Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's It About?

People always ask me, “What’s your book about?” It’s a natural question--one of the first a writer hears--and the Stupid People’s Guides (made-up name) to marketing tell us how to prepare for it.

Memorize an “elevator speech,” the books say, so that you can recite the crux of your book instantly and enthusiastically when people ask. This will come in handy when you go on radio and TV. First, write down the genre, plot, theme, lesson(s), and the ways your book will change the world. Then incorporate that material into a pitch you can deliver in about a minute. Finally, practice saying it as though it’s the most important information ever imparted.
It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me (Did I use all my words yet?) is a memoir. An editor friend once told me, “Many people who write memoirs forget that the first two letters of memoir are M-E.” It’s about me.

After I signed my publishing contract for It Started with Dracula, my publisher gave me a series of assignments designed to help me identify and express the essence of my book for sales representatives and bookstore managers. Yes, it was about me, but every memoir author can say the same. It was time to spell out what distinguished my memoir and made it compelling.
I spent hours writing descriptions, first listing every summary, benefit, and angle I could think of and then boiling it all down to a paragraph. I did this again and again. My initial tries were returned with suggestions to try again. It wasn’t rocket science, but occasionally it made me wish for rocket science.  

Though I wouldn’t want to wager that my versions of the sales sheets, website pages, and back cover copy made it through intact, they were good practice. I’m grateful for my publisher’s help in finalizing the central message of It Started with Dracula; otherwise, I might still be at it.
The summary of my book on the back cover begins like this: “A long-awaited dream vacation unexpectedly triggers an inner journey of self-reflection that opens the doors to forgiveness, acceptance, and longed-for peace.” It goes on to explain that visiting the land of Dracula at age 59 unearthed memories of my childhood with an alcoholic mother.

Nailing down “the story” should make writing the elevator speech that much easier. It’s all related.
When I created my visualization board, the place where I display my wishes as though they have already come true, I pasted information about my memoir onto a copy of the New York Times best-seller list. Covering up the real #1 book is a description of It Started with Dracula that mimics those on the list: “A solo traveler’s inner and outer journeys in Romania.” Well said, if I do say so—and certainly succinct. There are all kinds of descriptions.

Not long ago I spoke to a class of fourth-grade writing students. They had prepared questions for me in advance. Partway into my talk, a boy raised his hand and asked expectantly, “Is there a lot of action in your book?”
“Well,” I said, wishing I could embellish the truth for him—or at least slap on a pith helmet--“It’s about me.”

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