[ Pitch Slapped ] Burning through the synopsis smoke screen

The Two-Pronged Problem

Earlier this week, Jennifer Worrell contacted us about the pitch for her manuscript–she hates writing pitches with a passion, but she knows she needs to whip one out for her book. We took the pitch and liked what we saw. And we saw a couple places to prod with a pole. But I’ll start at the beginning.

The story in question is a middle grade novel with the working title, The Spyglass. Let’s take a look and see what it’s about:

“Thirteen-year-old Chad, his twin sister Chloe, and his younger twin siblings Billy and Maggie, are heading for remote Mathews, Virginia, to spend the summer “picking” antiques with their crazy uncles. With his father away in Afghanistan fighting terrorists, alcoholism, and demons from past battles and his mother immersed in her Ph.D. research into his families’ Native American lineage, Chad deals with the chaos in his life by picking on his siblings and picking his nose. Nothing could have prepared him for what would happen when he picked an old spyglass from a storage shed auction he attended with his uncles. When he touched the cloudy lens, Chad found himself cast back in time to the decks of a battling privateer ship, and he sees a mysterious boy through the cannon smoke lying in a pool of blood. This child looks exactly like him. As he travels back and forth in time between his uncles’ home on the Chesapeake Bay and a fiery wooden battleship from 200 years ago, Chad learns the truth about his Native American lineage, his unusual powers, and the consequences of giving those powers away.”

The blurb sets up some great details; in less than 200 words, I have a strong sense of where Chad is coming from. The language is specific and clever, and there are no comprehension issues. It stresses the contrast between Chad’s everyday life and the fantastic adventure he falls into (think Neverending Story, Narnia, Indian in the Cupboard…). On the one side, there’s Chad’s troubled home life, on the other, mystery and adventure.

Where the pitch stumbles, though, is in the overall  cohesion of the summary. What is this story about: family or time travel, dealing with alcoholism and neglect in the family or discovering one’s mystical heritage?

Let’s break it down:

A. Chad’s home life

  1. He’s a twin, sibling names, etc
  2. Absentee parenting; mother is neglectful, father risks his life abroad.
  3. Chad’s tendency to bully

B. Trip to Virginia to live with Uncles

  1. Chad may not be happy with this
  2. Uncles go gaga over antiques

At this point, what we have is what’s shaping up to be a novel about growing up among difficulties. There is a strong sense of the inspirational Literary Juvenile Fiction with a dash of whimsy (the uncles and the word-play of “picking on his siblings and picking his nose”–Love it!). The fact that the blurb starts out by listing family names and family background suggests that by the end of the novel, Chad will have confronted these issues on some level (mother’s neglect, father’s alcoholism, absenteeism, and high-risk career, sibling conflict) with the Native American heritage and his Uncles’ eccentricity providing the necessary pivot point for the resolution.

As I continue reading the blurb, here is what I see…

C. Magic spyglass discovered

    1. Spyglass sends (or allows Chad to see) back in time
    2. There’s a historic conflict happening
    3. Chad’s lookalike is in the middle of things

D. Time travel

    1. Chad goes back in forth between these times
    2. Discovers unspecified unusual powers
    3. Learns about giving those powers away (waitwhat? who? why?)
    4. The fact that Chad has Native American ancestry is relevant.

When writing your blurb, make sure that it’s telling a whole story, sketching out its trajectory, or else you lose your reader. Between A-B and then C-D, the two outlines have almost nothing in common:

The pitch suffers from that break in continuity–now it just seems like it’s oversharing. Is the story about Chad responding to a difficult family situation? Is it about his relationship with his twin and siblings? Is it about having to deal with crazy uncles?

Or is it about time travel and the mystery of his doppleganger? Is it about the fiery battleship, Chad’s powers, and the mysterious spyglass? Is it about Chad embracing (or learning about) his heritage?

Depending on what the story is trying to do, there are a couple solutions. But they all hinge on defining what the story is about–and this is something every book-browser wants to know.

  1. The story is about how Chad figures out how to deal with his family because of the time travel. Solution: we need more Part 1 in Part 2.
  2. The story is about the time travel mystery, and family is the background. Solution: we need more Part 2 and less Part 1.
  3. It’s about both. There is a direct connection between his family (his mother’s obsession, his sibling rivalry, his crazy uncles, the Native American heritage, that specific battleship, his father’s job as a soldier, etc. Dealing with one helps Chad deal with the other. Solution: closer integration of Part 1 and Part 2.

VERSION A: Less Part1, Less Part2, and a Tentative Connection

GOAL: Maintain the overall structure but make Part 1 more relevant to Part 2.

RESULT: This revision still has elbow room for improvement. The “family bonds that stretch across centuries” line is pretty clearly me stretching for a way to tie the time travel back to the first paragraph. But we did zoom out a little, cutting some of the specifics like how Chad’s a twin and the details of his father’s demons. This does make the blurb less distinctive. but then again, how is the father’s drinking thousands of miles away at all relevant to the story the blurb is trying to tell? And the siblings seem to disappear off the face of the blurb shortly after being mentioned.

Let’s try again, and this time, let’s see what happens when I play around with the structure.

VERSION B: Tying it Together

GOAL: Introduce Part1 and Part2 as directly related to each other.

RESULT: Still not perfect, but now the focus has been shifted. I now sense that all parts of the story are connected and time travel may (in some way)  threaten Chad’s family. But what if the actual focus of the story isn’t Chad’s personal journey or familial reconciliation? Well, this probably won’t be right at all.

What if the story is actually about Chad’s adventure in time travel?

VERSION C: Adventure Time!

Here we take a leap away from Literary juvenile fiction (muy serious) and towards danger and nose-picking edginess. This is the way to go if the only role of the family is to act as backdrop for Chad’s frustration with being stuck in Virginia for the summer.  But if Worrell does take this route, the revision is begging for more details. Is there a villain? What’s at stake? Is Chad’s time running out, and if so, why? I would also love to see a mention of Chad’s Native American heritage make a comeback. Little details like this sets the story apart from the general YA/Juvenile horde–not to mention giving the story an extra opportunity to intrigue the reader.

Conclusion:

The book blurb is well written. It’s main weakness lies in its attempt to cover too much ground and include too many of the details of the novel. The reader, however, wants to know what to expect: “What’s the story about?”

I will leave you with these words of wisdom in celebration of the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter movie premiere (yes, they totally went there);

“A blurb divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this summary cannot endure permanently half family and half free. I do not expect the story to be dissolved — I do not expect the blurb to fail — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of fun adventures will arrest the further spread of Part 2, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that silly adventuring is on the course towards ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike true in all the time periods, old as well as new, now as well as then.”

(1858, Abraham Lincoln, if he were a canary)

___

Do you have a pitch or synopsis that you’d like to send to the sacrificial altar?  Email it our way  to canarypost@gmail.com with the subject “Pitch Article Submission”. 

What do you think, Canaries? Jennifer Worrell would love to have your input!

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Read more: Pitch Slapped Articles

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8 thoughts on “[ Pitch Slapped ] Burning through the synopsis smoke screen

  1. Great to see this series making an appearance again. There’s a huge difference between the art of writing a novel and the art of summarizing that novel into a couple of hundred words so that it both makes sense and makes it impossible for a peruser to put that book down. I’m learning.

    • I would love to see some pitches slapped every Friday. But Jennifer, bless her writerly heart, has been the first writer to come to us in months. We should do an outreach campaign! 😀

          • Oh, the possibilities!
            I have certainly metnioned your service to other writers who have expressed a concern with their ability to pitch their books. I just love seeing the way you guys break down the sections to come back with a well-constructed final version. I am going to use your methods when I comem to write my final pitch – and I may just run it past you before submission.

  2. Just got slapped, and I LIKED IT! Version 1 follows my plan for the novel, but…if I scrap the whole thing and write Version 3, hmmmm, now THAT might really sell:) I have more pitches for you, Canaries! Thank you for such a great smackaroooooo!

    • Version 3 would definitely be a fun ride, but then, don’t let that be a reason to write off literary juvenile fiction. Having a deeper meaning or writing about a child dealing with serious issues can lead to a powerful and popular book too. A while back, theOtherCanary posted this article on a lit-fic juvenile book that changed her life: https://thecanaryreview.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/banned-books-week-harte-park-books-save-us/

      There’s def a place for both. Go with your gut and write the kind of story that feels right, be it 1, 2 or 3. After all, a novel may pull off the disjointedness of your original pitch, depending on how it’s written.

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