February 25th, 2011 by Rosemary
Warm Up your Pitching Arm

It’s pitch season coming up. No, I’m not talking about baseball. I’m talking about the rounds of writing conferences coming up. Even if you’re not going anywhere that you’ll be pitching your novel in person, to an agent or an editor, the heart of a winning query letter is essentially answers the same question:

What’s it about?

When trying to score a request for your manuscript, the trick isn’t to outline or summarize the whole book. The key is to tell “What’s it about?” in a few short sentences. Imagine that you’re trying to convince your significant other to spend $25-$30 on a movie date (not including dinner and a babysitter). You wouldn’t describe the whole movie plot to him. You’d say the most exciting part.

It’s about a guy….

Because we’re human, we’re most interested in what the human is going to have to do in the story. (Well, there are always the exceptions.)  Generally, when we answer the questions “What’s it about?” we start with the hero.  If you can get some good character hook in there, his most defining characteristic, so we get a mental image of him. “It’s about John McClaine, a NYC cop…”

Then we say what he or she has to do. It has to be something hard, and it’s a good idea if we can give some idea of what’s going to keep it from being a walk in the park for our hero.

It’s about a guy who has to do this really hard thing, with this really big obstacle stoping him…

Now what we want to know next is what’s going to happen if he fails? What’s at stake for our hero? It may be the fate of the world, or it may be the girl of his dreams, but it has to be vitally important. We don’t care if he doesn’t win “Miss Nice to Pass the Time With.” It has to be “Miss My Life Will Be Bleak Forever Without You”

It’s about a guy who has to do this really hard thing, with this really big obstacle, and if he doesn’t, because this really vital thing is at stake.

If only it were as simple as a game of mad libs.  A good pitch paints a picture for the agent or editor, so they start to imagine how that story might play out. A few words can get a character in their mind, and a few more set up the big goal and conflict. “It’s about a survivor of an alien attack who leads a platoon of space marines back to the next of aliens on a colonized planet…”

Play up the things that make your book unique. “It’s about a girl who falls in love with a vampire” may be the kernel of a good story, but it’s going to make anyone’s eyes light up any more. “It’s a bout a hemophiliac girl who falls in love with a vampire…”  Now we’re on the right track.

To recap, a good pitch, whether it leads off your in person pitch or your short and sweet query letter should…

  • Boil down the most unique aspects of your book. What sets it apart from all others.
  • Evoke vivid mental images and make the listener “see” how the story might play out.
  • Have an unexpected twist is emotionally intriguing and “hooks” the listener and says: “there’s a story there.”
  • Focus on a main character who has a compelling goal that we identify with as human beings.
  • Describe the main character by their most defining characteristics and the ones that will make the most impact on his/her journey.
  • Focus on the biggest emotional stakes in the story.

Now go out there and play ball!

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