Pub Rants

Category: Agent Kristin’s Query Pitch Workshop

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.

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part II)

STATUS: Problem solved with Comcast. Makes me happy. Ally Carter is on the New York Times Bestseller Top 10 List for the third week in a row for CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY. That makes me very, very, very happy.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SWEET CAROLINE by Neil Diamond

Now you guys are getting into the swing of things. In fact, I encourage you all to give examples with your analysis in the comments section like Rebecca did for yesterday’s post.

And since Ally is my NYT star, let’s tackle her young adult novel I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU next.

The premise of this work is pretty high concept and easy to sum up: a teen girl who attends the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (but really a school for spies) jeopardizes her make or break sophomore year by falling in love with a teen boy from the neighboring town who can’t know who or what she is.

So now we have to work that concept into an attention-getting pitch paragraph. Since we are playing with making our pitches sound like good cover flap copy, here’s what the flap reads for this book:

“The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women is a fairly typical all-girls school—that is, it would be if every school taught advanced martial arts in PE, and the latest in chemical warfare in science, and students received extra credit for breaking CIA codes in computer class. So while the Gallagher Academy might claim to be a school for geniuses, it’s really a school for spies.

Cammie Morgan is a second-generation Gallagher girl, and by her sophomore year, she’s already fluent in fourteen languages and capable of killing a man in seven different ways (one of which involves a piece of uncooked spaghetti). But the one thing the Gallagher Academy hasn’t prepared her for is what to do when she falls for a boy who thinks she’s an ordinary girl.

Sure, she can tap his phone, hack into his computer, and track him through town without his ever being the wiser—but can she have a relationship with a regular boy who can never know the truth about her?

Cammie may be an elite spy-in-training, but in her sophomore year, she’s beginning her most dangerous mission—falling in love.” (Hyperion 2006)

Now let’s analyze.

1. 6 sentences total (and notice how much information is packed into these six sentences)
2. The first two sentences are a summary of the setting with some fun elements to set the tone. We have to know that the Academy is a school for spies or the rest of the cover copy won’t make sense.

3. The next paragraph dives right in and here’s a fun comparison. The Harry Potter cover flap copy started with what Harry has not done (Quidditch, ride a broom, dragon hatching). In a similar vein (but reversed), the LYKY cover copy tells us what Cammie is capable of (an impressive and fun list that captures our attention) but then launches into what she hasn’t done—and that’s fall in love with a boy.

4. The next sentence I love because it highlights what a teen girl spy would do to find out about her new crush and also highlights the main conflict of the story—which is that she can’t tell the truth about herself. We pretty much get an idea of what is going to drive the plot elements of this novel.

5. The last sentence is really just for fun—and mainly because it’s cute to think of “falling in love” as the most dangerous mission of all.

The whole description captures the tone and feel of the novel as well—and that’s what you want to achieve in your query pitches (even if you aren’t writing YA). Also note that it really doesn’t do much plot summarizing about the novel as a whole. It really just spotlights the main conflict (keeping her spy background a secret from the boy she likes).

Tomorrow we’ll tackle some non-YA examples.

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part I)

STATUS: I’m getting a little peeved with Comcast broadband. This is the second day in a row that my internet service has gone down at the office. There is construction going on behind my building. Makes me wonder if a backhoe has dug too deep. Let’s hope not.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TRAIN IN VAIN by The Clash

Tonight is about testing my pitch paragraph hypothesis. I do believe that you can write a very enticing query pitch simply based on the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel. All you need to do is spotlight the main event that triggers the rest of the story.

Now on to an example the most everyone has read (and probably owns the book so they can pick it up and give it a look.) And don’t worry, we’ll be tackling a variety of genres and novels over the next few days.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (or for the UK version, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone).

What is the main event that happens within the first 20 or 30 pages of the novel that then launches the reader into everything else that will unfold? Easy. Harry, who has been living in a closet as the unwanted foster son of the Dursleys, gets a letter inviting him to attend Hogwarts where he then discovers he’s the most famous wizard known to the wizarding world because he survived an attack from the dreaded Voldemort.

Pick up the novel and give it a quick skim. All of the above unfolds in those first chapters. Now check out the cover flap (and no, I don’t have access to Rowling’s original query letter so I have no idea how she pitched it). You don’t need that. Writing good cover copy works just as effectively for the pitch.

So a quick flip to the cover flap reveals the following copy:
“Harry Potter has never been star of a Quidditch game, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son Dudley—a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches…” (front flap, Arthur A. Levine Books)

Now let’s analyze it:

1. It’s five sentences only.

2. The first sentence sets the tone and the mood by highlighting what Harry Potter has not done in this world the author is creating (which is a nice introduction to Rowling’s world building by the way). Same with the second sentence.

3. The third and fourth sentence highlights what he has known—which isn’t that bright a picture (which makes him instantly sympathetic).

4. The last sentence highlights the event (the catalyst if you will) that will launch the story.

We don’t need much else. We are already intrigued. Now maybe you could have added a sentence that hinted at the evil of Voldemort and how Harry is famous for being the only wizard to survive an attack (and that could ratchet up the initial story tension if you want to hint at the danger that is about to unfold). It’s not absolutely necessary though.

The ending is certainly not mentioned.

Remember, a pitch is a teaser paragraph with the sole purpose of getting an editor or an agent to ask for more sample pages because they just have to read on.

Pitching And All That Jazz

STATUS: Today I’m flying back to Denver from Vancouver. I have to say I was quite delighted when the rain eased and the sun popped out this morning. It’s going to be beautiful here (of course on the day I’m leaving) but there you have it.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES by The Doobie Brothers

When I was teaching my eQuery workshop this weekend, I suddenly achieved some clarity about writing pitch paragraphs and how to teach it.

Often writers freeze when attempting the pitch because they are laboring under the wrong assumption that they need to sum up their entire novel in one longish paragraph or two short ones and that’s not the way to do it.

It was a real learning moment for me. Since I’m having this insight now and I’m not physically there to teach the workshop, I thought I would do a workshop-like couple of posts here on my blog.

So that’s what I’m doing this week.

When writing your pitch paragraph, all you need to do is examine the first 20 or 50 pages of your manuscript. Then zero in on the main catalyst that starts the story forward—the main conflict from which all else in the novel evolves. It’s the catalyst kernel of your story that forms your pitch.

Don’t worry, I’ll show you some examples over the next couple of days but what you need to remember is that your pitch paragraph needs to read like the back cover copy of a novel. Notice that when you read the back cover of a book, it just gives a hint or a teaser of the story and that it also usually focuses on a crucial early event in the novel. That gets the ball rolling.

And the back cover copy of a book never reveals the ending—and neither should your pitch paragraph. After all, if I want to read the entire novel, I don’t want to know the ending beforehand.

So what I suggest is that you go to your local library or bookstore and browse the section that holds the novels comparable to yours (i.e. if you are writing a thriller, look at thriller novels. If you are writing a paranormal romance, read the back covers of other paranormal romances. If you write literary fiction, read the back cover copy of literary works and so on).

You want your pitch paragraph to mirror that same sort of rhythm and content of those back cover examples. After all, that copy was written by experts and analyzing how the experts create enticing copy can only help you to write yours.

I’ll go into more detail starting tomorrow.