Pub Rants

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

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part III)

STATUS: TGIF! Now if only The Rockies could nail a win on their home turf. If they don’t, I’ll never hear the end of it from my clients Hank Ryan and Becky Motew who are Boston Red Sox fans.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HOTEL CALIFORNIA by The Eagles

I lied. I’m not moving on to adult titles this afternoon. Let’s try one more Young Adult novel and then move forward next week. I’m hoping to hit all kinds of genres, and I won’t forget literary fiction either.

Okay, you guys want an example from a novel with a serious tone. Let’s take a look at a National Book Award nominee STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr.

I didn’t have this book handy when I wrote this blog so I’m not certain of the exact wording of the cover flap copy but here’s what the Publisher posts about the novel:

When she is caught in the backseat of a car with her older brother’s best friend – Deanna Lambert’s teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of “school slut,” she longs to escape a life defined by her past.

With subtle grace, complicated wisdom and striking emotion, Story of a Girl reminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany and redemption.

And here is a longer blurb from Library School Journal that could have acted as the cover flap copy so I’ll talk about both because they could each make a damn fine pitch blurb in a query letter.

From Library School Journal:
When Deanna’s father catches her having sex in a car when she is 13, her life is drastically changed. Two years later, he still can’t look her in the eye, and though Tommy is the only boy she’s been with, she is branded the school slut. Her entire family watches her as though she is likely to sleep with anyone she sees, and Tommy still smirks at and torments her when she sees him. Her two best friends have recently begun dating, and Deanna feels like an intruder. She tries to maintain a close relationship with her older brother, but Darren and his girlfriend are struggling as teenage parents. Deanna learns to protect herself by becoming outwardly tough, but feels her isolation acutely. Her only outlet is her journal in which she writes the story of an anonymous girl who has the same experiences and feelings that she does.

Through this, readers see the potential that Deanna cannot identify in herself. This is a heartbreaking look at how a teenager can be defined by one mistake, and how it shapes her sense of self-worth.

Now let’s analyze.

1. Publisher copy is 3 sentences. Library Journal copy is 9 sentences (and a little longer than some of the other examples we’ve analyzed but still quite within the realm of a pitch paragraph in a query letter).

2. What’s interesting to me about both these cover copies is that they both focus on an event that happens before this novel even begins. We know it’s going to be a story about the repercussions of this action–of not being trusted by her family and also of being branded the “school slut.” We have been immediately introduced to the tension that will shade this whole novel. In the last two examples, we’ve been talking about spotlighting the catalyst that happens in the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel and in this example, it’s an event that happens prior to the story being told in the novel. Probably hadn’t thought about that as a vehicle for a pitch blurb but it can work—as long as the novel is about the fallout from that prior event.

2. The publisher copy then highlights the serious nature of the novel by focusing on several themes that will be explored which are resilience, awareness, and then redemption (and we could perhaps add forgiveness).

3. The Library Journal copy gives us more details about what Deanna will face from her family and from her school fellows. It also gives us more sense of this character’s intense isolation (which ratchets up the tension because we don’t know what Deanna might do—to herself or to others). I’m hooked.

4. The Library Journal copy then sums up for us the power of the story—“This is a heartbreaking look at how a teenager can be defined by one mistake.”

I don’t know about you folks but this Library Journal copy is a powerful pitch and makes this novel a must-read—for me anyway.


24 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Wow! Thank you so much. This example and your comments are exactly what I needed to hammer my query into shape. I was wondering about using a life shaping event that proceeded the story.

  2. cate said:

    Ms. Nelson, your blog is indispensable. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise and wisdom.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Your analysis is great for writers crafting query letters– but the book itself made me shake my head. I thought the girl sleeping with one boy and then being known as the “school slut” (especially today) was far-fetched. I remember being that age; some of the girls in my class were pregnant. One girl had three kids by the time she got out of high school. It seemed like the opposite was true– girls were trying to brag about their sexual activities as much as boys. The book sounded old-fashioned.

    But your comments have nothing to do with my opinion of the book, and they were very helpful.

  4. ORION said:

    I agree with the last anonymous – besides the implication that there is a double standard for girls and boys – I taught at a large high school and had 3 to 4 girls a year pregnant in my classes – sometimes with their second child- There is little stigma now in this-
    Most of my students were sexually active and open about it-
    to me this might work if it took place in the fifties or even sixties but now – I don’t know if this premise is so plausible.
    JMHO

  5. jjdebenedictis said:

    This example really highlights what Kristin said in the first Pitch Workshop post–the query should highlight the story’s inciting incident.

    In this case, that happened two years before the story even starts.

  6. insecure writer said:

    The premise could work well set in a present day Catholic middle or high school. The sigma still exists from some parents and administration. My kids go to Catholic school and moral standards are still held pretty high.

    Thanks for the example Kristin!

  7. ORION said:

    insecure- you make a really good point- those of us in the trenches of public school lose sight of this- actually though (and what I didn’t add but should have) is that it’s a great pitch as Kristin said and does make you want to read the book

  8. Linnea said:

    Thanks for the workshop, Kristin. I was struggling with two possible directions to take in my novel and your workshop has given me that ‘lightbulb’ moment so I know exactly where to go with it.

  9. Mig said:

    Thanks for the workshop on this important topic.

    But I tought that a sense of the plot in the novel was important. None of the cited copy conveys much of a plot. The copy was all about back-story for the character, and gives me zero sense what is the novel’s plot.

  10. Heidi the Hick said:

    “In the last two examples, we’ve been talking about spotlighting the catalyst that happens in the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel and in this example, it’s an event that happens prior to the story being told in the novel. Probably hadn’t thought about that as a vehicle for a pitch blurb but it can work—as long as the novel is about the fallout from that prior event.”

    This is very good to know. I think in a situation like this it adds a bit of mystery- the reader wasn’t there for the event and has to keep reading to put it together.

  11. Termagant 2 said:

    Good info. I can use this to get to the golden kernel of info for my WIP.

    That said, I will not be buying this book for my 13 year old daughter. She is not a “young adult”, she’s a child. Why can’t kids books let them be children? Their childhood lasts so short a time already.

    Now, everybody gets to jump on me for my viewpoint.

  12. Linnea said:

    I certainly won’t jump on you for your viewpoint termagant2 because I share it and even YA doesn’t always deal with teen angst and first times etc. My novel is part of high school reading programs in Ontario. It’s simply a story with lots of action, a strong female protag and romance. Perhaps the comment I’m proudest of is from a student who said she was bored with the kinds of books they had to read in school and my novel got her interested in reading again. There’s room for a lot of different voices in YA and I’m sure you’ll find one that both you and your daughter will enjoy.

  13. Heidi the Hick said:

    No I agree too. I have a 13 year old and she will not be, reading my own book. When I say Young Adult, especially here, I mean 15 at the youngest. Even then I feel uncomfortable.

    I think parents need to help a kid navigate the reading material at this time, because the kids are still children but edging into teenhood. It’s a tough age but it’s amazing.

  14. Katie said:

    I agree, too!!! If we’re being totally honest here, I prefer ADULT novels without the sex! (Unless they’re married. And, BTW, that does NOT mean I don’t like sexual tension. I love it… I just like it when heroes and heroines have the self-control to wait.)

    There, Termagant… I took the pressure off of you, and everyone can jump on me now. 🙂

  15. Anonymous said:

    Regarding what kind of novels are suitable for teens/tweens I feel that kids of today are split, some are adult enough because that’s the way they’ve had to live to survive; and others are still in sweet ignorant bliss. The story being discussed is sad because of a young life destroyed by a silly moment, but more importantly it’s sad because the destruction is being caused by her family and friends’ attitude to that moment rather than the moment per se. The story whilst not being one for youngsters, male or female, to aspire to, is more likely to register in their minds as something they really don’t want to do and so may find this novel a positive read. I now expect a barrage of verbal attack from fellow bloggers!

  16. Anonymous said:

    Thank you, Ms. Nelson! This has been so helpful. I am trying to pitch my second novel to an agent (possibly you), and had no idea how to even write a pitch or query letter. I did write the backmatter for my first novel. I was wondering, how would I go about pitching my second novel (2nd in a Young Adult fantasy series)to an agent without them knowing what went on in book one? I took my first novel to a publisher that did not require an agent, and have felt the need to look elsewhere for my second novel. What would you advise? Thank you!
    Marcus Lawson, author of Shaman’s Spark.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Wow- this is great advice. Thank you so very much for analyzing these- if I ever get around to finishing my first novel, then this advice will come in real handy when I try to pitch it to agents.

  18. Anonymous said:

    So, how about questions that make the reader think about what could happen? For example: What price is Shannon willing to pay in oder to belong? or Just what is it that make Shannon Walker so important?
    These with a couple more questions are sort of spreaded out throughout my pitch.
    Do you think that this is okay to do?

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