Tag Archives: varian johnson

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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