Friday, May 12, 2017

The myriad uses for our books’ query pitches

After listening to multiple agent gripes about literary query letters at the 2017 DFW Writers Conference gong show, and emerging weak-kneed from my own pitch session with a (very kind) agent, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know any more about the whole query/pitch topic. But I’d run across Annie Neugebauer as a blogger at Writer Unboxed, and title of her workshop, “Using the Query Pitch to Troubleshoot Your Novel,” was intriguing. And was glad I did.

image: wikimedia commons
Neugebauer is the most organized writer I’ve ever met. Her website includes multiple worksheets, many available free (although she welcomes donations via Paypal). And as a poet, novelist, and short story writer, her motto is not organization for its own sake, but as a framework for creativity.

She made a believer out of me – I’ll start to, in her words, “get over the fact that (pitches) suck and just do the work!”

First, a review of what a “pitch” in the literary sense is. (Would that gong show participants had had a chance to listen to Neugebauer before they submitted their sample queries!)

A pitch includes:

  • Attention-grabber (hook)
  • Essential premise (what’s necessary to make sense of the story)
  • Protagonist, and his/her goal, motivation, obstacle, and stakes
  • Antagonist and his/her goal, motivation, and stakes
  • Supporting character, with motivation
  • Closing hook, which may be a rhetorical question, such as “can she do it?” (At least one agent at the gong show disliked starting a query with a rhetorical question, so save this for the end, not the beginning of the query. And see my earlier post at this site for additional material in the body of the query.)
After outlining this pitch formula, Neugebauer invited workshop participants to fill in each of these from their own works. Did we end up with some blank spaces? No problem, just “embrace the ugh and master the skill, which translates directly to writing skills.

Like all skills, writing pitches takes work. Browse bookshelves, study the back-cover copy of the books, check out tips from query websites such as those of Query Shark, Nathan Bransford, Writer’s Digest, and Jane Friedman. Then practice – on our own books, friends’ books, already published books. Seek feedback from critique groups. Do more practice, more feedback. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Once mastered, the pitch can be used to:

  • Sell – to agents, editors, readers
  • To un-stick. “Once you’re familiar enough with the pitch pattern for it to feel natural. . . use it as a mental prompt to fill in any blanks in a current work in progress.
  • Diagnose. A weak spot in the pitch usually means a weak spot in the book.
For instance, if the symptom is a pitch that sounds boring no matter how it’s framed, the diagnosis may be “meandering main character syndrome.” Prescription: strong doses of protagonist motivation, higher stakes, more obstacles, and more concrete goals.

For a book the writer can’t narrow into a cohesive pitch, the diagnosis is “sprawl disorder” – a too-scattered novel, whose prescription involves clarifying the story’s drive.

If the antagonist’s goal/motivation are unclear, he/she may suffer from “watch the world burn fever" (a subcategory of "cardboard cutout symdrome"), diseases requiring doses of believable motivations and stronger goals.

Remember, Neugebauer said, an "antagonist" doesn't have to be a villain, simply someone who stands between the protagonist and his/her goal. And even if the antagonist is nature, or an inanimate force, there's usually a human being who can be used to personify that force.

Finally, use the pitch to prepare, to come up with usable new ideas, and plots for existing ideas. And promise, “I will not ever, ever, write a book without writing my pitch first!”

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