I was lucky enough to attend a SCBWI workshop a few weeks ago given by Lil Chase, entitled ‘Books that Sell Well’. I was so impressed with what Lil had to say, I asked if she could share the essence of her workshop with you guys.
I’m grateful to her for not only saying ‘yes’, but also offering a prize for the best pitch.
The Importance of the Word ‘But’
The word ‘but’ is the most important word in your pitch.
If you’re about to submit to an agent or publisher, and the document doesn’t contain the word ‘but’, you might be missing something. ‘but’ describes your story’s conflict. And a story is not a story without conflict.
Imagine a hungry mouse looking for an acorn. A lovely image maybe, but it’s not a story. Now imagine that same hungry mouse looking for an acorn BUT he is stopped by a fox who wants to eat him. Now we have a story on our hands! (The Gruffalo) Suddenly the reader of this sentence wants to know what will happen: will the mouse survive this fox encounter? If so, how? You have piqued their interest and they want to know more.
…a girl falls in love with a boy.
…four siblings walk through wardrobe into a magical world.
…an indestructible superhero wants to protect the people of earth.
Even a boy training to be a wizard is not very interesting until you give him something to butt up against. Add a but and the above becomes…
A girl falls in love with a boy but he is a vampire. [Twilight]
Four siblings walk through wardrobe into a magical world, but the world is ruled by a white witch who wants to kill them. [The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe]
An indestructible superhero wants to protect the people of earth but an evil mastermind has obtained the only substance that renders him powerless. [Superman]
Conflict can be external – your protagonist taking on a bully, a foreign spy, fighting in an intergalactic, or very real world war.
Or internal – character battling their inner demons as conscious and unconscious desires battle for control. For example, in my first book – Boys For Beginners – tomboy Gywnnie falls for the new boy at school and wants to go out with him. But when he starts thinking of her as a friend (the most offensive f-word in the English language!) Gwynnie has to change her ways and become a girlie girl to try and win his affections. Gwynnie’s conflict is internal: the pull of being true to herself versus the pull of her heart.
I found my second book – Secrets Lies & Locker 62 – much more difficult to write than my first. I’d thought of a premise; an old, abandoned, permanently locked locker in a school where everyone hides their secrets. The book is about what happens when Maya joins the school and is accidently allocated that locker, gaining access to everyone’s innermost desires.
It’s a good premise… desperately lacking a ‘but’.
Once I gave my character a goal – that she wants to join the popular group at school – the book became a lot easer to write.
So here’s the pitch:
New girl Maya wants to use the secrets she finds in locker 62 to join the popular group at Mount Selwyn High. Knowing everyone’s deepest darkests gives her a lot of power, but will she use her powers for good? Or will power corrupt her?
Can your novel be described in this rather nifty formula?
[character trait] [character name] wants to [goal] BUT…[conflict]
How you complete the sentence is up to you – it’s what makes your story unique. But this is the neatest way to describe the most important elements of a book: character, goal and conflict. And conflict is the most important of all these important elements – for children’s books especially, where story rules all.
Are you willing to show off your ‘but’s below? If not for your own book, try pitching a book that’s already published.
Review of Boys for Beginners on A Dream of Books.
More great advice from Lil over at Lime Bird Writers
About the Author
Lil Chase has a first class degree in Creative Writing from London Metropolitan University and works as an Editor in London.
Having been a pub cook and even suffered a brief stint in Disneyland Paris, she settled on a career in her first love – telling stories.
Her first novel, Boys For Beginners, started its life as a novel, written in pencil, complete with drawings, when Lil was just 11. Her writing has improved since then but her spelling has not.
Lil will be offering more wonderful advice at a workshop on dialogue, Talking About Talking, at the Winchester Writer’s Conference in June.
Lil lives with Stella – a fox crossed with a rat, who masquerades as a dog.