Editor’s Note: This week’s guest post comes courtesy of writer Ashley Horn.
I thought for a while about the best way to handle the elusive pitch section of the query. I decided that it would probably be best done in four sections because I tend to think of pitches in what I call the four Cs: character, catalyst, conflict, and the catch.
This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—a few sentences to introduce the reader to your protagonist, their voice, and their world. You want your tone to set up the sort of story that the reader can expect to be getting into and the kind of personality your character has.
For example, the first paragraph of Rebecca Petruck’s query for STEERING TOWARD NORMAL reads:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
What do these three sentences tell you about the story? It’s probably contemporary (she mentions high school) and set in a rural area (farmers, steers, tractors, the use of ‘Pop’ for his dad). Diggy himself seems to be easy-going (he’s content; he daydreams). He may be shy and a little withdrawn (he used to be teased, and there’s no mention of close friends, just the girl he likes from afar).
To look at another, here’s the opening of Livia Blackburne’s query for MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes.
In two sentences, Blackburne sets up her character and her world. Kyra’s a thief, brazen, unapologetic, and probably rather arrogant when it comes to her skills (locked doors are an invitation; she chooses the most well-guarded homes). This is probably a fantasy story (the town’s name is Forge), and though no indication is given yet for the age group it may be meant for, the voice sounds like it would lean toward Young Adult.
Superstar agent Kristin Nelson defines the catalyst as the one single plot event that sets the rest of the story in motion. This is the thing that upsets your main character’s status quo and lets everything else unfold. Specifically, we’re looking for an event or a choice. Every novel has one, though some are easier to find than others.
So, how do you clearly communicate your novel’s catalyst in your pitch? Here’s how the couple of authors we’ve been looking at did it:
For STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half-brother messing things up.
For MIDNIGHT THIEF:
Then [Kyra] meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
In both cases, the protagonist’s life changes when someone new enters the picture and shakes things up. Your catalyst doesn’t have to be the introduction of a new person. It could be a death, the arrival of a letter, the outbreak of a war. But something needs to happen.
This is the part of the pitch that sets up exactly what your protagonist is going to be fighting for, fighting against, or trying to accomplish.
Now, these next two to four sentences are kind of tricky. Try to be as specific to your story as possible. Agents do a lot of reading, so while it may be tempting to be coy or to tease with the conflict, you really want to dial in on what makes your story unique.
Here’s a look at how the people we’ve been following did it:
STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame.
Put simply, the catch is one to three sentences that tell the reader what’s at stake for the protagonist, both physically and emotionally.
What does the character stand to lose? What happens if they fail at whatever they’ve set out to do? Do they lose a competition? Will a lot of people get hurt? Simple enough, right?
External tension is good, but a dynamic story also uses internal tension by exploring the competing wants or needs of the main character.
What emotional turmoil will the character have to go through to complete their goal? Does winning the competition mean losing their best friend? Does chasing their dreams mean disappointing their parents? Have they vowed to never take another life, but find themselves in a kill-or-be-killed situation?
Let’s have a look at our two example pitches and how they did it.
STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.
I really like this example especially because the catch is so understated. It’s just one sentence, twelve words. Wayne challenges Diggy’s view of family and his priorities. At some point in the story, he’s going to have to square that.
When a failed mission lands Kyra in the Palace dungeons, she faces an impossible decision. If she cooperates with the authorities against the Guild, James will kill her family, but if Kyra does nothing, she’ll see Forge overrun by Demon Riders. As the city falls into chaos, Kyra uncovers a secret from her past – a forgotten link to the barbarian invaders that will test Kyra’s loyalties and ultimately challenge the limits of her humanity.
This one is buried in there a little bit, but I like it because it combines the physical and the emotional catch. Her loyalty to the guild and the safety of her family are placed at opposition, and Kyra then has to make a difficult choice.
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve got the building blocks all put together, then you can play with the sentences and really make them shine.