by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch U
When you pitch a genre book, you have two added goals to accomplish:
(Tip #1) Genre readers, well-versed in the furniture and language of their story form, must choose a single book to read next and must disregard all the others that aren't as exciting. You need to make them choose your book.
Today, we get tips from Colleen Thompson, a much-loved, multi-published author of romantic suspense novels, who has also written epic fantasy and historical romance.
When it comes to creating a solid story focus, selling on synopsis, and capturing the full potential of a genre, she has a good deal of experience.
Diane: Colleen, welcome! Let's talk about your upcoming release, "Phantom of the French Quarter."
As you pitch this book to readers who love the Romantic Suspense genre, how do you shape your pitch so their ears perk up (they recognize it as "their" genre) AND they quickly get a taste for why this book will be exciting, juicier, and something they haven't seen before?
Whether you're pitching to your agent, an editor, or readers, it's critical to quickly get across the kernel of the story—not the writing style or ambiance or any of that good stuff.
Readers want to know that what happens will be interesting, yet within their range of expectations.
(TIP #2) One way to do this is by taking a known scenario and giving it a surprising or intriguing twist.
For my newly-released Phantom of the French Quarter (Harlequin Intrigue), I wrote:
“Lured to a crumbling French Quarter cemetery, Caitlyn Villaré stumbles across a darkly mysterious man who disappears into the shadows…and the body of a woman who looks enough like her to be her twin.”
To Intrigue readers, "darkly mysterious man" equals "dangerous love interest," and the body that looks like the heroine adds the twist.
For an example from another genre, in my historical romance Innocent Deceptions (written as Gwyneth Atlee for Kensington Publishing and now available for Kindle) my pitch went something like this:
“Trapped in her occupied mansion during the height of the Civil War, Memphis belle-turned-spy Charlotte Randolph becomes engaged to a string of Union officers…only to fall for the one man who could expose her.”
(TIP #3) In a romance, love often is not the goal—it's the obstacle, and what could be more of an obstacle than falling for an enemy officer who's duty-bound to see you hang?
Diane: You recently gave a workshop called, "Notch Up the Tension, Pick Up the Pace," and I loved your focus on character sociology versus character psychology. Is this something you can communicate when pitching as well?
CT: Character sociology—the web of interwoven relationships and conflicts—gives the story depth and richness, along with layers of tension. Sometimes, a story really is in the big ensemble and its interplay (for example, in books/movies such as Friday Night Lights, Peyton Place, and Crash) rather than any individual character.
(Tip #4) In my opinion, this is notoriously tough to get across in a brief pitch. You can hint at it, as I have above in the Innocent Deceptions pitch example, but you're far better off in most cases focusing your approach on one character's dilemma and how the "closed society" of the story impacts him/her.
The big picture is more likely to emerge as the reader gets into the book.
Diane: One of the hallmarks of Romantic Suspense as opposed to, say, Thrillers is that your romantic leads, who often haven't met prior to the plot, are forced to stay together for the length of the book. After all, there's a romance story developing as well as a story of personal danger. How do you address this genre requirement in your pitch materials?
CT: Romance readers in particular absolutely live for the interpersonal tug of war between the dual (and often dueling) leads throughout the story.
These readers basically put up with whatever else needs to happen to string those scenes together and drive the story forward in order to get to the "good stuff": the evolving dynamics of the characters' relationship.
(Tip #5) As an author, I give a lot of thought to finding a way to force proximity between a pair of polarized characters. If not, they would simply repel, avoiding each other, and never work out either the story problem or their own issues.
I might have the two reluctantly teaming to solve a crime or combat a greater enemy, or ordered by a superior to work together on a project, or forced to call a brief truce in order to fight for survival or save a child's life. But even as the leads are working together, I "heat the crucible" with reminders of important issues/tensions simmering between them.
Diane: Whether it's the back blub of your book or a query letter to an editor, writers have to learn to quickly sum up the "what happens" in their book in a way that implies complexity. It's no easy feat! What's your approach?
CT: (Tip #6) One way to do this is to focus on a situation that sets up some question that really has no "right" answer, a question that implies a difficult moral dilemma, a "Sophie's choice" that forces the reader to ask herself how far she would go, say, for family honor, or to save a loved one or herself.
Diane: Romantic Suspense novels can be creepy, psychological nightmares or head-long rushes as characters run for their lives. How do you set the expectation for the "speed" of the story? If the story is more about what happens in the characters' and reader's mind, what can you do to communicate a fast-paced read?
CT: (Tip #7) I craft external circumstances that force the characters to swiftly act outside their normal boundaries.
Beginning with high stakes, I continually escalate them, rarely allowing the hero and heroine to relax.
Under such stressful circumstances, the characters' normal, everyday psychological defenses are stripped away, exposing the real people and real weaknesses beneath and creating an opportunity for significant and lasting change.
Whenever the reader eases into the belief that the characters are on some set course, I lob the kinds of "plot grenades" that force them to change direction (or even change goals) before they're blown off the pages (sometimes literally!)
(TIP #8) Even in a quieter book (not that I've ever written one of those!) some catalyst must occur that changes everything, forcing the character to make new choices.
In these stories, the choices won't necessarily be life or death decisions. It's left to the writer's skill, however, to make them seem equally important by creating strong emotional engagement with the character's dilemma.
Colleen, WOW. This is not only a lesson in pitching genre books, it’s a lesson in writing them, as well.
I encourage all our readers to read Colleen’s books and follow her bogging at Boxing the Octopus (also where Joni Rodgers, yesterday’s featured author, blogs).