Philip couldn’t help but notice all the hair pulling and chest thumping going on behind the closed door of my office. I sometimes think the partners and spouses of writers might have more stories to tell than the writers themselves. Part of what gave my agony away was the puff of sooty air that belched into the hallway after each time I cursed Chick and Pippa for wanting in and out of my office in a constant pet rotation. Philip asked me (which took guts) if I wanted to talk about it. Naturally I said no and immediately launched into a speech covering every single possible reason why talking to him about pitches would not only NOT be helpful but might also usher me more quickly into the shallow grave I was digging for myself in my office carpet. What usually happens is he just lets me spew and then he starts saying smart stuff that makes me think. That makes me put the shovel and the knives down so I can consider what he’s saying. Then he gets everything to turn around until I’m arguing with points he’s making but with excitement and clarity and a much-cheered perspective. That’s what happened yesterday.
Basically what it all boils down to is what everyone already knows: writing pitches sucks. But more than that I had been grappling with what kind of book I wrote. Except I wasn’t grappling at all. I was just letting everyone else’s ideas about it pollute the truth I know which is that Cricket and Grey may have many story elements to it such as a romantic relationship, coming of age subtext, dystopian context, and a murder that does get solved… but it’s none of those things. If I have to boil it down to one description then it’s always going to boil down to: suspense. Not in the Grisham school of suspense, but in the Du Maurier school of suspense. If you haven’t read the book “Rebecca” I highly recommend it. Dauphne Du Maurier writes fantastic suspense.
“Rebecca” is about a young girl who meets a moody older man at a fancy resort while working as a “companion” to a snobby old lady. She falls in love with Maxim and he seems to love her too, though he’s reticent and brooding and a little jaded with life. He moves her into his exalted mansion after a quick marriage (because of course he’s very rich and his family is well known) and expects her to acclimate herself to his grand way of life but she is shy and insecure and makes a lot of gauche mistakes trying to impress him. It soon becomes evident that the entire household is still in awe and in love with the previous wife, Rebecca, and the young narrator (who’s name is never revealed) becomes obsessed with the dead woman and begins to uncover facts about her that don’t add up to the picture the worshipful servants and family friends paint of her. She believes her husband is still in love with Rebecca until she discovers a secret he’s been hiding.*
Suspense. It’s broody, it builds quietly and menacingly. There’s a major romantic component to it in the relationship between the narrator and Maxim but I DARE anyone to call this book a romance. In fact, most people probably just call it literature because it’s become such a classic. However, if you had to say what genre it is, no one is going to put it in the murder mystery shelves because it isn’t about solving a murder, though a murder does get solved, it’s about all the suspense and imminent danger that secrets and obsessions about the dead Rebecca cause to the living. SUSPENSE.
And that, my friends, is what I want my career of writing to be built on. Suspense novels. You know who else writes suspense novels? Mary Stewart. Each one of them has a major romantic component to them and each one has a mystery in them but the books aren’t about sleuthing or collecting clues- the characters are all too busy trying to stay alive to sleuth and none of them are detectives or wannabe detectives. Powell’s Books did shelve one Mary Stewart book in the mystery section but usually you find her on the literature shelves. (Except her Merlin books which are often found in the science fiction shelves).
Bottom line is that Cricket and Grey will be considered to be technically science fiction but what it truly is, above all other possible categorizations, is a story of suspense. Now that I’m once again clear on this point it wasn’t quite as hard to sit down and hit my temple with a hard rubber mallet until words started slipping out. I tried several new pitches but it wasn’t until I tried doing one in first person that it felt like I was on the right track. I’m going to put it in this post. Maybe I’ll cringe over it later but I think recording this whole process for other writers is important. I think I’m going to make a few more tries before sending anything to an agent, but here’s my best effort up to now.
First Person Pitch for Cricket and Grey:
I could feel eyes on me the day I found the photographs of my mother’s corpse in the closet after my father’s funeral. But I kept working because at the end of the twenty first century, no one can afford to stop working to grieve. I put on my black band and prepared for the flu season, which is always devastating because no one can afford to lick the stethoscope of the local doctor or get vouchers for the hospital. That leaves me, Cricket Winters, the town’s only apothecary, to do what I can for them. I felt the eyes crawl over me in sleep and while I argued with my friend Julie about how to pay off the years of unpaid taxes my father left for me. The watcher’s eyes never left me.
It’s strange how a death can dislodge so many other things in your life until it becomes unrecognizable. Grey Bonneville, a young colleague of father’s, showed up at his grave to pay respects and then stayed on, being chivalrous and annoyingly protective. It’s true he got me out of jail after I got in a fistfight with the federal officer who accused my father of being a smuggler and my mother of being a whore. I liked him even though I knew he was hiding things from me about father. The worst thing I ever did was get myself hired as an armed guard for the local Mormon crime boss, because if I’d never taken that job I might never have killed a man. It was also the best thing I ever did, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have gotten to travel to Portland with Grey. I just wish my mother’s killer would have shot me instead of him.
Not Mother Approved.
Naturally, the moment I came downstairs and told my mom that I had finally done a decent pitch and that it has to be in first person she tells me that she doesn’t like to read in first person and that it doesn’t seem like a good way to pitch to an agent. SIGH. This is the way it goes. For every single person whose opinion you solicit on the matter of pitches you will get completely different input. None of them will complement each other and it will just make you feel like grabbing the hard rubber mallet to hit THEM instead of yourself. At some point you just have to trust yourself or let an agent knock you to the ground instead of your friends and relatives who, while possibly doing you a service, certainly can’t get you a book deal.
*Look at me pitching it like it’s as easy as snapping my fingers. Is that practice or just cause I didn’t write “Rebecca” myself?