Pub Rants

Plot Catalysts For Your Pitch Paragraph

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STATUS: I’m leaving for Chicago today so it was a little frantic trying to get ready to leave town again. Sorry for not blogging yesterday.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHERE ARE YOU GOING by Dave Matthews Band

I’m going to take a stab at sharing the “hands-on” exercise with you online. Obviously this is a lot easier to do while giving the presentation in person but what the heck. Let’s see how well it translates.

So here is the first step in identifying the plot catalyst that starts the story forward so you can identify it for yourself in your own novel.

What’s interesting is that the first step is something that actually can’t be done during the presentation itself so all you blog readers will have a leg up on this.

Before writing your pitch paragraph for your query letter, I strongly recommend that you take the time to visit your local bookstore or library in order to peruse the shelves for recently published novels that are in your genre and in the same vein as your story. In other words, if you write historical romance, go and read the back cover copy of historical romances in your time setting. If you write epic fantasy, go and look at epic fantasy back cover copy, etc. If you write contemporary literary fiction, pull out some of the latest offerings in that realm.

I think you get the picture.

But here’s the next step. I want you to read the back cover copy. Get a feel for it. Then open the book and read the first 30 to 50 pages. Then go back to the cover copy. Is there a plot aspect that is highlighted in that copy that occurred within the first 50 pages? What was it? Did you notice it while you were reading?

Let’s say you write non-epic fun fantasy and you are shaping your query letter pitch blurb so you head to the bookstore and pick up Lisa Shearin’s MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND. If you did, here is what you would read in the back cover copy:

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound…

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine find herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?

In this cover copy, can you spot the plot catalyst?

It starts in the third sentence. Her friend Quentin has stolen an amulet, one of limitless power (hey it’s fantasy!). Once Raine takes possession of it, she’s in a heap of trouble—especially because it’s enhancing her powers. She is becoming something other than your average seeker making a living.

If you read MAGIC LOST, Raine coming into possession of the amulet does indeed happen within the first 30 pages of the novel.

Now the sequel from Ace, ARMED & MAGICAL, is hitting shelves this week. Because it’s a sequel, the cover copy reads just a tad differently:

My name is Raine Benares. Until last week I was a seeker—a finder of things lost and people missing. Now I’m psychic roommates with the Saghred, an ancient stone with cataclysmic powers. Just me, the stone, and all the souls it’s ingested over the centuries. Crowded doesn’t even begin to describe it…

All Raine wants is her life back—which means getting rid of the stone and the power it possesses. To sort things out, she heads for the Isle of Mid, home to the most prestigious sorcery school, as well as the Conclave, the governing body for all magic users. It’s also home to power-grubbing mages who want Raine dead and goblins who see her as a thief. As if that’s not enough, Mid’s best student spellsingers are disappearing left and right, and Raine’s expected to find them.

Lives are at stake, goblins are threatening to sue, mages are getting greedier, and the stone’s power is getting stronger by the hour. This could get ugly.

But here’s what I want to point out, the catalyst that starts this sequel is the fact that the student spellsingers are disappearing—which, wait don’t tell me, happens within the first 30 pages of the story.

So it doesn’t matter what type of genre you write, you are looking for the plot element (the event) that will launch the story. This is often easier to find in genre fiction but it still works for literary fiction.

Next up, taking that plot element and deciding what to include along with it. As I mentioned in my blog pitch workshop entries, back cover copy runs only 7 to 9 sentences long.

And that’s your goal for nailing the pitch paragraph in your query letter.

18 Responses

  1. Julia Weston said:

    This is great stuff. Any chance I could convince you to skip the Chicago trip and post the next lesson instead? I hear the forecast is 40s and rainy…

  2. Kimber An said:

    Speaking of Lisa Shearin, you all might want to pop over to the Enduring Romance blog for the Cyber-Launch book party for ARMED & MAGICAL. It runs all day today and that’s it.

  3. Amy Nathan said:

    Chicago forecast is 70’s for the weekend! And we’re destined for sun (and ok, some sprinkles too)!

    I am eager to put these exercises to work in person.

  4. Wakai Writer said:

    Thanks Kristin, both for sharing and for using fantasy as an example. It’s rare for publishing bloggers to do so, but oh-so-incredibly helpful when it happens. 🙂

  5. Adaora A. said:

    You word things so well. Thank you for this post. I actually have been picking up quite a few books in my genre recently and trying to figure out whatever it was I thought. It’s nice to have it clearly thought out and presented.

    Favoriting this post.

  6. Sarahlynn said:

    So jealous! I really wanted to make this conference and meet you/experience the workshop in person, but decided that the manuscript needed another rehaul instead. Maybe next time . . .

  7. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Great post, and a good piece of advice to go read the cover copy for books in your genre. My catalyst happens pretty much right away, but I bet I could still learn a thing or two next time I head over to the bookstore.

  8. suelder said:

    I’m not up to the query stage, but this is a really good hint for structuring or revising the story.

    You need that catalyst and it needs to be in the first thirty pages. I like it.

  9. Angela said:

    This is an excellent post! I agree with Julia–Chicago isn’t going anywhere, right?

    Seriously, thank you. This is very, very helpful.

  10. Joseph L. Selby said:

    My preference is epic fantasy, so I pulled a number of books off my bookshelves to test this theory out (including works by Tad Williams, George Martin, and Pat Rothfuss). I’ve found the BCC to vary depending no how contained the story was within the book. Those that had a contained story had the classic BCC you describe while the story that had no genuine ending but was just one segment of a larger series was more broad and vague in its description.

    I found with epic fantasy that, when an exciting action was included in the BCC, it generally occurred within the first 100 pages.

  11. Nancy Beck said:

    I absolutely loved Magic Lost – and thing is, I just happened to pick it up when I was at the bookstore. (Imagine my chagrin when I found out Ms. Shearin was repped by you, Kristin! Hooray!)

    So now that the other one is about to come out (next week), I’ll probably be reading Magic Lost again. Of course, I must pick up Armed and Magical.

    As for the catalyst…I’m writing a time travel novel (well, revising it for the umpteenth time), and the catalyst (being sent back in time to 1942) definitely happens within the first 30 pages (try more like the first 20 pages).

    Great post.