Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Final Word on Pitches

Thank you so much to everyone who was brave enough to submit a pitch for critique and thank you to all the readers who stuck it through and actually read and commented on all the critiques. It was really amazing to me to hear you all give your own feedback and support. Pitches and queries are as important as your manuscript, especially if you are an unpublished author, and sharing your knowledge and advice can be invaluable.

I hope I was able to help more than confuse in my critiques. In reading some of your comments and concerns I wanted to end on what I hope is a final and uplifting note about pitches.

Pitches, like writing a book, a query letter, or, really, any other aspect of this business, is not an exact science. So often I hear desperation from authors who are looking for that magic answer. They want me to tell them exactly what they should and should not be doing. Trust me, if I could tell you that I would be living in a nice penthouse overlooking the Hudson River right now. I'm not (just in case you were wondering).

In my initial challenge I think I encouraged readers to try to give a pitch in one sentence, and yes, that's nearly impossible. But yes, it can be done. Why did I place such a difficult guideline on an already difficult challenge? Because I think by focusing on one sentence you are forced to be as concise as possible. The real question, though, is whether or not you can pitch your book in one sentence. It is possible, but it also depends on how big of a concept you have and the genre the book is in. I've sold books on basically that, one sentence. A cozy mystery series featuring a Bible study group. A thrilling romantic adventure series featuring heroes who are hotshots, elite firefighters often considered the Navy SEALs of the firefighting world. Both of these would need more of a description, but when asked what their books are the authors can describe them in one concise sentence. Do these pitches do what I'm requiring you to do? Do they give you the plot, the characters, and the conflict? No, not in so many words, but they do hook an editor in (at least one who might be looking for these types of books).

I get a lot of questions from readers wanting to know how long a pitch should be and how long is too long. For those of you who need numbers, I would say one to five sentences. The truth, though, is that a pitch is too long when an agent stops reading. You aren’t writing a synopsis, you are simply trying to hook someone in, and let’s face it, none of us have attention spans that will hold for more than one to five sentences. If we want more we’ll start reading the book.

I also know that many of you are looking to these critiques for a format or formula that you can simply drop your own storyline into. The truth is that no one format works for all persons or all books. For some the conflict is going to have to come from the characters, for others the plot. The trick is that you need to figure out what really makes your book stand out from every single other book in your genre. Is it the unique situation the characters find themselves in or is it the characters themselves? It will also depend on your readers. Cozy readers often pick up a new series simply based on the crafty, cozy hook; romance readers often look for a unique hero or heroine; and fantasy readers will want a world they haven’t been in yet. Of course that’s oversimplifying, but I think you might know what I mean. Knowing your reader and what she looks for can help you define your pitch.

And last, it’s important to remember that a pitch is different from a query letter. A pitch is that enticing paragraph that grabs the reader and only talks about the book. The query letter will include title, word count, series potential, genre, etc. But of course in a pitch session it’s always a great opener to start with title, etc., and then launch into your actual pitch.

So thanks again to everyone who contributed and played. I had fun and I hope you did too. And I’d love to hear what you learned from these sessions that you can share with those who might still be struggling.



Anonymous said...

Jessica - thanks so much for doing this. I didn't submit because I'm more focusing on the manuscript I started five years ago and set aside two years ago when work and life got too hectic. But knowing there are agents like you willing to help us all navigate this process gives me confidence I'm not working in vain.


Anonymous said...

Jessica - you're an angel. Your feedback on my own pitch was helpful, but I learned so much from the others as well.

Thank you for the many precious hours you gave us. I hope we are able to reward you with a few stellar pieces of work, and great partnerships somewhere down the line.

Nancy Naigle
Drewryville, VA

Julie Weathers said...


I am behind on comments, but I did want to quickly reply to this.

I think everyone will agree this has been a daunting task. Our appreciatiion is boundless.

I'm not sure I'm any closer to knowing how to pitch Paladin, but it's been interesting to see what doesn't work. Seeing what does work is often like me looking at a beautiful painting. I can see the art, but still don't know how to do it.

Even so, we are all probably closer to understanding the process thanks to you.

Lorra said...

Jessica - Since the one-sentence pitch is apparently a major challenge for all of use, but according to you "can be done," here's what I'd loved to see from Book-Ends (doesn't need to be based on an actual novel - just make it up):

A one-sentence pitch for a thriller, romantic suspense, contemporary romance, historical romance and commercial women's fiction.

And no, I'm not trying to ruin your day. I'm just curious.

Kate Douglas said...

Today's post should be printed and saved! One thing I've discovered is that if I can't come up with a concise pitch, it means I don't yet know my own story well enough to do it justice...which is why I am currently rethinking an entire project. Valuable advice, Jessica!

Shaun Carney said...

Jessica, I can only imagine how busy your day is, and so, I'm guessing that you did all this work in your "free time." For that alone, we all owe you a huge thanks.

Regarding Kate's comment, I agree. If I cannot come up with a concise pitch, I either don't know my work well enough, or the story is so busy that there are too many things going on. Either way, a rewrite is in order.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica.

What I've taken to doing is that when an idea bubbles up to the point where it is a few sketches and notes on a piece of paper, I write the pitch for it. The pitch and the outline now go together for me.

I have 7 such pitches written, one for a finished product and 2 for works nearly done. But the rest are all there should I decide I want to pick up on any of the other ideas and make them happen. They are written along with the story now.

That way the pitch, an encapsulation, is matched up with the stage of writing that is as general as it needs to be, rather than working backwards from a lot of details I've been seating over for far too long!

Thanks again. I think I learned something (we'll see if it works, that is!) :-)

Aimlesswriter said...

Thanks so much for these great pitches. I have a much clearer picture of what I need to do during a pitch. If I pitch at a conference can I bring notes? (I think I'd be nervous and forget what to say)

May I suggest another blog topic? I have my query, my pitch, but how do I write the synopsis? Someone once told me to turn every chapter into two or three sentences. Is it that easy? How much does an agent really put on the synopsis?

AmyB said...

Thanks for doing this! I read every pitch critique, and it was an enlightening experience. Very useful.

Anonymous said...

Jessica - I'm popping my head up out of lurkdom to let you know this has been a fantastic learning exercise. Biggest take-away value: pitches must show conflict, conflict, conflict! A close second: let your voice show through in your pitch. Thanks!

Shelley Coriell

Anonymous said...

A quick question for Jessica, or any faithful reader of the blog: I swear that somewhere during these pitch critiques, Jessica (or perhaps one of those writing in the comments section) listed some standard query letter cliches: "life turned upside down," "an unexpected death," things like that.

Am I dreaming this entry? Or, if not, can someone point me in its direction? Thanks!

KL Grady said...

I read this blog every morning for a reason. The posts rock the casbah, and it's a great way to get my head back in the writing game every day.

The pitch critiques, however, have been invaluable, as have other readers' feedback. I'm sure this exercise was a lot harder than it looked from this end, so I hope you got something out of it, too (and hopefully more tangible than karmic brownie points).

Lorra said...

Jessica - What I failed to say in my earlier comment today was:


I look forward to your daily posts and have learned a great deal from them. I have no idea where you find the time to write them, much less citrique all those pitches. Like your other readers, I am very grateful.

And since my former comment basically amounted to my requesting that you do even more work on behalf of your readers, obviously ignoring it is a fine option.

Thanks again.

C.J. said...

Thanks again Jessica! Here's what I learned from this series of pitch critiques:

Show, don't tell. It's just as important for your pitch to reflect a mastery of subtle and effective word choice and sentence structure as it is to convey an interesting plot.

Corinne said...

I've been lurking here for a while and I just wanted to tell you how impressed I was with all the time you spent on these critiques. I never submitted but even just reading your comments on other people's pitches was incredibly enlightening.
The main thing I learned was that you need to mention what makes your story different from others in the genre.

Chiron said...

Thanks, Jessica, for this amazing contribution. I learned so much! Your critique helped me fine-tune my own pitch and reading so many others gave me a clearer idea of what "works."

Move over, Miss Snark! *smile*

Your blog is the bright spot of my weekday mornings.


Anonymous said...

I have to echo Shelley C: "Biggest take-away value: pitches must show conflict, conflict, conflict! A close second: let your voice show through in your pitch."

I unwillingly realize that nobody cares how you came up with the idea for your novel. They only care about what is actually IN the novel. In your own mind, you may have had a "novel" idea (as in, "strikingly new, unusual, or different" from answers.com) - but, as we see from the insurance adjuster pitch, what is novel to the writer may be ho-hum "pass" ordinary to an agent.

Right now I think of a story a young relative of mine wrote in grade school - "The Naked Leprechaun." The Leprechaun was naked because he spent all the gold coins in the pot at the end of the rainbow on toys, and didn't have any left for clothes.

I think I've done something similar with my pitch in the past (i.e., pre-pitch marathon here at bookends) - spent it on toys (mysterious creative origins of novel idea) rather than clothes (the 100,000 words the idea finally got dressed in).

I'd certainly like to walk into a bookstore and pick up a copy of "Agents Don't Like Naked Leprechauns: Writing Pitches That Sell." Although I'm not really sure how collaborating with a 7-year-old would work.

John Arkwright said...

I am convinced that new authors should write the pitch before writing the novel. I have read many books that would be easy to write an interesting pitch for. I have read more that would be hard to write a good pitch for, even though they are great books.

I learned more from this set of pitches than I did from any other blog posts anywhere.

Anne-Marie said...

One of the reasons I read this blog every day is that you are so generous with your time and knowledge.
Thank you so much, Jessica, for the time and effort you put into all those critiques, including mine. I learned a lot from you and from the readers' critiques.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that any author, much less new authors, should write the pitch first, except as a loose outlining tool. There's no harm done, but it will probably need to be rewritten again anway by the time the first draft is done, much less the second and third drafts. I guess it doesn't matter really, though, since if you give 10 different writers the same pitch...guess what? You'll get 10 different novels, some of which may be commertically competitive, and some not.

Anonymous said...

I will take the following things from this exercise:
1. Writing an effective pitch is damn hard.
2. Different is good. Weird is automatic rejection.
3. Go for the throat. Don't start vague and lead into a more specific detail.
4. Don't write about vampires. Don't even think about vampires. If you own a copy of Dracula or the like, burn it before you start your novel.
5. The best way to write an eye-catching pitch--write an eye-catching novel.

Consider my vote in favor of your sainthood assured.

Loren DeShon said...

As a member of the group whose pitches you didn't get to I'd just like to say.....


....... for all the energy and effort you spent in educating us all. Once I finish my project my pitch and query letter will be much, much better because of this project of yours.

Anonymous said...

Jessica- Thanks for this service and it cost us nothing to learn so much.
I'll be revising the pitch critiques often. The ones that worked, they just did: had a great idea, writing was good, they were to the point and lead us to the main story line.

Thanks again.

Sandra Cormier said...

Thanks, Jessica. I was at first confused about the difference between a hook and a pitch, and learned that the ideal way to grasp an agent's attention is a paragraph that is somewhat between the two.

I realize I was giving you a hook, not a pitch. The hook may attract a bit of attention, but the pitch answers a few questions about the gist of the book.