Monday, August 15, 2005

Feedback on Pitches

Happy Monday.

We had lots of new folks coming to our blog on Friday and over the weekend. For those of you who are new—BGs stands for bloggees, or blog readers. If you’re reading this, you’re now an official BG.

I always try to answer questions left in the comments section. In responding to those left last Friday, I’ll give some further explanation about creating pitches—either for a conference or a query letter—that I hope will benefit all of you.

What if your book is more of a humorous, light, chick lit genre that focuses on character development and growth over plot action? Can I still come up with an exciting pitch for that?

Of course you can. You need a humorous, chick lit-sounding pitch. But what sets your book off from all the other chick lit? What’s the inciting incident (conflict that begins your story?) What major girl problem is your protagonist facing? Make sure your pitch includes some specifics on that.

BC, could you set us straight on the different blurbs we need? A pitch to editors, a few sentences to sum up the story for a proposal and/or to explain to our friends, short teaser summary for back cover copy?? I know we need a longer synopsis as well, but I'm just thinking of the short snippets.

An editor pitch distills your book down to its basics, plus has that “hook” feeling. If you can create a good pitch, you can use it various places, including at the beginning of a proposal or a query. After that pitch, in a proposal you’d expand on the information, filling in more details and giving an overall synopsis of what happens in the story. But it’s just as important to catch the editor’s attention with the first line of your proposal as it is to catch his/her attention when at a conference.

Back cover copy is a different thing. You’ve got more space to work with than a pitch, which is only a sentence or two. And far less space than in a proposal. In general, you’ve got two to four paragraphs to hook the reader. But really, you probably won’t have to worry about this, at least not anytime soon. Most authors don’t get to write their back cover copy. In fact, I’m unusual in that I now insist upon writing my own, but that’s because I have a marketing background and understand what’s needed. Most houses have their marketing people write this copy. Problem is—and here’s my pet peeve—about ninety percent of the back cover copy I see tells too much of the story. My philosophy is to lay out the premise only. Why should the back cover give away events in the story? In fact, this is such a common error that I never read the back cover of a novel before I read the novel, because I know it’s going to tell me more than I want to know. After I read the novel, then I’ll check the back cover, and most of the time, I think, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t know that. That would have spoiled part of the story for me.”

But I digress. Back to pitch questions.

Here’s my pitch: A female river guide battles nature and sabotage, becoming entangled in a web of deceit and murder.

This is actually a comment, but I wanted to respond to it because it reinforces an important point. To me, this pitch falls into the “too general” category. The start—a female river guide—is good. But battles sabotage? What sabotage, exactly? Entangled in deceit and murder? Whose murder? Who’s deceived? I think this pitch would be improved by including the specific occurrences in the inciting incident.

It’s quite the oxymoron, really. In trying to leave that “hook” question in the editor’s mind, we think we need to stay general, or we’ll leave no room for questions. Just the opposite is true. When we state specifics, that’s when things get interesting, and more questions arise. Remember how my pitch moved from general: A lonely young woman runs from a painful past only to come face to face with murder. To specific: A lonely young woman running from a painful past discovers the body of an aged movie star in her hot tub--and CAN'T call the police. Which one is more interesting? Which one makes you want to know more?

Here’s another pitch from Friday with some of the same issues:
A crisis counselor revisits her past when a dead body falls out of the ceiling -- a gift from her secret admirer.

Okay. Revisits her past is too general. Dead body—whose? Is this dead body someone from her past? Try adding in some more specifics, and see what happens.

Every few days my pitch changes. It went from this: When a mysterious roll of film is discovered and fashion models start disappearing, the photographer must confront his past to save them. To this: An award winning photographer faces his guilt when a roll of film leads him to the dark room of his past.

I think the first one’s closer because it includes the specifics about models disappearing. Faces his guilt is too general to be very attention-catching. The dark room of his past is a nice play on words, but it also is general. How many people have something dark in their past? And can you tell us something more about the photographer to help make him empathetic? I don’t know what he has to face in his past—can it be said in a few words? How about something like:
When a mysterious roll of film surfaces and fashion models start disappearing, a _____ ____ photographer must _______ to save them.

I've heard that a pitch line should be no more than about 25 words, and including character names is discouraged because they don't provide the editor with anything useful. Do you agree with these rules of thumb?

Yes, 25 words is plenty. If you look at my pitch, it’s exactly 25 words, and I think it sounds pretty long, so I sure wouldn’t want to go much past that. I also agree with not using character names. For example, in my pitch, A lonely young woman tells more about the protagonist then Paige Williams. In fact, these words lonely and young were specifically used to boost empathy for the protagonist’s plight.

Pitch based on your blog (and intended follow-up questions): An abused housewife, who ran away years prior, finds her past has caught up with her and learns of a horrible injustice which happened because of her escape. Is there any way to right the wrong and not loose the one thing that’s become most important to her or must she run again?

What was the injustice? An innocent person served time for her murder. What is the one important thing? She’s fallen in love and is finally happy. There’s just one problem. And the problem is? The man she loves is the man who was convicted of killing her.

This one provides another good example of how specifics would make the pitch better. It’s also too long. Hm, what a problem. How to add more specifics, yet shorten it?

Past has caught up with her—too general to catch much attention. Far more eyebrow-raising is the specific—someone served time for her “murder.” I would include that in the pitch itself. How about something like: An abused runaway wife learns the man she now loves served time for her “murder.” Clearing his name would
mean losing her new life.

Granted, it’s a little hard for me to write pitches for books I haven’t read. But in general I hope you get the gist. Always go for the more specific, while keeping it short. If you can end up doing both those things, you’ll have a good pitch.

I’ll continue with this topic as long as there are comments/questions to warrant it. Then we’ll move on.

Read Part 3


Dineen A. Miller said...

Living in CA has its advantages! I get to post first. LOL

I thought I had my pitch line down:

A faith shattered.  A secret revealed.  An aspiring artist risks love and life to find the man who holds the answers to her past.

But after reading your blog, I'm thinking maybe not. Is this more specific?

When an aspiring artist discovers her unknown father is still alive, she risks losing newfound love and life to find him.


When an aspiring artist discovers her unknown father is still alive, her search uncovers love, a brother and a madman.

It's really hard getting your whole book down to one line, but you already know that!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answers and all the wonderful examples, BC!

Anonymous said...

Great info Brandilyn! :D

And for information purposes. A one sheet is a single sheet of paper that lists your contact information, a bio, and a short summary of your book. From what I have heard people use them for two purposes. 1) To help them get through a pitch by having something to reference. and 2) To have something to leave with a willing editor (not all of them will take one) that can help the editor remember who they are and what they are working on (if interested in the book naturally).

At least that's what I've picked up from snooping around. ;) I've never actually used one myself.

Tina Helmuth said...

All your marketing experience has really paid off. I don't know if I'll ever learn the art of distilling my novel into an interesting pitch, or even synopsis. Here's my latest:

Mistaken for a servant, a noblewoman escapes her family’s murder and searches for the identity of the killer, knowing that he also hunts her.

Anonymous said...

My original pitch was: A young reporter stumbles on a body
and fights for her life in a game of cat and mouse."

This is my revised one: A television reporter discovers a body at the theater. While she investigates, she enters a intense game of cat and mouse when the murderer targets her.

Is that any more specific? It is really hard to distill a big idea into 25 words and make it sound unique from everything else that has been written.

Gina Conroy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pammer said...

Thanks for the comments Brandilyn. I sure am having trouble coming up with something stronger than revisted, lol, although I have the body part fixed. Guess I'll keep plugging along. Although my friends says it is distracting me from finishing the last scene in my WIP. But I'll fix that and do it now. If you still have this subject going tomorrow I may have something. Again thanks for the something to chew on. Hugs. :0)

Val said...

Hmm...I'm starting to wonder if my pitch line ("A teenaged rape victim fights for the right to carry her child to term.") still hits all the right buttons.

And it seems like pitches are everywhere this month. Over at the Knight Agency, Deidre Knight has been running a pitch critique contest. I think it's going to the end of the month (you'll probably have to scroll a bit to find it), but there's been some good crits bouncing around in the comment thread. :-)

Thanks for weighing in with your perspective on this, Brandilyn.

Heather Sunseri said...

Hi, Brandilyn. First, I want to say thank you for all of your input on the ACFW first-timers loop and your information on pitches, etc.

Now, my pitch:

A young missionary returns to Costa Rica to unlock memories masking the brutal slaying of her first love’s father.

Is that specific enough? I love your adivce re: anticipating questions that might result from the pitch. I'm working on that now.

Heather Sunseri said...

Hi, Brandilyn. First, I want to say thank you for all of your input on the ACFW first-timers loop and your information on pitches, etc.

Now, my pitch:

A young missionary returns to Costa Rica to unlock memories masking the brutal slaying of her first love’s father.

Is that specific enough? I love your adivce re: anticipating questions that might result from the pitch. I'm working on that now.