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[SWP: Behind the Book] Taming the Beasts
Written by
Kay Rae Chomic
December 2014
Written by
Kay Rae Chomic
December 2014

It took me ten years to write and publish my first novel, A Tight Grip. The first seven years, I wrote the story, became intimate with the characters, edited it continuously, created a plot treatment, and deleted lengthy flashbacks. Years eight through ten, I dwelled in literary-limbo. I must have said It’s done twenty times, because I wanted it to be done, and so did everyone closest to me. The reality was, done = published. As I look back to identify important events for publishing my novel, the taming of two beasts come to mind.

Beast 1: The answer to“What’s your book about?” The answer, commonly called the blurb, a thirty-second elevator pitch, a commercial, a sound bite, the hook. I called it the pitch-bitch. This question stirred anxiety and frustration in me. Sure, writing a 60,000 word novel was challenging. But condensing my story to a mere 100-word capsule felt impossible. As soon as I claimed to be writing a novel, the question came. Everyone asked it. Didn’t they know the pain they caused?

The following scene woke me up to do something different. One summer evening while dining al fresco with my neighbors and enjoying good food, wine, and conversation, someone asked me, “What’s your book about?” I rambled on about characters, I stumbled from theme to theme. I attempted a description of plot. All this awkward verbiage led me to an awkward solution. I turned to my partner and said, What do you think it’s about? She, always my first reader, gave her spiel. At one point, I interrupted her to say, That’s not what it’s about. Someone mercifully changed the subject! This spotlight on my weakness made me feel foolish and dim.

Thus began a love-hate relationship with self-imposed exercises to craft the pitch. I studied book descriptions on Amazon, back covers of novels at bookstores, movie blurbs on Netflix; I reviewed screenplay pitches, and searched the Internet for tips and success stories. I tried a million word combinations, worked on active verbs and hot words. No zing! I feared going insane trying to get it right.

Out of desperation, I took a class at my favorite writing center, the Hugo House in Seattle. A three-hour class called, The Greatest Marketing Tool of All—The 30-Second Pitch, taught by Alice Acheson, a publicist. Alice’s pitch for the class: “As a writer, your first step to market your book is to talk to "everyone." You never know who the listener might be: an agent, publisher, bookseller, future reader.  They ask about your book, you respond "Uh, well, it's about so many things...."  Stop!  You've already blown it! Acheson shares what works, what doesn't—and why.  

This class placed me in expert hands. I needed its focus, the feedback, some empathy. Alice and my fellow students (who all described the same struggle) taught me what I needed to know. 

After the class, I continued to edit the pitch. My confidence increased. I began hoping people would ask me what the book was about. Often I stated it purely from start to finish. I could also fine-tune the pitch to my audience. I could start in the middle. I interjected pauses based on the listener’s reactions. It became fun! To be always ready, I consistently practice my pitch—on dog walks, in the car, before a party or a plane trip or a meeting. It’s a piece of gold in my pocket, and I won’t lose it. That’s empowering!

Beast 2: The beginning. I loved A Tight Grip’s opening paragraph. Early readers loved it. At the Pacific Northwest Writing Conference, a NYC agent met with me, asked me to read her the first page, and she said, “That’s beautiful. It’s active, smart, and sets a tone,” then she requested the full manuscript! I thought, It’s done. Months passed. No further response from her, but my loyalty to the beginning was fierce. One day, in year nine, I saw a class offered, again at the Hugo House: The First 20 Pages: Get Your Novel Off to a Strong, Compelling Start by Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. Did I need to loosen my grip on that “active and smart” first paragraph?

I walked into class wrapped up in the contradiction of being ready to defend my “active and smart” beginning, and being open to changing it. The ten students had brought copies of their first twenty pages for everyone. In subsequent classes, we provided feedback to the assigned beginnings; then the writers would rewrite for the next class. Their constructive criticism helped me move away from my contradictory premise, and start rewriting. I not only deleted the first paragraph, I placed the main character in a different setting, improved and/or moved scenes around, and changed up the first twenty pages. The class liked it better. Maria Semple’s encouragement, sense of humor, plus feedback from students made it easier to eject my beloved beginning, and move closer to saying, It's done

This decade taught me a great deal about the craft of writing and about myself. How exciting it’s been to deliver my pitch, hear from readers, and see my novel in bookstores.

You can listen to an audio of the blurb for A Tight Grip at Click on the tab, Media and Reviews.

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  • Kay Rae Chomic

    You're welcome, Shary. Wishing you the best with your writing! Remember, we all started as beginners:-)

  • Shary

    Thank you for sharing your story Kay Rae-- so helpful to authors like me who are just starting out. I am incredibly in awe of all of you authors who are true artists.  

  • Kay Rae Chomic

    Thanks so much, Kamy!!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I love this post Kay Rae, it is so positive and a wonderful testament to the importance of learning the craft of writing, both as a business (the pitch) and as an art form (the opening pages)--something that's most easily done when you respect other's expertise and seek it out whenever and however you can. Also, your cover is awesome. :)

  • Kay Rae Chomic

    Good tip, Adrienne!

  • Kay Rae Chomic

    You're welcome, Patricia! I've always been an independent learner, so it surprised me I needed a class to overcome these two beasts.

    Good Luck!

  • Adrienne Ross Scanlan

    I couldn't think of the pitch for my book as long as I was thinking like a writer because my book was...well, about a lot of stuff, like family, restoration, Judaism, plus it was part nature writing, some memoir...When I started thinking like a grant writer (my day job), the pitch because easy because a pitch is simply a mission statement: why, what, how. And all in one sentence. Suddenly, my pitch became: "Turning Homeward is an 11 chapter, place-based narrative nonfiction book about the journey of a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest who learns that home isn’t simply where you live but where you create belonging by repairing the nature that is close to our lives." If you're stuck on your pitch, try looking at the mission statements of organizations doing work that you find inspiring.  It worked for me...

  • Patricia Robertson

    I hate coming up with the "blurb". Thanks for the encouragement.