The Book Doctors write scripts for Martha’s Vineyard authors
By Whit Griswold
August 31, 2011
Everyone has a book in them, the saying goes. But for that book to see the light of day is a huge undertaking. The writing part is the first hurdle, and one that daunts most of us before we even get going. But some of us are more motivated than others, perhaps convinced that the world can’t live without our advice, our take on current events, our inimitable way with words. Or, we may simply love the writing process, difficult as it can sometimes be.
Then comes selling the book. There have been countless great ideas for books, over time, and agents and publishers are constantly besieged by them.
The challenge is to grab the attention of someone who is inundated with good ideas and intentions all day long, week in and week out, year after year. This is where the pitch comes in. And where The Book Doctors come in. Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, husband and wife, have written 13 books between them, including “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” which first came out six years ago with the title, “Putting Your Passion into Print.”
Ms. Eckstut is a writer, literary agent, and successful entrepreneur. Mr. Sterry has written 11 books, solo or with other writers, all with a sense of performance about them, no doubt due to his earlier life as an actor. He is also a media coach, book doctor, Huffington Post regular, and activist.
At the Bunch of Grapes ten days ago, they demonstrated their talents and shared their expertise at an event called Pitchapalooza, which they invented and have presented at bookstores and writing conferences around the country. Participants have one minute to pitch their book idea, which sounds cruelly brief at first, but turns out to be plenty of time if it’s used well. At the end of the evening, the best pitch is selected, and the winner receives a free consultation with the Book Doctors, as Ms. Eckstut and Mr. Sterry call themselves, and an introduction to an appropriate agent or publisher.
After the minute was up, Ms. Eckstut and Mr. Sterry critiqued the pitch. Keen listeners, their observations were sharp and helpful and never unkind. Often, their comments had to do with clarity: avoid clichés and generalities. Would an idea come off best as a memoir or a self-help book? What was the age of the target audience?
Before the competition began, the doctors dispelled a myth or two about getting published. Many writers are anxious about someone stealing their idea for a book, for example. “You’re the only person who can write your book, ” Mr. Sterry said, making a point that he came back to time and again: it’s your voice that gives a book its signature, its identity, which distinguishes it from all the other great ideas out there.
The nine pitches at the event varied widely and wildly. There was a young adult book about the growing pains of a 17-year-old girl from Vineyard Haven who was in conflict with her single mother; another built around a sibling rivalry between two twins, one of them mentally ill, and the family secrets that come out as they work to resolve things; a children’s picture book that featured a dragon who spits ice cubes instead of fire; a fantasy that used Celtic myths to help tell a story that spanned 2,000 years; a look at love and sex after sixty that used poetry and painterly writing to broach a complicated, delicate subject; a guide to ingesting foods that are best for us, in nutritional and economic value; a double murder mystery set in Harlem that features street-walkers, their clients, and police officers whose lives and relationships are more complicated than they might seem at first; and finally there was the winner — a novel about, of all people, a writer.
It was pitched by Mark Ciccone, of Duxbury and Edgartown, who taught composition to college freshmen for a minute before starting a 32-year hitch with Proctor and Gamble where he rose to be a senior manager and consultant. “I am now moving into semi-retirement and am resurrecting my youthful ambitions to be a writer,” he wrote in an email.
He knew his pitch so well he delivered it without notes. Later, he agreed to write it up for The Times. The book is called “The Road Scholar,” and it goes like this:
“Samuel Plumquist should be the happiest guy on earth. As a recently retired Vice President of a large corporation, he has the satisfaction of knowing that his business career was a smashing success, he is extremely well off financially, and now he has the time to do the one thing on earth that he has always wanted to do: write the ‘great American novel.’
“But there’s a problem. After attending several writers’ conferences, he now realizes that the 800-page manuscript that he’s been working on might be a tad too long. More ominously, he suspects that he stinks as a fiction writer. Adding to his gloom, his wife of 38 years has left him for a younger man; his 35-year-old unmarried daughter who majored in Existential Philosophy is unemployable; and the recent death of his beloved dog, Sisyphus, has reminded him of his own mortality.
“What to do?
“He decides to give writing one more chance, thinking something in a nonfiction genre might suit him more. But this time, rather than locking himself in his office for 8 hours a day hunched over his computer, he’ll find a topic to research that will get him out on the road where he can at least have some fun. Employing some of the structured thinking that made him successful in business, he goes through a lengthy process of elimination and decides to combine his love of old movies, photography, and travel, and write a coffee-table type book devoted to “the houses and/or museums of dead Hollywood actors,’ as he writes in his agent query letter.
“His subsequent travels will take him to the Mario Lanza Institute in Philadelphia; to the Clark Gable Bed and Breakfast in Cadiz, Ohio; to the annual meeting of the Elsa Lanchester fan club in a down-and-out industrial town in the British Midlands. He’ll also encounter other very real places and events. Along the way, he will meet some interesting people and learn much about himself. And by the time he has finished his travels, his experiences will lead him to make important decisions about himself and what he should do with the rest of his life.
“Featuring a Pickwickian protagonist, ‘The Road Scholar’ will appeal only to those people who are consciously pursuing the meaning of life.”
That’s a lot to pack into 60 seconds, but Mr. Ciccone managed to pull it off. When he was done, the Pitchapalooza audience clapped long and hard, swept up in Mr. Ciccone’s energy and wonderfully wacky imagination.
In the end, despite all the gloom about bookstores vanishing and the Internet threatening to take over traditional forms of communication, Mr. Sterry is optimistic about the future of writing. Citing the growing appetite of readers, however they consume the written word, he said, “It’s the greatest time in history to be a writer.”
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