Books are complete when they have readers. As John Cheever once said, “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
This may seem like an obvious point, but when you’re absorbed in the task of trying to write a good scene or chapter, it can be easy to focus on your own thoughts and doubts and fears, and forget that the whole point of what you are doing is to engage a reader – a person who will open your pages, sit with your ideas, and react and respond to what you wrote.
Before you pitch, however (or if you are self-publishing, before you go to print) you need to make sure you have made something that meets the needs of your reader. Assuming that you love what you wrote (which we talked about in my post last week), now you want to think about why a reader might love it, too.
In a perfect world, you would do a complete beta test with readers evaluating your entire manuscript and giving you detailed feedback. That takes a lot of time and effort, however, so for people who are trying to decide if they are ready to pitch SOON, I am going to outline a mini beta test, which can go a long way towards helping you determine if your book will capture readers in the way you hope it does. If the test goes well, you know you are ready to pitch.
1. Who’s your ideal reader? Instead of a vague and amorphous random reader, picture a specific person. I am not talking about the color of their hair or how old they are or what car they drive. I am talking about what keeps them up at night. What they are afraid of? What do they most want in the world?
Readers desperately want all kinds of things – to be entertained so they can forget about their problems for a moment; to be educated so they can understand something or do something or become something; to be inspired; to laugh; to cry; to escape; to pretend; to feel a sense of peace or hope.
So ask yourself: What does your ideal reader most want and why?
2. How does your book give them what they want? Be specific. You want to be able to say, “My book gives them [the thing from #1] because it does ________________________.
If you can’t do this, you aren’t going to be able to write a very convincing query letter or synopsis (or very good copy for the back of the book if you are self-publishing). You need to be able to know the answer to why anyone would care, and this is how you get there.
3. Now step back and think about people you know who need what you have written. You want to try to find three ideal readers to do a beta test of your opening chapter.
You don’t want someone who is automatically going to say, “You are so awesome and this is going to be a bestseller!” That probably means you aren’t going to consider your mom. Or anyone you live with.
Great candidates for ideal readers might be someone you know from your kid’s school or from the office. It might be your hairdresser or someone at the gym you saw reading a book like yours on the treadmill. It could be a friend you’ve made on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, or someone who works at a bookstore or a library.
I would caution you against using anyone in an existing writing group for this exercise because they likely already know about you and your story and the details of creation. What you are looking for is an ideal reader who has never seen anything related to your story.
Ask these ideal readers if they would be willing to read a few pages of your book. Explain that you expect it to take about an hour. (Note that if you are an adult writing for middle grade or young adults, I wouldn’t recommend approaching these potential readers directly; I would approach their parents first.)
4. Send them your opening chapter, but do it in this particular way:
On Page 1 put just the title of the book.
Halfway down the page, put these questions:
What does this title make you think this story is going to be about?
Is it a title that would catch your eye? Why or why not?
On Page 2, start the chapter. Label it “Chapter 1”
On the page where the chapter ends, put these questions:
What do you think is going to happen next?
Would you keep reading? Please be honest – I want the truth?
Why or why not?
What do you think this book is about?
On the next blank page, paste in a 250-word description of your book. Make SURE you include something about the takeaway – the point, the thing the reader comes for, and not just what happens. Also make SURE you include how it ends. You might not give this information away in actual book jacket copy, but you want to give it away here. (Note that if this exercise is hard, this is one of the things we help you with in The Pitch Track.)
On the bottom of the page, put these questions:
This is a description of my book. Does it sound like the book you started reading?
Does it sound like a book you would read?
Does it end the way you expected?
5. Evaluate the feedback. What you are looking for are two things:
- Confirmation that the story on the page is the story you wanted to tell. If there is a total disconnect between what you thought you wrote and what people saw on the page, you might need to do more revision before you pitch.
- Confirmation that your ideal readers enjoyed it. You want genuine enthusiasm for your story from the people who will one day read it. Indifference is a sign that your story might not be ready to go into the world. Your story might not be working the way you think.
If you get good feedback and an enthusiastic response, you know that your book checks out with your ideal reader and you can feel confident about being ready to pitch.
Up next week: Are You Ready to Pitch? Part 3: The Pro Check
For writers ready to pitch: The Pitch Track -- a step by step course on everything you need to develop a perfect pitch, with personalized feedback