It began small, as things often do. A line in a dinner conversation which could easily have been swept away in the sometimes lively swirl. My teenage daughter, Helen, the writer in our family, said, “NaNoWriMo is almost here.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“National Novel Writing Month. You have to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.”
I’d never aspired to be a writer although lots of people have assumed I have. I do like to read. Maybe that has something to do with it. Anyway, finding out that there was such a thing as NaNoWriMo got me thinking. I remember someone telling about a motivational speaker who asks a room full of people, “Who wants to write a book?” Everyone’s hand goes up. Then he asks, “Who has written the first chapter?” The hands go back down.
I figured if we both undertook the challenge, we could spur each other on, like running a marathon with a friend. I also liked the idea of the set time period. There’s nothing like a deadline to make things happen. I announced my intention to participate and now there was no turning back. The only thing missing was a topic.
Back in college, I had taken a course on Napoleon and the French Revolution. I ended up doing a report on Napoleon’s retreat from Russia after his failed invasion in 1812. The disaster stuck with me as something about which many had heard, but the details were obscure.
My wife and I had become hooked on the humorous Bloody Jack series of books about an orphan girl in London who ends up in the Royal Navy. While the series is full of outlandish adventures, it got me to thinking that putting a youngster into the grown-up world of the military and war would make for an interesting story. And so, standing at the clothesline in mid-October, 2010, I pulled these two ideas together and came up with the premise for Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army. My story would be about a boy who accompanies the Grande Armée on the great invasion.
There is another element I need to work into my tale at this point. For most of my life, I’ve done Revolutionary War re-enacting. In fact, my wife and I met because our fathers had joined the same regiment when we were in our teens. All of these years of experiencing firsthand the “hurry up and wait,” confusion, contradiction and plans gone awry, albeit as a re-enactor, gave me some feel for what a lowly soldier in the ranks must experience on a campaign. This is why I wanted my main character to tell the story through his eyes about what he saw. As such, he wouldn’t have known what the generals were planning, he would only know what he experienced himself or heard from someone else.
It had been many years since that college report on the retreat from Russia so, in mid-October, I threw myself into a frenzy of studying the campaign, the soldiers’ life and outlining the story. Meanwhile, something else was giving me cause for concern. I’d never written fiction before and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to write enough to get to the 50,000 word goal. So I paid particular attention to developing a good outline and thinking through what my character would experience. I decided if I could outline 30 chapters, one for each day of the November writing period, I would be all right.
Then November started. I set my alarm an hour earlier in my daily quest for 1,667 words (50,000/30 days). The words flowed. I wrote thousands of words in chapters that theoretically would have only 1,667. Helen, my number one writing buddy, and I kept track of our growing word count on the refrigerator white board. I put my character, 13-year-old Henri Carle, into 1811/12 France and let him go, documenting the trials, tribulations and adventures along the way. The word count grew and grew. By Thanksgiving, my daughter and I were both NaNoWriMo winners and with days to spare.
But, there was a problem. I had written my 50,000 words and November was over, but my story had only been half told. The epic part of the story, the part where my hero endures the Russian campaign, was yet to come. Now I had to write without the daily 1,667 word goal to drive me. Fortunately, a new goal soon appeared. The nice folks who run NaNoWriMo, sent an email telling about the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Award contest which had an entry deadline at the beginning of February. Thank goodness, a new deadline!
Back at the keyboard, I wrote until the end of January while my wife (and number one editor) worked on editing. Then it was time to write the pitch, give the manuscript one last look and submit it to the contest (all 115,000 words). The waiting for the judges’ decision began.
In the meantime, The Book Doctors had teamed up with the NaNoWriMo people to offer a special, online Pitchapalooza for NaNoWriMo winners. Twenty-five pitches would be selected at random to be critiqued and the pitch for Russian Snows was one of them. Because the 200th anniversary of the events depicted in Russian Snows was fast approaching, The Book Doctors suggested I self-publish if I wanted my book in print by the time the anniversary rolled around.
Russian Snows made it into the final 250 out of a potential 5,000 entries in the young adult category in the ABNA contest. The Publishers Weekly review was positive but advised, just as some writer friends had, that I trim down the manuscript. My target readership was 12 – 16 year olds so ideally, I had to cut my manuscript by over half. A summer of cutting, editing and re-writing had the manuscript down to 51,000 words and I was ready to self-publish.
October 19, 2011, the 199th anniversary of Napoleon’s departure from Moscow to begin the retreat, was the date of my book launch. With a stack of books from CreateSpace at my side and a cake depicting the book’s cover, I signed books like a pro.
This June will mark the 200th Anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I have developed a presentation on the plight of the soldiers on that campaign and am available to give it to local groups (southeast Pennsylvania). As a side project to the book, I began a blog about the experience of the soldier on the campaign that features eyewitness accounts of those who were actually there. The blog can be seen at www.Napoleon1812.wordpress.com.
The (updated) pitch for Russian Snows:
Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army is the fictional account of 14-year-old Henri Carle as he accompanies France’s Grande Armée from Paris to Moscow during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
When his older brother Luc enlists in the army, young Henri follows and finds work in the camp bakery. He later joins the supply train to stay close to Luc on the long march through Europe. Shy and unprepared for life on his own, Henri is shaped by the people he meets. As the French army crosses the vast plains of Russia in search of a decisive battle, he develops skills and confidence. When the battle finally comes at Borodino, Henri is caught in the thick of the action and proves his bravery. The victorious, but battered French army is now caught deep in enemy territory. Henri and the devastated army begin the retreat in a desperate attempt to escape the Russian army and the Russian winter.
Henri is forced to use his wits, skills and quick thinking to survive. He experiences the horrors of battle, the heartbreaking agony of the wounded left behind and the death of his friends. As he is maturing and becoming a man, the army is disintegrating around him. With a quiet determination, Henri triumphs as he becomes both the first Frenchman on enemy soil and the second to last Frenchman out of Russia.
A cross between Stowaway and The Hunger Games, Russian Snows follows actual events and incidents from the campaign as Napoleon’s invading army was reduced from 500,000 to barely 20,000. The story brings the disaster to life through the eyes of Henri in this sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting adventure that paints a picture of what life was like for the common soldier.
You wrote your 50,000 words (or got pretty close!). You’re a winner. You’ve been congratulated. You felt the high. But here’s the 64-gigabyte question: What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious manuscript? If you’re like the approximately one gazillion writers we know, you want to get published. And you want to get published successfully. You want readers to devour your book ravenously; you want raves glowing in blog posts; you want bookstore owners to hand-sell your book so fast it’s literally flying off the shelves; you want to trade barbs with Steven Colbert; you want readings in front of rapt devotees; you want to go viral at the speed of one of those krazy kitten movies. But how? This is where we, The Book Doctors, come in. It’s our job to help writers make their dreams come true. It’s what we did with our first Pitchapalooza winners, Nura Maznavi, & Ayesha Mattu, whose book, Love InshAllah, just hit the shelves. In the last week, they were profiled in the New York Times, had one of the most talked about pieces on the Huffington Post, and cracked the top 500 of all books sold on Amazon. Then there’s Pitchapalooza winner and NaNoWriMo veteran, Genn Albin. After she won Pitchapalooza, one of New York’s top agents sold her dystopian novel in a 3-book, 6-figure deal. Now we’re embarking on our second online Pitchapalooza exclusively for NaNoWriMo participants so that you, too, have a chance to win.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 200 words to pitch your book. You then email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also award a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250). All pitches must be received by February 29, 2012. The twenty-five random pitches will be posted on March 5, 2012. Winners will be announced on March 15, 2012. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
You may be thinking, “I can’t sum up my entire book in 200 words!” Let us say this: “Yes you can!” Your pitch is the first thing an agent, editor, publisher, bookseller, and often reader, will look at. In this age of one-minute attention spans, if your pitch doesn’t blow the person you’re pitching out of the water, you’ll get that dreaded letter that starts: “Dear Writer, Unfortunately…” We don’t want you to get any more of those letters. So enter the 2nd Annual NaNoWriMo Pitchaplooza by sending us a kick-ass pitch for your kick-ass novel. Who knows, maybe this year, the golden ticket will have your name on it.
P.S. Like last year, we’re offering free 20-minute consultations (worth $100) to anyone who buys a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just attach a copy of your sales receipt to your email and we’ll set up your consultation.
Our new piece on Huffington Post. Can u write a script in a month?
Consider 25 Sophie’s Choices.
Consider 25 juicy, delicious pitches.
Consider that you only get to choose one.
We did. And after much consideration, we have chosen a winner. It was not an easy choice! There were just so many great pitches. But we kept coming back to one. And that one, as you may have guessed, is Sparrow Migrations by Cari Noga. Cari’s storytelling ability , strong voice, and her idea to revolve her book around an event that captured America, won us over. We really wanna read this book. Congratulations Cari!
As for the fan favorite, the fans have spoken and the winner is…drum roll… Out of the Woods by father-son team, David and Ben Ash. Congratulations guys!
Thank you all so much for participating in what, for us, has been a fabulously fun Pitchapalooza. We hope EVERYONE gets happily published!
You’ve finished your novel (or maybe not—that’s okay, too). What’s next? You gotta have a great pitch. Now you have the chance to test your pitch on The Book Doctors, aka, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, who are holding a Pitchapalooza for NaNoWriMo participants only. Pitchapalooza is like American Idol for books—only without the Simon. Arielle and David have been hosting Pitchapaloozas all around the country, and they were recently featured in The New York Times. Dozens and dozens of writers who have participated in Pitchapaloozas have gone from being talented amateurs to professional, published authors.
How does this online Pitchapalooza work? Just send in your 200-word or less pitch to email@example.com by February 15th, 2011. Twenty-five pitches will be chosen randomly and critiqued by Arielle and David on their blog,www.thebookdoctors.com/blog. A winner will be chosen on March 1, 2011. The winner will receive an introduction to an appropriate agent or publisher for his/her book.
Plus, anyone who buys a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published gets a free consultation worth $100 (please send proof of purchase to email above).
And, for the first time ever, you have the opportunity to vote for your favorite pitch. Let Arielle & David know which pitch you like best by firstname.lastname@example.org. The fan favorite—if different from Arielle and David’s choice—will win a free copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published and the accompanying free consultation.
Just send your pitch to email@example.com. See you in cyberspace!
Click here to go to The Office of Letters and Light.
Well Played, Sterry By Michael Leaverton
You’re a writer and you have one minute with Soft Skull Press executive editor Laura Mazer: How do you pitch your book? This isn’t a rhetorical question — you really do have one minute with Mazer. At Pitchapalooza, she’s sitting next to NaNoWriMo’s Chris Baty and self-described “book doctors” Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, the founders of the five-year-old event. To prepare, start speaking in public ASAP, because you’re pitching before a room of people. Try to compare your book to what’s already out there, but don’t say, “It’s like Foer got drunk with Godot at Twilight and started puking Seuss,” because we’re going to say that. There might be agents scattered around you in the audience, like at the Pitchapalooza in New York, so don’t mutter profanities and scribble on a matchbook when awaiting your turn — or, better yet, do exactly that. The winner gets “an introduction to an agent,” which is surely better than it sounds. The losers get the opportunity to buy Sterry and Eckstut’s book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully!, which comes with a “free consultation” worth $100. Of course, it should be clear that Pitchapoolza is, at its core, a drop-dead genius way for Sterry and Eckstut to market Essential Guide — they know their shit, to be sure. They’re the book doctors.
Join us on 11/30 at 2 ET, for a LIVE 2-hour event as we celebrate the close to another successful National Novel Writing Month by answering YOUR questions about how to pitch your latest finished manuscript to agents and editors — live on Twitter with the hashtag #novelpitch! We’ll also choose 20 participants at random to give 140-character pitches and get feedback — and one of those people will win the grand prize of a half-hour telephone consult with us.