Tag Archives: book queries

How to Develop Multiple Pitches for the Same Book

23 Oct

The New York Times Book Review said this about Varian Johnson’s ninth book, The Parker Inheritance: “Powerful…. Johnson writes about the long shadows of the past with such ambition that any reader with a taste for mystery will appreciate the puzzle Candice and Brandon must solve.”

One of the more ambitious books I’ve read in the past year is The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. It combines a plot any middle-grade reader will find familiar (a puzzle with clues solved by young sleuths) with a backdrop and story focused on the continuing effects of Jim Crow-era racism. It’s like The 39 Clues if the Cahill kids, instead of finding out about the world’s most powerful family and their secret serum, discovered their connection to the first black city manager in a South Carolina town who lost her job under mysterious circumstances.

In pitching the novel, you could easily focus on just the clue-and-caper story. But the novel is also a big, multi-generational historical story, and you could pitch it as such. Or you could combine the elements. It just depends on who you’re talking to.

The Pitch

Here’s the jacket copy from The Parker Inheritance:

When Candice finds a letter in an old attic in Lambert, South Carolina, she isn’t sure she should read it. It’s addressed to her grandmother, who left the town in shame. But the letter describes a young African-American woman named Siobhan Washington. An injustice that happened decades ago. A mystery enfolding its writer. And the fortune that awaits the person who solves the puzzle.
So with the help of Brandon, the quiet boy across the street, she begins to decipher the clues. The challenge will lead them deep into Lambert’s history, full of ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, and one great love; and deeper into their own families, with their own unspoken secrets. Can they find the fortune and fulfill the letter’s promise before the answers slip into the past yet again?
Notice how the first paragraph of the pitch, while it’s specific about place (South Carolina) and character (grandmother), could be a pitch for almost every novel ever written in this genre, including the 39 Clues (which also includes a grandmother, a note, and a treasure).
The next paragraph adds a character (the neighbor boy) and a sense for what the sleuths will discover, in addition to treasure, all of it written in dramatic terms (ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, one great love, unspoken secrets). We also learn the stakes (find the fortune before the answers slip into the past yet again).
This is all good stuff, but it leaves out something crucial: While the pitch identifies one character as African-American, the terms racism, Jim Crow, or segregation are not used even though they’re an essential part of the driving engine of the story. If the kids aren’t black, and without South Carolina’s history of racism, there’s no story to be told. While I don’t know anything about Scholastic’s decision-making for marketing this book, I can make some guesses. Books with clue hunts are enormously, stupendously popular. Books that deal with the gritty realities of race are also popular (as Jason Reynolds has shown and as Daniel José Older shows in his dinosaur/Civil War novel Dactyl Hill Squad). But I suspect that Scholastic decided that the appeal of the clues held more marketing promise.
Of course, anyone who reads The Parker Inheritance is going to quickly be immersed in the history of its world, and that history will likely be the basis of most discussions about the book.
One takeaway, then, is this: Identify multiple narratives in your book. Be able to pitch one or the other or both, depending on what you sense about your audience.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pitch that identifies multiple narrative threads, using The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson as a model:

  1. Pitch your novel as a clear addition to a defined genre. In other words, what is the pure genre stuff? I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts, but it can be a helpful exercise to list some of the common conventions of the genre you’re working in (or, if the word genre bothers you, the type of story you’re writing). If you’re not sure, look at the jacket copy for books like your own. What plot or story elements do they stress? The conventions that The Parker Inheritance stresses can be boiled down to four words: letter, mystery, fortune, puzzle. What are your four words? Write a short paragraph around them.
  2. Identify the bigger drama that the novel will grapple with. In some cases, this is the backdrop or context of the story. (In the case of mega-bestseller The Hate You Give, context and present-day action are impossible to separate.) If you’re not sure what this is for your story, try finishing this sentence “What the book is really about is…” You can identify this drama directly or hint at it. It’s probably a good idea to have both types of descriptions ready to go for when you’re talking to different audiences.
  3. Make the stakes clear–or clear-ish. The pitch for The Parker Inheritance does both, in a way. The sleuths need to find the fortune before they lose their chance and before it’s forgotten. It suggests a ticking clock. But it doesn’t state why the treasure and secrets are at risk of slipping into the past. While this might seem like being coy, it can actually heighten the readers’ interest, making them wonder, why’s it going to slip into the past?

When you pitch the book—either in a query or in person—you can play up or down the backdrop/contest (the bigger drama) as needed.

Good luck!

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How to Pitch a Memoir Without a Big, Fat Narrative Hook

18 Sep

Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, about growing up poor in Kansas was recently longlisted for the National Book Award.

The challenge of pitching a memoir is often the same as writing one: unlike novels, most lives lack a clear narrative arc with defined turning points. They don’t have a narrative hook big enough to catch a white whale. Instead, many memoirs contain a series of anecdotes held together by a theme (which is often closely associated with a place or situation). They offer the texture of a life and the pleasure of seeing a thing clearly.

This is the case with Sarah Smarsh’s new memoir Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. We can learn a lot from how it is pitched.

The Pitch

Here’s the official jacket copy:

During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, she moved more than twenty times within the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm. Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty. Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job, she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

In my last post, I introduced nine essential parts of a pitch. I used a novel for a model, but the same parts can be found in pitches for memoirs as well. Here they are for Heartland.

The General Situation: 1980s and 1990s

The Setting: the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm

The Overarching Conflict: Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The Main Character: the author

Why This Story Now: Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

The Most Important Secondary Character: mother, father, grandma

How the Story Plays Out: Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job

The Deeper Conflict: she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality.

Genre Indicator: By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves,

Not all of these elements are weighted the same. There was a lot going on politically in the rural Midwest during the 80s, and it’s in the book, but she doesn’t mention any of it in the pitch. Perhaps ironically for a memoir, she also doesn’t say a lot about herself. Instead, the focus is on the place she’s from and details about her family and the lessons she drew from her childhood. (Which is why she identifies three secondary characters instead of just one.) Probably because the memoir doesn’t really focus on herself, the big thematic elements of the pitch receive more weight and (literally) more words on the page.

One takeaway from this pitch is that it’s important to understand your story’s takeaways—the things that people will be talking about after they read it. Hit on as many of the basic elements as you can but stress the ones that are most compelling.

Even fairly similar stories can have very different pitches depending on how that story is told. For example, Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle shares some things in common with Heartland. Both narrators grew up poor and moved around a lot. The events in Walls’ childhood, though, are more extreme and unusual than those of Smarsh’s childhood. Here’s that book’s jacket copy:

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

In Walls’ book, the author’s own particular narrative arc takes precedence. For example, the memoir begins with her recognizing her mother homeless on the street. A clearer arc and more unusual events aren’t necessarily better for a memoir, though. They just make for a different story. Indeed, part of Smarsh’s point is that her story is lived out by millions of people. The pitch for The Glass Castle focuses on the things that happened to Walls while Heartland’s pitch focuses more on the thematic elements. No surprise, then, that meaning-making occupies a more prominent role in Smarsh’s book than Walls’.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a memoir pitch that hits on all of the essential parts, using Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Find the balance in your narrative. Can your individual story carry a lot of weight? Does it have a thematic point it wants to make? On a (very rough) continuum of plot versus meaning, where does your story fall?
  2. Build up the elements that must carry the pitch’s weight. If readers will walk away with lessons, focus on those lessons. If readers will walk away with anecdotes and stories, focus on those. Which details can you add to the pitch and its different elements that hammer home the kind of story you’re telling?
  3. Don’t abandon the other elements. The pitch for Heartland hits every element, giving a lot of detail for some and only a few for others. The pitch for The Glass Castle includes some meaning-making (“a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption”). A complete story (and pitch) does both.

Good luck!

The Essential Parts of Any Book Pitch

13 Sep

Trail of Lightning is the debut novel from Rebecca Roanhorse.

A book pitch, whether it’s in person or printed in a query letter or book jacket, must do two basic things: tell readers what the book is about and make them flip to the first page to read more.

In future posts about book pitches, this blog will dig into the various nuances and styles of pitches, but no matter how you tweak the voice or the structure, every pitch must accomplish those two main tasks. (We’ve probably all seen jacket copy or a movie description that made you think, “Huh?” That’s bad.)

So let’s begin this new blog series by looking at the pitch for what is probably the coolest and most thrilling book I’ve read so far this year: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.

The Pitch

If you look this book up online, you’ll see that it actually has two pitches. Here’s the official jacket copy:

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

Notice how clearly this pitch lays out what the book is about.

The general situation (what’s going on in the world): most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse

The setting: Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation)

The overarching conflict: The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

The main character: Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer.

Why this story now (what sets the book into motion): When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

The most important secondary character: Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man

How the story plays out: They travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

The deeper conflict: As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

A genre indicator: the Sixth World

See how much information is packed into a short passage? Breaking a pitch down this way is a good way to remind yourself that all of these different types of information exist. A lot of not-ready-yet pitches focus too much on the worldbuilding parts and leave out character and story. Or, they leave out situation and setting and focus entirely on how the story plays out.

A couple of things to keep in mind: Don’t name or describe all of your characters. This novel has some amazing minor characters, some of whom are absolutely essential to the plot, but they’re not in the pitch. A pitch isn’t a summary. If you can leave a character out and still convey the main thrust of the story, do it.

Also, situation isn’t the same thing as story; this goes for any genre. Don’t confuse the backdrop for the main action. Notice, too, how the pitch divides the story into “what kicks it into gear” and “the mechanics of what the characters will do in the story.” Both are important.

Read enough jacket copy, and you’ll notice that many pitches end on a larger, deeper sort-of-thematic line (confront the past if she wants to survive). Notice the placement. If you’re going to add this, put it at the end.

Finally, readers need/want to know what sort of book it is. It would be hard to read this pitch and not know that Trail of Lightning is a fantasy novel, but that final line really drives it home. “The Sixth World” is pure fantasy convention.

So, that’s a lot to play with in your pitch. But here’s one more thing to think about: the pitch that actually leads the page at both Amazon and Roanhorse’s publisher, Simon & Schuster:

“Someone please cancel Supernatural already and give us at least five seasons of this badass indigenous monster-hunter and her silver-tongued sidekick.” —The New York Times

The blurb give a comparison title (Supernatural) and a pithy description (“badass indigenous monster-hunter) that is pure adrenaline for a reader’s curiosity. Whenever you can come up with a memorable phrase to do the basic work of a pitch, do it!

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pitch that hits on all of the essential parts, using Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse as a model:

  1. Break your novel (or your memoir) down into these pieces: the general situation, the setting, the overarching conflict, the main character, why this story now (what kicks the story into motion), the most important secondary character, how the story plays out (the mechanics of what the character do to resolve the problem posed by “why this story now”), the deeper conflict, and a phrase that is clearly a genre convention.
  2. Start cutting. Once you’ve got some sentences (and, perhaps, paragraphs for each of these), distill them down to a single sentence or, even better, a phrase. That’s how concise a pitch has to be.
  3. Have fun with it. The pitch for Trail of Lightning conveys the story, but it also knows which parts of that story sound cool: monsters, gods, legends, tricksters, dark witchcraft. Think like a marketer: what words and phrases can be amped up to catch a reader’s attention (while remaining true to the story)?

Good luck!

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