Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: Agent Kristin’s Query Pitch Workshop

Writer Conference Pitch Pro Tips

It’s springtime! That means the Writer Conference season is upon us. And you know what that means, pitch appoints with agents and editors.

I do think yoga breathing exercises are essential to do pre-pitch so you might want to brush up with some practice before you go.

And just in case you’d like a few more tips to help you through, I put together my quick and dirty list:

1. For a 10-minute pitch appointment, plan to spend about 2 minutes talking about your book and 8 minutes interacting with the agent.

2. Nail your pitch in two succinct sentences. Three at most. If you can’t do that, you’ll be in trouble during your pitch.

3. Include one thing about yourself that will make you memorable (but in a good way, LOL). Maybe you have an interesting job that plays a factor in what you write. A funny conference story that is safe to share. A hobby passion that is interesting.

4.. Be prepared to talk about what inspired you. What made you excited to write this book?

5. Come intending to pitch only one book. If, however, the agent asks what else you’ve written or what you’re working on, be prepared to answer that question.

6. Know that this pitch appointment is not a make or break it moment. Not for you as a writer, not for your career, and not for your book; it all comes down to the quality of your writing.

The pitch is simply one stepping stone to getting you read. And if it doesn’t go well, plenty of opportunities to simply query agents the old-fashion way through email. Plenty of authors landed their agent doing just that.

Last but not least, smile and breathe. Most agents and editors are lovely people and they want you to succeed in the pitch appointment.

Scout’s honor!

Pic Credit: Dan Govan


Passing on Sample Page Submissions

Not a very original title for a blog post but it certainly conveys the message adequately! I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately. There’s just nothing like that excitement of finding a story that makes all your fingers and toes tingle.

I swear, it might be an addiction and why Literary Agents do the job we do!

And I’ve been reading lots of good stuff as of late. But nothing that is quite tipping me into the “must have” realm as yet. Part of what makes this job so fun is that the right manuscript could hit the inbox at any moment.

Adult Steampunk fantasy: PASS – good concept, solid world building, interesting opening scene. And these are the hardest letters for me to write, the story just didn’t spark for me. So not helpful for that hard-working writer but it’s true.

Young Adult SF: PASS – another interesting world, set on a ship, with a nice opening scene. No spark. Argh.
Adult Literary fiction: PASS – Writer has terrific background in journalism. Cool premise. Solid writing. Just couldn’t quite fall into the story and have it keep my attention. My focus kept wandering so I know this one is not for me.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Too gritty for me and I worried that the main character, his nature, was too dark and grim potentially for the YA market. I could be totally wrong but it’s a sign it’s not right for me.
Young adult contemporary SF: PASS – Another sample with good, solid writing. Interesting story concept. Author had an agent previously.  I should be game for it but the narrative just didn’t spark for me.
Adult Commercial mainstream: PASS – Loved the premise. Solid writing but I actually wanted the writing to be more literary than what it was because the concept hook was so commercial. And for me, that was the way to really make the story stand out.
Fantasy Young Adult: PASS – was a bit on the fence with this one. Nice writing. Interesting fantasy world. Gave it a second read and found I wasn’t feeling passionate about wanting to commit to reading a full manuscript.
Adult SF: PASS – a funny science fiction narrative that works! (so rare.) Good writing. Charming and inventive. Just wasn’t quite right for me but I definitely see another agent taking this one on and selling it.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Such a great premise dealing with contemporary YA themes but writing was really uneven and a little too much force on “this is the theme of my novel.”
Adult historical: PASS – Author has great background with winning some accolades. Really liked the time period so sad with this one a bit and reread it. In the end, I felt like I should love it but didn’t actually love it.
Young adult historical: PASS – One of my fav genres and is a popular tale re-telling. Writing felt too stiff and formal (the emotion didn’t match the scene) I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story.
Middle Grade contemporary: PASS – I really wanted to like this one as concept was terrific. Voice didn’t quite nail it for middle grade. Read a bit too adult.
Adult Fantasy: PASS – Really interesting premise for the anti-hero who is main protagonist of the story. Too many fantasy tropes in the opening without enough of a distinctive voice to really make the opening stand out.
Middle grade fantasy: PASS – narrative voice was too adult for the MG audience. World building was a bit heavy in the opening as well. Thought maybe it could work for adult market but it as in the deadly gray area without it being firmly to one audience or the other.
Young adult contemporary: PASS – loved the multicultural aspect of the story. Author has great background as well. This one I just didn’t fall in love with the story and the narrative voice.

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part XI)

STATUS: TGIF! And I have some major client reading that I need to accomplish this weekend.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HEAVEN by Los Lonely Boys

Time for Fantasy. I don’t think I’m going to tackle an epic one today. It’s Friday after all and my brain likes to shut down for the weekend right about now.

But here’s a good example from a novel that I happen to like from fantasy master Lois McMaster Bujold.

THE HALLOWED HUNT
The half-mad Prince Boleso has been slain by a noblewoman he had intended to defile — and Lord Ingrey kin Wilfcliff must transport the body to its burial place and the accused killer, the Lady Ijada, to judgment. With the death of the old Hallow King imminent and the crown in play, the road they must travel together is a dangerous one. And though he is duty-bound to deliver his prisoner to an almost certain death, Ijada may be the only one Ingrey dares trust. For a monstrous malevolence holds the haunted lord in its sway — and a great and terrible destiny has been bestowed upon him by the gods, the damned, and the dead.

Now let’s analyze:

1. The back cover copy is five sentences.

2. The first sentence is exactly what sets the story in motion. A bad dude was killed by a Lady and now she must be transported to face her jugdment.

3. The next sentence gives us the slightly broader picture. A King is about to die and who will inherit is in question. Why that makes the road a dangerous one isn’t that clear but heck, not everything needs to be spelled out. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more info though.

4. With the next sentence, we learn that our hero has got a problem. He has to take the prisoner to her death but she is also the only person he can trust. What comes next pretty much hints at why. Lord Ingrey is possessed by something evil (got have that in fantasy) and that of course has to tie in to some greater destiny.

The last bit taps into the more generic elements of fantasy (I must admit) but the first part is what made me buy this book when I was at Archon in St. Louis and just browsing the bookseller stall.

One thing I do want to point out is that this book is the third in a connected series (The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of souls) by McMaster Bujold so the publisher doesn’t have to work as hard on the cover copy because there are already fans for this author.

If you are writing a debut fantasy, you don’t have that luxury. You have to work harder on your pitch than what the back cover copy does for an established writer.

I do hope that makes sense because I’m done for the day. Have a good weekend.


Blog Pitch Workshop (Part X)

STATUS: I’m having a good week. Working hard. Getting stuff done. No fires that need to be doused. This is so not normal that I’m just enjoying it.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MY GIRL BACK HOME by John Kerr (South Pacific soundtrack)

Okay. We got a request for a romantic suspense blurb analysis. Piece o’ cake. Let’s take a look at Allison Brennan’s THE PREY—her debut romantic suspense that landed her pretty quickly on the New York Times Bestseller list.

THE PREY by Allison Brennan
Rowan Smith is living in a borrowed Malibu beach house while her bestselling novel is made into a Hollywood movie. A former FBI agent with a haunted past, Rowan thinks she has outrun her demons. But fiction and reality collide when a dismembered body is found in Colorado: the real-life victim had the same name, occupation, and looks as a character in Rowan’s novel. By the time the FBI, the LAPD, and her own private bodyguard gather around her, another person is killed—again, the murder ripped from the pages of Rowan’s book.

In the company of a former Delta Force officer with secrets of his own, Rowan faces an excruciating dilemma: the only way to chase down the tormenting killer is by revisiting the darkness of her past—and by praying for some way out again.

Now let’s analyze:

1. This back cover copy is 5 sentences. This is the shortest I think we’ve seen in all my workshops. Another powerful example that a writer can be concise and still write good pitch.

2. The first sentence sets the scene. Simple. Useful. Gives us a framework.

3. In the second sentence, we are introduced to the main heroine. Interesting background since she is a former FBI agent and obviously has a few skeletons in her closet. No need to reveal what as that will become clear as we read.

4. The next sentence is her hook—it’s what makes this romantic suspense different from the myriad of RS novels already out there, and it’s quite original to boot. I get chills just reading it.

5. The final sentence of this paragraph ups the ante. The killer has a pattern and Rowan is definitely linked to it.

6. The next paragraph is the final sentence of the cover copy. It introduces the hero (however briefly) and that’s fine because the focus needs to be on the suspense. We also get a little teaser for what is at stake for the heroine. She has to face something dark (probably ugly) in her past to stop the killer.

Romantic suspense is pretty straight forward. All of them will have similar elements but what makes this one stand out is #4 in this analysis—her high concept element. It’s original.

Most of the time I receive queries where the heroine is being stalked or her life is in danger (of course!) and then the hero character has to save her. Seriously, most of what we receive is that generic in the pitch. There’s no spotlight on the original vehicle for the shaping of the story. In this example, the original concept is the former FBI writer who is being stalked by a killer who reads and models his crimes after her novels.

Catchy.

We want that original hook so we’ll ask for sample pages for your romantic suspense. Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at fantasy.


Blog Pitch Workshop (IX)

STATUS: Working. Pretty much a normal day. I’m doing a submission tomorrow so I’m pretty excited about that.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HEY JEALOUSY by Gin Blossoms

I promised you a contemporary romance today before moving on. I might have to take a little break from all this analyzing as well. We’ll see. Part of me thinks the point should be pretty clear regardless of the genre you are writing but maybe I’m wrong. Let me know in the comments section if you’re dying for me to tackle a certain type of fiction that I haven’t yet.

As you can see so far, there are many different strategies for writing good pitch copy. You just have to choose what will work best for your story but for the most part, simply focusing on the catalyst event in the first 30 pages or so will get the job done.

In fact, I just put that into practice for tomorrow’s submission. Sure enough, I focused on a situation and event that starts the novel. After the sale, I’ll share that one but I can’t at the moment. So on to contemporary romance. One of my favorite writers is one of my own authors, Jana DeLeon. I think the back cove copy for RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU is just about perfect.

In fact, the copy editor “borrowed” a lot of the verbiage that was in my editor pitch letter, which is great. The copy editor also made it better which reminded me that I could use some work on my own pitches. We can always improve—even agents.

RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU by Jana DeLeon
GATOR AID
Deputy Dorie Berenger knew it was going to be a rough day when the alligator she found in the town drunk’s swimming pool turned out to be stoned. On heroin. Now she has some big-shot city slicker from the DEA trying to take over her turf. And Agent Richard Starke is everything she’d feared—brash, demanding and way too handsome for his own good. Or hers.

The folks of Gator Bait, Louisiana, may know everything about each other, but they’re sure not going to share it with an outsider. Richard wouldn’t be able to catch a catfish, much less a drug smuggler, without Dorie’s help. But some secrets—and some desires—are buried so deep that bringing them to the surface will take a major
RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU

Now let’s analyze:
1. This back cover copy is 8 sentences. Hopefully I’ve driven home the point that pitches needn’t be lengthy to get the job done. Writers who can’t get their query letter to one page aren’t working hard enough.

2. It’s a terrific opening sentence. If this line doesn’t capture your interest, I’m not sure what will. The image of a stoned alligator in the town drunk’s swimming pool sets a vivid scene. This is a Louisiana-set novel and they do things different down there—but not this different. Love it. Any pitch that started with that opening line is going to get a request for sample pages from me. Now, before everyone starts adding that to their opening pitch, it has to be true in the actual story you are writing and honestly, how many stoned alligators can we have. Jana’s already done it. It’s not original anymore.

3. The opening sentence also tells us why a DEA agent is coming to town—which is going to be a source of conflict for our deputy heroine. We know this because the story is a romance but also because of the word choices used. “Her turf” for example. We know he’s “brash and demanding.” We also know what hasn’t been said which is that Agent Richard Starke probably thinks this is a Podunk town with residents who are lacking in IQ.

4. The start of the next paragraph gives us the low-down on how small towns operate. They are close-knit and closed mouth because they understand what Richard is thinking about them. Dorie, however, is the insider. He needs her to catch the drug smuggler.

5. The last line ties into the title (which is clever) and gives a hint of some of the things that will unfold. All small towns have secrets. Most aren’t worth knowing but this one will cause a rumble. Nice tie-in!


Blog Pitch Workshop (VIII)

STATUS: They’re painting my office lobby today. The smell of paint is really getting overwhelming—even with the windows open. You might get enough of me with the blog but just in case, Women On Writing have posted a recent interview with me.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? (I’VE GOT A GAL IN) KALAMAZOO by Glen Miller Orchestra

Romance. More Romance. Romance all the time. Seriously, it’s worth spending at least another day with this genre mainly because so many romance queries are generic and consequently get quick passes. You don’t want that to happen to you.

So let’s look at another historical romance—this time by one of my authors. Sherry Thomas’s PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS comes out this spring, and Bantam has done a great job with the back cover copy.

PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS by Sherry Thomas
To all of London society, Lord and Lady Tremaine had the ideal arrangement: a marriage based on civility, courteousness and freedom—by all accounts, a perfect marriage. The reason? For the last ten years, husband and wife have resided on separate continents.


But once upon a time, things were quite different for the Tremaines…When Gigi Rowland first laid eyes on Camden Saybrook, Lord Tremaine, the attraction was immediate and overwhelming: she simply had to have him. But what began in a spark of passion ended in betrayal the morning after their wedding—and Gigi wants to be free to marry again. Now Camden has returned from America with an outrageous demand in exchange for Gigi’s freedom—a proposal that defies propriety and stuns his wife. For Gigi’s decision will have consequences she never imagined, as secrets are exposed, desire is rekindled—and one of London’s most admired couples must either fall in love all over again…or let each other go forever.

Now let’s analyze:

1. This back cover copy is 8 sentences.

2. The first paragraph does a great job of outlining the irony behind the definition of a “perfect marriage.” There’s a bit of subtle humor in there as well because why is the marriage perfect? The husband and wife reside on separate continents. It really sets the tone of this work and gives us an interesting back story at the same time. First question that pops to mind is why do they live in separate countries?

3. The next paragraph begins by giving the reader a little glimpse into the answer to that question the first paragraph inspired. They used to love each other. They used to be wildly and passionately in love but a betrayal ends that. Now, the betrayal isn’t revealed and that’s part of what we assume will unfold as we read the story.

4. By the fourth sentence, we are introduced to the crux of the current conflict. Lord Tremaine has made a demand in return for granting a divorce. The demand isn’t revealed (of course) because the hope is that the reader of this copy will be enticed to read on and buy the book (or if you were querying, the agent would be enticed to request the sample pages or the full because the pitch is so intriguing).

5. The second paragraph ends with what is at stake. I personally love the last line because of what is not said. London’s most admired couple (for their perfect marriage) must decide whether they can be admired as a great couple for embracing love instead.

We’ll try some contemporary romances tomorrow before moving on.


Blog Pitch Workshop (VII)

STATUS: TGIF! I’m close to wrapping up three different contracts today. That’s some good work.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CRUSH WITH EYELINER by R.E.M

Today will be a huge departure from Wednesday’s workshop. Writing romance couldn’t be more opposite to horror if you tried. Seemed like a perfect place to go next!

Romance, for me, is another really tough genre to pitch because basically there are no new stories under the sun nor is the ending in question.

So when writing romance pitch copy, the real focus needs to be on the elements that make this romance original. Hard to do since all romances have a hero, a heroine, a conflict that impedes the romance and of course, a happy ending.

There might not be any new stories under the sun but there are certainly new ways to tell them! Your pitch blurb becomes your tool to show an agent that you have an original new way of telling a romance.

One of my favorite writers for her originality is Julia Quinn and Romancing Mister Bridgerton might be one of my all-time favorite historicals.

From the back cover copy:
Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone’s preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad, he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat—or his promise of a happy ending?

Now Let’s analyze:

1. This copy is six sentences.

2. This blurb is also unique in that it’s the first cover copy we’ve examined where the focus is on the characters rather than the plot and for this to work, we really need to see something original in the character outlines given. What catches my eye for this novel is the fact that Penelope has had a long-time crush on the hero. (I’ve seen this many times since reading this novel but several years ago, it wasn’t as common a construct.) I also like the focus on Colin and his wanting to be viewed as something more than your average charmer. It hints at some interesting character exploration (which actually does occur in the novel).

3. The only plot elements even hinted at are the secrets and his exasperation with lady Whistledown. If you’ve read this novel, the importance of that is going to take center stage but not much is actually revealed in the copy.

4. Why is that? Well, part of the reason might be that this is book four in the Bridgerton family series and there might be an assumption that the reader might already know the family and the basic romance constructs Ms. Quinn utilizes. I point this out so you can keep it in mind when writing romance copy for your first novel. You need to do more rather than less to make your romance pitch stand out.

To often I see historical romance pitch copy that reads something like this: she’s desperate but the belle of the ball and he’s a rake. It’s too generic. I need some original element (character, plot device, etc.) to grab my interest or I’ll pass.


Blog Pitch Workshop (Part VI)

STATUS: Happy Halloween! I try not to frighten people by going out in costume so maybe I’ll be an Evil Editor for Halloween…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THRILL ME by Simply Red

In honor of Halloween, of course we have to look at the horror genre today and I’ve got two tasty morsels for you from Horror Writers of America Grand Master Ray Garton and then another Halloween treat from Brian Keene.

THE LOVELIEST DEAD by Ray Garton
To most people it’s just a large house, old and a bit run-down. To the Kellar family it’s a new start, a chance to wipe out the painful past and begin again. But soon it will become a living nightmare. The terrors begin before the Kellars have even finished unpacking. They hear things, see things, shadowy glimpses into the impossible, things that are there—and then gone.

Who are the mysterious children playing on the rusty, vine-covered swing set in the backyard? Who is the figure sitting in the dark corner of the bedroom at night? Who –or what– waits in the basement? They are the dead and they cannot rest. Horror stalks the halls of the Kellar house. And the secrets of the past are reaching from beyond the grave to destroy the living.

Now let’s analyze:
1. The back cover copy is 11 sentences and unlike any of the author works we’ve analyzed so far, this copy is mostly comprised of short, punchy sentences. Interesting.

2. The first two sentences fill in the back story for the reader and allow us to know that the Kellar family are looking for peace but are going to get anything but. (I mean, this is horror after all).

3. So the rest of the cover copy pretty much sums up what will be strange about the new house. The end sentence hints that it’s not just a ghost story but that something darker is at stake.

4. For me, the cover copy misses a bit (and perhaps feels too generic)—especially when I see the Publishers Weekly review that reads: “In this ironically titled shocker from horror maestro Garton, the dead, who are pretty ugly, make life a hell for the living. Jenna and David Kellar, after a series of personal tragedies, the worst of which is the inexplicable death of their four-year-old son, Josh, hope to make a new start at the old family homestead they’ve inherited just outside Eureka, Calif., with their surviving son, Miles. Instead, they discover a nightmare. Ghostly children cavort mysteriously on the backyard swings and vanish at will. Tantalizingly, cruelly, one resembles Josh.”

Wow. That last sentence of the review tantalizes. One of the ghost children looks like their dead son? Now I’m interested. I’m not sure why the cover copy that’s actually on the back cover of the book doesn’t capitalize on that juicy tidbit.

What I’m pointing out is that cover copy isn’t always perfect and cover copy editors get paid to write enticing blurbs to draw readers in! Writing good pitch copy is hard.

TERMINAL by Brian Keene
From award-winning author Brian Keene comes a darkly suspenseful tale of crime and the common man-with a surprising jolt of the supernatural. . . Tommy O’Brien once hoped to leave his run-down industrial hometown. But marriage and fatherhood have kept him running in place, working a job that doesn’t even pay the bills. And now he seems fated to stay for the rest of his life. Tommy’s just learned he’s going to die young-and soon. But he refuses to leave his family with less than nothing-especially now that he has nothing to lose.Over a couple of beers with his best friends, John and Sherm, Tommy launches a bold scheme to provide for his family’s future. And though his plan will spin shockingly out of control, it will throw him together with a child whose touch can heal-and whose ultimate lesson is that there are far worse things than dying.

Now let’s analyze:
1. This back cover copy is 8 sentences. I see some similarities to the Garton copy with the shorter, punchier sentences. I think this copy does a better job of introducing more information in a short amount of space.

2. The opening line is from the publisher. Writers can’t use that but you could start your query pitch with “my novel is a darkly suspenseful tale of crime and the common man-with a surprising jolt of the supernatural.” Or wrap the pitch with that line.

3. The second paragraph gives us a character sketch of Tommy’s life because this is essential to understanding his motivation for the plot twist that will be revealed at the end of the second paragraph and into the third. The first couple of sentences set up his desperation so when he learns he’s going to die, we know that might lead to choices that will cause trouble. (This is horror after all and we need to have a sense of the horror element before we close this back cover copy).

4. This comes in paragraph three. I wouldn’t have minded an escalation of the tension by allowing the reader a little hint of the plan that will spin out of control (so that’s my suggestion for this copy). The last line throws in a whole new element that’s pretty intriguing but once again, I wouldn’t mind a little more hint as to what might be “far worse things than dying.”
In just these two examples, I’d have to say that horror back cover copy might be the toughest to write. You can’t give away the surprise so what’s enough? Too much? Or not enough? All good questions that if you write in this genre, you need to be asking yourself.


Blog Pitch Workshop (Part V)

STATUS: I signed a new author today and that’s always fun.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN by The Dream Academy

I think you blog readers should know by now that asking to define literary fiction is just a disaster waiting to happen. Everyone has a different definition.

A literary agent friend of mine defines it as any manuscript he happens to pitch as literary fiction. I’m going with that…

But back to talking about pitching whatever it is that we call literary fiction. The next book is actually a novel chosen by the City of Denver for their One Book One Denver program (and I’m actually not sure if the author Nick Arvin knows this or not but I’m actually the person who recommended this title as a possibility to Denver’s Cultural Affairs liaison who headed up the search committee—and no, he’s not one of my authors so no self-interest was involved). I did lobby hard for NO PLACE SAFE for next year but alas, the program only chooses fiction.

ARTICLES OF WAR by Nick Arvin

From the cover flap:
George Tilson is an eighteen-year-old Iowan farm boy who is drafted into the army during World War II and sent to Normandy shortly after D-Day. Nicknamed “Heck” because of his reluctance to curse, he is a typical soldier, willing to do his duty without fuss or much musing about grand goals. The night before he is trucked into the combat zone, Heck meets a young French refugee and her family, an encounter that unsettles him greatly.

During his first, horrific exposure to combat, Heck discovers a dark truth about himself: he is a coward. Shamed by his fears and tortured by the never-ending physical dangers around him, he struggles to survive, to live up to the ideal of the American fighting man, and to make sense of his feelings for the young French woman. As the stark reality of combat–the knowledge that he could cease to exist at any moment–presses in on him, Heck makes a series of choices that would be rational in every human situation except war.

With remorseless, hypnotic clarity, Arvin draws readers into the unimaginable fear, violence, and chaos of the war zone. Arvin layers profound meaning within a brilliantly executed minimalist style. His portrayal of the emotional and physical terrors Heck can neither understand nor escape is one of the most disturbing and unforgettable accounts of the life of a soldier ever written.

Now let’s analyze:
1. This cover copy is 9 sentences long.

2. The first three sentences of the first paragraph give us the background regarding the main character and then the opening setting of the novel. This will lead into the main crux of the story which will be revealed in the first sentence of the next paragraph. Now take a moment to think about why we need to know about the main protagonist and the setting before the conflict is revealed. If you did so, you should realize that understanding Heck’s “before” nature is crucial to how this story will unfold—hence the spotlight on it.

3. The second paragraph goes right to the heart of the story. Heck is going to make some choices and we imagine, as readers, that it’s going to be revealed to us what those choices are. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling the tension already. Every word in this second paragraph is carefully chosen. Notice word choices such as “horrific exposure,” “dark truth,” “shamed,” “stark reality,” and I could go on. I point this out because if you write literary fiction, your word choices in your query pitch need to reflect the literary nature of the work. For this novel, every word conveys a sense of darkness—maybe even despair.

4. The last paragraph is the publisher’s viewpoint. Once again, this is what the publisher hopes the reader will take from reading this novel. I think if a writer wanted to include some of the thematic elements, he/she could by simply rewrite the last couple of sentences so it would make more sense in a query letter. For example, the first sentence of the last paragraph could read like this: “With remorseless and hypnotic clarity, my novel exposes the reader to the unimaginable fear, violence, and chaos of the war zone.”

The last sentence you can’t use without sounding like a dork. Goes without saying but you be amazed at how many unpublished writers insert grandiose projections about their unproven writing ability in their query letters.


Blog Pitch Workshop (Part IV)

STATUS: Groan. It was not a good Colorado Rockies weekend. Still, it was thrilling for them to to be in the World Series at all. Was it too much to ask that they win just one game?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HELLO EARTH by Kate Bush

Since I’m in a serious mode after Story Of A Girl, let’s move on to the hardest type of novel to pitch well in a query letter— literary fiction.

Now why do I say this is the hardest to pitch? Because literary fiction, typically, isn’t driven largely by plot elements, unlike most genre fiction. More often than not, the focus is on character development. Now that doesn’t mean that literary works can’t have a high concept to drive it but often that is secondary to what is to be explored.

However, I highly recommend that if you write literary fiction, you find that catalyst or event that launches the story because every work of literary fiction does have it.

For example, what is the event that happens in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD that forms the direction of Scout’s narrative?

What is the event in CATCHER IN THE RYE that sparks Holden’s narrative?

See what I mean? It’s there and it’s up to the writer to spotlight it.

Since we aren’t writing in the 1950s, let’s take a closer look at a more contemporary literary novel such as EVERYTHNG IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer.

From the Front cover flap:
With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man – also named Jonathan Safran Foer – sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather’s village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. Lit by passion, fear, guilt, memory, and hope, the characters in Everything Is Illuminated mine the black holes of history. As the search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power.

An arresting blend of high comedy and great tragedy, this is a story about searching for people and places that no longer exist, for the hidden truths that haunt every family, and for the delicate but necessary tales that link past and future. Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an astonishing debut.

Now let’s analyze it:

1. It is 7 sentences.
(I want to emphasize a point here. When I give query pitch workshops, I invariably get a participant who says that their book is “too complicated” to sum up in such a short space as one paragraph. Needless to say, I always give an eyebrow raise as a retort. A lot of novels are “complicated” and yet we still manage to create short but enticing blurbs to draw readers in. There is no such thing as “too complicated” if you focus on what launches the story).

2. The first sentence tells us why the story is happening. We have a young man searching for his past.

3. The next sentence is hilarious but it actually achieves a couple of things: 1) it tells us who will accompany Jonathan on this journey, 2) it sets the tone of this literary novel, 3) then it touches on some themes with “quixotic” and “unexpected past.” This sentence is working hard and getting the job done.

4. The next paragraph tackles the unusualness of the unfolding narrative structure. (Not sure what else I can add here because this is a tough one. You can’t hide it if you have a unique narrative frame but you need to describe it in such a way that it won’t be off-putting. I’ll leave you to decide whether it works here or not. I do have to say that when I receive a query that states the novel is in “stream of consciousness” form, it’s an auto NO for me—but I like my literary novels to at least slant toward commercial and “stream of consciousness” screams otherwise. Not every agent feels that way though.)

5. The second to last sentence highlights the themes the author is going to explore (and we can relate to such as the “hidden truths that haunt every family”). For me, the last sentence is what the publisher hopes readers will see in the work. If you were pitching in a query letter, I would leave that out. It’s okay for a publisher to say the novel is “exuberant and wise” but I’m not sure a writer could say that about his or her own work without sounding like a dork.


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