Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name Still Grows Best In Manure

I've been working on my pitch over at the Query Goblin's. While I'm still working on it (and would appreciate any critiques here as well) I'm really at a cross as to the title. I have two titles, both of which I like for different reasons, both of which give me pause for different reasons too... but rather than get into all of that, I'll just say that both are phrases used in the book. That's all you really need to know because a reader wouldn't have me there to feed them all the backstory of what the damn title means, now would they?

Let me know if you like one or if you think I should be brainstorming for a new one...

Redemption is a Road

From the Neighborhood

And onto the pitch:

When Jack Poverelli’s uncle bails him out of jail, packs his mom off to rehab, and whisks Jack out of the neighborhood, it should have been a good thing. What sixteen year old wants to wake up in the middle of the night and make sure his mom’s still breathing? But Jack doesn’t belong in the gleaming halls of his new high school where everyone judges him for what he looks like, and he doesn’t trust his uncle. Why would he show up now, after all these years? And why is he so interested in their house and finances?

Jack would give up clean sheets and full meals to be back with the friends who’ve looked out for him his whole life. Everything is pushing him into this new place – better classes, a job, a girl whose way out of his league but doesn’t seem to notice. Even Jack’s oldest friends are telling him to move on, that he should be trying to get out of the neighborhood, not stay in it. When his mother relapses, Jack and his friends step between her and a neighborhood drug dealer, setting off a chain of events that put them all in the crosshairs of both the dealer’s cronies and the police.


Erica Orloff said...

Hmmm . . .

Is this a late-YA? If so both titles don't do it for me as intriguing a 16-year-old reader. The top one is too heavy-handed.

There's a grammar error in the pitch ("who's out of his league," as in "who is" versus whose/possessive).

Beyond that . . . You drop us RIGHT INTO the action, which is awesome, you set up the conflict right off the bat. I'd even love a detail or more about the old neighborhood, but I can fill in lots of the gaps.

I would say where I think it needs work is the end--the relapse. You have set up (for us as reader) an essential conflict of loyalty versus opportunity, and trust versus mistrust. But once you bring up the relapse, we have an entirely new external conflict--one we had no idea existed. The trust issue with the uncle has been dropped, the new opportunity has, in essence, been dropped, and we have a different thread.

For me, it boils down to what is the most important theme and character arc and can you (tricky, I know) in two paragraphs help up see that through the end. If it's trust/mistrust, then in the relapse you can have elements, like, "Not knowing who to trust anymore, Jack . . ." If it's opportunity, then when he goes back to the neighborhood, does he risk a new standing, new scholarship, the girl, what?

What is his arc and then you will know, I think, how best to pitch.

Overall . . . awesome job.

Stephen Parrish said...

I'll bite. Because I like the query.

"Whose way out of his league" should be "who's way out of his league."

Why does everyone judge Jack for what he looks like? What does he look like? I think you should say.

As for the title, From the Neighborhood doesn't do anything for me. I like the other much better, but it sounds abrupt. Can you add an adjective? Redemption is a Lonely Road (or whatever). Reminiscent of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I'll be frank.


I think it lacks focus. New high school, yawn. But the other bit, about stepping between the drug dealer and his mother, is very unique and interesting. Sounds tre cool! Also, skip the friends bit. Narrow it to just Jack. A common problem I see in queries is referring to too many characters and events. Boil it down to the couple important events that makes the story.

I think best in rewriting, which is always a no-no in critting, so don't take offense please!! :/

With his mom in drug rehab, Jack's in the custody of his estranged uncle, who drags him off to live in a new upscale neighborhood. But Jack can't trust his friendly uncle any more than he trusts the shining walls of his new school. His uncle is a little too interested in the family finances, and his classmates quickly reveal sharp claws behind their false smiles. Still, it's a good school and graduating from there could make all the difference to his future. Torn between his new advantages and his loyalty to his old neighborhood, his mother's relapse tips the balance. Jack rushes home to stand between her and a neighborhood drug dealer, setting off a chain of events that puts him in the cross-hairs of the dealer’s cronies and the police.

Colleen said...

What about just Redemption Road?

Overall I think it's great. I do want to know a bit more about the conflict with the new kids at school. It sort of sounds like he's on his way to being accepted, but he's the one holding himself back. He has a gf, a job and even his old friends are encouraging moving on. Is this all correct? If not, I'd like to hear a little more about why he's not being accepted. If this comment before is correct, then I'd like to hear just another sentence or two about Jack's internal struggle or why it is that he's still skeptical of everyone.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Great rewrite, Sex Scenes!

Titles can be a bugger or they can come in a fit of inspiration. The second one doesn't work for me. Redemption Road - which has been suggested - works better for me.

Can you play off the popularity of Intervention? Sounds like his race to save his mother is a different form of intervention. And the uncle is doing one of his own for secret reasons.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi E,

It is late YA and my gut is telling me that Redemption is a Road sounds too literary for what this book is... I like it, but I don't think the reader would know what to expect when he picked it up.

I think there are a couple of things I'm not adequately getting across here, maybe primarily because Jack's internal struggles interest me more than the external conflict - which is probably a better selling point. It's not enough space to get all the conflict in there (obviously) and I'm not sure why the hell I'm having such a hard time with this!!! It's frustrating. At the same time, though, I'm kind of enthusiastic that I can readily answer any and every question from these crits - at least I know the holes are in the pitch but not the novel.

Thank you!!! xoxoxoxox

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Stephen,

Thank you (and Erica) for catching the grammar error... I probably would've noticed it eventually, but I'd hate to have that happen AFTER sending it out to an agent!

I actually had a description of him after that line and cut it because it was sooooo flippin wordy... palm, face

Merry Monteleone said...


You be frank, I'll be Shirley. =)

I like your idea of frank and I think your pitch is better than mine! With a few tweaks that definitely might work...

And Redemption Road is a distinct possibility.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen,

That's two (three with Sarah) votes for Redemption Road which is growing on me.

Here's the thing, there are two or three kids at the new school that accept Jack but only one of them for legitimate reasons - the other ones think it's a novelty that he's a poor thug. He's not getting a fair shake from all the teachers but he's definitely getting a better education even without fair, and he has some opportunities there that he doesn't have in the old neighborhood... There is really only one friend who is kind of pushing him out of the old neighborhood (see I'm not explaining this well in the pitch, because it's really a lot of layers of extranneous information that won't make you pick it up...)

The thing that I think is hard to get across to a mainstream audience through a small space is the thing I should be leaving out entirely. He doesn't want to be there. He's more comfortable in HIS neighborhood, even if it means being poor and not finishing school and hustling and winding up in jail - nobody looks at him like he's nothing there the way they do everywhere else. You can (hopefully) get that by taking the journey with the character... get that other perspective that most people won't normally see - obviously you'd rather have food and comfort, is the general consensus, but it's not accurate for this character in this setting...and at the point where he does start longing for something better, he feels guilty for it - it feels like he's becoming the same kind of people he hates.

I'm leaning toward adopting something similiar to Betsy's rewrite, because it gets right to the action without all the explanations that fall flat when out of context of experiencing it through the character.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Sarah,

It is a great rewrite, isn't it?

Redemption Road is growing on me... nobody who isn't from a neighborhood gets the connotation of From the Neighborhood, so that's definitely out... I don't know about intervention... I'm going to brainstorm with it a bit

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I believe it's plot that sells genre fiction to markets and characters that endear stories to readers. But it's genre, kids like action and plot, and you've got a male protag. I think these things could appeal to both m and f readers with a good dose of plot.

Also, don't think pitch or even utter honesty. Think back cover copy--getting someone to open to the first page. Internal conflict doesn't do that; plot gets people to open books--at least this reader! Focus on the main, most interesting conflicts, which is what I did:

Jack has an addict mom (interesting)
Jack has a shady uncle (interesting and great potential for conflict)
Jack loves his mom and will forsake his advantages for her (makes him sympathetic)
There are drug dealers and cops after him (really really interesting conflict--that's PLOT.)

Girl readers might be intrigued by a boy who has family conflicts and will forsake all for his mom. Boy readers will be much less interested in girlfriends and internal dillemas. They'll be quite interested in gun toting cops and drug dealers though.
That's why I focused where I did.

Glad it was of some help! Can't wait to pick up my copy at my local B&N.

Merry Monteleone said...


It was amazingly helpful, thank you!

What I find really funny is only in a group of writers can you say, "ooooooh, you've got gun toting drug dealers and cops after you - AWESOME!!!"

This is why I love writing and writers. we're just way more fun.

Jean Ann Williams said...

First, I'd say that Redemption Road sounds the best for a title.

Second, I thought I understood that pitches should be shorter than we've been showing them to be here for my pitch and now Merry's. Maybe they are shorter when we pitch in a face to face meeting with an editor or agent?

Also, Merry, this story sounds fresh. Not an overdone one, at all. So, I'm very interested. Below, I reworked your pitch only because I can dig in and understand what I want to say. Please take with a grain of salt. I mostly worked out wordy areas where one word could replace several. Good job, Merry!

When Jack Poverelli’s uncle bails him out of jail, packs his mom off to rehab, and whisks Jack out of the neighborhood, it should have been a good thing. What sixteen-year-old wants to wake in the middle of the night to check if his mom’s still breathing? Jack doesn’t belong in the gleaming halls of his new high school, though, where everyone judges one another by their looks and clothes. What else rankles Jack is he doesn’t trust his uncle. Why would he appear now after all these years, showing an interest in their house and finances?

Jack would trade clean sheets and steady meals for his friends who’ve looked out for him his whole life, but even they persuade him to move on. Everything pushes him toward the unknown—better classes, a job, and a girl who cares about him even though she’s way out of his league. When Jack’s mother relapses, Jack and his oldest friends step between her and a neighborhood drug dealer, setting off events that put them in the crosshairs of both the dealer’s cronies and the police.

Hope this helps!

Jean Ann Williams said...


Your rework of Merry's pitch is spot on. Nice job! It grabs me and says it all with punch.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jean,

First, thank you! All crits are helpful, definitely, they help me to see where I'm hitting or missing with people who haven't been breathing this story forever... it's funny, when you know it backwards and forwards it actually gets harder to boil down.

As for pitches - these are the pitches you use for query letters. Some agents / editors have different preferences for format or what they like to see, but they almost universally stipulate one page, or 250 words. The pitch should be enticing and a lot of people try to frame theirs to read like back cover copy. A lot of people like a quick tagline (yours was awesome!) in the opening of the query, and then a few short paragraphs for the meat of the pitch. One paragraph for closing and you're there.

I'm not sure what the shorter pitch would be, maybe a verbal one at a conference or I know a lot of screenwriters boil down a very short pitch because they so often pitch verbally. But for a query you want enough solid information to entice the reader to want to read more... not so much that they roll their eyes and move on.

Jean Ann Williams said...

Now I get it. Thanks for explaining the pitch, Merry.

jjdebenedictis said...

I think if the story is really about Jack's internal journey, then you've got to focus on that. I believe it's a mistake to try to play to the market rather than to focus on the strengths that make this book unique and gripping.

Also, there are plenty of people who will read about a conflict that's personal rather than wide-reaching. The thing I remember best about The Outsiders was the internal pain of all those "tough guy" characters.

You do need to convince the agent/editor that you have an external plot, but focusing on Jack's unusual internal battle is what (I think) will make your book seem fresh and bold. It's a selling point, not a liability.

I'm really over-tired right now, and I want to have another look at this in the morning, but here's a newer re-write for The Query Goblin site.

In the gleaming halls of Jack Poverelli's new high school, the kids who want to be his friends are the ones who like the notoriety of hanging with a sixteen-year-old fresh out of jail.

They aren't friends who would help him scrounge for food if his mom was high, or do a detention to protect Jack from being kicked out of school. They would never back him up in a fight against one of his mom's dealers.

And because of that, Jack just wants to go home. Even if it means being poor; even if it means not finishing school.

Everything is pulling him into this new life--better classes, a job, a girl who is out of his league but doesn't seem to mind--even his old buddies are telling him to move on. Jack can't even yearn for a better life without feeling conflicted, because what is he longing for if not the tidy existence his uncle just gave him?

When his mom's relapse yanks Jack back to the old neighborhood and into a confrontation with a drug-running gang, Jack learns not only how far his old friends will go to defend one of their own, but how much he's willing to give up to have friends like that.

Travis Erwin said...

My only qualm would be that he is away from his neighborhood established in a new school, with a new girl and all that. And then at the end he seems to be back in the hood with his mom and old friends.

Merry Monteleone said...


I commented back to you, but for some reason it's not showing up... anyway... 1) THANK YOU!!!! Your critiques and take on the book are dead helpful in giving me a way to narrow this monstrosity down.
2) I like that rewrite... I think it needs to be trimmed for query, but I definitely like you ending, mine seemed to be hanging out there feeling unfinished.

I'm still debating over how much of the internal struggle to show in the query. I agree with you - the internal struggle makes this book and makes most books that I love... But it's almost a surprise to find it in there... it's never usually used in the sales pitch - Outsiders was sold focusing on the external. I think, for me, a book feels hollow without the internal extra layers... but I'm not sure I need to explain those in the pitch.

That, and brilliant voice, are the things that make a book go by word of mouth...

The biggest thing I can say about working out my pitch in this way, through your blog, mine and through private emails with other writers, the way I've been doing, is that it solidifies for me that the book itself is solid. And I was worried about that.

It's also given me a lot of great material to look at to narrow my pitch down to the best I can get it to garner interest... I'm going to copy all of these and the ones I received privately and print them out... I'll let it simmer for a few weeks and take another pass at it after letting everything soak in.

Thank you again, JJ... brilliant and helpful as always.

Jean Ann Williams said...

Yes, JJ's comment is more internal and I like that, also. I just wish you could combine JJ's with Betsy's ideas for a pitch. Why can't this book have a more even amount of external and internal? Are there books that do this? I would hope so.

We bring up good thoughts and questions about internal and external story lines. I just read my first adult thriller by David Morrell. Most of the story focuses on external, which made me read the 387 page book without stopping. I closed the last page at midnight, when my bedtime is nine o'clock.

That really made me scratch my head.

As much as I adore internal stories (this book had that, of course because internal drove the MC to act) this book made my breath quicken and stomach turn into knots. And I enjoyed it! I HAD to know what happens next. So, I've got much to think about with internal and external story lines.

I also just finished Gina Holmes debut novel "Crossing Oceans". She started writing suspense/thrillers, but as yet hasn't published them. She published her womens fiction first, but her story has high stakes suspense and she did it beautifully. She made me realize this is what I hope to write.

Thought I'd throw out a few more thoughts before we moved on.

Colleen said...

Yeah, I can definitely see more of what the story is now, too. It's tough with pitches because in all honesty, they're not supposed to give you all the facts--just enough to get the editor/agent/buyer to want to see more. When I worked at the pub house, it was one of the most common mistakes was divulging too much within the pitch. It's more important that what you do have is clear, than trying to fit in more info than is needed.

I liked SexScenes rewrite as well (that sounds odd abbreviating her name like that! Haha), def tunnels the information well.