Most authors classify themselves as plotters or pantsers, but I don’t consider myself either. I call myself a “pitcher”. The very first thing that I do when I have a book idea is to… write the jacket copy. I know, I know. That’s supposed to come last, but go with me here.
Writing the jacket copy (or the query, which is essentially the same thing) shows me the real essence of the story: who the main character is and what makes her or him unique, what the conflict is, and what the stakes are. It sharpens my focus and gives me a reference point as I build the plot. If I can keep these touchpoints in place as I brainstorm or draft, I know I’m going to end up with the story I wanted to tell. It also helps me set the tone for the story—is it going to be fun and light (for me, yes, almost always!), creepy, dramatic, heartfelt? These are all decisions that crystalize while writing the jacket copy/query.
I happen to be one of those rare unicorns who likes to write queries, but if you hate them with the fire of a thousand suns, you can also short-cut this method by creating a word cloud.
Brainstorm words that relate to your story. These can be literal (location, hobbies of main characters), tonal (romantic, sweeping, dark) or thematic (trust, assertiveness, self-awareness). Next, paste these words into Wordle to create a word cloud. Here’s one I created for my summer release, a Hollywood romance YA called Map to the Stars:
Pro hint: If you want certain words to show up larger than others, include them multiple times. In the case of this story, both MCs need to learn to become their authentic selves in a Hollywood environment that doesn’t always honor that—I wanted that word front and center in my mind to influence all my plot decisions.
Tape this up in your writing space to reference as you draft or plot. Are you sticking with your key elements?
Write a one-sentence pitch for your story. It all boils down to this: what is the central concept that will hook your reader?
A Babysitter’s Club for the next generation, You’re Invited follows four tween friends as they start a party planning “company” out of their abandoned-sailboat clubhouse… only none of the parties go to plan.
Check back in as you plot: Is that concept staying front and center in your story?
Expand to the full query. For example’s sake, below I’ve posted the “fake cover copy” I wrote before starting The Sleepover, a middle grade standalone I have coming out next summer. Using this copy as a touchpoint while I wrote allowed me to stay focused and on target enough so that, when my editor sent me the final cover copy this week, I had to laugh at how much of that original, before-I-wrote-one-word-of-this-story concept stuck in place throughout the entire process.
Original Pitch for The Sleepover:
In this (PG-rated) tween version of The Hangover, Meghan, Paige, and Anna Marie are super excited for the Best. Night. Ever. The sleepover they’re planning can be nothing short of EPIC. There will be junk food, there will be crazy-scary horror movies, and there will be karaoke smack-downs. Not even the last minute addition of Anna-Marie’s socially awkward, soon-to-be-stepsister Veronica can dampen their spirits.
But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them when they awaken the next morning: the basement is a disaster, Paige’s left eyebrow has been shaved off, Meghan’s “pillow” is the prized-possession skateboard of the class rebel who lives next door, and- heavenly heckweasels!- what is the deal with the slew of baby chicks in the bathtub!?
Worst of all, Anna-Marie is missing. As in completely and totally gone-zo. Now the remaining girls have to piece together what exactly happened the night before, in the hopes it will lead them to their missing friend before the parents arrive for pick-ups. If she’s not waiting safe and sound when that doorbell rings, heads will roll and their social life as they know it will cease to exist. Trouble is, none of them can remember anything of the prior evening past that hypnotism trick performed by the two-bit magician Veronica arranged in an effort to impress the other girls.
The clock is ticking, the clues are weird and weirder, and one thing is certain: last night got a lot wilder than karaoke and make-your-own-sundaes…
Final Cover Copy for The Sleepover
Twelve-year-old Meghan and her friends Paige and Anna Marie are ready to have The. Best. Night. Ever. There will be junk food, crazy-scary horror movies, and karaoke smack-downs! Not even the last-minute addition of Anna Marie’s awkward, soon-to-be stepsister Veronica can dampen the girls’ spirits.
But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them the next morning. The basement is a disaster, Meghan’s left eyebrow has been shaved off and she has the Class Bad Boy’s hoodie, plus there’s a slew of baby chicks in the bathtub! Worst of all, Anna Marie is missing.
Now the remaining girls have to piece together what happened the night before. There’s just one tiny problem: they can’t remember anything past the two-bit act by the hypnotist Veronica hired as the party’s entertainer.
Can they find Anna Marie and pull off the ultimate save-face . . . all before parent pick-up time?
Check back in as you plot. Obviously you can veer off course as needed, but is the main character “want” and why he/she can’t have it staying in place?
For more variations of beginning your process with logline or story pitches, check out these plotting resources:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/ (writing one sentence pitches is discussed)
Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder (Blake’s early screenwriting process is discussed, included pitching his story concepts to strangers in coffee shops to figure out which pieces they are and are not responding to before putting pen to paper.)
Jen Malone writes books for tweens and teens, including this summer’s releases: book one of a new middle grade series, You’re Invited, with Simon & Schuster, and the young adult Map to the Stars with HarperCollins. She’s a former Hollywood marketing executive who once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her titles at www.jenmalonewrites.com. Jen also puts her marketing background to work developing marketing plans for traditionally-published kidlit authors at www.jenmaloneconsults.com.
Jen is giving away to FIVE lucky winners their choice of the following: a query critique (for a finished or a not-yet-begun story!) or a twenty-minute book marketing consultation. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win one of these prizes, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Jen’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.