Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Magma: Finding the Core of Your Story


Hi all, Lisa Phillips here! I’m so excited to be on Seekerville today!

In June 2012 I participated in a Speed Date pitch with Love Inspired editor Emily Rodmell. In a Harlequin chat room I had to pitch my novel in only 100 words and then hold my breath for her response. From that nerve-wracking pitch, I got a request for the full manuscript (yay!), a set of line edits (ack, she hates it!), and then “the call” (yay again!).

Here is my pitch: 
Sabine Fraternau, CIA agent, is on the hunt for her brother's killer. When the Delta Force soldier she loves barges in, the mission goes from bad...to busted.

Doug "MacArthur" Richardson is all military, a man of faith with no room in his life for love.

When Sabine is accused of betraying her country, Doug is the only one who believes the woman he's falling for is innocent. But after her ex-husband's betrayal, Sabine doesn't believe in happily ever after. 

Together they have to find the killer and prove Sabine's innocence, before the nightmare of her past comes back...to kill her.

When pitching your story in a proposal, or face-to-face with an agent, or trying to convince your neighbor that you don’t just lie on the couch all day and drink tea (okay, that’s sort of true), find the least amount of words with the most punch. 

So yes, I want to talk about pitches. But I also want to talk about YOU and your writing. Because, before you have something to pitch, you have to have a STORY.

Editors and agents (and readers) will assess your work in a matter of seconds. What are they looking for, something exciting, sharp and witty, or dangerous and hard-nosed, or sweet and redemptive? How do you know if you have that? 

I asked my editor what she looks for in a pitch, and she said, “Plot,
conflict and hooks.” 

How do you know if you have a plot?

Do you have a person, an event, a plan, an antagonist (human, animal, vegetable, mineral, environmental, it doesn’t matter), a cost for failure (stakes), a lesson to be learned, a prize, a moral dilemma and a pinch of backstory that holds your character back?

Those are the key ingredients—they are the MAGMA of your story.

Conflict can be either internal or external, and try to have both in your story.

Internal conflict would be a heroine who can’t fall for the hero because she’s an accountant and he’d be a “high risk” investment.

External conflict is when the bad guy is framing your hero and heroine for the crime they’re trying to expose.

Check out this pitch for a Love Inspired Suspense novel:

Accountant Victoria Hayes has discovered fraud within her own company, but when her evidence goes up in smoke along with her home, all she has left is her hero dog. Seeking justice, she unwittingly puts herself and her handsome supervisor, Jeff Tucker, in danger. The strict ethics that lead Victoria to trust Jeff also keep him from pursuing a romance, given his hidden past. Victoria has a past of her own and her analytical skills score Jeff as high risk—a risk she’s not willing to take. Framed for the very crime they wanted to expose, Victoria and Jeff must uncover the truth before it’s too late.                                         

Calculated Risk – Heather Woodhaven (coming Spring 2015)

Which leads us to hooks.

A rogue CIA agent. A Delta Force soldier. A hero dog. Fraud. A hidden past.

How about a stripper, running from a cop...?

A teenage stripper, hunted by a cop, discovers the only escape is the one who cursed her.

It isn't like I dreamed I’d take off my clothes for money when I grew up, but life doesn’t always happen the way you want.

I was desperate when I walked into the Wild Lily. When I left, it was more than just a hundred dollars I’d gained. I had hope.   
But every time I think I’m in control—I’m not. Every time I think I have a friend—I don’t. And now, the footsteps behind me are getting louder.

Sovereign Ground is an Inspirational YA novel of redemption that is available now at Amazon!

Find what it is about your story that will GET PEOPLE’S ATTENTION.

Because when you think about it, every story has already been written. There’s nothing new under the sun, right? 

So what makes YOURS unique?

Find that thing. Boil your premise down to its essential elements and find the MAGMA, the fire that makes you excited about what you have to say.

Post it somewhere while you’re writing. It will help you focus your plot, and tighten your character’s arc—their journey to redemption. Because if this chapter, or scene, or conversation, or the thought that your character is having does not relate to the MAGMA of your story then you’re slowing the pace and your reader might decide she has something better to do.

But what if your story is about lots of things and you can’t say them all in a five sentence pitch? What if you have a generational story with multiple points of view?

It only took one moment. 

One lie. 

One Josephine Finch to keep them apart…forever. 

Sixty-four years have passed since Emmy lost her true love, but the curse still echoes through every second, every breath, every heartbeat, and Emmy’s tired of running. With the help of a Wish Listener named Adam, four generations of troubled women will come together for two weeks in a cabin at Angel’s Cove—their last chance to face down the past and put an end to the dark secret that has haunted Emmy for a lifetime. 

But Angel’s Cove is not just a mountain vacation resort. If Emmy gets her wish, her bloodline will finally find true love as beautiful as what Emmy lost so long ago. If she doesn’t, the legacy of Josephine Finch could destroy them all.

Available now at Amazon
This pitch focuses more on the heart of the story—the theme. It’s about what tore them apart, but also about what (or who) is going to bring them back together.

So how about you?

What is the MAGMA of your story? What is it that’s going to wow us, and can you pitch it to us in as few words as possible?

The commenter with the most WOW in their story will win a signed copy of Double Agent, out now!

Target, the prequel to my novel Bait, is free today at Amazon so hop on over there and grab your copy!  Click HERE

A British ex-pat who grew up an hour outside of London, Lisa Phillips attended Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California. It was there she met her husband. He’s from California, but nobody's perfect.

It wasn't until her Bible College graduation that she figured out she was a writer (someone told her). She's taken the Apprentice and Journeyman writing courses with the Christian Writers Guild, and discovered a penchant for high-stakes stories of mayhem and disaster where you can find made-for-each-other love that always ends in happily ever after.

Lisa can be found in Idaho wearing either flip-flops or cowgirl boots, depending on the season. She leads worship with her husband at their local church. Together they have two children, a sparkly Little Princess and a Mini Daddy, and there’s only one bunny rabbit now (sad face).

To find out more about Lisa Phillips,visit   www.authorlisaphillips.com where you can sign up for her newsletter and see what is COMING NEXT!


  1. Lisa ... Target is on my TBR pile, but now I'm thinking I'll need to keep it there until I get Bait. They sound fantastic ....
    And you certainly got my attention!!!! I headed to the library, but they don't have anything by you!!! Thanks for a great post.

    1. Hi Marianne :)
      I think you can request that your library stock a certain title. Who knows? Maybe that will work.
      Nice to meet you.

  2. Oh, let's not talk bunnies. Have you ever seen that "Lonestar" video about the dad taking over the house chores while Mom goes to work... at some point you see the Pet Cemetery of old dogs, cats, bunnies, rodents, fish....

    I identified fully. So I won't tell you about Wilbur or Bugs or Ben...

    Life in farm country with six kids is not every pet's dream! I'm just sayin'...

    Lisa, you gave us great insight on plotting by your examples of pitching. The basics of these stories are great! Thank you!

    I love looking at story elements. They often get my brain brewing and then who knows what might happen????

    Hey, I brought COFFEE!


    And I'm looking forward to seeing how folks react to these wonderful layouts!

    1. Thanks Ruth. Yum, I'll have some coffee

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks so much for sharing. I'm going to read this again after work. So many good things to absorb.

    Have a great day!

  4. Mary,

    Thanks for telling us we can use semi-finalist on our proposals. Whoohoo! Mine has been pretty sparse.

    Jack Reacher novels came in the mail yesterday. Thanks for the warning. So far I've only read the first few pages of each one to see how he hooks us.

    Congrats to all the other Genesis semifinalists! Thanks to Seekerville for all you've done to help us get there!

  5. Hi Lisa and welcome to Seekerville today. What a great pitch you gave us. Oh yes, and pitch advice. smile

    Thank you. And enjoy the day.

    Hey, Ruthy brought coffee. I am bringing some conchas which are Mexican sweet breads. They aren't really too sweet so taste wonderful with coffee.

  6. Thanks for the pastry Sandra. I will have to try some with Ruthy's delicious coffee.

    Thanks for coming by Seekerville, Lisa. I'm so glad you figured out what your writing was for. I think as we write stories, we tend to forget the Magma, and I think that is where readers feel connected. I appreciate the reminder. :)

  7. Thank you, Sandra. And yes, as Jackie said, congrats to all the genesis semi-finalists!

  8. Thank you Piper, yes I get so caught up in the sheer genius of my story *giggles* and forget someone else might actually read it. Boy, that was a painful rewrite !

  9. Lisa, I loved your points and the hooks you shared. This is definitely something I need to get stronger at writing. Your examples and "Must Haves" are very helpful!

  10. Jeanne, glad to help :)

    Care to share what you're working on?

  11. Welcome, Lisa. (I'm PST so just waking up and coffeeing).

    I love HEA and your sale story sounds wonderful.

    Have you always been a suspense gal?

    What's up for you next, both traditionally and indie.

  12. Hi Lisa, thanks so much for stopping by Seekerville today. I love your post. I remember an editor, I think it was Emily Rodmell, saying that if you couldn't condense your story to those few sentences, you didn't know it well enough. Or something basically like that.

    I love your idea about posting your pitch near where you're working. For me, it's a struggle to remember that just because I know what it's all about, the backstory, etc., doesn't mean the reader gets it. I think posting the pitch would be a good way to remind myself to keep leaving breadcrumbs.

    1. Hi Mary,
      I think I've heard that Emily quote too :)
      It is so hard to nail down what your story's about (my novel
      Bait is about several things!) but so helpful so that you don't end up south of convoluted, which happened in an earlier version.

  13. Hi Tina.
    Yes, I've always been a romantic suspense girl but sometimes it has elements of sci-fi. I'm a very electric reader.
    Right now I'm editing a new full length about a secret town whose residents are all in witness protection. Very colorful characters! It's coming June 30th and it was a lot of fun framing an assassin for murder :)

  14. AND...congratulations on your debut release. Both of your covers are outstanding, btw!!

  15. I brought the latest craze for breakfast..WAFFLE DONUTS.

    with sprinkles.


    LOVE the idea of "Magma" ... hot liquid rock inside the earth ... or inside a story!! I've always been more partial to hot rather than cool, which is why my word for this year is "fire."

    SUPER CONGRATS on your success in the speed date pitch of 2012 -- VERY cool ... er ... which in this case is a good thing ... :)

    LOVE the cover for "Target" and although I am not particularly a suspense or mystery reader, that cover intrigues me, so GREAT JOB!!

    Now ... off to the "magma" of my current story ... or at least I HOPE there's magma ...


  17. Thank you! My friend Kristine McCord (who wrote Outrunning Jospehine Finch) is my cover designer. She did the covers for Target and Bait and she's SO GOOD!

  18. Oh, and SUPER CONGRATS to Jackie and all the other Genesis semifinalists -- you guys ROCK!!!

    And, Jackie -- I am SO glad Mary told you to use the Genesis semifinalist title in your pitches because that is SO important!! Heck, I put everything but the kitchen sink in my signature line because each and every email then becomes a promo for your name. At first I felt funny doing it, but then I thought -- hey, it piques my interest when I see awards in other signature lines, so why not? And a Genesis semifinal or final is a HUGE deal in this biz, so you go, girl!!


  19. Lisa, will you be at any conferences where we can meet you live in 2014??

    1. Unfortunately not :(
      But I'm hoping to be at ACFW next year. I'll have to keep you ladies posted.

  20. Please do so we can assault you with squeals. lol.

  21. Your indie books are Denver FBI. THAT intrigued me. I left Denver a year or so ago after living there nearly 20 years.

    Where are YOU from? Why Denver?

  22. Well, I went to Denver once for a Christian Writers Guild conference, and really liked it. It's also the closest FBI office of a decent size. There's only a satellite office in Boise.
    Also, I knew a couple of people who had previously lived there who I knew could answer questions and read the book to make suggestions.

  23. Great plan. Denver is a wonderful place to live. Just downloaded your prequel. A must read!

  24. I'll try a concha with my coffee, Sandra. Why do I think of a silver medallion for my saddle when I say that? :D

    Lisa, thanks for this post. I always struggle with pitches when I try to remember the GMC. But asking what the MAGMA is... well, that seems to get right to the heart of it. It's a matter of numbers for me, I guess. (shrug)

    Congrats to all the Genesis semi-finalists. I was there a couple years ago so know exactly what you're going through. Breathe deep and enjoy the ride.

  25. Tina
    you lived in Denver for 20 years? i'm a Denver native (unfortunately transplanted for the past - oh my... 17 years in VA).

    I always enjoy stories set in colorado. I'm a tad biased in thinking it's the most awesome state in the union. Love the book covers.

    my pitch for Killer Voices is this:
    A Marine-biology student working to overcome her shady past finds herself square in the cross-hairs of illegal treasure hunters and Coast Guard investigation. Can her Faith provide the strength to conquer both those who seek her death and the heart of the man who’s claimed hers?

    Will be keeping MAGMA in mind as my manuscript progresses. Great post!!!

    put my name in the hat for your debut book. SEALS are my favorite creatures...*heh*

    1. Ooh, treasure! I like it, Deb. Sarah Varland LIS released this month and it's about pirates!

  26. Congrats to all the Genesis semi-finalists. So cool to recognize names there. Makes the list more fun to read.

  27. Lisa, what a great post on finding the heart of your story and turning it into a pitch!

    But I can't help it--when I saw the word MAGMA, I immediately heard it in Robin Roberts's voice on GMA!

    Great imagery, though, and your stories sound intriguing!

    1. Thank you, Myra! It's like the adage, "if you don't stand for something then you'll fall for anything".
      In fiction it's: if your story's not about SOMETHING, then it won't be about anything :)

  28. Lisa I'm loving the fresh idea of a witness protection town....

    Do they all know they're all in witness protection or do they all think they're individuals who happen to be placed in Anytown, USA?

    Great building blocks in this!

  29. The WITSEC town is up in the mountains and not on any map, you have to take a military helicopter to get there so they all know they're in witness protection. So lots of secret pasts, ex-mobsters and their old lady's, bikers, an ex-DEA agent and my government assassin all thrown in with innocents.

    1. Oh, and if you leave you can't ever come back.

      So my U.S. Marshal gets assigned there because the previous sheriff was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He takes his son for a trial period to see if they want to live there -- just in time for the town's first ever recorded murder :)

  30. Love your cover, Lisa! I appreciate your word MAGMA. That's a great way to think of the essence of the story. Thanks for a great post.

  31. You're welcome, Meghan!
    What is your book about?

  32. Lisa,
    This was an intriguing post and so true. A story IS like a mountain in that its got so many layers, but the core is magma. Its strong. Powerful. Attention grabbing.

    Thanks to everyone for all the congrats on semi finaling in the Genesis! It is a huge honor.

  33. Awesome covers, Lisa!!!!

    And I'm w/Ruthy on the witness protection town. Love it.

    I didn't exactly write a pitch for Killer Voices entry, but this close.

    Working at the local daycare, Brook is sentenced to a life of diapers and drool—not exactly the kind of place she thought she’d need target practice training. But when accused-murderer and lawyer Jack Ramsey strides through the door of her nursery, he’s toting a baby and leading a killer straight to her.

  34. Thank you Crystal :-)

    Connie, that sounds cool! I love the mix of a daycare and a serial killer!! Bonnie sounds like a great underdog, you could have some fun with a strong woman vs. stinky diaper (boy, we've all been there!). Sounds like a great book.

  35. Thanks Lisa. I'm not sure it exactly fits the norm of LIS, but we'll see...

  36. Not fitting the norm can sometimes be very good. It's hard to write for a line and still be unique, but we all bring our individual voices to it.
    Read lots of LIS books : that's the best way to get a feel for it. Then you can brainstorm how to present your story in an LIS way. It might me deleting you first chapter and starting from when the hero and heroine meet, or jumping straight into danger, but it's worth it. I love writing for LIS!

  37. Hi Lisa

    This post is a keeper for me. I'd never even thought of the magma of my story before but, though the setting and premise are different, it's much like your examples--stealthy enemy, high stakes, someone must die.

    Thanks for this idea.

  38. Hi Elaine,
    Thank you! I love blogs that make you want to copy the whole thing and paste it into a word document so you can print it out and read it later :-)

    I try.

  39. What a great post, Lisa! I loved the examples you shared. Sucked me right in. Thanks for being with us today!

    I just downloaded the prequel!

  40. Lisa,

    I loved your post. I downloaded the prequel today and I want to read your books. You have me hooked.

    Since I am new at all of this I decided to try and write a pitch for my work in progress. I would welcome any hints, both negative and positive so I can learn and get it right.

    Here is my pitch.

    Gleanna has dreamed of a Prince Charming who would sweep her off her feet and be the godly husband she so desires, but alas, it has not happened even though she has fervently prayed. Her best friend quickly falls in love with someone on a Christian dating site. Gleanna agrees to go out on a blind date with this friend and is raped by the twin brother of her friends fiancé. The fiancé ends up being an abuser and rapist himself. In the midst of struggling to find healing, she meets her Prince Charming and together they work through the healing process especially after he is attacked by the husband of Gleanna’s best friend. Through it all, they discover that God is the answer to all their problems.

  41. Hi Wilani! Wow, that sounds like a gripping story. I was like, "oh, a nice, sweet, romantic...WHAT?!"

    Can you cut the first couple of sentences so the rape isn't so abrupt?
    Gleanna has dreamed of a Prince Charming of her own, and when her best friend falls in love with someone on a Christian dating site, Gleanna agrees to go out on a blind date with this friend.
    But that night is nothing like she expected, (Do you see how it's a teaser, instead of a revelation? I'm prepping the reader to expect what's coming) and Gleanna is raped by the twin brother of her friend's fiancé.
    (I cut out the sentence about the friend's fiance being an abuser, because it focuses your story to Glenna's healing.)
    In the midst of struggling to find healing, she meets her Prince Charming. (I want to know that she's got a long way to go before she can trust him, and that she's going to hold back almost to the end.)
    But when (Hero) is attacked by the Gleanna’s best friend,... (I'd like more plot - are they uncovering a msytery? When did the best friend get married? Was Gleanna her matron of honor? Because that would be huge. Was the rapist there, or is he in jail?)
    Through it all, they discover that God is the answer to all their problems.
    I like your closer, it gives a good sense of the theme.

    Awesome story! Some of the hardest things to write about, when they are handled with dignity can be the most powerful stories. (Like, Redeeming Love.)

  42. This comment has been removed by the author.

  43. Thank you Lisa that was helpful.

  44. Welcome to Seekerville, Lisa! Mega congratulatons on The Call from HQ's Speed Dial pitch!

    Thanks for the excellent post on using the elements of story--the MAGMA--to boil down into a pitch. Your examples wowed me!


  45. Lisa, More of the plot. Gleanna is the maid of honor in the wedding but the attacker is in prison. He had escaped prison the week before he attacked Gleanna. The Hero comes into the picture after the wedding. He is the new Chief doctor in the ER where Gleanna works as a CNA about to become a nurse. When the friend is pushed down the steps by her new husband, He is drunk and becomes angry and attacks the doctor plus the police.

    I did not start out writing such a dark story, It just evolved while I was writing and I am trying to keep the story light enough but yet convey a message from the Lord.

    I have found writing some of these scenes to be very intense.

  46. Thanks Janet! It was an exciting experience.

  47. Wilani,
    I had the same experience with my novels Target and Bait. They're essentially Ted Dekker-style thrillers. But I knew I didn't want to include all the usual (gross) details of a serial killer committing murders. I used the character's personalities and their relationships with each other and the humor there to offset the suspense and try to balance it out.
    There's a lot you can do with the relationship between the two women, giving them a strong bond. You could also add some humor - like having your doctor dress up like a clown to entertain a child patient. The suspense and themes will still come through, but you can lighten the book to give the reader some relief.

  48. My story as a volcano building pressure about to erupt!!!!!

    Great visual. LOL


  49. Lisa, thanks for a great post! I'm hard pressed to keep anything that short! I've read many times over about condensing your story to a few short sentences for a good pitch—and I know it's necessary, but still difficult.
    You gave some good tips and thoughts on how to do that.

    Thanks for the gift from Amazon...I look forward to reading it! :-)

  50. Thank you, Mary (Hicks). Target is #1 on Amazon's Christian top 100 suspense right now, thanks to you guys!!

  51. Congrats Lisa on your Love Inspired debut. From one speed date pitcher to another...a job well done. Great post. I've downloaded both Target and Bait. Can't wait to dig in.


  52. Thank you, Belle. Your LI was out this month too, right?!


    Well I have tweeted!!!


  54. Okay, so I'm really tired, right? I looked at the title of your post and read "Magnum" instead of "Magma" ... that widened my eyes :-) Maybe I could write a story with young Tom Selleck at the core!

    Fun post with great examples. Thanks, Lisa.

    And congrats on the #1!!!

    Nancy C

  55. Hi Nancy,
    Maybe you could get him to pose for the cover?!

    Thanks :)

  56. Oh, Nancy. That's a crack up!!

    Let's hum the MAGNUM PI theme.

  57. I found this article so helpful. Your examples of pitch helped me nail down a better way to share my story. I was going to redo it for an upcoming conference and you gave me the spark of inspiration I needed.
    Cindy Huff

  58. I found this article so helpful. Your examples of pitch helped me nail down a better way to share my story. I was going to redo it for an upcoming conference and you gave me the spark of inspiration I needed.
    Cindy Huff