Wednesday, 10 August 2011


Three brave writers have offered their pitches to you for comment and constructive criticism. What do you think of them? And if you'd like to put your own pitch forward for the same purpose, please see the Over To You page above for details. It's a very, very good way to hone your hook before submitting to agents or publishers!

Grave Communication by Calum Maclean
YA crime novel

Nelson is a young grave digger/grave robber, with no education or prospects. He soon sets up 'Grave Communications', a scam physic business, relying on information he gathers at his workplace. But soon the police are on to him. Along the way, a change of character takes place in Nelson which could be threatened by the relentless police force.

Urquist – by Jo Macdonald
YA novel

On her 16th birthday Dal tries to drown herself but instead ends up in a primitive and violent world among an isolated community under threat from their own children - for whom they believe Dal is the cure. In her search for answers she turns to wild, loner Aedan who suffers from visions known as Ach Sheallach. As they grow closer Dal dares to imagine a life in which she might be happy.

But when Aedan suffers a terrifying vision and the island’s ruler, the Rhian, is murdered it becomes clear that Dal has put the islanders in even greater danger than before. She is left with a heartbreaking choice – to stay with the people she loves, or to risk death once more in hope of saving them all. Even if it means never seeing Aedan again.

The Rider of Nealra  by Scooter Carlyle
Contemporary fantasy for older teens and adults

All Ellie Johnson wants is for the family ranch to want her back, but her agricultural ineptitude sends her running to her next best dream of singing in seedy night clubs.  In THE RIDER OF NEALRA, tragedy forces her to return and operate the eastern Montana ranch on her own.  As she scrambles to keep a multi-million dollar from spiraling into the ground, she finds her Dad failed to mention it was plagued with pulverized livestock, disappearing neighbors, and eerie lights in the Badlands.

When she hunts in the Badlands for a missing elderly friend, Ellie and her mustang, Stinky, to fall through a rift to a world inextricably tied to our own, where magic is an infection fueled by the souls of the dead, a magic to which Ellie is oddly immune.  Unable to speak the language or understand the political forces at work, Ellie foils a Necragii priest’s attempt to kidnap a small Nealran boy, but instead effects the slaughter of the child and his village.  Friendless except for the warriorJunsan, Ellie’s unprecedented immunity to magic may be the only thing that stands between the Tribes of Nealra and the Necragii’s leader, the Eater of Souls.

Comments, please. Keep them constructive and honest.

Meanwhile, don't forget to download a copy of the Tweet Right Taster - see yesterday's post for details!


KMLockwood said...

Calum - admirably short and interesting. I was puzzled by the last sentence however.
Jo - plenty of peril for the central character which is engaging. The first over-complex sentence would work better as two.
Scooter - an intriguing premise in an unexpected setting.A little too much detail for a pitch, though.
All three - as I understand it, you don't leave a pitch 'open' - you tell the ending ( it's not a blurb).
I hope that helps.

Nicola Morgan said...

Calum - in theory, short is admirable, but in this case you've left out some crucial information which an agent or publisher absolutely would need. For example, we need to know when this is set - it has a historical feel and while one wouldn't normally have to say "present day", the problem is that this feels historical so if it isn't you'll need to clarify. The last sentence feels odd - you're saying that the change of character is threatened? What sort of change of character? Why? So are you saying something happened to reform him? I'd like a hint of what sort fo thing and whether this is a chance event or does it (as it should) hook into some kind of soul-searching or emotional/moral journey that we need to know a little about? In short, it's too short and doesn't tell us enough for us to know what sort of story this is. I have no feel for whether it's humorous, for example. (You don't need to *say* so - but it needs to be clear.) What you've written is essentially a pretty good back cover blurb - but the covering letters needs a bit more - only a few sentences more, but a bit anyway. Remember that when a reader reads the back cover, he also has the cover image and feel to go on, but the agent/publisher has nothing.

Jo - I think this is well written and intriguing. One thing that concerns me is that it sounds (from the first para) as though this is mostly about Dal and the adults (on whose side I think she is) *against* the children. I'm not sure how this would work as YA (where the reader should be on the side of the children/teens) so you may need to tweak this.

Scooter - tricky problems here. First, I suggest you just say YA. (Except note may later point...) Very few books are actually marketed for both, though we'd all love all our books to be. Best stick to one in your pitch.

BUT - the problem is that the premise is not an easy sell for YA. "tragedy forces her to return and operate the eastern Montana ranch on her own." There's also quite a mismatch between the feel at the beginning and at the end. (When does the fantasy part kick in - I hope sooner than it seems?) However, I'm not a good judge of fantasy so I'm probably not the best person to comment on that aspect - except to say that I'm wondering if it might be better actually NOT pitched at YA at all, just do it as straight non-age-banded fantasy?? It's very difficult to encapsulate a whole fantasy into a short pitch but I do think it needs some a) paring and b) clarifying - for example, why is she immune to magic? Will there be a reason? (There should be!)

Anne A said...

Hi, I appear to be in a very critical mood today, so please take all comments in the friendly helpful way I intend!

Grave Communication
Mainly, I feel like I need to know more, although I think there are hints of a very interesting story in there. I'm unclear about the time-frame. For some reason the "grave digger/grave robber" phrase made me think of Burke and Hare and the 1800s -- but "scam physic" (wait, should that be "psychic"? I'm a terrible speller...) sounds modern. I'd expect a spirtualist or something if my original timeframe was right. If it is modern, you might be able to fix it by saying grave digger and then mention something about the Rolexes the corpses lose around him... (well, that gets to the most recent century at least) The last sentence is too vague. This is the main conflict, and I don't know what it is. We need to know how Nelson is changing -- and what the trigger is -- and why the police threaten the change.

I'm afraid I got confused in the first sentence -- I didn't quite catch it was a fantasy world at first. I kinda thought the primitive and violent world was some inner-city situation she was trying to escape. Perhaps just a little more clarity on the idea that she goes in the sea/loses conciousness/whatever to pass us into the fantastic. Other than that, I like the description and build of tension. The one thing is that I don't understand why she puts them in danger, and why her leaving could save them -- I feel like if I had a few hints on that it would be much stronger.

The Rider of Nealra
I like the end of first paragraph, with the hinting at the fantastic. I'm not sure all of the beginning is necessary: do we need to know about singing in night clubs? or even that she wants to go the ranch, but is inept? I think it could start with the tradegy and the need to take care of the ranch. Also, if it's not too convoluted, say what the tradegy is (e.g., death of X), otherwise it sets up a false tension where I'm wondering what it is for the rest of the pitch, instead of paying attention the words. The second paragraph introduces too many specific details, many of them unusual words -- this detail isn't needed in the pitch! I'm getting confused about what is the difference between Necragii and Nealran, wonder why she named her horse Stinky, what happened to the elderly friend and all sorts of things that distract from building tension. Identify what's important and use them -- for example, I might only use the name of her friend Junsan and the title Eater of Souls (that, I can figure out what it means).

Dan Holloway said...

Grave Communication - I'm glad Anne mentioned the rather important typo - I thought I was seeing things. I agree that the last sentence is rather convoluted, but more at issue is the fact that when unravelled it doesn't really do anything to grab us. Which brings me to the main point - I don't know who I'm meant to be siding with - sentence 1 and the ending suggest Nelson is a down-on-his-luck protagonist made good, but what comes between suggests otherwise. I don't really get that I'm rooting for him.

Urquist - this sounds like an interesting premise - I'm fascinated by premonitions and teh fate/responsibility dilemma - it's a great hook to hang a story on if the writer can make the dilemma real enough and the stakes high enough (and I love the personal happiness vs wider responsibility dilemma, though I wish wish wish more authors would not clobber us over the head with virtue: for me the final page unravelled all teh great work done previously in His Dark Materials. Sorry, aside over) - all boxes ticked here. But the writing doesn't zip - the 1st mention of the visions is a little confused (we are left to deduce from para 2 that they are prophetic), and it's not 100% clear how it's Dal who's put people in danger - by inviting Aedan into the community presumably, but again we are left to deduce this.

Scooter - your first paragraph is sublime, and your opening sentence pretty much word perfect. But the second left me gasping for breath - there's a typoe (the "to" of "to fall" makes no sense) that starts the wrongfooting, and then we have not 1 but 2 words thrown at us that are presumably meant to mean something to us but don't. I'm sure the magic bit is great, but I can't help thinking that paragraph 1 is what I want to read - that's a book in its own right, a wonderful, heartbreaking coming of age story about a girl wrestling with (see above) responsibility and freedom.

BuffySquirrel said...

In Grave Communication, Nelson doesn't come across as a character readers will like. There needs to be some reason for the reader to sympathise with him and root for him to achieve his goal. It could be something as simple as him supporting his three orphan siblings, or trying to raise money to go to night school. As the query stands, he doesn't seem to have a goal beyond day-to-day survival. If he experiences a character change, we want to see how and why. What inspires him to change? What obstacles are there to him changing--beyond the police force, who in my experience aren't all that interested in mediums and their scams.

So, Nelson wants X (to go back to school, to keep his little brother from joining a gang, a better job, a house in the suburbs) but Obstacle (no education, no money, no prospects). So he uses information gleaned in the course of his deadend job at a funeral parlour to set up psychic service 'Grave Communications'. At first he can't believe how easy it is to make money from grieving widows, but then Complication (someone wants something he can't get for them, grieving widow turns out to have cop son-in-law, whatever). Now Nelson must make his Choice (dilemma). Will he do Y or Z?

And do try to make us like him :).


I think unfortunately there's way too much information crammed into that opening sentence. Plus it raises as many questions as it answers. Why does Dal try to drown herself? Why does the community think she's the answer to their problems? I think you need to think carefully about what is the minimum of information the person reading this needs to get a handle on what's happening. The dilemma at the end also didn't work for me, perhaps because it's not clear what's at stake. What will happen if Dal does just stay with these people? Will they (and she?) die? Without some cost to that decision, it seems like the obvious choice to make.

Sixteen-year-old Dal thinks she has no reason to live, but when she drowns herself, she's thrown into an isolated community that welcomes her as a saviour.

The Rider of Nealra

I think this one has too much backstory. The story itself seems to really start with the portal.

Tragedy forces singer Ellie Johnson to return to the family ranch that rejected her years before. As she scrambles to keep the multi-million dollar [business] afloat, she finds her Dad failed to mention it was plagued with pulverized livestock, disappearing neighbors, and eerie lights in the Badlands.

Another disappearance sends Ellie and her mustang Stinky into the Badlands, where she falls through a rift...

Lesley said...

Calum - I really like the premise and I'd be intrigued to see where it goes, but the last time didn't sound quite right to me. I might cut it altogether, but if Nelson's change of heart is the crucial piece of information in the whole pitch and has to be put across, maybe re-word it so that you aren't using "along the way." To me that implies a journey or a chase that hasn't been mentioned, and so the last sentence felt forced, as though you'd cut a couple of other sentences inbetween.

Jo - Another interesting premise, but I felt that "ends up in a primitive and violent world among an isolated community under threat from their own children" was a bit too wordy for the opening sentence of a pitch. Maybe it would work better if you broke up, for example, "... primitive and violent world. There she finds an isolated community under threat from their own children - and they beleve Dal is the cure." I'd also recommend cutting "the Rhian," it's a detail that seems to me unnecessary for the pitch, and it makes that particular sentence a bit clunky.

Scooter - Again, it sounds really interesting, but I think this is too long for a pitch (I'm assuming these are all pitches in a cover letter or something similar.) In the third sentence, you missed the word "ranch," and I personally wouldn't capitalise "Dad," because it's her dad, and therefore a noun rather than a name (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, that's just how I understand it.)

JO said...

Grave communication - I’m not sure there is enough detail here – I know these are meant to be brief, but I feel I’m left with too many questions. What is the ‘scam physic business’ – is it possible to show rather then tell this in a few words? How are the ‘police onto him’? What is this ‘change of character’?

Urquist - This is way outside my comfort zone – it took me a moment to realize that this is fantasy (maybe putting that in the genre slot would help). I feel so ignorant of this genre I don’t feel I have anything useful to say here.

The rider of Nealra - More fantasy – so I’m pleading ignorance again. But my one (hopefully useful) thought was that the opening paragraph was definitely enticing – a great introduction to Ellie’s complex relationship with the farm and farming. So you have a great setting – but I was lost (my fault – it’s just not my thing) once she fell through a rift in the world.

Having said all that - well done, all three of you. It's a brave move - and no doubt you are having an exciting day reading all these comments. It great to have so many people engaging with your work. Good luck.

JoMacdonald said...

Hi everyone
Thanks for your comments, you've given me loads of good points to think about.
Nicola - thanks so much for using my pitch. This has been so helpful....can I just put my whole manuscipt on here please? ;)

widdershins said...

Callum – Interesting concept, but not enough context. I need a frame of reference to hang the story onto. The ‘change of character’ phrase is confusing. Your language is a bit passive. Try for something that makes us want to like Nelson.

Jo – There are too many concepts and too little space. Try and whittle it down to the bare bones. The last line is redundant, you’ve already hinted at it in the previous sentence. This story has been done quite a few times so you need a hook that will tell the agent/publishers that you have a different story to tell.

Scooter – This is too long for a pitch. It’s more like a synopsis. And too much backstory. A fine concept though.

As an exercise:
For anyone who’s contemplating pitching, years ago I found this wonderful template for a short pitch using ‘The Wizard of OZ’ as an example of reducing a story down to it’s fundamentals. If you can condense your pitch down to a single sentence you’re way ahead of the game, and you can expand it from there. (My compliments to whoever created it)

My Story is about .... (Character/s) ... that wants more than anything .... (goal) ..., but can’t because ... (conflict) ...

The Wizard of OZ as an example...

This story is about ... a teenage girl from Kansas named Dorothy ... who ... wants more than anything ... to go home, ... but can’t because ... she’s stuck in a strange land

Tamlyn said...

I think most of this has been said already but...

Grave Communication: The last sentence confused me. I have no idea what you’re trying to say there. I did get a historical feel from it. It didn’t occur to me ‘physic’ might be a typo – I can see someone deciding to pretend doctor because they deal with bodies all the time. But now other people have mentioned it, I realise the business name would make much more sense if it was.

Urquist: Under threat from their own children made me think their children were physically attacking them, but Dal being the cure made me think it was a disease or something they were carrying – as in, they didn’t mean to be against the adults. I’m still not sure by the end because the children or exact threat aren’t mentioned again. Agree adding the Rhian interrupts the sentence and is unnecessary information at this stage. I did question why, if Dal tried to kill herself, why she just started playing along with the new world (before she met Aedan and began to feel alive again). Also, for some reason I got hung up on ‘Why drown herself? That sounds like an difficult means of trying to kill yourself.’

The Rider of Nealra: The first paragraph all felt like backstory to me. If it’s a fantasy, it probably starts with the portal to the other world – if it starts with a mysterious disappearance, start with that. Unless it’s a fantasy √† la L.E. Modesitt’s Jnr’s The Spellsong Saga, we don’t need to know about her singing. A few typos interrupt the flow of sentences. The sentence starting ‘Unable to speak...’ confuses me. How is her foiling an attempt at kidnap related to being unable to speak the language etc? Is the kidnapping a political thing that happens every month, like a sacrifice, and she doesn’t know that so she just sees a kidnapping? So Ellie slaughters the kid? Or because she intervenes, the Necragii kill everyone in punishment? I’m fumbling in the dark a little to figure out what you mean. You repeat yourself with saying Ellie is immune to magic. I think you only need the second.

Hope something here is helpful :)

Scooter Carlyle said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. I have a few questions for you.

First off, sorry about the typos. Silly me. That will teach me to send things off late at night. :-( I agree that it's too wordy. Severe paring is needed.

I'd like to tell you what I'm going for with the pitch, and maybe it would help clear things up a bit. I'm fully aware that what I think the pitch says and feels like may differ radically from reality, so I'm hoping the kind folks here on the blog can help me accomplish my goals for the pitch.

I've read several times that pitches need to establish a clear conflict and a distinct voice that matches the novel. It should also have what a character wants, hence the first line.

The seedy night clubs line is meant to establish voice. The novel is in first person POV, and Ellie has a quirky sense of humor. I also am trying to set the scene as being rural Montana, a place that is not normally set as the backdrop for a fantasy novel.

I agree that the second paragraph is the most problematic. I think the problem boils down to deciding what is the most critical aspect of the plot. Is it the fact that Ellie accidentally causes the slaughter of an entire village, just because she couldn't understand the language in the fantasy world?

She winds up being forced to be a hero, not because she has any skills in the area, but because she is immune to most of the bad guys' weapons. She also can't stand to see children being hurt, which is central to the novel.

Any ideas you might have would be greatly appreciated. I can say this is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I'm a teacher, and I can't stand being imprecise, so figuring what to cut out has been rough.

Scooter Carlyle said...

By the way, thanks, both for the comments and to Nicola for doing this.

I'm hesitant to comment on the other pitches, as I hardly know what I'm doing. I don't want to unknowingly give bad advice.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - no!

Widdershins - that's a very good way to go about it.

Scooter - you say: "I've read several times that pitches need to establish a clear conflict and a distinct voice that matches the novel. It should also have what a character wants, hence the first line." Yes, quite correct. However, I don't think the clear conflict is established and I don't thinnk it is grabbing enough for the potential reader. It's hard to pitch fantasy because there's always so much to expain, so much back-story; but you need to find the human core, the non-fantasy core.

You said: "I think the problem boils down to deciding what is the most critical aspect of the plot." YES! "Is it the fact that Ellie accidentally causes the slaughter of an entire village, just because she couldn't understand the language in the fantasy world?" The first part of that sounds strong, the second part questionable.

"She winds up being forced to be a hero, not because she has any skills in the area, but because she is immune to most of the bad guys' weapons." Not strong enough - she should end up as a reluctant hero because she discovers hidden bravery/passion/strength etc and because something happens to effect this. "She also can't stand to see children being hurt, which is central to the novel." Not sure if that's enough of a conflict to be central to the novel - it's not must-readish enough. (Of course, children not being hurt is *very* important in real life but I'm not sure it sounds strong enough for the premise of a book.)

So, I think you're utterly correct that you have to identify the core conflict/stress, but I'm not sure you've found a sufficiently compelling one yet. Is that helpful at all?

JoMacdonald said...

Hi Widdershins
Thanks for that tip about the one sentence pitch. Going to try that out!
Thanks again everyone for the comments.