[Pitch Slap] Writing that agent query.

Now, I’m gonna say that I’m not a literary agent. I read books. A lot of books. And websites and stuff. So when Jodie emailed us and submitted an agent query for a pitch slap, I was briefly confuzzled, then nervous, and then I dove in. Here’s my canary stab at talking about agent queries!

For this pitch slap, I’m going to press pause on the blurb itself and instead talk about the stuff around it.

Sector 12 Continue reading

Small Chirp: Dear Paranormal Fiction

Dear Paranormal Fiction (and you too, Urban Fantasy),

There is a place and time for your heroine to volley smart-ass remarks. There is a place and time for your hero to be an insufferable bastard. Everywhere else, please make your characters act like human beings (even if they aren’t).

Gratefully,

Canaries

___

View our other grumbles here.

[ Pitch Slapped ] On How We Missed The Point Completely

Part of the Pitch Slapped Series:

Blurbs can make or break the a book’s sales, especially if the reader hasn’t heard about the author before. A strong blurb is a must for query letters and getting the book read, and in this article, the canaries try to slap a pitch into shape.

As a rule, the canaries don’t accept stand-alone short stories for reviews (anthologies only), but when Terra Harmony sent us an inquiry about her recent story, Gleaming White, we bent our rules a bit.

I’m going to start with the official blurb we got:

What did you think?

First, let’s talk about what I think the blurb did right. Harmony made the good call of writing a short blurb for a short piece. A novel would have demanded a bit more meat, but when the piece is only 13,000 words and not part of an anthology (rather unusual, by the way, in terms of marketing), short is good. Still, it has two main weaknesses: an unclear story arc and shifts in focus.

So here is my feathery reaction:

Right now, here’s the story I’m seeing:

  1. Sister is murdered.
  2. Heroine is angsty and suicidal.
  3. Murdering vampire is sexy.
  4. “Your blood is yummy.”
  5. “Pease kill me, Mr Hawt Vampire!
  6. ???????
  7. PROFI—err, I mean, Happily Ever After.

Content Issues:

The blurb begs all sorts of questions, the biggest of which is this: if she wants to die, what that Mr. Hawt Vampire have to do with anything? If she wants to take her life, who cares what he wants for lunch?

Nowadays, most readers expect some vague presence of a spine in their heroines. Sure, the macho, domineering (yet oh-so-sensitive) male is an all-time favorite, but the girl better at least pretend to take a stab at having some level of independence. If she wants to kill herself, why is he deciding her “fate”? Personally, I’m irritated at the implication that the guy is only interested in the girl for her physical attributes (“her taste”) and that the girl refuses to do a thing unless the man tells her she can.

This might not be the story at all, but the core issue is that it’s what the blurb makes me think the story’s about.

Which details matter?

Our recent poll showed that’s one of the top questions for authors.

1. Does Twin Sister’s Death play a real part of the story, or is it the token trauma along the lines of “Oh no, they burned up my village!”? Does the main plot relate directly to this death, or is it background noise?

By placing the death in the very first sentence, the reader is told that this is one of the most important elements of the plot.

2. Does she want to die or doesn’t she? Our heroine is facing three conflicts by the end of the story: dealing with her twin’s death, dealing with Mr. Vampire’s interest, and wanting to die.

The only way I see the current story working would be if it were a careful and intense study of the human psyche and the grieving process—and perhaps elements of Stockholm Syndrome and that power dynamic of victim and captor.

But…this isn’t Literary Fiction. The length and the genre (paranormal romance) suggests that the story follows a plot along the lines of a Romeo & Juliet–girl-meets-boy, girl-realizes-boy-isn’t-as-evil-as-she-thought, boy-and-girl-lovey-doveyness. In that case, a different angle would probably be a whole lot more appropriate (say, she is in despair and wants to die when Mr Vampire finds her, and he shows her that maybe the entire world isn’t such a dark place. But will she be able to deal with her feelings for a vampire when it was a vampire who killed her sister? Dun dun dun.)

3. Whose perspective are we following in the pitch? This is a big question, so let’s hear more about it in the following section:

Ambiguity of perspective: What is our point of view?

The Blurb:

  • They stole from her.
  • A man is seduced.
  • She wishes.
  • He must decide.

We go from they to him to her.

The story from they-point-of-view: “They kill, and now they need to deal with this illicit romance crap between vampire and food.”

The story from his-point-of-view: “He discovers a girl who tastes really good. He’d like to keep her, but she’s been badly hurt by her sister’s murder and wants to die.”

The story from her-point-of-view: “She’s lost her sister when the vampires killed her. Now another vampire has decided she’ll be his food supply. She wants to die, but he won’t let her.”

See how the story shifts each time? A good rule of thumb is to make sure that the POV of the pitch matches the POV of the story. Here I’ll go with the assumption that the story is written at least 60% from the heroine’s perspective (most romance is).

The problem, though, is that none of these are particularly romantic. Blame the story? Or blame the blurb? We’ll blame the blurb. Let’s see if we can spin it.

The Revised Blurb:

Conclusion:

Now we have a clear speaker, a little more detail, and less of weak-willed heroine. The main thrust of the plot is still a mystery ( a good thing for a short story) but there is enough mystery to at least pull the reader into the first paragraph.

The difficulty for the author here was in taking those few steps back away from the story and examining, ‘What is the pitch actually saying to the reader?’ This, more often than not, is one of the biggest challenges for the writer. Here, all the picky details that put me off in the initial version are brushed over. Once the reader takes the bait, it’ll be up to the story to make those details work.

Post Script From The Desk of CanaryTheFirst:

We had finished the article, and were bouncing around title ideas (“Look Who’s Talking”, “Seeing What’s Not There”…)  when it hit me. The vampires had stolen “the life of her twin sister” and now the heroine wants to “join” her sister. We were coming at it from the wrong angle.

So so wrong.

This isn’t about a murdered sister and a revenge-vs-romance plot! This is about the sisters reconciling (maybe) and the heroine wanting to be turned into a vampire.

Oh. Oh dear.

Suddenly, the line about “he must decide her fate” makes sense. And theothercanary felt more than a little deflated–suddenly, this seemed like a run-of-the-mill vampire story. So what this blurb is truly missing, is that something special that would set this story apart from the undead hoarde.

But only the author knows what that extra spark is.

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

Read more slapped pitches here.

[ Pitch Slapped ] When the Going Gets Rough…

…the Readers Start Running.

Birthright by RJ Palmer is a paranormal mystery and suspense novel. The problem? The blurb slams the reader with more than the allotted amount of mysterious; I quite literally had no idea what was going on in the book’s pitch.

For this pitch, I’d say it’s a case of not actually knowing what the story is about, and that’s surprisingly common ailment among authors. It’s hard for writers to condense their darling into just a few, bare sentences. When you are so close to your story, it isn’t easy to step back and talk about the main thrust of the narrative. So, let’s try to parse the blurb down into a tantalizing pitch.

 The original pitch: Continue reading

[ Pitch Slapped ] When Characters Unite

In her fantasy novel, Debbie Howell bases her blurb on the trusty character-oriented method. When a writer has several narrative lines that intersect, giving the reader a glimpse of each character’s motivation and problem is a great way to showcase the story. We have Llewella, Jonas, Braph, and Alvaro, and they all want something. Not only that, but the fantasy adventure throws them into its epic pot and gives it a shake.

The structural problem at the moment? For one, the blurb assumes that the reader is familiar with the characters and their conflict, a priori. (Click for full size.)

Impressions:

  1. Name of Cheer is important.
  2. Llewella’s figure is “developing.” And unless she’s developing wings and horns, this screams “there’s a gonna be a lot of them expositions about her beauty” and “O-la-la, here there be heavy-handed romance plot!”
  3. Wait. Are tits affecting her hand-eye coordination and brains? Is her balance off now?
  4. Who’s Alvaro and Jonas?
  5. Dark friend? What does that mean? Personality? Skin color? Inclination towards violence? Byronic brooding?
  6. What’s this job and how is Llewella qualified?
  7. Why is Jonas irritated?

And that’s only the first paragraph. Certainly a blurb needs to raise questions and intrigue its audience. But the reader should have question along the lines of “I wonder what will happen next?” and “How will they manage to escape Senor Baddie?”.

Let’s see if we can give the story a shove in that direction… Continue reading

[ Pitch Slapped ] How to Knock a Reader Dead

This is our first article in our Friday Pitch Slapped series. We’ll be looking at author blurbs from a variety of genres and discussing the elements that stand out as being particularly good…and not. This article’s all about getting to the point of the story.

How to Knock a Reader Dead

In the following blurb by Joan Hall Hovey, the author lays out a clear “who?”, “what?” and “why?” for her readership. Ellen’s little sister is killed and Ellen wants revenge. She provokes her sister’s murderer in hopes of getting him caught. The book is a thriller, so we imagine there will be suspense, danger, and a lot of near-misses. However, the blurb itself suffers from some near-hits and close calls.

Click for full-size.

But what else does the blurb promise? Continue reading

On Why I Should Not Be Allowed To Read High Fantasy

Let’s face it. If High Fantasy were a geographic location, it would be nestled on the bosom of Africa, or settled squarely on the permafrost of the Russian taiga. It would be any place where bright-robed women wander barefoot through the lion-ridden desert,  and men in tall, fuzzy ear-hats wrestle bears every Tuesday–after a shot of vodka and a can of caviar, of course.

So I will start by saying that I understand that High Fantasy doesn’t have to play nice with our mundane reality. That’s part of the appeal. Still, any genre of fantasy must follow its own internal logic. And, if there is a lapse–such as the existence of 50-pound swords, or one of the characters running around with several limbs cut off–and it goes unexplained, I will assume that it’s either really, really cool, or the writer is a muttonhead.

There are, however, more subtle crimes against reality. In The Name of the Wind  by Patrick Rothfuss, they come in the misleadingly curvacious shape of glass bottles.

Continue reading