Writing a novel? Try telling it in 300 words and three minutes

“How making a pitch at an open mic event changed one writer’s novel – and life.” -Scroll.in

It was September 2014. After writing furiously and feverishly for seven months, clocking eight to nine hours a day, I’d finished the first draft of my novel. I was breathing easy, enjoying the proverbial “stay-away-from-your-manuscript” period. The past seven 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 at the very last minute about an open mic contest at Bangalore Lit fest. First-time authors were invited to send in a 300-word synopsis of their novels. If selected, they would get to present their story to a panel of editors and literary agents.

Each participant would have only three minutes to present their books. Yes, you got that right. Just three minutes. And only 300 words to sum up the work that represents your blood, sweat and tears.

Of course, no one would be signed up simply on the basis of the three-minute pitch, but the chance 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 all right, but with pretty steep conditions attached. My plan to relax died prematurely as I plunged back into the manuscript. How do you turn 75,000 words into 300? If you have only three minutes to talk about your novel, which aspects do you focus on? Can the idea of a book even be “sold” this way?

But it’s true that a challenge is exactly what you need to push you in the right direction. Not only did I get noticed by the commissioning editor from HarperCollins who was part of the panel, but I also learnt how to identify what I really wanted to say in the book. Defining the core changes everything

As I struggled to write the synopsis, I began asking myself, what is this story about? This meant a lot of thinking, a relentless zooming in, a peeling back of the layers to get to the core. It needed the conviction that there was indeed one to my novel, as every story must. If it hadn’t been for the Lit-Mart, I would never have gone on this search.

Finally, I came up with a line that forms the crux of the story: Sometimes you need to forget everything to recognise what matters the most. It wasn’t just a catchy line to use in the pitch at the open mic to attract the attention of of the panel. This single line helped me 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 was transformed from an ordinary love story to a tale about relationships, destiny and second choices.

Yes, being signed on by HarperCollins would be a dream come true for any aspiring writer, but the best thing to come out of my preparation for the open mic was the clarity it gave me about the story. I returned from Bangalore and dived right back into the story, deleted 40,000 words, and rewrote it completely.

What to tell, and how much?

At first, we didn’t know how beneficial the one-line synopsis would prove to be. Instead, we complained, asking if it was fair. Many of the participants, included me, shared our dismay with one another. All that complexity of plot, depth of character, richness of context, reduced to three minutes?

In the event, it made me realise that, like it or not, we’re living in a world of 140 characters. If you can’t grab attention instantly, your moment will be gone before you know it. 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 six respected representatives from leading publishing houses is enough to make any rookie writer buckle at the knees. 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 from fainting was the knowledge that this was my only chance to forge a direct connection with either an agent or a commissioning editor. I’d heard enough horror stories of the slush pile. This was my make it or break it moment and this is what I told myself.

Don’t try to tell everything about your novel. You can’t – and, more important, you shouldn’t. Intrigue is the key hook. My three-minute presentation focussed on the most important point in the plot: the main crisis facing the principal characters.

I’d also decided not to read from a printed text. I talked. It was my story, my creation. I wanted my emotions to flow, my passion to speak. Indeed, 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 and re-writing – it’s not unusual to tear up.

I will not 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 book I write. I’m doing it for my second novel – 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 three minutes.

Kanchana Banerjee's debut novel A Forgotten Affair was signed up following an open mic event in Bengaluru.