Friday, August 12, 2005

Creating a Pitch for Your Book

Some of you BGs will be attending the ACFW conference next month. Others will be attending conferences at other times. And you writers out there at some point will be querying agents or editors about your stories. So you all need to come up with those infamous one-liners we call pitches. Here’s my take on the subject. First, I’ll speak to those attending a conference and talking face-to-face with an editor. The same pitch principles can be used for any query, so I’ll address query letters at the end.

A pitch is a HOOK. It should have one goal and one only: to make the editor want to know more about your story. Just as a chapter hook makes the reader turn the page, your pitch hook makes the editor ask a follow-up question. (Sometimes editors will ask a follow-up question simply to be polite. The trick is making them ask a question because they really are curious about the answer.)

A pitch therefore doesn’t have to cover lots of info about your story. On the contrary, it should be concise. And it shouldn’t focus on theme. It should focus on specifics in your premise that will place questions in the editor’s mind.

You have to put yourself in the shoes of the editor, who's heard a million pitches. What will make this editor want to know more about your story? Certainly not generalities. Nor themes. These things don’t lead to specific questions. Besides, all generalities and themes have been done before. The editor will think, “Ho-hum.” Ya gotta give him/her something fresh.

Let’s look at examples from my suspense wip, Violet Dawn. First, a generalized pitch:

A lonely young woman runs from her past only to come face to face with murder.

Uck. Boring. There's nothing fresh here. Nothing that’s going to make the editor want to know more. How many books are about people running from their past? How many books have a protagonist mixed up in murder?

Okay, so let’s try a theme-based pitch:

A lonely young woman—who's running from her past and becomes mixed up in murder—learns how to build a family.

Even more boring. First, the reasons stated above apply. Second, the "learns" part actually diminishes the painful past and murder elements. I’ve just skimmed over the major conflicts to make everything all neat and tidy.

Now, here's a specific pitch based solely on the premise. One designed to make the editor ask a follow-up question:

A lonely young woman running from her past discovers the body of an aged movie star in her hot tub--and CAN'T call the police.

Actually, I’d be willing to bet this pitch would place two questions in the editor’s mind. One—why can't she call the police? Two—if she can't tell police about the body, what’s she going to do about it?

If I were pitching this at a conference, I'd have responses ready for those two follow-up questions. I wouldn’t design the responses to fully answer the questions. Rather, I’d design each response to give a partial answer, with another hook. (Note--your response to a follow-up question can be longer than your original pitch. But still be as concise as possible.)

Editor question #1: “Why can’t she call the police?”

Response: “She doesn’t trust the police to believe in her innocence. And, this crime will bring national media. She can’t have her face plastered on the news—because the people she’s running from will find her.” (Inherent hooks: Well, who’s she running from? What happened in her past?)

Editor question #2: “So what does she do about the body?”

Response: ______

Okay, you have to trust that I’d have one, if I were pitching this book. But since Violet Dawn is already sold and coming out next year, I ain’t tellin’ the answer on this here blog.

Now, if you’re not attending a conference, but you’re preparing a query letter to an editor or agent, prepare your basic pitch in the same way. In your case, you’re hooking the agent/editor to read on—with the goal of prompting him/her to ask you to submit part or all of the manuscript. You can put this pitch in the very first sentence of your query. Or—I actually went further when I was looking for an agent. I bolded and centered the pitch right after the salutation. Sometimes I even put a box around it. That way, in one second, the agent/editor would know the gist of my story—and, I hoped, be hooked.

All right, wanna try writing pitches for your wips? You can leave comments here, or for further chatting, hop over to this blog’s discussion board (link on the left) and start a discussion on the topic.

Read Part 2


Unknown said...

Ohhh. Light bulb comes on. I thought my pitch hook was supposed to be my tag line. Thanks for posting this. I've got some work to do. But, I finally understand. I am going to the ACFW conference and I needed this info. I'm going to share this with my critique group. Great site. Thanks again. Hope to meet you! Gina

Anonymous said...

OK, here's my pitch, or hook actually, as I call it in my proposal...

Something's lurking in Karen Klein’s apartment. Something dark. Something evil. It will stop at nothing to get what it wants, and without Christ, Karen doesn’t have a prayer.


Grady Houger said...

Another excellent topic! Even though what you teach is topics I don't know or need to improve a lot, I don't feel discouraged. I feel inspired to go get to work!

I'm not at the point of trying to interest editors, what I have is regular people who say "I heard you are writing a story; What's it about?"
I don't know what to say. "Uh, well, there's these characters who are trying to figure out their relationships and keep from getting killed and they are all space aliens." That sure sounds dumb.

I'm going to start that discussion board topic so we can post pitch lines and discuss their effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the wonderful, clear advice. I love the idea of bold and centered!! I have a question for 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? Any helps? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Gulp. My pitch comes right out and asks the question. I can see how it's stronger to cause the editor's mind to generate the question I'm looking for.

Anonymous said...

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. I've muddled them somehow. Thanks! Janet

Anonymous said...

Here's my "pitch"....

A female river guide battles nature and sabotage, becoming entangled in a web of deceit and murder.

Lynette Sowell said...

I see why the first two were boring. So you concisely tell your story premise in order to raise more questions.

Pammer said...

That certainly sheds light on the subject for me, thank you. Here is what I came up with....A crisis counselor revisits her past when a dead body falls out of the ceiling -- a gift from her secret admirer.

Needs work, doesn't it?


Gina Conroy said...

Coming out of lurkdom for the first time.

Brandilyn, I love that pitch. It does what you said, grabs my attention and floods my mind with questions. 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.

Any better?

Gina C.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, Gina, I like the evolution of your pitch line!

Here's mine:
A father discovers his young son's imaginary friends are not only real, but a wicked force bent on destroying his family.

BC, I have a few questions.

1. I've decided that I'm not ready to take a proposal to conference. I don't want to try to rush something when I'm not ready and blow my only chance to make a first impression. However, I'm still planning to try to meet with editors, and I'm going to take a "One Sheet" and try to drum up requests for a proposal. Can you tell us a little more about One Sheets? Can we use our pitch line to start the description of our book in this document?

2. 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?


C.J. Darlington said...

You all have some excellent stuff! Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Gee, BC, you make it look so easy!

Here's my meagre attempt:

A woman escaping her past runs headlong into her future. But if the truth ever comes out, it will all be lost.

New one based on your blog:
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.

I won't sign my name in case this stinks! LOL!

Daniella O said...

Wow, what a wealth of information. Based on what I've read I've attempted my first pitch. How does this sound?

A college student facing severe financial difficulties makes a reluctant decision to donate sperm when his mother is diagosed with cancer. Little does he know that his actions are being manipulated by a group called the Organization, the head being a family member a continent away.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Daniella, this is a great start. Can you make it more specific while tightening the wording? Also, what must the college student do/what danger is he put in after donating the sperm?

Suggestion to play with:

When financially strapped college student ____ (name)is manipulated by a renegade organization into donating sperm, he must ______.

It would get a little long to explain that the organization is run by a relative, and the student doesn't know this. That might be a point for further conversation, but I'm not sure it's necessary for the main pitch. But then I don't know the full story here.

Daniella O said...

Thanks for your feedback Brandilyn. Ive reworded based on your comments. Here goes:
When financially strapped college student Y’Shue Schiff is manipulated by a renegade organization into donating sperm, he puts aside his reservations in order to finance his mother’s cancer treatment, with consequences that destroy his family.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Good. how about tightening it a little? And some of the word is redundant. (You don't need "manipulated" and "puts aside his reservations" both.) Here's a thought:

After a renegade organization pushes college student Y’Shue Schiff to donate sperm in order to finance his mother’s cancer treatment, the consequences threaten to destroy his family.

That's better, although I'd still like to know what Y'Shue has to DO in order to save his family. See if you can concentrate of that specificity for the final phrase.

Ashley Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashley Clark said...

Thanks for the advice, Brandilyn! I'd love to know your input on mine. I actually just rewrote it according to your tips.

A small-town travel agent meets two charming men she must decide between. The right choice will mean finding her missing dog, ending her mother's nagging, and finding her own voice. And she thinks she's made the right choice- until she catches him cheating on her.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Good beginning, Ashley. It just needs to be tightened into one sentence. You don't need to use quite all the info you've incorporated. How about:

In a quest to decide between two charming men, a small-town travel agent stops her mother's nagging, finds her own voice, and ultimately makes the right man choice--until she catches him cheating on her.

Patricia Bradley said...

You make it look so easy, Brandilyn. Would you advise me on mine?
While aiding police in a murder investigation, a psychology professor stumbles across family secrets and a link to her missing father and must unmask the killer before she becomes his next victim.

Patricia Bradley said...

Or just:

A psychology professor must unmask a killer before she becomes his next victim.

Andra M. said...

Okay, based on your advice, here's my latest attempt:

After killing an innocent man, an assassin runs to the supposed enemy to prevent hundreds more deaths.

Thank you so much for this entry, and for inviting us to seek your advice.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Pat, your first is better than the second, as the second is too general. The first doesn't carry much impact for me, however. What is the "gotcha" for your book? Is the big turning point when the prof realizes this murder is connected to her own father? If so, that should be the hook. Here's an example using made-up facts:

A psychology professor yanked into a murder investigation thinks the clues to the killer are obvious--until those clues point to her own missing father.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Andra, I don't have enough information to help you--which I guess is a way of saying your pitch leaves too many questions hanging. Who is the protagonist? The assassin? Not your typical likable protagonist, so that'll have to be made clear. Why the word "supposed?" Who supposes--the assassin? How does running to the enemy put himself in danger? Look at the other examples in above comments--maybe they'll help you clarify your pitch.

Patricia Bradley said...

Brandilyn, Amazing what a difference a few words make!! Thanks.

Andra M. said...

Thanks, Brandilyn.

Is this better? It's still rough, but perhaps some things are more clear:

Pursued by a military who believes they own her, a telepathic assassin runs away to save those she was meant to kill.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Andra, you're probably going to tire of my feedback. :]

I guess what I’m having the hardest time with is why I want to care about a killer as a protagonist. Has she been made to kill against her will? Why is she a killer? What makes her a “good guy?”

One of the hardest things to do when we’re writing a story is to step back and try to look at the story with “fresh eyes”—as if you know nothing about the characters and plot. In your mind no doubt the pitch makes sense because you know the good side of the character. But to "sell" the idea of this book to an editor/agent, you need to convince that person he/she will want to care about this character.

Also, I need to understand the “telepathic” part. How is she telepathic? That is, in what ways? How does that ability make things worse instead of better for her (better in that she could know when someone’s coming after her and conveniently escape, for example).

Andra M. said...

No, I'm not tired of your feedback. I appreciate it. The problem is getting all that into a single sentence.