Evolution of a Novel Pitch

Posted: April 8, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

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Around February, when we finally got the last of our beta notes back and made the last of our edits to The Last Princess, I worked up the nerve to start sending out query letters to agents. I invested in one of the online lectures available through the Writer’s Digest website — about writing query letters — and was introduced to the concept of the logline. A logline is a 2-3 sentence thumbnail of your novel which you put in the first paragraph of your query, to entice your agent-of-choice to read on. If distilling your entire novel into a one page synopsis seems daunting, then again even further into a paragraph for the body of the query letter, the logline is ten times as challenging. Because, it turns out, this is probably the single most important tool you have to interest an agent. It has to be perfect.

This was my first attempt:

A homeschooler with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her dreams in order to stop a ruthless changeling from using his magic to rule both worlds.

I quickly discovered the Twitter writing subculture, and immersed myself in twitter pitch contests. I don’t know which came first: the idea of the 35-word pitch or the various pitch contests that use them as your entry, but it seems that 35 words has become the industry standard for the logline, more commonly called the pitch.

Some of the things I learned were that it is important to indicate the age of your character as a way to define your book’s category. In our case, middle grade. Also, you must clearly indicate the stakes – what the main character has to loose if they make the wrong choice or fail. This led to a new version:

A 12yo with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her chance of becoming their princess and embrace her troll heritage to stop a ruthless changeling from dominating both worlds.

Better. But further coaching pointed out that one long sentence is difficult to follow. Better to break it up into two, or even three. And it is good to call your main character by name:

Twelve-year-old Cat sees the descendants of fairy-tale creatures living among us. To stop a ruthless changeling from dominating both worlds Cat must abandon her dream of becoming the fae princess and embrace her trollish qualities.

I got a lot of feedback on this version. Mainly people liked the premise and the set-up of the first sentence, but failed to see the connection between that and the second sentence. Why must Cat abandon her dreams of being a princess? What does “both worlds” mean? Is Cat a changeling too, since she’s both a princess and a troll? Back to the drawing board:

Because twelve-year-old Cat can see the fairy-tale creatures among us she might become their princess. But to defeat a power-hungry goblin and rescue her friend she must acknowledge her trollish heritage, crushing her princess dreams.

Getting closer. We have the MC, her age, the premise, the choice she must make and the stakes if she fails. But what would really push this over the top would be to inject some emotion into the pitch. And icing on the cake, get some “voice” in there – make this match the flavor of the book. In order to fit in the extra words needed to accomplish this I dropped the wordy reference to Cat being able to see the hidden fairy-tale creatures. While I felt this concept was key when I started this process, I now realized it was actually minor to the overall plot. Also, I was beginning to loathe the word “creatures:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when fairy-tale people crown her their princess. But when a power-hungry goblin kidnaps her BFF, she must embrace the anguish of her Trollish heritage and forsake princess-hood to save her.

This is the pitch I entered into #PitchSlam, another Twitter pitch contest with feedback. The coaches quite liked this one; the voice and emotion came through loud and clear. But they all felt there was too much going on. They also wanted to understand more clearly why she needed to give up being a princess. Okay, time to trade in some more words. Another thing I realized was that the bad guy was himself not as important as what he does – kidnaps Cat’s friend. So I made one last tweak:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie folk crown her their princess. But she must embrace the heartbreak of her Trollish heritage to rescue her kidnapped BFF, and nobody wants a troll for a princess.

When I submitted this final version for comment, I was rewarded with universal praise from half a dozen people. And I am very happy with this one. I think I’ll keep it. The thing about this pitch is, when I look at it now, it seems so effortless and obvious. Like how else would I pitch my book? And that’s the reason I think I finally have a winner.

What I’ve learned about the all-important 35-word pitch is that nobody expects you to pop one out at will; they are hard and everybody knows it. That’s part of their value – to demonstrate your commitment to your book and your craft. I came up with this pithy analogy the other day, while haunting the Twitter feeds waiting for feedback: Writing a query synopsis is like building a miniature of your entire novel out of Legos. Writing a pitch is like doing that with only 35 words.

Good luck.

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Comments
  1. kdaugh1992 says:

    Reblogged this on ked and commented:
    Love this! The final version seems so simple and natural, but took a few tries to build. Looking forward to seeing how this goes during the query process.

    Like

  2. IshiraInagi says:

    As far as I’ve learned from your attempts it’s: the more specific and down to business the better. Your last pitch sounds gripping and natural to me.

    Like

  3. John, I loved this posting and learned a lot from it. So THANK YOU for sharing, it’s most appreciated. Just to throw in my 2 cents, it feels like you might have gone one draft too far. Here’s my problem: I’m always pulled up short when phrases are hard to visualize. That happened to me with the phrase, “But she must embrace the heartbreak of her trollish heritage…” I found myself stumbling on what this means. What is ’embrace’ in this context? What ‘heartbreak’?
    I much prefer writing that’s less abstract, easier to visualize. I found it completely effortless to visualize a power-hungry goblin kidnapping her BFF, and don’t agree that this is “too much going on”. Far from it, I think this phrase adds important color, interest and, most importantly, an image that’s easy to visualize.
    So I suggest the following:
    “Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when fairy-tale people crown her their princess. But when a power-hungry goblin kidnaps her BFF, she can only save the day by embracing her Trollish heritage–and nobody wants a troll for a princess.”
    What do you think, does it seem simpler, more direct?

    Like

  4. IshiraInagi says:

    Reblogged this on Patricia Strunk – Fantasyautorin and commented:
    Auf Facebook hatte ich es schon geteilt, aber ich möchte es doch auch in meinen Blog aufnehmen, weil ich den Blogpost nicht nur interessant und hilfreich fand, sondern er mich auch dazu animiert hat, mich mal wieder darin zu üben, den ultimativen Pitch für Inagi zu schreiben.

    Like

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