Picture that you are at a conference. You get into an elevator with the guy in the picture. He's nice enough and likes to smile. It's a conference, so you ask, "What's your story about?"
It's a seemingly simple question. It's one that we ask and get asked all the time.
Well, picture the guy tells you that it's about underwear.
"Yes," he says with a sly smile. "Actually, it's about moms that wear thongs and my mother's gigantic underwear!"
What do you do? Do you run out of the elevator as fast as you can when the door opens? Do you dare to ask more questions? Do you just laugh?
The guy in the photo happens to be Jess Walters and he was the key note speaker at the Wenatchee Write on the River Conference that I just attended with Patrick, Alex, a friend from my writing group in Ellensburg, a blogger that I just meet, and a couple hundred other people.
Jess Walters--the highly successful author--read a poem to the whole group that was about the shock of seeing a mom in a thong. And you know what, if you were in the hypothetical elevator with him there is absolutely no way that he could actually tell you what the poem is about. You had to just be there. He was funny delivering it. His descriptive language, especially about how he and his siblings folded his mom's underwear like it was a flag, was cracking me up. He was hilarious, but it was just as funny to watch all the ladies in the audience laugh and exhange knowing smiles.
So, how's this relate to all of us? We have to go through the challenge of explaining our stories to others, both agents and fellow writers. Sometimes the meaning is hard to translate in a short coversation. And that brings me to the point. It needs to be a CONVERSATION.
The big, big problem is that people are taught to pitch their stories more than they are taught to talk about them. So, when writers talk with writers I see that there is an unexamined assumption that we are supposed to give speeches to each other. Is it any suprise that meaning is lost? It takes dialogue to develop an understanding of story. And guess what, I'm going to say something that nobody ever says. The burden is on the listener, not the author.
I repeat, the burden for understanding someone's story is on the person that asks about it. I believe this is valid because in my experience, which includes five conferences, the agents and editors lead the "10-15 minute appointment" with questions (at least they do if you let them).
These questions are meant to be conversational.
I have learned this lesson the hard way. At one conference an agent pretty much chewed me out for giving her a speech and not giving her the chance to ask questions. Man that sucked, but it was a good lesson.
So, here's the challenge. Check out the questions that Donald Maass tells you he will ask. There's not much mystery to it, as he lays them out in his book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.
What I love about the advice he gives is that he tells stories of how things go right and go wrong for people. You have to be able to explain what genre your story is in and where it fits within that genre. You have to be able to explain what the setting is, what's at stake, and what the main conflict is. He gives you all this in the form of questions?
And guess what? These are exactly the kinds of questions we should ask each other when we want to know about each others stories.
So, here's a little list of questions for the next time you go to a conference. You should be able to talk about the answers, but you should also be able to lead people through a conversation on their story. It's hard to explain so many words, and so many years of work. It's hard to explain subtle points and get across what makes a story meaningful. If you can do what you can to help people explain their story they will love you. It's a good feeling to successfully explain your story. It's a good feeling to have others understand.
THE CONVERSATIONAL QUESTIONS:
What's the genre?
What's the setting?
What's the point of view?
Who is the protagoninst?
What do they want?
What would happen if the protagonist failed?
Who is the antagonist?
What's the main conflict?
How does the main character change by the end?
What authors have influenced you?
Any of those questions should be good for keeping a conversation going.
QUESTION OF THE DAY:
What have some good/bad experiences been when it comes to explaining your story to aspiring writers, agents, editors, ...?
Would you rather "pitch" your story or have a conversation about it?