When Randy Attwood sent us his pitch, his big question was this: “Could reverse psychology work?”
We perked up. Now this promised something different.
The blurb began, “This is strange. I need to warn you away from this book.”
Canary The First and I exchanged an e-glance, and then we dove in. A few minutes later, we replied to the email: Thanks for sending us your pitch. We have a quick question: what’s the story about?
Because, even after reading the pitch, neither of us had a clue. With thrillers, there is a fine line between intriguing obscurity and flat-out confusing. You want to draw the reader in with tantalizing half-details, revealing a little of the plot from a sideways angle. The approach this author took certainly was sideways—but it was also upside-down and backwards. I was so confused by it that CanarytheFirst actually had to hold my hand and walk me through it.
Let’s see that original pitch:
Click to full-view!
My first issue (beyond general, feathery confusion) is the tone. As authors, we tend to talk about our characters like they’re real people. And that’s okay when we’re in writing groups or chatting with other authors. But when you present that face to the real world, people tend to give you sidelong looks and look for the fastest exit from the conversation. And it’s never good to give the impression that you, the author, are not in complete control of the story. That is a one-way ticket to a reader not trusting you. Speaking of trust…
An aside about genre declarations: So, per author request, I can’t tell you what the erotica/porn bit is about. But, as I now know, it really isn’t porn or erotica. It is so far from either that the suggestion actually made CanaryTheFirst get a little (read: a lot) ragey. Mentioning the Erotica genre there almost seems like a last-ditch attempt to appeal to the part of the human brain that likes it some sex.
But there is no worse sin in pitch writing than to offer a false promise. If it’s not about erotica, don’t even mention it.
Back to the pitch: When we emailed the author to ask what the story was about, we got a traditional pitch back. And it wasn’t as intriguing. Attwood was right about one thing: coming at it sideways is the best bet for this story. But how to do it without being so confusing that a reader will simply shake her head and put the book back down?
It’s all about one thing: establishing the oddity.
There are several popular books out these days that are presented as ‘the author didn’t write this, merely reported it.’ Most recently reviewed by tCR is the Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series in which Riordan claims to have discovered the audio recordings of the book you hold in your hands. Similar approaches was used for oodles of classics as well—such as Nathanial Hawthorne begging away the real-world diary that was the basis for The Scarlet Letter.
The author-as-narrator is a staple of 19th century literature. But to approach the pitch like that, you have to establish just how you came across the story that you are now writing (a recording, a diary, letters, oral tradition, etc).
Tangent from CanaryTheFirst: Presenting the pitch from the point of view of the “I” of the author sets up the entire trajectory of the narration. With this approach, the reader will be expecting to read a novel framed in terms of an outsider-narrator. If the book itself is written as most thrillers are, bouncing between the points of view of different characters, having a pitch such as this one will create unmet expectations–just as it would if you were to present the Harry Potter books with a blurb from Snape’s perspective.
Now back to the story. Let’s give the pitch another try:
The core idea of the pitch is still there—the unknown parts of the neighborhoods, the author’s hesitation to tell a grisly tale. But now the pitch itself tells a cohesive story. No, it may not be the story contained in the pages, and that is for the author to tweak, but hopefully it is enough to make you want to open the book and find out just what had happened to those people that would scare an outsider so badly.
And now we come back to the author’s question: “Could reverse psychology work?”
Perhaps. But as anyone who has ever argued with siblings/friends/pet cats knows, having someone try reverse psychology on you is just obnoxious. As my revision above demonstrates, creating an intriguing premise or setting up a mystery the reader wants to unravel is a stronger approach than telling the reader not to pick up the book.
There’s urgency in this pitch—and that makes it irresistible.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more slapped pitches here.