by Alton Gansky
There’s an old proverb: “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” It means if you know what is ahead you can prepare for it. Makes sense. This is true for armies, people on long hikes, and writers. Especially writers coming to a writers conference.
Many conferees come to Blue Ridge to pitch their book and article ideas. That’s very good. Some however, fail to give it much thought. Since time with agents, editors, and writers during the appointment time is limited, as are nonappointment pitches (such as sitting around the lobby, sharing a meal at one of the faculty tables, etc.) it is important to have ready answers.
So what questions should you be ready to answer? Here are a few that are likely to come up:
What genre is your book? Genre is a category of fiction and nonfiction. Books in a particular genre share characteristics. For example, most mysteries are told in first person, involve someone dying, and a “detective” (often amateur) who will solve the case. (Think of the Murder She Wrote television series.) Romance deals with love gained and lost. Both genres are generally short. In nonfiction, genre (most professionals would use “category”) might be memoir, biography, Christian living, apologetics, Bible Study, history, discipleship, and the like.
Do you know your genre? Nothing puts an agent or editor off more than an author who doesn’t understand their own book.
SPIRITUAL TAKE AWAY?
The first “C” in BRMCWC stands for Christian. That means all our faculty write for, represent, or publish for the Christian market. They are likely to ask, “So, what’s the spiritual take away.” They may phrase it differently but the meaning is the same: What will our readers get out of this? Will they know more? Care more? Be comforted? Challenged? Made to think about new things? You get the idea.
What will the reader take away from your book?
Who is likely to read your book? Youth, children, pastors, young mothers, lovers of science fiction? Readers of Amish books. Hopefully, when you began your work, you had an audience in mind.
Be ready to say, “My readers are _____________.”
WHY THIS SUBJECT?
What motivated you to write on this subject. Writing is an investment of time and mental effort. Why this subject for the article or book or novel? They want to know what motivates you. Does the topic excite you? Will it excite others?
Agents and editors will want to know if the manuscript is finished. It doesn’t have to be to pitch an idea. In fact, it is not uncommon for publishers to contract for unfinished nonfiction books. Not so for novels. Novels usually need to be complete before an editor will send a contract. That, however, does keep an agent or editor from expressing interest in the project. They many want to see your proposal and then say, if they like it, “I want to see the full manuscript when it is ready.”
If your manuscript is not finished, then it is important to be able to say when it will be. Publishing is slow. Most agents and editors are used to hearing, “My work will be ready in six months.” Don’t promise a quick turn around and then fail to deliver. Be honest.
Competitive titles are books that are similar in topic as yours. Being able to answer this question will tell the agent or editor a couple of things. First, that you’ve done your research; that you’re not spending your time in a bubble. Thousands of books are published each year. Are any of them like yours (or yours like them)? How old are the competitive books? When you do your proposal, you will list these titles. This applies more to the nonfiction writer than the novelist. It’s your responsibility to know what else is out there that might compete with your book.
This, like competitive titles, is more important to nonfiction writers. What makes you an authority? Having grown up in the church does not make you an expert in biblical interpretation. A writer of nonfiction needs a foundation to stand on, a foundation others can see. Your potential readers will be asking the same kind of question: Why should I believe you? This does not mean that you can’t prove yourself to be an authority. It’s interesting to see that most tech journalists have degrees in subject areas that have nothing to do with tech. Still, they go out and learn what needs to be learned. Sometimes a nonfiction writer does not put his or herself forward as the expert, but more of a researcher pulling together the thinking of specialists. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel is a great example. He was a journalist with a degree in law and that’s how he approached the subject—not as a pastor (although he is one now), or theologian but as a journalist with a legal mind attempting to get to the bottom of the Jesus mystery.
Okay class, got any questions?
Alton Gansky is the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers conference and the author of over 40 books.