How to Find Your Story and Craft a Pitch in 10 Easy Steps (and You Can Even Do It Drunk!)

How many of us have labored away earnestly in our younger and more profound days a a story, only to realize … there’s just no story there. If you want to save yourself years of heartache and get a jump start on your synopsis and query at the same time, I offer you my time-tested (okay, I’ve done it three times) personal trick: The Party Anecdote. Here’s how you play. GIVEAWAY: Rebecca is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. UPDATE: JoeBear won.
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How many of us have labored away earnestly in our younger and more profound days on a story, only to realize … there’s just no story there. If you want to save yourself years of heartache and get a jump start on your synopsis and query at the same time, I offer you my time-tested (okay, I’ve done it three times) personal trick: The Party Anecdote. Here’s how you play.

GIVEAWAY: Rebecca is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. UPDATE: JoeBear won.

Guest column by Rebecca Makkai, author of the novel The Borrower (Viking/Penguin, June 2011), which Kirkus Reviews called "Smart, literate and refreshingly unsentimental." Her short fiction will appear this fall for the fourth consecutive year in the Best American Short Stories series. Her work has also been featured in Tin House, Ploughshares and New England Review. She lives with her husband and two daughters north of Chicago, where she as at work on a story collection and her second novel. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.

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1. Go to a party. Have a couple of drinks, if that’s your thing.

2. Wait till the conversation turns to storytelling (of the “Once I knew this guy” variety).

3. Find your opening, as you would with any personal story you felt compelled to share (i.e., “Speaking of musicians…”)

4. Tell the story as you would any other story that truly happened to you or to your friend’s neighbor’s cousin. Exempla gratis from some cocktail party of the distant, distant past: “Speaking of patricide, there was once this guy my cousin knew, who, I sh*t you not, got his fortune told by this woman who tells him he’s destined to kill his own father and marry his own mother. So of course he’s, like, freaking out, and it messes with his mind so much he decides to run away from home.” Et cetera, et cetera.

(What types of novel beginnings get an agent or editor to keep reading?)

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5. You might discover, as you near the end of your story, that it has absolutely no point to it. This is where the drinks come in handy (if that’s your thing). Start improvising. What should the ending of your story be? If you’re a seasoned liar (and I’d venture most fiction writers are), you’ve been here before: you started telling a true story and realized, halfway through, it was kind of lame. You made up a more interesting ending. Do that now.

6. Your friends might be staring at you in bewilderment and concern by this point, especially if what you write is science fiction. Feel free to confess that you were trying out your new novel on them. Tell them Makkai made you do it.

7. Now sit back and analyze. Take out a pen, if you need. What detail did you lead with, to get the attention of your fickle friends? What did you emphasize? What did you leave out? What did you end with? What did you change on instinct? Do you even have a story? 8. Provided that you do have a story, that your friends were engaged, that they bought it, at least until the aliens showed up, you might now have a handle on your synopsis and query letters as well. Trust the storytelling instincts that kicked in when you had a real, live audience. The party story for my own first novel, The Borrower, was “I once knew a children’s librarian who ran away with one of her patrons to get him away from these anti-gay classes.” This turned, in my query letter, to “Children’s librarian Lucy Hull inadvertently kidnaps her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, after he runs away to the library. The bulk of the story is their drive across the country, away from the overbearing, evangelical mother who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes.” Had I not tried it out socially first, I might have started with “Lucy Hull feels stuck in her job as a blah blah blah...” (Agents get specific and explain what kind of stories they're looking for.) 9. Forgive me. I’m not suggesting every novel should have the depth of a cocktail party anecdote. Of course there’s a lot more to Oedipus Rex than my mouth-full-of-guacamole version above. And of course there are the rare exceptions: the Mary Gaitskills of the world who can achieve beautiful novels with very little discernible plot. Remember, though, that so very many people think they’re the exception to the rule that a novel must tell a story, and so few are. Maybe only Mary Gaitskill is. 10. Spend the next year telling true stories so they’ll believe you next time. Alternately, find new victims.

GIVEAWAY: Rebecca is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. UPDATE: JoeBear won.

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