(Warning: Do not try this at home without adult supervision.)
The editor answered the phone. (They could do that then.) She demanded, somewhat breathlessly, who had given me her name. I mumbled the name of the editor at the academic press, which seemed to allay her wrath. Then she said, “What's it about?” That was my chance. And here's how I blew it.
“Oh,” quoth I, “it's about life on the US/Mexico border.”
She hung up.
If you are at all savvy about the realities of publishing, you are laughing right now. If not, I will spell out, step by step, why that was the stupidest thing I have ever done. In my life.
What I Did Wrong
First of all, an editor of a major publishing house had asked me, asked me, mind you, what my book was about, and I came up with the above godawful lame description. After all, my book was complex. I couldn't just sum it up at the drop of a hat. It was about many things: peace, justice, equality, life. Writers think like that. But editors don't. (And neither do agents.)
Before I made that fatal call, I should have prepared a one-sentence pitch that would have snared that editorial fish with irresistible bait. This is what I could have said:
“It's about a ghostly bridal gown that walks the streets of a forgotten village, forever seeking her lover.”
“It is about a boy who falls in love with a mermaid in the driest desert on earth, and has to bring two alienated communities together to win her.”
“It's about two invisible towns that nobody can ever leave, one of which has no past, and the other of which has no future.”
How do those compare with “It's about life on the US/Mexico border”? Tell me, truthfully.
What I Should Have Done
The reason you need to perfect your pitch before you talk to people or god forbid, before you write to them, is that the pitch forms the basis of your query letter, your proposal, and any other form of communication you will ever have about your book ... forever.
So, before you tell anybody that you have written a book – agent, editor, your mother – come up with a one-sentence summary of your book that will hook them. This, not surprisingly, is called a hook. The hook does not have to accurately reflect the entire concept of your book, nor does it have to convey deep inner meanings. The only purpose of a hook is sum up the story in a way that will pique the interest of everybody within earshot.
The best way of coming up with a good hook is to write one about someone else's book, or, better yet, a movie. Ask your friends over and make a game of it. Someone picks the book (or movie), and everyone writes down a one-sentence summary. These are passed to the “moderator,” who reads them out loud. The person whose hook is the least interesting (gets the most boos or gagging sounds) has to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels. In this Darwinian manner, those with the least successful hooks are eliminated from the gene pool.
Or, if you have no wish to kill off your friends, you can simply go to the library, pick up a book at random, and read the flap copy. If the first sentence of the flap copy makes you want to read the book, stop and figure out why. Then do that - not for your book (yet), but for someone else's. Once you have mastered the one-sentence hook for Shakespeare, you can do it for your own work.
The important thing to remember is, once you've dangled the baited hook, the person on the other end will bite. Now, you have to come up with a second sentence. Make it as good as your first. And so on. After each sentence, anticipate what you would say if Steven Spielberg was asking, “Then what”? Your whole career depends on your reply. (This is what is meant by “practice.”) Do that until you can talk for three minutes about your book without losing Spielberg's attention. Finish it off with a sentence that implies that your story will change the world as we know it.
That's a pitch.
Unfortunately, I will never have another chance to cold call an editor, but the next time someone asks me, “What's it about?” at least I won't be cold cocked.