Pitch, the primary part of a query

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In the movie business, scripts are sold by way of the pitch. This is also a tool for writers in other genres, like creative non-fiction and fiction. The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents offers this advice about the pitch — the most essential part of a query letter. And the advice is pitched with examples of movies.

When you’re composing a fiction query for a novel, the pitch will be the most important part of your letter. Typically, the pitch is the second part of the query and involves “hooking” agents by quickly explaining the premise or concept of the story. Here are some tips when composing the pitch:

DO:

  • Do start with a logline if you wish. Give a one-sentence description of the story to present your hook upfront, before getting into some details. “It’s a story about three men facing midlife crises who decide to start a fraternity.” (Old School)
  • Do focus on the hook. What makes your story different? After all, we’re all telling the same basic archetype stories over and over. What makes yours different? Is it Romeo & Juliet except it’s a werewolf and a vampire? (That’s Underworld.) Is it High Noon set in deep space? (That’s Outland.)
  • Do talk about publicity and platform if you are writing nonfiction.

DON’T:

  • Don’t let your pitch run wild. Seven sentences is pretty long. Aim for five.
  • Don’t spend time on the main characters or tell every character’s name. If you can pitch without even saying the name of the antagonist or love interest, it’s less confusing.
  • Don’t give away the end. Pique; do no more.
  • Don’t pitch agents about poetry or magazine articles.
  • Don’t use gimmicky stuff such as singing your pitch or presenting your pitch “in character.”
  • Don’t pitch if the work is unfinished.
  • Don’t hand the agent anything. They will request more if interested, and they will give directions on how to send your sample.

GLA also takes apart a query letter that goes wrong on the GLA blog. It’s worth a look to see what not to do in a pitch and query. But that next to last DON’T is important. There’s no point in a pitch for a novel if the work is unfinished.

The Architecture of Chapters and Cathedrals

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I am closing in on my final half dozen chapters of my novel Viral Times. The work that follows this “draft that must be done,” as Bruce Holland Rogers calls the first draft: revision. Big revision, at first, to eliminate what’s not working.

Determine what’s not needed by putting a scene or a chapter against this rule, suggested in Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book that Makes a Difference:

Dramatically, the “rule” of chapters is the rule of scenes in any fiction: Each chapter should have a reason for its inclusion. The chapter [or scene] should not just

  • provide more information
  • expand the resume of character
  • enhance the descriptions of place

[A chapter] may do all of these things, but first it must have an indispensable role in moving the story along.

Gerard compares writing a novel to building a cathedral. What’s problem is solved by building a cathedral? No, it’s not giving glory to God. The cathedral creates a large indoor lighted space.

A cathedral creates an architecture of light, Gerard says. So too does a novel.

HBO’s TV as the new novel?

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My work on Viral Times goes a long way back, into the 1990s. Back then my wife Abby gave me a gift of The Writer’s Dreamkit, software which led me to Dramatica. The software offers tools to understand story, the part of the process I am hacking my way through this month.

You see, I know the story of Viral Times. But getting it down on paper, the plot and storyline, so I can see what I have remaining to write, has been a matter of looking over several very lengthy snyopses. Recently I did a gisting layout in Excel for the novel, with each chapter summarized in 20 words or less. That’s gisting, by the way.

It’s been yeoman work, and I’m looking at tools to help. While turning back to Dramatica — software so decidated to story that its creators wrote a comic book explaining dramatic storyline theory — I found a Daily Dramatica blog.

Inside the blog: A posting about how episodic TV on HBO is the New Novel. Deadwood is the latest, most brilliant example.

By the way, “The “New Novel” is redundant, since the word novel comes from the Latin novellus, which means “new.” So all novels are new, if we’re talking about a form of literature. Novels grew up in the era of Daniel Defoe. This author who created Robinson Crusoe as his first book is often credited with creating the first novel. Character study became the major preoccupation of novelists, according to A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms. (And that book is tough to find. I picked my copy up in a used bookstore in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It’s out of print. My copy is a first edition 1960 hardback, not that it’s worth more than $5 anyway.)

But to get back to what makes a novel great, it’s character. The brilliance of the many HBO series — The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Big Love — flows from depth of character.

Abby and I gorged ourselves on the first season of Deadwood as DVDs over one week. (My borther Bob had been raving about Deadwood for months.) Finally we bought the first two seasons, and we watched Season Two nearly nonstop over a long holiday weekend. We were reading a novel, together.

Weekly episodes are chapters. The detail of character story and plotline on an HBO series would never make the cut on basic cable or regular series TV, in my opinion. (Although my son Nick says that the FX Series Nip/Tuck has this same kind of build.

But he’s most excited about watching Big Love, also mentioned in the Dramatica blog post.

If nothing else, it’s given me a little more justification for watching something on the tube to take a break from the writing. I’m studying story, I tell myself.

Voice is personal

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Donna Levin wrote Get That Novel Started, a hardback that’s been in my library longer than I’d like to admit. (Especially considering how many drafts Viral Times has been through, especially its beginning.) But once you start thinking about finishing a novel, you are urged in Levin’s book to consider “How It Looks Once You’re Finished.”

And so she considers voice as part of the challenge:

It’s the spirit of the writing; it’s what makes your work as unique as your DNA. With a compelling enough voice, you can get away with anything.

Levin goes on to quote Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington. In it, a character working at a publishing firm advises “clever authors of uncertain talent:”

You are writing a letter to a friend. And this is a dear and close friend, real — or better — invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.

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