Perfecting the perfect pitch

It may not be perfect, but I think this pitch for my young adult novel THE MAGIC QUILT will hook a sixth grader:

Standing on the Lexington Green in the midst of the battle, twelve-year-old Katharine is oblivious to her own danger of being run through by a bayonet. The metallic smell of blood and gunpowder is heavy in the air. Katharine is a shape shifter who has traveled back in time, to a world where electricity, cell phones and bottled water have yet to be imagined; her new friends are dead or in peril. She must make a choice: She can save her friends and turn the battle toward freedom or destroy the evil shifter, Dr. Ziegawart, in whatever form he might choose— an alligator, a dragon, or a tiny cockroach. As a musket ball whizzes by her head, she decides.

I took advantage of a pitch critiquing opportunity on Book Ends blog. Whether you’re published, unpublished, have a pitch appointment or are pitching through an equery, every author needs to be able to summarize his or her book in as little as five words, but no more than three sentences (or so). In other words, you need to capture an agent’s, editor’s, or reader’s attention quickly.

So I submitted one paragraph from my query letter intended to grab an agent’s attention. Click here to read the post. I had read that one of the best ways to write a pitch was to read the backs of books in your genre — wrong in this case, BTW. So I modeled mine after the back cover of Harry Potter. I was pretty proud of it:

Katharine Taylor has never transmutated into an animal, a dragon or a mountain lion. She has never traveled to the past through her magic quilt, nor faced armies of insects and the evil wizard Dr. Ziegawart. All Katharine knows is an unhappy life with an alcoholic mother, but all that is about to change when she learns that she is a wizard and travels to a turbulent time in Boston just before the Revolutionary War. Caught up in the dramatic events that pit the King’s soldiers against their own people, Katharine finds in her new friends the strength to face her destiny.

This is the response the agent gave:
I like the beginning a lot. I think the first three sentences are terrific. What a great Harry Potter-like book without going straight to telling us that. However, this is another case where the ending lost its fire. I guess I’m not sure I want to read about a wizard who ends up in Boston. Where’s the magic? Where’s the army of insects? The fun of a wizard book, or of any fantasy, is the fantasy. In your description of what’s actually going to happen you neglect to tell us about the fantasy. Since it seems your target is probably a younger audience, my question to you is would a 12-year-old (for example) be interested in reading about the “strength to face her destiny”? or are they more interested in reading about evil wizards and magic quilts? That’s what we want to hear about in the last sentences.

This is a comment from the post, and most other comments took a similar vein:
Harry Potter indeed. That pitch is a word-for-word madlibs of the actual back cover copy of the first Harry Potter novel:

“Harry Potter has never been star of a Quidditch game, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son Dudley—a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches…” (front flap, Arthur A. Levine Books)”

At least the querier knows what works, but I think she loses points for originality.

Shocked and surprised by the reaction, I’ve now got to start over on my pitch — good thing I didn’t send that pitch to an agent. I need to remove the parallels with Harry Potter because THE MAGIC QUILT is more than a fantasy, it is an historical fiction/fantasy, set in 1775 Boston. The Harry Potter series is not historical.

The agent liked the details in the first three sentences, but she wanted a hook that would capture the attention of a twelve year old. So, I thought about what I would want to read if I was twelve. I dug out an old pitch I’d used in a query before I decided Katharine should travel back in time only to 1775 Boston, instead of visiting China past and future America. (I needed to cut the book, and by focusing on the American Revolution I accomplished that). Here’s the old pitch:

Katharine, an unpopular sixth grader, seeks solace by talking to animals and wizards until she discovers a way to escape her unhappy life–through a time portal in a magic quilt. Each square leads to a different period in time and Katherine suddenly finds herself face-to-face with some of the most adventurous and dynamic figures in history, including Marco Polo, Paul Revere, and Pocahontas. Katharine must lead the war against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who is one-step behind her throughout the novel.

This young adult novel goes further than fantasy in its accurate portrayal of history, especially 1775 colonial America. In addition, Katharine faces the separation of her parents, and abuse from her alcoholic mother, resulting in the involvement of social services in her family’s life.

This pitch is too long, and I’m sure it will NOT hook a twelve-year-old.

So here’s a first rewrite of my pitch.
Standing on the Lexington Green, twelve-year-old Katharine is oblivious to her own danger of being run through by a bayonet. Having traveled back in time through portals in her magic quilt, to a world where electricity, cell phones and bottled water haven’t even been imagined, her new friends are dead, or dying, the metallic smell of blood and gunpowder heavy in the air. She must make a choice. She can save her friends and turn the battle toward freedom or destroy the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, in whatever form he might choose, whether an alligator, dragon, or a tiny cockroach. As a musket ball whizzes by her head, she decides.

A second:
Twelve-year-old Katharine felt no shame about standing on the Lexington Green crying. Wouldn’t any wizard who transported herself back in time directly into a battle where being run through with a bayonet, or shot with a musket ball are real dangers? Now, with her friends dead, or dying, and the metallic smell of blood and gunpowder heavy in the air, Katharine must lead the war against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who is one-step behind her throughout the novel.

A third:
Katharine is twelve years old and a wizard in training, learning how to transmutate into animals, travel forward and back in time, and defend herself against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who has promised to kill her before she can destroy him. Leaving her unhappy home behind, Katharine travels back in time to 1775, Boston, where protected by defense sorcerers in the form of black cats, she finds herself caught up in the magical world of spying, espionage, and rebellion that will free her friends from tyranny.

A fourth:
It started as a normal afternoon, Katharine was late getting home to watch her sister, except that Katharine has just heard animals talk and seen time turn back. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? As if in answer to her question a large yellow dog looked through the window at her, and said, “I’d best transmutate.” Several black cats walked around the house, their bright yellow eyes scanning the yard, surrounded by clouds of billowing black.

Of course, if I use the third or fourth pitch, I may be accused of madlibbing Jonathan Stroud or Madeleine L’Engle.

I can’t decide which pitch is best, so I’ve asked my husband, marketing writer Harry Calhoun, to choose and/or write the best pitch for me.

Harry says:
I actually like the first one best. Katherine being in danger in the midst of battle is certainly more interesting than her crying. I think the third one is your second best, and the last one deals too much with what happens in the early part of the book. Also, is it true that her friends are “dead or dying” in the battle? That’s scary!

Yes Harry, it is true that some of Katharine’s friends from 1775 were killed in battle. I couldn’t write the novel any other way and keep it realistic. Such is the reality of war, heavy sigh. In the battle at Lexington, eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten were wounded, with only one British soldier wounded. Here is a scene from the final chapter of THE MAGIC QUILT.

Katharine steeled herself. Joe lay dead, his shirt and the grass he lay on saturated with his blood, the metallic smell of it in the air mingling with the smell of gunpowder. She smoothed his blond hair, closed his eyes and surrendered her childhood. She looked at the battle scene through the eyes of an adult.

She counted seven minutemen lying motionless on the ground— their sightless eyes looking eerily at no one. One wounded man crawled toward a house leaving a trail of blood in his wake. There was too much blood; he wasn’t going to make it. Nine other men lay bleeding, but at least they were moving — they were alive.

I’d love to hear your opinions of which is the best pitch.

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2 Responses to “Perfecting the perfect pitch”

  1. I like the first best as well. It puts the reader right in the action and serves up a lot of conflict. Its rich and engaging and shows rather than tells. It also immediately lets tthe reader know that it is a historical tale as well as a fantasy. If she’s crying, that will immediately make a boy put the book down. Saying that she “talks to animals” seems too trite. So yes, the first it is. I think it’s an excellent hook for anyone, not just a 12 year-old.

  2. […] about the young adult market, then spend the next several weeks writing a synopsis and a killer query letter and then submitting THE MAGIC QUILT to those agencies. Wish me […]

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