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Most writers’ manuscripts are lost in a ‘slush pile’ and never catch publishers’ eyes. Here’s how author Kanchana Banerjee got her book deal.
Editor’s note: Kanchana Banerjee’s powerful debut novel, A Forgotten Affair has just been published by Harper Collins. She will join Women’s Web readers in Bangalore, on September 9th, Friday, at a Writers Special event, where we get together for a fun evening, and some interesting conversation on writing and being published. Register here.
It was September 2014. After furiously and feverishly writing for 7 months, clocking 8-9 hours a day I’d finished the first draft. I was breathing easy, enjoying the proverbial stay away from your manuscript period.
The past 7 months had been a non-stop marathon, I’d been writing without a pause. But my decision to stay away from the manuscript was short-lived. An author friend informed me in the penultimate hour about an open mic contest at Bangalore Lit fest. First time authors were invited to send in a 300-word synopsis; if selected, they would present their story to a panel of editors and literary agents.
Each would have only 3 minutes to present! Yes, you got that right. Just 3 minutes and only 300 words synopsis!
Of course no one was getting signed up on the basis of a 3-minute pitch and 300-word synopsis but to interact with commissioning editors from leading publishing houses and two of India’s leading literary agents was too golden an opportunity to pass up. This would mean direct access to them, making a contact and not having to go through the common submission email id on the website.
Opportunity knocks when you least expect it. And it usually comes with pretty steep conditions to comply with. My plan to relax after the 7 month long marathon dissipated as I plunged back into the manuscript.
The task at hand was herculean to say the least! How do you encapsulate a 75K word novel in just 300 words? If you have only 3 minutes to talk about your novel, what would you say? It seemed daunting and it is. But sometimes a challenge is what you need to push you in the right direction.
Not only did I get noticed by the commissioning editor from Harper Collins, who was part of the panel, but it helped me focus on what I really wanted to say in the book.
As I struggled to pen the synopsis, I began asking myself what is this story about? What do I want to tell? It forced me to zoom in, albeit mentally, on the core message in the novel. Every story has one. Every tale has a message which lies at the centre of it all; preparing for BLF”s Lit-Mart compelled me to think of that. And I came up with a line that forms the crux of the story. Sometimes you need to forget everything to recognize what matters the most.
This wasn’t just a catchy line to use in the pitch at the open mic to catch the notice of the panel, this single line helped me relook and reassess my first draft. The earlier placid tale of a woman who loses her memory and goes about trying to put the pieces together became a gripping marital drama of love, passion and deceit.
The theme of emotional abuse that marks the lives of so many women in affluent homes surfaced. The novel transformed from an ordinary love story to a tale about relationships, destiny and second choices.
Yes, getting signed by Harper Collins for my debut book is a dream come true for any aspiring author but the best thing to come out of my preparation for the open mic is the clarity it gave me about the story. I returned from Bangalore and dove back into the story, deleted 40K words and rewrote it completely.
Is it fair to be asked to write such a tight and crisp synopsis? Many of the participants, myself included, shared our grief and displeasure at having to do so. A story has so much, plethora of characters, twists and turns in the plot and etc. Is it fair to ask authors to write so little and be judged merely on a summary and a 3-minute presentation?
Well, like it or not we are living in a world of 140 characters. If you can’t grab attention in a jiffy…your moment could be gone before you realize. I didn’t and don’t like this quickie generation but then I don’t make the rules.
I was a nervous wreck before my turn. Addressing 6 reputed and respected representatives from leading publishing houses is enough to make any aspiring author go weak in the knees and to make matters worse there was a large crowd that had gathered to hear the pitches and the feedback of the panel. What kept me afloat is the knowledge that this was my only chance to make a direct connect with either a lit agent or a commissioning agent.
I’d heard enough horror stories of the slush pile. For the uninformed, the slush pile is where your manuscript lands up when you send it through the email given on the website. The name – slush pile – is self-explanatory. It lies there gathering dirt. Yes, there are cases of authors who have risen out of the infamous pile and got published by the biggies but the fact they are so few tells how rare that it. So this was my make it or break it moment and I gave it my best.
Don’t try to tell all. You can’t and more importantly you shouldn’t. Intrigue is the key hook. My 3 minute presentation included the most important points in the story; the main crisis, principal characters and a bit more. Three minutes is really a small window and don’t waste precious time talking about yourself. Keep only a line or two about self. The pitch is for your story and not you. Preferably don’t read from a printed text. Speak. It’s your story. Your creation. Your work. Let your emotions flow. Let your passion speak.
Some of the participants got overwhelmed during their pitch. It’s not silly. When you’ve toiled for days, weeks, months …in some cases years writing, re-writing; it’s not silly to get teary eyed. Our dreams often break us and in breaking us…as we put the pieces back together, a new whole is born. Just like the protagonist in my novel. That’s what I did with my story. I tore it down to get one core line and that line redefined the story completely.
I wouldn’t be participating in the Lit-Mart again. It’s only for aspiring authors who have never been published. But I will repeat this exercise for every manuscript I write. I’m doing it for my novel 2; to get the much-needed clarity and insight into the story that can only come when you have to tell it all in just 300 words and 3 minutes.
If you are based in Bangalore, love to write, or want to write more powerfully, join us on September 9th at Writers Special, where we’ll get together and talk about the stories we create! It’s also a chance to network with publishers as well as other writers, including noted Editor, Shinie Antony, who will be joining us for an insightful panel discussion.