Sarah Henning is the author of several books for young adults, including the Indies Introduce/Indies Next selection and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection SEA WITCH, and its sequel, SEA WITCH RISING; THE PRINCESS WILL SAVE YOU, THE QUEEN WILL BETRAY YOU, and THE KING WILL KILL YOU, as well as THROW LIKE A GIRL and its companion book, IT’S ALL IN HOW YOU FALL. Her first middle grade book, MONSTER CAMP, is scheduled to release in Summer 2023, and she appears in the girls-in-sports anthology, OUT OF OUR LEAGUE (2024). When not writing, she runs ultramarathons, hits the playground with her two kids, and hangs out with her husband Justin, who doubles as her long-suffering IT department. Sarah lives in Lawrence, Kansas, hometown of Langston Hughes, William S. Burroughs, and a really good basketball team.
In today’s publishing world, often one of the best ways for commercial viability of a project is for an author to be able to summarize their 100,000-word story into something as bite-sized as it is completely and utterly delicious. A little morsel that perfectly and completely describes your story in the most delectable and digestible package as possible.
It’s “The Breakfast Club with murder” aka the forever best-seller One of Us is Lying.
It’s “lesbian necromancers in space” aka the totally incomparable ride that is Gideon the Ninth.
Or, humbly, the pitch for my debut YA fantasy, Sea Witch, “Wicked meets The Little Mermaid.”
I know someone reading this might say “but isn’t that marketing’s job?” and it is—once you’ve got a publishing contract attached to a house with marketing resources. But the first marketer of a book is you, the author. And not only do you need to sell an idea to yourself, you need to sell it to your agent, then your editor, before you ever really get far enough to have someone else workshop your starting point.
Because of this, before I begin any project, I tend to cook up a one-line, high-concept pitch to send to my agent, usually along with a separate, few-sentences pitch that expands on the idea and points in the direction I want to head. I do this not only because it helps my trusted partners understand what I want to work on, but because I find that this helps me know if a project has “legs.”
This post is not about the minutiae of pitching but rather what happens when that high-concept spark touches upon what the story is really about and takes off. Because the pitch may not be organic, but what the story is truly, deeply, meant to say? That’s something that can’t be manufactured.
So, here’s my tale about how my latest (and first!) trilogy came to be and how I learned what it was really about.
In February 2018, I sat in my sweaty running clothes, thumb-tapping an email to my agent about an idea I’d had while on my usual zero-dark-thirty jog. It was a few months out from my debut YA fantasy, Sea Witch, and I’d been hunting for the right follow-up project, and this seemed like it might be it, something that I dubbed in that email a “gender-swapped Princess Bride.”
Half-way around the world, my agent, Whitney Ross, understood from that pitch exactly what I meant and told me to cook up a few chapters. And so began the seedling that started The Princess Will Save You, the first book in my The Kingdoms of Sand and Sky trilogy that includes The Queen Will Betray You and wrapped up with the August 2nd publication of The King Will Kill You.
Perhaps, as you can surmise from the titles, things get worse with each successive story within the trilogy for my princess, Amarande, and her true love stable boy Luca. In fact, things got so bad for them that what sold as a duology morphed into a trilogy, simply because the story kept unraveling to reveal more of itself.
And so, the story that started out as a “gender-swapped Princess Bride” shimmered and slipped through the chapters until what it became was more of a gender-bent look at the damsel-in-distress trope with references to the power of love and stain of greed within The Princess Bride. I’d purposefully set my tale in a world where even a princess, who is the most powerful person in her country after the untimely death of her father, can’t get what she wants because she’s a woman. Amarande must marry to gain her crown as queen, and literally pleads over her dad’s dead body to have her own consent in her match. And when she’s seen as difficult, one of her royal suitors hires pirates to kidnap Luca to force her hand. She doesn’t give in, she goes after him, and thus begins the story of how the princess does the saving.
What I wrote did fit the high concept pitch on its face—there are plenty of nods to Buttercup, Westley, and their pirates, believe me—but with every chapter it became very clear that these books were so much more than an homage. The homage was a starting point, or perhaps, a scaffolding. In the end, the series arc became a nuanced discussion of how women move through patriarchal society at all levels of power, using that misogynistic structure in their favor or by figuring out ways around it.
Now, I know some writers have this level of detail in their understanding of a story before they begin. If you do? Lucky, lucky you. But for me, if I go into a story with such deep, pointed intentions, I tend to have a harder time losing myself in the plot and the characters—the parts of the story that make a reader care about the overarching message in the first place. There’s literally no point in finding a deeper message and sharing it if the execution of the story pales to what you’re trying to say.
I actually found the heart of this story within the four women who could be deemed the “queen” in the title of the second book, The Queen Will Betray You. By the end of The Princess Will Save You, I had one queen working within the patriarchal system of rules to get to the top; I had one who completely removed herself from it and was working from the outside; and I had a third who’d come up from poor origins through another avenue open to her, the army, to become as powerful as either of those women through both talent and love. And then I had Amarande, who was trying to figure out her own path to get exactly what she wanted: a chance to rule in her own right, her commoner love at her side. As the story progresses, each woman is a crack in the ancient armor of patriarchy…though it turns out centuries of misogyny is truly hard to kill.
All of that grew from the pitch as I had more time with the characters, the truth of it snaking out like smoke until I knew exactly where the fire was and who started it. The result was organic and honest, and never led me astray as I wrote three whole books in the world, with these characters.
Trust your gut, trust your penchant for story, and pitch yourself exactly what you want to write. If that hook sinks itself in and draws blood, I think you’ll find the true story on the page, waiting for you. And if you have both of those things? There’ll be no stopping you.
Princess Amarande is finally on the verge of having everything she wants. To be with her true love Luca, no one nor law standing in the way. To rule Ardenia as queen outright, no marriage necessary, as Luca does the same with the reformed Torrence. To rebuild the continent of The Sand and Sky into a place not defined by archaic, patriarchal laws, but by the will of its people.
However, threats await in the shadows of Amarande’s hoped-for happily ever after. One expected and deadly to both her love and every one of her objectives. The other, unexpected, and arising with a vicious aim: revenge at any cost. Against the princess who killed him, the boy whose love made her do it, and the continent cruel enough to deserve his rage.
Add The King Will Kill You to your tbr here. Order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. If you prefer audiobooks, here’s a Libro.fm link. You can also request The King Will Kill You from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order for good.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.