[Pitch Slap] Playing chess with vampires, and other unfortunate encounters

When Vanya Ferreira sent in his short story blurb for a Pitch Slap, we hesitated. I usually don’t look at short stories, but this canary has a weakness for anything to do with vampires, so there you go. Exceptions are made. This is how civilizations end.

In 45 words, the blurb sets out to capture the essence of the story. In general, the fewer words you get, the more tempting it is to be vague – to go broad. But vague language is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It will lure you in by promising to tell the story of your book, and then turn to the reader and say nothing at all.

Resist.

The sharper your words, the less you cry, to reword a recent cooking memoir title.

Here’s what Vanya sent us:

Title: The Story of Lucius Cane

Summary: London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a peculiar vampire, comes upon an opponent the likes of which he has never seen before – a brute with remarkable abilities. But not all is as it seems as their encounter unfolds in a manner that neither of them expected.

Lots of things to like here. Immediately, we get the setting and time period, quick and tight. London, 1795. Now we know place and time, andwith the next five words – the main character’s name and genre. Historical fantasy with a vampire character.

Then, just as I’m expecting the blurb to zoom me into the story…it doesn’t.  It backs off. It goes vague.

London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a peculiar vampire, comes upon an opponent the likes of which he has never seen before – a brute with remarkable abilities. But not all is as it seems as their encounter unfolds in a manner that neither of them expected.

Interpretation: Mr. Vampire and his opponent are playing chess. Being a vampire chess player is hard. Everyone tries to schedule the match close to dawn and don’t get me started on the unfounded accusations that you use bats as a distraction.

Now, in the real story, Mr. Vamp and Mr. Opponent are probably not playing chess.* There’s a higher likelihood that the vampire gets into a fight with someone over something and something happens.

Which…is the summary of pretty much every vampire/adventure story ever. And the very definition of a story.

Here’s what happens when I switch in some concrete, specific plot:

“London, 1794. Lucius Cane, an ancient vampire, comes upon a dangerous hunter, the first creature in more than three hundred years to be a threat – a brute with the teeth of a shark and the eyes of a lost soul. But though a vicious fight leaves both injured, Cane cannot shake the feeling he’s met this creature before.”

“London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a bespeckled vampire, is searching for the Librarian – a brute with the power to absorb words from books and throw them like hunting knives. But not all is as it seems as Lucius gains the Librarian’s help and his book hunt leads the two to a lost colony of angry unicorns.”

“London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a playboy vampire, finds his match when he meets a butler who refuses him entry to the country estate – a brute who seems immune to Lucius’ hypnotic powers. But as Lucius tries to get an invitation to enter before sunrise ends the party inside (and him), he can’t figure out how he is foiled at every turn by a mere mortal…”

“London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a powerful vampire who often escorts young ladies home from their parties, finds his evening snack interrupted by a hooded  figure – a brute who walks with a limp and knows Crane’s name. Crane ends up losing his dinner. Is he about to lose his life, too?”

 And, of course, the chess story:

London, 1794. Lucius Cane, a vampire and chessmaster cursed to have to finish every game he plays, finds himself stumped by a player who matches his every move – a brute with the muscles of an ox and the eyes of a mastermind. As night creeps towards dawn, Crane knows he has to win soon or his curse will keep him trapped there past sunrise.

The original blurb does itself no favors by trying to create an aura of mystery and playing coy. It’s the details that make the readers’ ears perk up.

Be crisp about what’s happening. Show us what’s at stake.**

Canaries, over and out.

*Though how cool would it be, if they were? Someone, write this story!
**Pun absolutely intended.

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. You can also read more Pitch Slaps here. 

[Pitch Slap] The book identity

[Pitch Slap] The book identity

RisingWhen Patrick Sean Lee sent us some info about his book, Rising, I was intrigued. The cover is pretty, the title is dramatic, and the first sentence of the blurb starts “In the spectacular and corrupt city.”

I wanted to know more.

But as I kept reading the blurb, I began to suspect that the story was suffering from an identity crisis. Or several.

But before I get too far into that, here is the blurb….

CanaryPost

Identity crisis: Target your age group.

Who is this story for? Teens? Pre-teens? The word choice and language could go either way

Teen InfographicThe cover evokes an atmosphere of mystery and fairy-tale wonder, so perhaps the story itself leans towards coming-of-age fantasy adventure.The blurbs use of words like “spectacular,” “strange new land,” “massive branches of five-hundred-foot-tall-trees” create a kind of Narnia, Oz, or Alice in Wonderland sense of fantasy. The character passes through the veil from a gritty, harsh world to one of color and spectacular beauty and danger.

On the other hand, the opening (a corrupt city, a walled-in ghetto, caste systems) makes me think of political thrillers or sci-fi suspense adventures of the sort you see in books like Mazerunner, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. Something that pits the character against an immense and unjust system.

A good rule of thumb for writing young characters for young readers is that your target reader will be the same age or a year or so younger than your character. If that holds true, readers of Rising will probably be in their mid-teens.  Kids want to read books that are “cool.” Be careful that the word choice is not narrowing your audience to the grandparents-only demographic.

Let’s assume we’re aiming for Teens. So first thing I’d do is…

Tighten the language: 

Canarypost2

Pruned down this way, the intriguing elements of the story come to the forefront. But a couple issues are also creep into the spotlight.

Issue: someone wants her dead?

Blurb:  “This happens, that happens, this happens, and then this happens!…oh and then someone wants her dead.”

Me: “Wait, what?”

So much time is spent on Alana’s trip to the island and why she was sent there that it’s really not clear what the story will be and what the main conflict is really about. No, we don’t have to know why someone wants Alana dead, but nothing in the blurb even hints that this should be a thing.

If a blurb takes the narrative approach, as this one does, each section of the blurb should connect to the next.

  1. Alana arrested unjustly.
  2. Because she is arrested, she is dropped off on island prison.
  3. Because she is dropped off on the island, someone rescues her.
  4. Because someone rescues her, she lives to learn about the island grouping/caste system.
  5. …Someone on island wants Alana dead badly enough to destroy the island.

The link break down at #5. Something more needs to be said to connect this.

Issue: What’s at stake?

One of the ways a blurb can pull the reader in is to explain what is at stake. What is the point of the adventures? What’s at stake? Is it just plain survival? Is it about getting back home?

Is the story going to be about Alana’s adventures on the island, or her attempts to fight/unravel the corrupt caste system that sent her to the island? Should the reader be asking, “Why is she a special case? Is this a science experiment? Will she lead a rebellion against the injustices at home?” or should the questions be “How will she survive on the island? Who is her friend or foe there? Can she escape the island to go home? What is this place?”

To make me care, you have to tell me what the danger is.

And what we’re fighting for.

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 “Pitch Article Submission” in the subject.

Looking for a few more pitch slaps?

[ Pitch Slapped ] Dragons and the Perks of Being Straightforward

Let’s face it. The best stories are complex, convoluted little things. We love it when fantasy and sci fi attack the usual tropes from new angles and make the weirdest premises feel completely natural. That’s the wonder of it. But trying to put these ideas into a story’s blurb can be a real challenge. There’s barely enough space to write out the bare bones of plot – and that’s without that extra paragraph saying “Wait, wait, this makes sense and it’s actually really cool!” What to do?

But before we get into that, let’s see this week’s blurb from Amy Rareberth Mead’s dark epic fantasy novel, Dragon Marked: Continue reading

[Pitch Pecking] Would you buy it? –Vote!–

A couple weeks back, Madison Woods stopped by and asked us if we’d be interested in taking over her hands-down-one-of-the-best-ways-to-get-real-reader-feedback series, “Vote for it”. Of course we said “Yes!”

Every week, Madison gave her blog over to a 25-word elevator pitch sent in by an author. Readers of her blog had the opportunity to vote for whether the 25-word blurb made them curious or not about the book. Would they buy such a book?  Though the voting is anonymous, many readers opted to leave a comment too, helping the author get a sense of what was working and what wasn’t. And we are honored and excited to continue the tradition.

“Authors, what we’re measuring is reader interpretation. What does someone think of your book when they read your short blurb? Does it make them want to buy it or at least read further? Editors and publishers may look at these blurbs differently, but ultimately, they’re readers too.” (Madison Woods)

So what happens now? Read the pitch/blurb below and then vote if you think you’d be interested enough buy the book. If you have constructive crit to offer, share it in comments below! Continue reading

[Pitch Slapped] You only get three seconds to make a first impression.

One of my grad school professors told me that any report I handed in had to tell him everything he needed to know in 30 seconds, 3 minutes, and 30 minutes. But when you’re pitching your novel, you’re not writing a 50-page report and you don’t always get 30 seconds. Sometimes, you get 25 words and three seconds to convince the reader your book is on their to-buy list.

Madison Woods, Pitch Slap veteran and the host of “Vote for it: Would You Buy it?” series, came to us with a 25-word summary of her story.

“I’m planning to pitch my book to a publisher in October, and I realize I will have time to give more than the 25 words, but I want the first words I say to hook their interest.”

Let’s take a look at those words:

In this Pitch Slapped article, I’m going to give the blurb a good pecking and talk about the importance of appropriate and deliberate language decisions.  Continue reading

[Pitch Slapped] A blurb is no place for Captain Obvious

“In one moment, his life changed forever/his life was never the same/was altered beyond…”

Look, people. We all lead pretty boring lives. They change, but mostly in really subtle ways that can only be seen with the benefit of hindsight and ample time for reflection (read: many many years).

But in a book, change better happen in a moment or in a series of very rapid moments or else you, the author, are doing something very wrong and very boring.

It’s a given that a character’s life will change dramatically. It’s called plot and character development. And sort of the whole point of books. Continue reading

[ 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.