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What’s the story

I’ve noticed something recently in many of the queries I receive: the writer wants to tell me all about the emotional journey of the story, but they aren’t telling me the actual story. Quite often, it feels like I’m given a general premise and a resolution but I don’t actually know what happens between the first and last pages.

Let’s think about this a bit. What is a story? It’s action, plot, and characters that are going places and doing things. Ideally for the writer, the problem is with the pitch (easy to fix) rather than with the entire book (not as easy to fix). Remember: the emotional journey of a character is reflected in the action of the story. But the story itself is just that—action, characters making moves that are always working towards a goal.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. (Note: this is not a real query):

(Protagonist)’s life has not been easy, but she’s made it through. Surviving a decidedly rough upbringing, she must cope with the pain of her mother’s violent drug abuse from a very early age.

Okay, we’re getting somewhere…

Vowing to never fall into the same traps as her mother, she relocates to a new city to start her entire life over. She must battle each day to find happiness and contentment, and not let her demons rule her life.

Keep going…

However, she feels that the memories of her past are never far behind. Throughout the story, she has to learn that we’re all human and that her mother needs her help. Ultimately, she forgives her mother and gets her into treatment.

Wait, hang on. What actually happens in the novel?

When it comes to distilling your entire novel into one paragraph for your query—a task I do not envy—you must zero in on the main characters and plot points. The emotional journey of a book is important, but when it comes to the pitch, be sure to convey the actual story first, and bring in the broader themes after.

6 Responses to What’s the story

  1. Tamara says:

    You know what really helped me in writing a pitch? First writing the book as a fairytale. I’m not even joking. It made me simplify and essentialize this thing that was hugely complex in my mind. “Once upon a time in a place far away there lived a good-hearted girl whose evil father tried to force her to marry her off to his equally snidely younger partner.” Etc.

  2. Thank you for this post! Distilling a book into one or two paras is a challenging task, but just like knowing how to spell and write cohesively, a pitch is part of our tool kit (even though I’d rather stick hot pokers in my eyes than write a pitch some days).

    Tamara, that sounds like an interesting way of doing things. I think I’ll give it a try next pitch I need to write!

  3. I wonder how much of this is due to our schooling. For my book reports, at least, we sometimes had to do a summary, but it was always more important to look at themes and so on. I’ve made myself relearn the art of summary since starting to research the publishing industry, but the practice of looking for tropes and themes still haunts me a bit (especially when I’m trying to think of comp titles).

    @Tamara: That is a really good suggestion! That, or just ask, “what happens next?” and throwing out everything that isn’t a plot *event*.

  4. V Lynn Burgess says:

    In researching how to write a query letter, the instructions were to be brief (concise). Only a few sentences otherwise, any longer, and the query would promptly be discarded! *Smiling*. Thank you for clarifying with an actual example. Very helpful.

  5. Sara Hood says:

    In the past few months (it seems to be a new thing?)I have been constantly advised that as an unpubbed writer I should remember how important it is to include the emotional journey in the query/synopsis, but maybe some folk are taking this well meant advice too literally and are forgetting to also include the story … or given a word count are opting to use those precious words for the emotional journey (because it’s so important, they keep being told) and not the story …

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