Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holiday Critiques #1

I think by reading through the comments on my original post many some of you might have gotten a taste for what it's like to be an agent. You're right that there are no rules and it never hurts to break them, but do you see how frustrating it gets when no one even seems to hear them? Many of you were obviously frustrated by how others define the word "pitch." Well don't worry about me, I'm used to pitches of all shapes and sizes and hopefully all of you are reading through what others are doing and have done to get a real feel for what reading query letters is like. This is very close to what an agent sees in her inbox on a daily basis. Read through the original comments and see what catches your eye. Soon you'll learn why a pitch is so important.

A pitch is that one paragraph in your query letter that describes your book. If the pitch you write is strong enough it should also become the one paragraph you can use when verbally pitching to agents or editors. A pitch is not the entire query letter, that's called the query letter. A pitch is not the synopsis, that's called a synopsis.

Okay, here's a recap, on December 19 I lost my mind and the spirit of Christmas Publishing took over my body. Since our offices are closed for two weeks I made the offer to spend whatever time I felt like (which might be almost none) critiquing pitches. Well since Continental airlines conveniently decided to cancel all of my Christmas plans (and yes I'm extremely bitter) it looks like I'll have more time then I thought. 

So I am randomly picking pitches from this list and here are my critiques. Thanks to all who entered...

From Debra:
Darius and Dyla Telkur, the twin children of the powerful Duke of Telkur, lead the privileged life of royals on Otharia. Dyla has the power of empathy that surrounds her in an air of danger like a ring of razor blades. Darius, her dark brooding twin, has the power of telepathy in his piercing stare and penetrating touch. Though Darius is the heir to the Telkur throne by mere seconds, the twins share an inseparable bond. When their parents are murdered on their 16th birthday, their idyllic life is shattered. Reeling from shock, the twins are confronted with a pretender to the ducal crown, a rogue cousin bent on stealing the Telkur throne, but the worst is yet to come. Someone else wants them dead and they find themselves at the mercy of an evil mastermind bent on the annihilation of the entire Telkur dynasty.

Caught in a maelstrom of murder and deceit, Darius and Dyla are forced to run for their lives. With no safe haven on Otharia, they flee to the only place where they won’t be found, the quarantined planet of Earth. Stranded in modern day London, their only hope of returning home is to retrieve an artifact lost during an ancient Otharian exploration of Earth. Hidden within the legends of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake are clues to the artifact they seek. Along the way, they stumble upon a terrible secret, a secret that will shake the very foundations of Otharia. Everything is connected and when the twins finally understand the connection between past and present, they must find a way to return home before they don’t have a home or kingdom to return to.
This is way too long and not because it's too paragraphs, but the reason I stress to all authors to try their best to keep their pitches to one paragraph is because there is a lot of information in here I just don't need. For example, the first paragraph, do I really need to know any of this? This is backstory and in the pitch I don't need that much backstory, what I need to know is the chief conflict of the book. Another thing here that would jump out at me is that there are places here where you got caught up in the beauty of the words and, frankly, it's just overwritten. For example, "that surrounds her in an air of danger like a ring of razor blades" is a little over the top. Wouldn't it be better to simply say that "Dyla has the power of empathy while Darius is telepathic..." I'm not sure we need to know that these are dangerous powers since it's never explained why the powers are dangerous and probably doesn't need to be.

"Caught in a maelstrom of murder and deceit," is another example of overwriting. Essentially this says absolutely nothing. Skip it. Your pitch should really be more along the lines of, "when twins Darius and Dyla find themselves running for their lives and from their own land....and then we need to get into the heart of the conflict. Is there any reason you can't give us more details on what the secret is? I think it would be helpful to know some specifics so we have an understanding of what exactly they're up against and what the hook of this book really is.

Tamara said...
Because both her parents died when she was sixteen, nineteen-year-old Maggie Jordan of Loveland, Colorado, yearns for lost family. When she and an idealistic young writer named Jackdaw fall in love, she is certain that she’s found what she’s looking for. They have sex and she gets pregnant, but then he blames her for not living up to his ideal. He does the right thing, though, and they get married. But after Maggie gives birth on Christmas day to a darling boy, Jes, she struggles to cope with Jes’s severe birth defect and her husband’s distance, while Jackdaw must reconcile memories of his father’s abuse and his mother’s abandonment with his own actions.

With deceptive simplicity, LOVELAND interweaves Maggie and Jackdaw’s story with those of Maggie’s timid brother Tibs yearning to be a writer and wrestling with the success of Jackdaw’s first novel and Maggie’s straight and outspoken sister CJ unexpectedly falling in love with Jes’s female nurse.

LOVELAND is literary women’s fiction (65,000 words) comparable to Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper.
The challenge you face with this pitch is that you are telling the story and not showing. A pitch is just as much about your voice and story telling technique as the book itself. When I read a pitch sure I want to know what the story is about, but I also want a sense of what your writing is about. It shouldn't be simply a breakdown of the story, but the heart of the story. Do we need to know how old Maggie was or is and do we really need to know where she's from? My concern here is that I'm not sure what this story is about. Is it about meeting a writer when she's nineteen? Struggling with a special needs child? Getting married because of a pregnancy or her husband reconciling with his childhood?

Here I think it's important to really get into the heart of the story, but even more important that you find your voice. Based on this pitch I would be concerned that your story is not yet ready to submit. Oh, and word count might be a problem here. Unless you have an incredibly powerful hook (which I haven't seen yet) 65,000 words is really on the short side for women's fiction. 80,000-100,000 words would be better.

Anonymous said...
Claire's reputation as a woman who competently balances her hectic family life with the demands of her small business tanks when she goes missing for a weekend and awakens on a church pew. But then again, at 32 she meant to be her small town's District Attorney, not a chronically ill stay-at-home mother of three and freelance chocolatier. When sleek, successful, former friend Malia appears on Claire's doorstep, she unravels the remainder of Claire's composure. But even Malia's dream life veers off course when she learns she's pregnant, her new boss is her former-lover-turned-priest, and her boyfriend isn't ready for a baby. Malia and Claire force each other to grapple with their evolving identities, careers, and families as they renew their friendship during a year of chaotic transitions.

Women's fiction, 85,000 words.
I'm thoroughly confused by this pitch. She's a chronically ill stay at home mother, but also a successful entrepreneur who should have been a DA? Again, we need to get to the heart of the story. Is this story about Claire or Malia and what are their evolving identities and how do career and family fit in? What is happening in the story? What is the who, what, where, why and how? And what does the church pew have to do with anything?

Laurel Wanrow said...

“Wildflowers and Winged Boys” is a 86,000 word YA manuscript:

Fern’s work to restore native plants to save her Gran’s meadow takes on new meaning when a winged boy reveals the land is part of a hidden enclave of Sapaksan wizards, and Fern’s Mom is their runaway Witch of the Meadows. Fern’s story about her unusual inheritance and the care of the natural world, is bound together with magic and the excitement of first love.
I think this is one of the stronger pitches I've critiqued so far, but I'm not sure it's there quite yet. It feels a little slight, like I just don't have quite enough information to really understand what's happening. I guess what I need to know is what happens next. Is this just her story about the inheritance and gardening because that sounds a little boring. What happens after she discovers that her mom is a runaway witch? It seems to me that's the exciting part.

DL said...

Legend Hunters

Four embark on a journey into insanity: a brother, a reporter, a park warden and the Nakoda guide she once loved. They’re hunting a legend; the thing that mauled a woman to death a year ago, the thing that left another man maimed both in body and in mind. Legend Hunters is a fast-paced thrill ride that takes the reader through the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, up steep mountain slopes, down turbulent rivers, over glaciers and sacred ground in search of the legendary Bigfoot. One of the four is intent on killing it. One covets its power. One doesn’t believe in it. And, one will protect it at all cost. Even though two rekindle a romance thought lost forever, only one will emerge unscathed.

This is close, but no Christmas cookie yet. I think you can benefit right from the beginning by telling us that the legend is Bigfoot and why these people are hunting him. Is it because of the mauling? Are they together or separately hunting?  Also get specific. Avoid things like, "a fast-paced thrill ride that takes the reader through the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, up steep mountain slopes, down turbulent rivers, over glaciers and sacred ground," since it really doesn't tell me much about the story, just the terrain. I want to know what the conflict is, what happens. You do have an intriguing story here though.

And that's it for now. I'm off to make cookies. 



Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Very interesting. I learn a lot from these posts. Thanks Jessica and thanks also to those brave enough to openly post their pitches.

Sorry about the cancellation of your holiday plans Jessica! :(

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica:
I hope you got your flight rescheduled so you can still muster some holiday cheer in spite of the airlines!

We appreciate you sharing your time and smarts with us.

Good stuff - this may be the best present under my tree this year.

Angie Ledbetter said...

LOL on this ~~ "A pitch is not the entire query letter, that's called the query letter."

Hope your eyeballs don't blow up doing crits, but this is a great resource for spiffing up our pitches. Sorry about your travel plans, & 'preciate your work on behalf of us writer people.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thank you for sharing your insight, Jessica. I hope that you can salvage your travel plans in some way, and if not, your holiday is still rewarding and full of relaxation and cheer.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

Ah, I'm going to revisit your original post and read more of those so-called pitch paragraphs with an agent's eye. I can't imagine what it's like to see all those words swirling all the time. I ended up feeling bad for the writers who posted hundreds of words, knowing that they could have a gem of a pitch buried inside there somewhere. Even if my graf isn't "right" I felt good knowing it was indeed, a paragraph-length pitch.

Keri Ford said...

Sorry about the plans, Jessica. Hope things start looking up for you soon!

Anonymous said...

Really sorry to hear about your holiday plans.

Really appreciate you being our not-so-secret Santa.

Anonymous said...

THANKS THANKS THANKS! You are truly a writer's advocate.


Anonymous said...


Sorry about your cancellations. But it sounds like you're making the best of it. Enjoy an extra helping of those cookies your baking. :-)

This is so generous of you, and I know the writers participating are very grateful for your upbeat attitude and willingness to help better their pitches.

Have a wonderful holiday, and I wish the same to Kim and Jacky!

Anonymous said...

I just want to apologize. I will admit that I messed up royally and probably started the whole trend of pasting too much.

But on the other hand I am grateful that you crittered them anyway, any insight we can get is invaluable.

Sorry about your holiday plans :(, but Merry Christmas and hope you have a good one.

-Ann said...

Your 19 December post and last year's critiques have given me a new appreciation of the agent's life.

Thanks for all of the advice. I'm starting to get a better feel for what a hook is and how to craft a pitch.

Sorry about your travel plans.

Sarabeth said...

Sorry about your travel plans.

Can we still put in a pitch on the first post? Is it too late?

theartgirl said...

That stinks about your travel plans. We always have extra seats at Christmas dinner if you want a Jersey adventure.

Our motto is all are welcome and we always have plenty of food.

Coll from Cherry Hill (don't worry it's not a suck up tactic--you don't even represent my genre.) :)

Evangeline Holland said...

That's too bad about your vacation plans, but you are so gracious to take the time to delve into our pitches. I really appreciate it.

Anita said...

I liked Tamara's title, LOVELAND. And isn't it interesting that two of the chosen pitches had a Rocky Mountain angle? Plus, I think there were a couple others who weren't picked which were written by CO writers. What's in the water out here? Or maybe it's in the snow?!

Karen Duvall said...

Jessica, thanks for letting us see through your eyes what an agent has to go through every day. Ack! How frustrating for you. It's easy to spot the ones who get it, and the ones who don't.

Loved your critiques, very insightful. I hope a lot of the readers here learn from them so they can improve their pitches.

I hope your travel plans get worked out. Have a wonderful holiday!

Anonymous said...

I'd so tempted to play, but I'm still pretty early in my story. It's helpful to see the other critiques, though. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

I'm another Coloradan and was interested to see the Rocky Mountain settings.

I learned so much from these revisions - thanks so much, Jessica! Hope the cookies turned out well!

Heidi Willis said...

As usual, your comments are enlightening. It's amazing how helpful it is to hear your advice on other pitches. I learned so much the first time you did this and I look forward to seeing whatever you have time to do this time.

I'm sorry to hear about your travel plans. I hope the holidays gets better from here on out.

T. M. Hunter said...

Hopefully you'll find a nugget in the original post so we can see an example of an excellent pitch. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jessica--I'm so sorry about your holiday. I hope something changes so you can still get away.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! Thank you!

Bowman said...

Thanks for this. Interesting read.

Julie Weathers said...

Ugh, you aren't going at all? Isn't there anything they can do? Even a delay is terribly disappointing.

The insight into the pitches is wonderful. We appreciate it very much, but I still hope you can salvage your Christmas.


Anonymous said...

Re: Wildflowers and Winged Boys:

"... Fern’s work to restore native plants to save her Gran’s meadow takes on new meaning when a winged boy reveals the land is part of a hidden enclave...

I write YA, and I'm sorry but this pitch doesn't tell me anything about your book.
**"Takes on new meaning"** In what way? She's got to protect the meadow HOW? What are her obstacles? Who is her villain? What is the plot?

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your plans. :(

Thanks for doing all of this--this was my first attempt at a pitch, so it's definitely a learning experience for me!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for selecting my pitch and the helpful comment to flush it out a bit more. I am still learning how much is enough!


Sarahlynn said...

I got behind on my RSS Reader and missed this until too late. Thank you for doing this! I'm pitching for the first time this weekend at Love Is Murder and feel completely unprepared. Reading your critiques is really helping!

Jim Miles said...

Thanks for these great critiques. I'm just finding your blog now, but I'm learning so much. This is invaluable.

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