Perfect Pitch


A few weeks ago, I signed up with WriteOnCon to work on the pitch for my young adult novel. It’s got me musing…what is the perfect pitch?

Perfect pitch. I am not a musician, so maybe I am about to make a statement that is too simplistic. I believe in music, perfect pitch is the ability to hear a note and name it, or sing a note without hearing it first. In other words, perfect pitch is the ability to pull a sound from the cacophony of noise and define it.

As I learn about the process of pitching a novel, I see it no differently in novel writing than in music. The perfect pitch is one that pulls that one kernel of truth and order from all the noise so that an author can say this is what my story is. Go ahead and love it as much as I do.

“One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you.” -Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

One sentence to define the truth of a 525 page book.

To stick with musical themes, as I skimmed through the backs of books in an attempt to understand what sells me as a reader, I discovered it is that moment of dissonance. The promise that careful order is about to fall apart. The characters I am about to meet are going to rub up against their world, sparks will fly, and from the ashes the author will unveil a glorious note.

“Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.” – The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman

I am sold by pitches where the characters move quickly out of their stereotyped roles, where their world is about to become dangerous, out of order, uncomfortable.

“Stifled by the monotony and restrictions of his boarding school on the coast of England, sixteen-year-old H has a chance encounter on the beach with a beautiful boy named Finn, who lives alone in a fisherman’s hut by the sea.” – What I Was, By Meg Rosoff

Where stereotyped plots, such as forbidden love, not only raise the stakes but are used to guide us to that kernel of truth, that glorious note.

“David Power and Clare O’Brien both grew up dreaming of escape from the battered seaside town of Castlebay, but they might as well have the ocean between them. David is the cherished son of a prosperous doctor, while Clare lives with her large family behind their faltering store, longing for a moment of quiet to study. When they both go to university in Dublin—he as a matter of course, she on a hard-won scholarship—their worlds collide. They find freedom in each other—until families, lovers and secrets they left in Castebay come back to haunt them…” – Echoes, by Maeve Binchy

These are characters I know. I’ve meet their type before. Rich boy with everything in the world going for him. Poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks but with big dreams. What sets them apart isn’t that their families don’t approve, it’s the promise that they will never fully shed the lives they left behind. That is the kernel of truth, the perfect pitch, the solitary note that Maeve Binchy has pulled from the noise of ill-fated love stories. If I hadn’t seen that on the back of the book, I never would have opened it up to read it. I wouldn’t have known where it might take me.

The books I put pack on the shelf have a pitch in the flap that never moves beyond basic character constructs and plot points. Here is a made up, chicken soup version of what makes me go “meh…”

“Beautiful Sandra is head cheerleader and self-appointed leader of the “it” crowd. That is, until she fails history. Now she has to be tutored by friendless nerd Bobby. But the more Sandra knows about Bobby, the more she likes him. Can she face her friends with a public relationship?”

To my mind, this pitch has all the plot points without the kernel of truth. I’ve seen my fair share of after school specials that cover that theme, and I’ve already read every Sweet Valley High. What makes Sandra and Bobby’s story different from all the others? What do Sandra and Bobby learn from one another? How do they grow in a way that makes them unique?

It would be no different if I were to walk up to Sandra and ask, “Who are you?” and she answered, “Oh, I’m head cheerleader and front man for the “It” crowd.”  I know a million of such Sandras. But if she said, “I’m Sandra. I really want to love deep and hard and real. I’m willing to sacrifice everything I have for love, and if in the end I find myself alone, well, at least I tried, right?” Now I might stop to listen because Sandra has flaws and strengths and room to grow.

Like music, a perfect pitch takes time, training and craft, but when it’s right you can feel it in your bones. As always, I’m so glad I signed up for WriteOnCon to work on my pitch with other authors. To me, the most perfect pitch is one I don’t have to write alone. The ability to find kindred spirits and work on craft with others is an invaluable tool. Writing might be solitary, but writing is meant to be read. It can’t be read tucked away in a file on your desktop. So get out and share.

Good luck to everyone entering the WritOnCon Pitch Fest! If you haven’t thought of it yet, click here to learn more.

All the best in your writing.

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