Pitch Epiphany

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 12:24 pm
lizvogel: What is this work of which you speak? (Cat on briefcase.) (Work)
[personal profile] lizvogel
In my efforts to get back in the query trenches, I'm looking at an agent who has a long and unnecessarily-detailed (yet oddly appealing) submission form. One of the several things she wants, in addition to query and synopsis, is a one-line pitch.

Now, I've never had a good short pitch for Highway of Mirrors. The plot is highly dependent on a lot of character and backstory stuff, and it doesn't reduce down to a sound-bite in a coherent and appealing way. It would be much easier if I was pitching ...And The Kitchen Sink, which I've been known to describe as "a rollicking space-opera adventure filled with everything from ninjas to grues to a cyborg platypus." I'm fond of that pitch; it gives you a good idea right up front of what kind of book you're looking at, and if you want more details, you can always ask.

And then it hit me: That pitch for Kitchen Sink says nothing whatsoever about the plot. You can infer a little about the sort of plot from "space-opera adventure", but who does what where to whom? That's for the follow-up discussion, which is what a short pitch is supposed to encourage. And that's okay, because Kitchen Sink is not a plot-driven book. If you enjoy it, you'll enjoy it for the characters and the settings and the jokes about plural nouns. The plot holds up reasonably well, but it's primarily there as a framework to hang all the other stuff on.

And the same goes for Highway of Mirrors. Okay, not the grammar jokes. But it is not a plot-driven book either; what it's really about is the characters, their interactions, and the MC's ethical dilemma. But popular wisdom declares that you have to talk about the PLOT!!!, so every attempt I've made at a short pitch for HoM has been an attempt to summarize the plot in one sentence -- and not only does that tend to come across as confusing and/or stupid, it does nothing to tell you what makes the book worth reading.

So what do I think the point of HoM is? How about: "A spy on the run from her own agency has to compromise her ethics, her marriage, and even her daughter -- to protect her daughter." That could use a little fine-tuning, but it's much closer to why I care about this story in the first place than anything else I've tried. And if you're the right reader for this book, it might just be why you care about it, too.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-Aug-17, Thursday 08:30 pm (UTC)
rj_anderson: From a quote by Pamela Dean (Book Book Book)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
IMO, the most compelling pitches don't begin with plot but with character. I don't want to just hear that a bunch of stuff is happening, I want to know something about the people it's happening to. So "A determined twelve-year-old girl sets out to save her father from being hanged for a magical murder he didn't commit," is a good pitch, but "A struggle for truth and justice in a city powered by magic" is not so much. And while in the past I have blogged enthusiastically about how much I love kitchen sink books, if I were an agent looking at queries I would still want to know something about the protagonist amid the talk of space opera, ninjas, and platypuses (although admittedly, the idea of a cyborg platypus is a pretty big selling point for me).

So with that in mind, your pitch for Highway of Mirrors is definitely on the right track. And although you make it sound as though it doesn't say much about the plot, it actually does -- because the core plot of the story is the intersection of character + motivation + action, not merely a list of incidents and events. Here's the pitch my agent used when shopping KNIFE:

"A fierce young faery hunter fights to save her dying people while concealing her forbidden friendship with a human."

That doesn't tell you anything about the series of events that make up the plot, nor does it tell you anything about the setting. But it tells you who Knife is, what motivates her, and what the main conflict of the story is going to be.

Similarly, "A spy on the run from her own agency" is good because it tells us who the protagonist is and immediately sets up a compelling source of conflict for her. It gets even better when we find out that she's putting everything she cares about on the line to protect her daughter.

What doesn't work for me is the idea that she's compromising her daughter (in what way?) to protect her daughter. How can you protect somebody while compromising them at the same time? No doubt this is explained fully in the story, so I'm not saying it's a problem with the book itself -- I'm just saying that this part of the description isn't quite strong or clear enough to make a good pitch.

Could you just leave it out, and substitute something else that your spy MC has to compromise or sacrifice for the sake of her daughter? "A spy on the run from her own agency has to compromise her ethics, [destroy? betray? endanger?] her marriage, and risk [something even more dramatic] to protect her daughter," maybe?

Just some suggestions which I hope are helpful and not annoying!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-Aug-18, Friday 11:17 am (UTC)
rj_anderson: (Doctor Who - Thing in Progress)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
Ooh! What about this:

To protect her daughter, a spy on the run from her own agency must compromise her ethics, endanger her marriage, and risk everything she cares about -- including the daughter herself.

That "everything she cares about" is weak, because I don't know enough details to substitute something stronger. But you get the idea.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-Aug-19, Saturday 02:05 am (UTC)
rj_anderson: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
"Risk" is more concrete and dramatic-sounding* than "compromise", which when applied to a person sounds a bit like she might be putting her daughter in a "compromising situation" of a sexy kind rather than a life-threateningly dangerous one. Or at least the potential for that kind of misunderstanding is there, because "compromise" can mean so many different things.

--
* Although there may well be an action verb that's even more dramatic and appropriate to the story, so I'm not saying you have to use "risk". I'm just tossing it out as a possibility.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-Aug-26, Saturday 08:16 pm (UTC)
rj_anderson: (Doctor Who - Thing in Progress)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
I understand that meaning of "compromise", because I watched a lot of ALIAS. But my concern would be that the agent or editor (or potential reader) looking at the pitch might not immediately make the same connection. However, it's your call! I just wanted to suggest a few things that people other than the Author In The Know (and/or the Spy Novel Aficionado) might find confusing.

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