The Literary Fiction Query/Pitch

The bag I got from the Midwest Writers Workshop.

I’m tired. I’m tired because I spent the last three days at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, an intensive conference for writers held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I don’t want to nap before I offer this little post, mostly because when I started on my query journey I found a lot of information on writing queries, but the queries were always focused mystery, or YA paranormal, or romance, or sci fi or other genres. That’s all fine and good, but I don’t write any of that. I don’t want to write any of that. It’s not that I think I am better than that in any way. I don’t think that at all. It’s just that I write what I like reading. I like reading literary fiction. I like great images. I like great characters. This post is about sharing the nuggets of wisdom I found at MWW that really hit at the heart of how to condense the essence of a literary story into a three line pitch. I figure if I was struggling with this there must be other.

First, I must say that while I can write a good compelling piece of prose filled with details and images that bring a scene to life. Give me a cover letter or a query and I’m lost. Suddenly all the faculties that allow me to bring you into fictional scene and linger there for a while slip out the window and my queries and cover letters sound, well, extremely stiff. I knew all this going into my pitch. I also knew that while it was easier to find good examples of how to whittle adventure novels or mysteries or other genre novels into little pitches that popped, I was having a difficult time finding examples or explanations of how to wrangle multiple themes, plots, character quirks into three lines without losing the essence of the story and the voice. Honestly, my queries sounded more like “and then this happens and then this happens and then this happens” kinds of things. My voice was nonexistent in my pitches and queries.

From minute one of the Part II of the conference it seemed the focus was on what makes a good pitch. I absorbed so much information, it’s way too much to try put in this little post. I’ll probably write more on it in the weeks to come, but for now I thought I’d relay the information I received from one of the agents, not the one I pitched. Still, she accepts literary fiction and had a lot of good information to offer on breaking into literary fiction during a brief buttonhole session I attended.

I sat at the table with other attendees, most who I gathered did not write literary fiction because of the questions they asked, the first being, “What is literary fiction?” It was good to hear her define it. She said it was fiction that was more about character development than plot. It is has more layers, more subplots and themes that run through the narrative. I did know that. Of course I know that. I write that. Still, it was valuable to hear from an agent’s perspective. It also opened the door for me to ask the burning question, “So then, when one writes literary fiction with all these layers and subplots and such, how does one contain that in a short query or pitch without losing the essence of the story?”

The agent advised focusing on the key characters and said that if she really is compelled by a character she will want to read more.

I took that piece of advice and all the little tidbits of information I gathered from workshops, panels and practicing my pitch with peers and somehow, after 20 or so revisions, got to where I could find the essence of my main character and her struggles and the story. Essential I focused on what she wants, what’s standing in her way, what is the catalyst that makes her push through what’s standing in her way, and what she finds when she pushes through. That is essentially the whittled down version of what Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino offered in his conference opening remarks on how to craft a good pitch.

It all worked. I came away with a successful pitch after reworking early drafts that I knew were duds. I could feel it inside me. I could feel it in the blank stares of some of my peers who I shared the earlier pitches with, but I knew I hit the sweet spot with the final version. I knew I captured the essence of my story and the essence of my voice. That was the key. Now, I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to send off.

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2 responses to “The Literary Fiction Query/Pitch

  1. I so understand this problem. I had to write back cover copy for my own literary novel. Never have a few paragraphs taken so long – roughly a month, with toing and froing from my patient ARC readers. As you say, a literary novel has so many layers. There are no genre marks to hit, the plot doesn’t say it all. How do you also adequately represent the layers of character, the world, the language?

    In the end I did as you did. I concentrated on the character and her struggles, and what’s keeping this suspended in a state of emotional peril.
    Useful post – I’m off to tweet!

    • I know what you mean. It has taken me three years to get this query to where I like it and where I understand what I need.

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