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Friday, December 14, 2007

Pitch and Polish

This past week I've had the chance to examine three pitches from friends and peers and it gave me a chance to solidify in my mind what a good pitch does.

Jessica Faust at BookEnds has been hosting an excellent (ongoing) pitch session where she analyzes a lot of different query pitches. What I like about the BookEnds pitch sessions is that she tells you why something did or didn't work. Really valuable feedback.

I think it would be a mistake to think of a query as formulaic, but it is to a point. You have to wow an agent within a few seconds. The sentences should be tight, powerful and set the stage for what should be an intriguing story. That's really not as hard as it seems.

You see it all the time in tv show blurbs and movie trailers. The pitch is rarely more than two or three sentences. You can get a lot of mileage out of three sentences if you use the right words.

Word choice is critical. Given the choice, always pick the word that delivers an emotional response. Dash rather than run. Harvest rather than gather. Bitter rather than harsh. Notice that you can see the first word of each pair more clearly than the second. A visceral word is more specific and tangible.

The second aspect of a pitch is the content. The conflict has to be established quickly. Save the back story for the synopsis if it's that important.

A query pitch (for a novel) shouldn't take more than one paragraph for best results. If you find yourself going on too long, you've not condensed the story to its key components yet.

Having read the pitches at BookEnds and other writing blogs, I can tell within the first two sentences whether the pitch sounds interesting enough. No doubt, agents probably have radar even keener than mine. I'm willing to bet they toss queries aside faster than I would.

So how do you pinpoint your conflict? My rule of thumb is to identify the catalyst and the result. For example, in TOUCH OF FIRE, the catalyst is: A dangerous book has been stolen. The result: Two alpha personalities are forced to work together to recover it. The conflict: Everyone wants this book, certain it will grant them unlimited power.

So the conflict would read something like: Grayhawke Tams would sooner stay in jail than help a fire mage. But when he discovers the thief who stole the grimoire might also control his future, he's forced into a prickly alliance with Leda that leads them to the truth about the Earth that was, and a thousand year old book that could reintroduce technology to a world that knows only magic.

In the actual query, I added a couple more sentences to set the story up and introduce the characters, but basically, this is the core of the conflict.

Don't give up if the conflict doesn't distinguish itself right away. What happens is that our heads are filled with every nuance, thread, and sub-conflict and it's hard to dig right down to the real point of the story.

Keep whittling at it until you get to the chewy middle. And don't worry about not being able to give more information to the agent. If the story has legs, you'll get your chance to tell more of it.

Next week: cover letters


Ruv Draba said...

Maria, surely if an author doesn't know the central conflict of a story then the story should still be in edit, not in query?

Other than polishing expression in line-edits, most of the editing work needed is about strengthening, supporting and exposing the conflict, so how can we have faith in our edits when we don't know what they're for?

A log-line with a character, a situation and a central conflict is proof that we know what our story's about. While some authors prefer to write without one, I don't see how you can edit without one.

Perplexedly, Ruv.

Maria Zannini said...

LOL! You'd be surprised how many can't pinpoint the main conflict of the story though.

And that's my whole point. People think they know the conflict of their story but their thoughts are so mired in the subplots that they lose sight of what the story is about.

I read a LOT of queries---not as much as an agent, but probably more than the average critter. By and large most queries wander. Lots of back story, character description and setting, but no meat. I understand entirely why agents pull their hair and are driven to drink. :o)

Several agent blogs hold regular query and pitch promotions. Follow along a few of them and you'll see what I mean.

I think with most authors it's a case of can't see the forest for the trees.