Friday, May 23, 2008

Pitch #2

Here's the second pitch that resulted from the post about parsing and pitching.

“Throw Away the Scabbard” is an alternative history about how the Civil War could have unfolded if Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s brilliant lieutenant, had not died at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Using Jackson’s invasion plans, the Army of Northern Virginia heads north into Pennsylvania, defeating the Army of the Potomac at Duncannon and destroying the coal fields to depress the North’s economy and effect the presidential election. When General Ulysses S. Grant is unable to defeat the Confederates, Lincoln signs an executive order postponing the election, forcing the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia to war ravaged Virginia. In the spring campaign, Jackson manages to evade Grant’s trap, but a lack of supplies and food causes the Confederates to surrender. After Lincoln and Grant are assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrests Lee and Jackson and sentences them to hang as Booth’s conspirators. On the morning of their execution, Lee and Jackson say good-bye, while General Jeb Stuart orders a long column of cavalry to ride to their rescue. Jackson fought the war to protect his wife and daughter, but when his “family” comes to include Lee, Stuart, and members of his staff, Jackson must find a way to protect them in the midst of battle and in the aftermath of the surrender. In the defeat of the army and loss of his country, Jackson discovers he has gained more than he has lost. “Throw Away the Scabbard” is a 124,000 alternative history that would appeal to Harry Turtledove fans. As a Civil War enthusiast, I know that the question about how the war would have turned out if Jackson had survived is one that is debated with great enthusiasm. Here is one exciting answer.

To mimic the experience of hearing this as a pitch, I read this out loud to myself once through. Because in a pitch, I can't stop to ponder or re-read a confusing point (though I can ask questions), I have not allowed myself to read this more than once.

So what we have here is a complex story, very long at 124k words, condensed into just a few sentence. I imagine this was a challenge to the author, trying to condense such a long story. For the most part, I think that reduction was handled pretty well. I recognized most of the character names and was able to keep the characters straight in my head. Key historical details enabled me to track the way this plot would unfold over time. Causation was pretty clean throughout.

But there was something lacking in this pitch. The beginning seemed focused on events, so much so that I wasn't entirely sure who the main character would be or why I should want to read about that character. By the end, the nice little bit about Jackson's family personalized the pitch a little better so that I began to feel some bond with the character. I think what would greatly improve this pitch is having it focus on Jackson throughout. He's the hero of the piece, right? He's the character who dominates the narrative? He's the one we'll track most closely, the one we'll cheer for, the one we'll cry over? Then keep the pitch focused on him and his arc.

Without that personalization, the pitch skates a little too close to the line between historical story and textbook. The challenge for the writer of a piece like this is to demonstrate knowledge of the time period and relevant history, and this is, of course, accomplished. But it's at the expense of the characters, I think.

I would have a lot of questions about this project during this pitch. I would start by confirming that Jackson is the point of view character in most of the scenes. Then, given that Jackson dies in the end, I would want to know the point of view used at the very end. Which other characters are given points of view? Are they all historical figures, or are any of them pure fiction? How often is the narrative presented by an omniscient narrator?

All of these questions would be designed to help me understand whether there's a hero in the piece and how the reader will bond with that hero. I'd also be concerned about the length. 124k is long. It may be that there's enough story to sustain that length, but it's still a tough sell.

That said, I think this is a good effort at a difficult task. A little more focus on character might help tie the entire thing together more neatly, and help the listener track the narrative more effectively.



C.L. Gray said...

Thank you so much for critiquing my pitch. I will confess that I've had a tough time trying to balance the changing historical events with the personal stories. I either concentrate on one to the complete detriment of the other.

One obvious thing I have to fix is the misconception I give that Jackson dies at the end. He does not. He's very much alive at the end of the novel. So, I'll make that change.

Jackson is the hero of my piece, so the advice you gave to focus on Jackson throughout the pitch will, I believe, aid me in finding that balance that has so far eluded me.

I will rework the pitch and repost it.

Thank you again!

Dave Shaw said...

For what it's worth, Theresa, longer books are fairly common in this particular genre. Turtledove's books tend to be quite long, for example. Maybe that's only the prerogative of already published authors, though. :(

Edittorrent said...

Yes, I love historical fiction. (Current obsession: 19th century France. Don't know why.) But here's the thing. It costs more to print a bigger book. A new author doesn't have a readership base yet. That means the P&Ls are less tempting and it's harder for an editor to get approval to buy a longer book. It still happens sometimes, but for a new writer, it might not be the easiest path.


Dave Shaw said...

Not to be argumentative, Theresa, but alternate history (as opposed to historical fiction) is often published by SF or Fantasy houses. Baen's submission guidelines ( specify a preferred length of 100,000 to 130,000 words, although I'm not sure if they take alternate history. Turtledove is published by Del Ray, which regrettably doesn't accept unagented submissions any more and doesn't seem to have any length guidelines published on the 'net.

The other thing I've noticed is that books shelved in the SF&F section tend to be, on average, significantly thicker than books in other genre sections of the bookstore, even from debut authors. That's purely subjective, of course, and I'm well aware of the tricks with formatting that can make a book thicker or thinner for the same number of words, but I tend to think (hope?) that longer books are better tolerated in those genres. (Rat checks word count again worriedly - going down, but still...)

Carole McDonnell said...

Seems like a very hard challenge. Making a historical novel that's an alternative novel...for the general public. And yes, --you guys are sooo good! --the pitch definitely felt event-focused and full of a lot of historical characters but somewhat lacking in the emotional aspects of the human story.

Love your site, btw. -C