So I entered Adventures in YA Publishing’s Pitch + 250 contest. The first 250 words, not a problem. The novel that I’m pitching is the finished version of an extract I submitted to their first 5 page workshop back when it was in its infancy, and I received very positive feedback, so I knew they were okay.
The pitch, though. Dear God.
I know everything needs to be rewritten loads to be good, but generally I don’t spend 4 hours and close to 3000 words of writing and rewriting on 250 words. I’d never get anything even close to finished if I did.
I’m starting to understand why the query letter is such a fine art. Trying to summarise the essence of your story in such a short space is hard, particularly when dealing with fantastical settings, as I usually do in my stories. What needs to be put in, what can be left out? Which of the subplots can be dropped for the sake of brevity? What characters need to be mentioned by name and which can come under a collective noun like ‘friends’?
I decided I needed to spend some of the valuable words on explaining the world. I gave it a paragraph and also wove in some details about the main character. The next paragraph was hardest – what is the main essence of the story?
Because there are two main threads to the story – two conspiracies that eventually boil down to being two sides of the same coin – I took on paragraph to explain each, also setting up the relationship between the main character and her love interest, as I think that’s very important to the story, and tells something about the main character in the same breath (she knows having feelings for the guy in question is a bad idea, but chooses to pursue it anyway).
That left a paragraph to conclude. And not many words left by that point. I decided to leave it on a reminder of the stakes – life and death – as I hoped this would make it intriguing. I can only keep my fingers crossed that I was successful!
Writing short is not something I’ve ever been very good at. I can delete stuff, tidy up clumsy sentences and use the best vocabulary to get across a point without the need to waffle, sure, but there was a reason I sucked at writing short stories at University (and still now, really.) I have big ideas. Big casts of characters. Lots of subplots and story lines.
For that reason, I think it’s really valuable to try and summarise the ideas in 250 words. Because at the heart of everything there has to be a simple, clear story. If not, the reader will get lost in a tangle of plot threads that meander and never really go anywhere. I’m fairly confident I have that in my story – I managed to get it down to 250 words, after all! – but it was a bit of a mission finding it. Even now I’m wondering if I’ve put the right bits in and left the right bits out.
So, from now on, every time I have a story idea, I’m going to ask myself what the story actually is. If I can’t express it in 250 words or less, I’m going to take that as indication that I need to think more about the plot and my character’s motivations. And if I can, then I have the bones of a query ready to go if I ever get to the position of being ready to submit it.