Writing: The (Draft) Pitch

Normally, I reserve my weekends for work around the house, or for creek and landscape restoration projects. This weekend, writing called me instead.

(The photo above shows Ditch Creek, my restoration project, right below my house. The shrub with the scarlet stems in the foreground was a seedling when Richard and I planted it 18 years ago. Now it shades the creek, nurturing aquatic insects and providing food for songbirds.)

So I spent yesterday afternoon and much of today at my laptop, working on parts of the submission package for my memoir, Bless the Birds, which I hope will go out to prospective publishers next month. 

The hardest part of the package for me is the "pitch," the teaser that will–if I get it right–hook an editor so that they are eager to read the manuscript. A pitch isn't a summary, but it does need to give a sense of the writing and the story. It also needs to explain why the book matters. 

Did I mention it should be short? Several paragraphs is best, certainly less than a page. (Not Faulknerian paragraphs either!)

What works for me is to step back–way back–and focus on the essentials about the book: why it matters and what makes it unique. Those two form the heart of the elevator speech, the one or two sentences you would use to explain the project to an editor you happened to meet in an elevator, in the moment it takes to go between floors. 

Here's my elevator speech, which you'll notice draws on the second sentence of the pitch and the last:

My memoir, Bless the Birds, illuminates a conversation that hasn’t been given sufficient national attention—how we die is part of how we live. At heart, Bless the Birds is a love story, an intimate, sometimes funny and unflinching tale of the choice to love life—every moment, no matter how painful—through the end.

Here's the draft pitch itself. Let me know what you think!

For a memoir to be successful in today's competitive environment, it needs to either contribute to an existing national conversation or initiate a new conversation. I believe Bless the Birds illuminates a conversation that hasn’t been given sufficient national attention—how we die is part of how we live. That conversation applies at the personal level—we will all lose someone close to us, and we will all wrestle with how we choose to live out the end of our own lives. It applies to our culture and customs, and even to our national economy and the enormous cost in time and dollars of end-of-life care. 

We shy away from even talking about death, using various euphemisms: We "pass away," "meet our end," "lose our life," or even "cross the great divide." We spend a great deal of energy and billions of dollars denying that it will happen to us—but we’re all going there. Death and dying is the next big issue for nearly 40 percent of our nation’s population, the 76 million Americans who are Baby Boomers. Will they be the generation that reshapes how we die as they have reshaped how we work, love and live? I hope so, because all of us certainly need practice learning to accept and integrate what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called “life’s other half.”

In late summer of 2009, my husband Richard, an economics professor just finding success in a second career as an abstract sculptor, woke one Sunday morning and saw thousands of birds. Birds lining every barbwire fence, birds perched cheek-to-wing on powerlines; tiny birds on each blade of grass, huge birds on the rim of distant mesas. Birds that existed only in his brilliant mind. Those bird hallucinations lasted just 24 hours and were the only significant sign of something growing in his brain. That “something,” we eventually learned, was a glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer. 

Bless the Birds follows our journey through the two-plus years Richard lived with brain cancer, a journey we were determined to live well, mindful of our choices and with a great deal of love. We weren’t perfect—if we humans were perfect, we couldn’t stumble and fail and thus learn and grow. Which Richard and I did a lot of. What carried us through four brain surgeries, a course of radiation, two courses of chemo and innumerable MRIs and other tests and procedures, through the shock and anger and grief, the insights and grace, the pain and laughter and ultimately, through our parting, was love. Love for each other and our family, for the village of friends who sheltered us, and for the earth and its whole extended community of lives, the miracle that quickens our existence on this blue planet. At heart, Bless the Birds is a love story, an intimate and unflinching tale of the choice to love life—every moment, no matter how painful—through the end.

The story's dedicated to this guy, Richard Cabe, smiling at the camera in November of 2009 after his first brain surgery, smiling even though he knew he had brain cancer, smiling because he loved life wholly and thoroughly. Always.

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