book Doctors, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Whether it’s figuring out a great title, how to pitch your book, get an agent, market and promote, or self-publish, we can help you get successfully published. Just send proof of purchase of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Offer good til midnight Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010.
David Henry Sterry & Arielle Eckstut, aka The Book Doctors are the authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Between them they have published 20 books, been a literary agent for 18 years, been on NPR countless times, contributed chronically to the Huffington Post, and appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
To purchase book: http://www.thebookdoctors.com/buy-the-book
Pitchapalooza Barnes & Noble Big Apple: The Goddess Next Door, Two Female Presidents, & a 1/2 Swedish 1/2 African Gigolo (With Pitching Tips)
10 years ago, before 9/11, the Kindle, Facebook and Twitter, Arielle, my ex-agent and current wife, and I both had books coming out. One about my childhood hero, Leroy “Satchel” Paige. The other was about her childhood hero, Jane Austen. Our publishers, Random House and Simon & Schuster, seemed disturbingly uninterested in helping us sell our books. So we called up our local bookstores and proposed doing events. They said if we could bring Leroy Satchel Page or Jane Austen down to the bookstore, they’d love to do an event with us, otherwise they were completely uninterested in us or our books.
Then one night we were at a party in San Francisco, and word got out that there was a literary agent in the house. Like moths to the flame writers flew furiously, pitching their books to Arielle. This was the lightbulb moment. Why not create an event that would explain how to take something you’re passion about, develop a book out of it, get it published and deliver it into the hands, heads and hearts of readers all over the world? Thus was born the Putting Your Passion Into Print event. I personally set up a 20 city West Coast tour. We were flabbergasted by how many Citizen Authors flooded out of the woodwork. Grannies, Goths, surfer dudes, soccer moms, PhD.s and homeless ex-vets. They all had two things in common: 1) They wanted to getsuccessfully published. 2) The wanted to pitch their books to an industry professional who could help them makes their dreams come true.
Thus was born Pitchapalooza—an American Idol for books where writers would get one minute to pitch their books to a panel of book professionals. The panel then critiques their idea while an audience of aspiring writers and those who love them soak the whole thing in. The panel evaluates everything from character to plot, presentation to marketing, title to comp books, befriending booksellers to finding an agent.
Pitchapaloozas prove Einstein’s theory of relativity over and over. Sometimes a minute goes by in a second. Sometimes it takes six months. But wherever we went, there were so many great stories out there, so many passionate writers who just don’t know how to navigate the stormy waters of the publishing ocean. And we’re proud to report that many Pitchapalooza participants have gone from being talented amateurs to professional authors with published books.
Which brings us to Thursday night, November 11, at the Barnes & Noble on E. 86nd St., in the throbbing center of the publishing mecca, NY, NY. It was the launch for The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published and our biggest Pitchapalooza yet. We had Larry Kirshbaum, a 40 year veteran of the publishing business, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, now the head of his own literary agency, LJK Literary Management. And Bob Miller, newly minted Group Publisher of Workman Publishing. Since our book is published by Workman, it was a make or break time. We knew that if we put on a great event, it would go a long way to generating enthusiasm from the top down. And if it sucked, and nobody showed up, it could sink our book, which is just a brand new baby. We sent out hundreds and hundreds of e-mails to writing groups, publishing people, friends, relatives, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. We invited all of our Facebook “friends” and Twitter tweeters. Luckily, we are blessed with a rarity in the book business: a publisher who actually supports their books. They hooked us up with Gotham Writer’s Workshop, who sent out an e-mail promoting our event to 70,000 writers. And Workman and Barnes & Noble took an ad out in the Village Voice.
So as we showered, shaved, and dressed in our Sunday best, we were tingling with excitement and sick with nerves. Imagine our surprise and delight when we showed up at 6:15, and there was already a gaggle of nervous writers with dreams in their hearts and stars in their eyes, waiting to pitch. By 7:00 Citizen Authors of all hue, with hair blond, green and even blue, packed the room, 130 strong, Standing Room Only. As we took our places at the podium with the other judges, you could smell the fear. It was a stifling hothouse of wide-eyed hungry hope and raw vulnerable terror, electricity crackling and buzzing through the room. It was one of the most charged atmospheres I’ve ever been in, and I worked at Chippendale’s Strip Club in the mid-80s, when it was the hottest show in New York City.
And then it began. An old white guy pitched a book about black wisdom. A lawyer lady pitched a thriller involving a lawyer lady. A life coach who called herself The Goddess Next Door pitched a book for women Entrepreuners. An Italian immigrant septuagenarian pitched a book about how he learned English when he came to America as a youth, the first words he learned were: zank you, asshole and son of a bitch. A Norwegian oncologist pitched a book about how fragile life is. Two different people pitched novels about the first female president. A Puerto Rican man pitched a thriller with a mambo beat. A half Swedish half African immigrant pitched a memoir about being homeless and ending up in the sex business: “Coming to America meets American Gigolo.” A tall stately young woman pitched a book about helping women get athletic scholarships to college. A woman who spent time in jail pitched a prison memoir. A security guard pitched a memoir about becoming his own lawyer and winning a lawsuit against NYU. A woman driven by the desire to help sick children pitched a kid’s book about Pointy the umbrella. A man in a hat pitched a book of poetry about how awesome women are. But the winner, Verne Hoyt, gave a pitch which sent shivers through the judges and the crowd. It was a stunning story, simply and exquisitely told.
The event was America at its best. A simmering melting pot of grit, humor, pathos, wild imagination, mad passion, and stories about triumphing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Sadly, only 23 people got to pitch, so over 100 writers were victims of pitchus interruptus. So the second the event was over, they rushed the stage, clamoring to be heard, ravenous to tell their stories. It was the closest we’ll ever get to being a Beatle: getting swallowed up by a crowd obsessed with grabbing a piece of us. It was terrifying, overwhelming and incredibly cool all the same time.
I honestly believe there were a dozen pitches which, if properly executed, would make powerful, important, and deeply entertaining books. A number of writers were approached by agents and publishers who were in the audience. And it was a true education to see what ignited the crowd and what made it glaze over. For us, it could not have gone better. The head of Barnes & Noble events was there, and he was incredibly gracious. He told us he thought this was a reality show waiting to happen. Which is just what we’ve been saying for years.
Every once in a while you get a vision, an inspiration, an idea that seems so powerful and valuable and right that it won’t leave you alone. Inevitably everyone tells you why it won’t work. But sometimes, the vision is so powerful that you push on through, determined to prove the playa haters wrong. You work, you buff, polished, and refine. Then somehow, suddenly, it all comes together, and your vision becomes a beautiful reality. Exactly like you saw it in your head. Wouldn’t it be great if life was always like that?
6 tips from the Book Doctors on how to perfect your pitch:
1) A pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2) It’s always better to present specific images than make general, generic statements.
3) Don’t tell us it’s funny, make us laugh. Don’t tell us it’s scary, scare us. Don’t tell us it’s lyrical, wow us with your poetry. It’s like those people who wear T-shirts that say SEXY. Please, let us be the judge of that.
4) Don’t oversell. Claiming to have written the next Eat Pray Love or Harry Potter only makes a writer look like a deluded amateur.
5) Never say that your book is like no book ever written. That book will never be published. Publishers want books that are familiar but unique.
6) Develop an elevator pitch . An elevator pitch is a Hollywoodese short hand way of describing your book, where X meets Y. For example, Jaws in Outer Space=Alien. Ann Rice meets Gossip Girl=The Twilight Series. The elevator pitch for our book is the What To Expect When Your Expecting of publishing. Yes, we borrow from a title in an entirely different section of the bookstore, but you know exactly what you’re going to get from this elevator pitch.
Book Doctors thank Huff Po!
Nth Word, a great resource for writers!
Bradley Charboneau is THE MAN when it comes to authors & websites. Check it out!