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Write Your Novel (part 2): How to Develop a Strong Novel Concept and Plot Description
Where Fleur writes a book jacket description and pitch line for her new novel.
***BIG news: Daybreak on Raven Island is nominated for the 2024-2025 Texas Bluebonnet Award…! If you’re not familiar, you can find out more here. It’s a big deal. I’m having cake…***
Now, before I start part 2, here’s a quick recap of what I’m doing the rest of 2023 and into 2024:
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Writing a novel takes time. Editing, even longer. In my case, I expect it’ll take me until the middle of 2024. I’ll outline in 2023 and write and edit in 2024.
Instead of cranking out a rough draft and calling it a win, I’ll show you the WHOLE process—writing, editing, the whole journey to a FINISHED novel. Soup to nuts, as they say. And to make the process realistic for those of you with day jobs and families, I’m only going to set aside an hour a day, because I know that’s what many of you have to work with.
Here are the rules (for me, or you if you want to join):
1. One hour a day, six days a week. That way if I miss a day, I can make up for it. Or I’ll take a break. I like breaks.
2. One novel, edited and ready to go by July 1.
3. Every Sunday, I’ll share a step in the process so you can follow along. Right here.
Still here…? I’m so glad. Writing a new novel is a lot more fun when I can share it with fellow creatives.
Last week, I shared how to gather ideas and be inspired. I gathered lots of reference books this past week and even started taking notes. My next book is a middle-grade (a book for kids) set during WWII, so the research is heavy, but the stories are gripping. I hope you’ve found your inspiration too, if you decided to follow along. I’m excited for my new project.
Writing a Book Jacket Description
I’m a sucker for a good movie. And now that I’m a writer, movies are a great exercise in recognizing story structure. It’s why I plot in sequences.
We’ll get to that later though. First, we need a good foundation to build our novel outline on.
Pretend You’re a Reader
Or why pretend—if you’re like most novelist, you’re probably a bigger reader than you are a writer, right? So how do you decide if a novel is for you? Of course, you’ll look at the cover. But then…
Chances are, you read the jacket copy. Once you find your way past the blurbs, telling you how this book is the best thing since sliced bread, you’ll find the book description. And maybe you’ll even read the first few pages, if it sounds good.
This week, we’re going to write that book jacket copy. It’ll become the yellow line on the road during our novel writing journey (see, how I used a fancy metaphor there?).
This is the jacket for One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus. Juicy, no?
Who’s Your Reader Anyway?
Let’s take a step back and first talk about your reader. Sometimes, in our excitement to write a story, we forget that the whole point is to eventually let it go.
Imagine your reader as they walk into your favorite independent bookstore. Where will they find your book?
This is a picture of one of my favorite bookstores, The Wandering Jellyfish in Niwot, Colorado. Your book could be here, too!
When It’s Good to Compare Yourself to Others
So we all know it’s a bad idea to compare ourselves to others. It just makes you feel like garbage, and who wants that? You be you, I say.
But. For this exercise, I want you to imagine that big table at the front of the store. What books does yours sit next to?
In publishing, we call those comparables: basically, books that are like yours.
It’s how you’ll eventually pitch the book to agents, how your agent will pitch the book to editors, and how editors pitch your book to their team, to convince them that you deserve that big fat advance.
I know, we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little there. But in this case, you’ll want to jump the gun. The easier it is to pitch your book idea, the easier time you’ll have making it through the writing and editing, and eventually the publishing journey.
Examples of (very, very) short pitches I use at book signings when I’m talking to adults:
Double Vision: James Bond for kids
Midnight at the Barclay Hotel: Agatha Christie for Kids
Daybreak on Raven Island: Alfred Hitchcock for Kids.
There’s a trend there… Note that these pitches aren’t exact matches for plot, and they’re super short. I usually end up explaining the plot, briefly, if I’m telling someone about my books. These pitches just tell you what the reading experience will be. This is especially important when writing for kids, because you’re often persuading parents, teachers and librarians to pick up your book for your readers.
Pitch examples for books that are not mine:
An orphan boy with a special gift goes to wizard school (Harry Potter)
A group of toys that come to life grapple with their role as their kid owner ages (Toy Story)
A blind French girl and a German boy’s paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. (All The Light We Cannot see)
Tip from Fleur: publishers have started to list the short book pitch in bold online, before they give you the book jacket description. Check out Bookshop.org and put in your comparable titles to see this in action.
This is the page for the book All the Light We Cannot See.
A good short pitch conveys the feeling or experience for the reader. You can use movies or TV shows instead of books, too.
Those examples are very short pitches, and we don’t need that to be perfect right now. But you should know what your comparable titles are.
Here is my short pitch:
The War That Saved My Life meets Wishtree when a young girl helps a boy escape deportation in WWII Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
Need more help? Look at the inside jacket of the book where all the publisher and copyright info is; it often has a very short pitch, likely for book sellers and librarians so they know where to shelve it. Another good source is Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly; both publishing industry publications list the short pitch that sold the book.
We want that for ourselves, right? So let’s make sure the concept and pitch are as strong as can be.
This is the deal announcement and pitch used for Daybreak on Raven Island. It was announced in Publishers Weekly; you can sign up for the free weekly newsletter here.
Writing the Jacket
Now that we have our short pitch, it’s time to expand into plot. The best way to write a book jacket (or plot) description is to read A LOT of them. You get better at it, and you’ll hone the pitch craft. The good news: we can use this book jacket description for outlining, writing, editing, and pitching.
Talk about value. Taking the time to create a strong book jacket description is worth the work.
A good book jacket is basically a sales pitch for your reader. You’re inviting them to go on a 4 to 6 hour journey. Make it a good one.
This is what your plot description should tell your reader:
1. Who is going on this journey? (your protagonist)
2. What type of story is this? (genre, age group, etc.)
3. Where are we going? (Setting)
4. When? (If this is a historical or futuristic novel.)
5. Why are we going? (the stakes for your protagonist
You can add comparable titles in the vein of: readers of Stephen King’s It will enjoy this delightful clown horror story.
Caution! One mistake I see writers make when they write this plot description is that they try to cram all the things into this text. Remember, it’s a pitch. A good jacket gives you the broad strokes, the heart of the story, and entices you to want to buy it and read it. That’s it.
You don’t have to put everything in it. It’s not an all-you-can-eat taco bar.
Remember how I said I was going to share the whole process? Here is my idea, written as a book jacket description:
AMSTERDAM WWII BOOK (I don’t have a title yet)
Maartje is almost twelve, but she feels like there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s WWII and Amsterdam has been occupied by the Nazis for more than three years. To make matters worse, she lives right behind the Dutch Theater where the Nazis hold the Jews who are about to be deported. Her older sister even works at the connected daycare, making Maartje feel like everyone has just given up. She even has to deliver bread from her family’s bakery to the Nazis every day.
Maartje is fed up. She wants to fight and join the Resistance.
One night, she gets her chance when a young girl shows up at the theater and begins to tell stories. Stories of all the kids who passed through and were saved. Stories of hope.
But then this girl is scheduled to be deported and Maartje decides to hide her in the family attic. Her sister ends up taking the fall and loses her job at the daycare. Now she’s on the deportation register.
Everything is on the line, and Maartje gets pulled in all directions. It gets harder to figure out who she can trust and who is the enemy, all while hiding this mysterious girl. Maartje is a true resistance fighter now, and it’s a lot more than she bargained for.
Can one person really make a difference when the world is at war?
And who can Maartje trust…?
That’s my story idea, in broad strokes. I expect it to change (a lot) as I develop the outline, but it has the bones.
This may seem like a simple task, but it’s not—you’ll see when you try. Spend your hours this week studying good book jackets, writing your own, and getting feedback from friends and family. Revise as needed.
Once more, with feeling: take the time to get this book jacket description right. It’ll serve you throughout the entire novel writing, editing, and pitching process. It’s the manual for your manuscript.
Next week, I’ll talk about developing your protagonist and cast of characters.
If you’re following along, feel free to share your pitch in the comments!
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