Pub Rants

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part IV)

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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.

19 Responses

  1. 2readornot said:

    Was this made into a movie recently? (With Frodo as the MC?) Or am I dreaming again 🙂

    As a fellow Coloradoan, urghh!! Painful.

  2. Carradee said:

    These workshops are proving most helpful for me. I’m trying to write a query letter for my in-progress novel so it’ll be ready for editing by the time this draft of the novel is.

    This sample in particular I found applicable, and it makes me wonder if perhaps I’m writing literary fiction.


    Thank you, though. 🙂

  3. beckymotew said:

    We interrupt this regularly scheduled and extremely informative post to say “good game” and “you guys are classy” to the Rox. I like the long purple wigs and think Kristin should have worn one to the ball field. You never know what could have helped. And now back to the post…

  4. Anonymous said:

    I was listening to Hello Earth today too. I thought I was the only person on the earth who still listened to those beautiful, witchy songs.

    You’re generous with all of this great query information. Thanks.

    M. O’Leary

  5. Southern Writer said:

    The Rockies didn’t win a single game. That’s embarrassing. And yet, I found myself feeling a little sorry for the Sox last night. I sure wouldn’t want to be celebrating that win in the city I just beat the pants off. Where were they welcome to party? They might just as well have gotten back on their plane and gone on home.

    Otherwise, good blog post today, Kristin.

  6. KingM said:

    As a Red Sox fan, I thought the Rockies were a classy organization. No, they didn’t put up much of a fight, but I always got the feeling they were ready to break out at any moment. Due to good pitching on the Sox part and a bit of rust from the horrible scheduling of MLB, they never quite did. But when everyone says it was a blowout, don’t forget that two games were a single swing of the bat from having a totally different outcome.

    Uhm, the writing stuff is useful, too. 🙂

  7. Diana said:

    “Can someone give me a clear definition of exactly what literary fiction is? How is it different from regular fiction?”

    My question also. My first thought was that it a genre that doesn’t fit into any other genre.

  8. Don said:

    Thanks for taking the time to analyze these pitches. It’s extremely helpful to see what works, and have someone explain WHY it works.

  9. Anonymous said:

    There was a discussion about literary fiction in some PubRants posts last year, or earlier this year, if you want to do a search.

  10. Southern Writer said:

    I may be wrong, but I think the definition I heard was that literary fiction is about character development, where genre fiction is about plot development. Also, literary fiction is known for “exceptional” writing (good luck figuring that one out), and genre fiction is more about writing so that a second grader could read it if he wanted to.

    P.S. I’m not much into war stories, they’re just not my cuppa, but the one described here sounded pretty good. I think I’d give it a go.

  11. Twill said:

    It might be good cover copy, but is it really good query letter copy?

    >> a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power…

    >>Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving…

    Tell me an agent wouldn’t toss that query without a second glance. The advice has always been “don’t *tell* me how good it is, *show* me how good it is.”

  12. kk said:

    I was reading through your past posts and came across these…have you ever written a pitch-preparation for memoir writing?

    I’m writing one, and not sure if I can pitch the idea first, or if I have to finish writing and pitch the entire manuscript?

  13. David Allred said:

    Hi Kristen,

    Thank you for this helpful post. I tend to lurk around this site because it is a gold mine of information.

    I would love to hear more about your thoughts on “stream of consciousness” writing. I am probably a strange fellow in this regard — I tend not to even notice the narrative structure if something is well written. Only after breaking away from the story do I suddenly think, “Dang, I’ve been locked in this person’s head for an two hours. I don’t even know his name.”

    I guess what I am curious about is whether my experience here is way out of the ordinary. It might just reflect my own preferences in reading material.

    Another issue I am bumping up against when thinking about how to pitch my books is that due to my own biases, I don’t even look at my own stories as being “stream of consciousness,” although stepping back from this blog offering, I guess they are. I get so caught up in the driving factors inherent to the character that the structure just falls away, like an orange peel. Once things are in motion, the story is chugging along like a freight train.

    Finally, you mention that “stream of consciousness” writing tends to get a quick no, but mention that not all publishers feel that way. Do the good ones tend to specify their preferences in those terms?

    I know that’s a ton of questions and you may never reach this far back into the archives to read things. I was just curious.

    Thanks! And keep up the great work! This blog of yours is sooo much fun.



  14. deepamwadds said:

    I’m preparing for the Algonkian Conference in Niagara Falls and have found the prep work alone has tightened my various forms of pitch and query. I was relieved to read here that literary is the most difficult form, since finding a dynamic way to “hook” the reader has been a challenge. So looking forward to direct input!