Monday, May 19, 2008

Redlines Eleven: Parsing and Pitching

Someone asked in the comments recently if we would talk about pitching. What a coincidence! The next in the redlines series is about one method to parse and pitch a manuscript. Two caveats: This method will give you a long pitch, and it's geared toward romance. We'll talk about ways to build loglines and other pitching methods later. (Worth noting -- this method might be a good way to build a short synopsis.)


With RWA National fast approaching, I thought this would be a good time to share one method for parsing and pitching a manuscript. As an added bonus, this method can be used to come up with a short synopsis or, with modification, a query letter. We’ll use the novel “Jane Eyre” as our example throughout.

Imagine your pitch shaped like the opposite of an hourglass. Your pitch will start with a focused summary statement, then widen out to provide an overview of the story. Finally, you narrow it and close with summary information, such as the word count and target market. Sound easy? Get out a pen and paper, and you’ll see how easy it is. You might want to read through the instructions before trying the method yourself.

Start by making a list. This is just a list, and it doesn’t have to be sparkling or detailed.

Number 1: The narrow summary.
Write down a one sentence summary of your premise or hook, plus your subgenre. Describe characters by trait (orphaned governess) rather than by name (Jane) or function (heroine). This summary doesn’t have to be a good sentence. For now, anything will do.

(1) Jane Eyre is a gothic romance about an orphaned governess who teaches her dark-tempered employer that love heals all wounds.

“Gothic romance” is the subgenre. “Love heals all wounds” is the theme. The hook (employer/employee forbidden relationship) is implied in the rest of the sentence.

Numbers 2-4: The non-sagging middle.
Write three sentences describing the most important plot developments in the middle of your manuscript. I can almost hear the collective squawk. “What? Only three?” But if you focus on the middle of the story, leaving out the black moment and final resolution, it will be easier. Focus on events, even if you state those events without describing the actual scenes.

(2) While teaching Rochester’s young ward, Jane discovers that there is a madwoman living in the attic of their isolated country estate.
(3) Rochester proposes marriage, but their wedding is interrupted with the news that Rochester is already married to the madwoman.
(4) Jane flees to protect her virtue and nearly dies on the road, but is saved by strangers who help her see that her love for Rochester can survive all obstacles, even attempted bigamy.

Number 5: The black moment.
Write down the plot event that indicates that things are at their lowest point. In romance, this is the final reversal before the happy ending.

(5) Jane returns to Rochester’s home, and finds it burned to the ground and abandoned.

Number 6: The resolution.
Write down the plot event that resolves the conflict and leads to the happy ending.

(6) Jane finds Rochester blinded and scarred from the fire, and learns that his madwoman wife died as a result of her arson, leaving him free to marry Jane.

Number 7: The internal conflict.
This should be a quick statement of the emotional forces that keep the hero and heroine apart. Sometimes, this will need to be in two parts: one part for the heroine, and one for the hero.

(7) Rochester feels he is doomed by the youthful mistake of his tragic marriage, and Jane is haunted by a subtle sense that she can never belong to any person or any place.

Number 8: The case for romance.
Write down why they belong together, the reason that the reader will believe that these characters are each other’s soulmates. Again, this might be a two-part statement. It might even echo some of what you have written in number seven or in other parts of the list.

(8) Rochester finds forgiveness and tolerance in Jane, and Jane finds belonging and freedom in Rochester.

Number 9: The technical stuff.
Write down your word count, target market, and any other technical information you feel the editor should know. For example, if you have written a medical romance and you are a nurse or doctor, write that down. Or, if your book is similar in tone or scope to another book that the editor or agent worked on, write that down.

(9) “Jane Eyre” is a 150,000 word gothic romance which would appeal to Victoria Holt fans. As a former bigamist, I am personally familiar with the destruction that these illegal relationships can create. (Kidding! Of course!)

That’s the entire list. Read through it from top to bottom. Steps one through six should read like a skeletal outline of your plot. The next step, which can be tricky, is to decide where on that list to include the internal conflict and the case for romance. The three most likely placements each have relative advantages and disadvantages.

First, if you leave the internal conflict and the case for romance at the end, you are closing with a powerful description of the core romance. But leaving these items for the end might make the plot seem dislocated from the romance, depending on your plot.

Or, second, you might put the internal conflict and the case for romance right after your narrow opening sentence, before the three middle plot points. Doing it this way may create a transition between the opening statement and the meat of the plot. However, it might also sound like you are wrapping up and then following with expanded information, instead of presenting a smooth flow.

Or, third common option, put the internal conflict statement right after the narrow summary at step one, and put the case for romance at the end, either before or after the resolution. Doing it this way will highlight the characters’ journeys, but separating these two statements might undermine the coherency of your pitch.

Regardless of where you choose to weave in the internal conflict and the case for romance, once you have them organized, write the word “because” as often as possible. This magical little word is what you are going to use to flesh out your pitch and make your manuscript sound cohesive and tight.

You may have already included some causative elements in your list. For example, we have the statement, “Jane flees to protect her virtue.” We could just as easily have written, “Jane flees BECAUSE she wants to protect her virtue.” The meaning is there, even if the word is not.

Study your list and weave in short statements of causation. But keep in mind your time limit. If you have eight minutes, your pitch should be no longer than four or five -- you want to save time for questions, introductions, and the all-important request details. You might want to leave time to add in a one-sentence summary of your next project. But you want to appear as though you are getting behind one of your ideas, and just mentioning the second to show your commitment.

You may find that you still have extra time. If so, consider including additional details that enhance those already on your list. In our example, we might want to mention that the madwoman wife tries to burn Rochester alive in his bed, and Jane saves his life. This foreshadows the black moment (when Rochester’s house burns down), and the ultimate resolution (where we see that Jane has also saved Rochester’s heart). These details tie in more neatly than, say, Jane’s experiences at the Lowood School.

Now all you have to do is shine it up. Use words and phrases that resonate with the theme, or reinforce the case for romance. Practice saying your pitch to make sure there aren’t any tongue-twisters or other awkward phrasings. Practice with a timer until you are sure that you can pitch with confidence.

One final suggestion: reduce each step of the pitch to a single word. List the words in order on a cheat sheet to lay on the table before you during your pitch. For example, the word “widower” neatly sums up step six in our “Jane Eyre” pitch. Creating this key word cheat sheet will allow you to stay focused and avoid reading, though many writers do read their pitches. Good luck, everyone!


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.
Redlines Ten (on backstory and narrative compression) can be found here.



Natalie Hatch said...

Ok Theresa, I'm going to give this a go.

If You Are But A Dream is a historical romance about a law clerk who finds love and forgiveness in a time of war. While trying to do her bit for the war Heather finds she must choose between the man who loves her and the one she thinks she loves. Her decision is flawed by town gossips intent on ruining others lives. Heather realizes she’s made the wrong choice only to find James, her true love, leaving for the war front and incapable of forgiving her. She follows him into war to try to prove that she’s more than he thought. The ravages of Papua New Guinea help James realise his true feelings for Heather. Heather finds forgiveness and fulfilment in James. If You Are But A Dream is a 82,000 word historical romance which would appeal to Charlotte Bingham fans. It is based on true stories from my home town in World War Two which family and friends have shared.

Any thoughts will be taken graciously. Cheers.

C.L. Gray said...

I think that turned out well. pOne comment, though. Can you be more exact/specific than "to prove she's more than he thought." (Mostly, because I don't know what James' thinks of her)

C.L. Gray said...

This was a fabulous exercise. So here's mine.

“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.

Edittorrent said...

Do you guys mind if I use your pitches as examples on the front page?


Natalie Hatch said...

I don't mind at all, but remember I have a very precious and feeble ego ;-)

Evangeline Holland said...

Oh, can I pitch?

The Lady Lies is a historical romance about a desperate con-artist whose unexpected romance with her befuddled, paleontologist mark teaches her the value of honesty and trust in a relationship. Spurned by Dr. Everard Livingston after the truth of her profession is revealed, Sofia vows revenge, forcing herself into society intending to make him fall for her in order to break his heart. Sofia's plan backfires when she falls for Everard all over again. He cannot marry her because he doesn't trust her and he is engaged.Piercing her ruse, Everard turns tables on her: in exchange for not turning her into the police, she must use her disguise as a medium to uncover a plot against his integrity by a rival. Sofia's profession as a con-artist threatens to topple the fortunes and happiness of many of Everard's relatives. Everard's well-planned life falls to pieces when he must reveal Sofia's deception and his own part in it to his family and friends. Everard has spent most of his life trying to please his father at the expense of his own wants and desires. Sofia has been taught to disguise who she was, and has never been accepted fully and unconditonally. Everard finds affection and tolerance from Sofia, and Sofia finds freedom and acceptance from Everard. The Lady Lies is a 90,000 word historical romance appealing to readers who yearn for romances set in turn of the century New York. As a fan of Edith Wharton and a historian of the Edwardian era, I am well-equipped to set stories of passion and adventure against romantic backgrounds.

C.L. Gray said...

I don't mind either.

Dave Shaw said...

Another one you can use if you want, Theresa. :-)

Miracle Maker tells the story of a young woman pursuing her dream of commanding an interstellar warship like her grandfather. Unlike her grandfather, she joins the multi-national United Nations Defense Service rather than her home world's Space Militia, because she wants to escape her family's pity and sorrow over the defects in her genetic enhancements that have drastically shortened her life expectancy. She soon finds that hiding her advantages and weaknesses from the suspicious 'Normals' is harder than she ever anticipated, especially when she's assigned as a junior officer to a ship that encounters action far more frequently than its peers. The pressure to abandon her dream rises as she first falls in love with an officer in her chain of command and then accidentally kills a fellow crew member during a boarding action. Feeling guilty and longing for an ordinary life, she's on the verge of resigning her commission when circumstances force her to take command to save her ship and the lives of her crew and herself. When she succeeds despite very difficult odds, Defense Service Fleet Operations gives her a choice: Resign to be with the man she loves, or realize her dream of command in the face of a grueling war.

Miracle Maker is a 125,000 word science fiction novel intended to appeal to fans of the works of Elizabeth Moon, David Weber, Catherine Asaro, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

green_knight said...

ooh, coming late to the party: here's my pitch for my 110K fantasy novel...

Gaining acceptance by the Rhiaton Crowd was not a problem for Kinush. Admittedly they had helped him to celebrate his elevation with a bath in the sheep dip, but now their world of elegant balls and magical discussion was wide open to him. When the Crowd drive his boyhood friend Meriok into hiding, and his best friend shows more interest in the cut of his sleeves than the fate of his brother, Kinush must make a choice between all he ever wanted and the friend he had served badly.
But magic is more than an elegant pasttime: with the right spells a group of mages could take down whole cities. Inevitably, the ambitions of the Rhiaton Crowd begin to attract unwelcome attention.
As he gets more and more entangled in the politics of magic, Kinush - whose idea of hardship is a bed at a country inn - finds himself camped in an olive grove playing stare-me-down with two powerful mages, and he cannot afford to blink...