Changing the world's opinion… as soon as we finish this math homework
So today, because I’ve recently been doing a few blog-wide contests that require pitches, I want to talk a little bit about how to go about writing one. If you’re here because you’re interested in querying literary agents, know that very few agents or editors will require you to include a pitch with your query; pitches, in general, are used in online writing contests that agents/editors participate in (and use to request manuscripts). (If you’re interested, Brenda Drake hosts a number of great ones, nearly every few weeks.) A pitch’s typical length is about 35-words, or three sentences, but an increasing number of contests also require writers to compose a one-sentence pitch.
Before I go on, like with all of my advice posts, I want to quickly disclaim two things: first, I’m by no means an expert when it comes to writing pitches, but I’ve had enough experience with them both as an agent intern and as a writer that I feel as though I can speak on the topic with some degree of confidence. But of course, one can easily disagree with any of my points, and that’s totally okay. This is all subjective, which brings me to my second point: there are always exceptions to these “rules,” and you should treat them more as loose guidelines than absolute rules.
So with that aside, let’s get down to pitch writing. This post will focus on one-sentence pitches, but what I’m saying applies to pitches of all types, including those that are three sentences or above; the only difference is that in the latter types, you should flesh out the plot and possibly characters more than in the former. (Here is a great post by Nathan Bransford that elaborates further.) And–yes–we should probably get out the fact that pitch writing sucks. It will almost certainly make you feel this:
But if you’re interested in entering writing contests, which many people are, you need to know how to write a pitch (and it’s a pretty good skill for a writer to have in general, anyway).
There are three main things you want to tackle in your pitch:
1) Hook: Before you do anything else, identify: what’s unique about your story? What sets it apart from the other books in your genre? What makes someone want to read it? The answer you come up with is your hook. Be sure to make this hook the focal point of your pitch.
2) Goal: What does the main character want, or need, to do? Although this doesn’t need to be stated directly in your pitch, it should at least be implied; for example, if your main character discovers a webpage for her future self wherein the status reads, “DECEASED,” it’s implied that her goal will be to keep herself from having the same fate.
3) Stakes: In your pitch, you need to establish what happens if the main character fails to complete her goal both to give the story a sense of urgency and also to give the reader a reason to want more. Like with the goal, this can be often be implied from the pitch; for example, if your main character finds a webpage for her future self that reads “DECEASED,” pretty clearly she’s going to die if she can’t complete her goal of stopping it.
– “Dark secrets”: No, your main character having “dark secrets” does not count as a hook. I’d recommend avoiding this phrase, as it is so widely used (especially in pitches) that it won’t provoke any curiosity from a reader; if anything, it’ll cause to glaze over the pitch, and you don’t want that. (However, if dark secrets unraveling is the major focus of your plot, you may want to reveal one of the most intriguing ones to grab the reader. Like, think of it this way: if the entire pitch for Twilight was about a girl falling for “a boy with dark secrets,” with no mention of him being a vampire or [insert unique thing here], no one would want to read it, because “dark secrets” doesn’t tell the reader anything about the story.)
– Make your pitch succinct and punchy. I know it’s tempting to go into lots of detail about your book and all of its various subplots, but don’t. Stick to the very crux of your plot (which is most likely your hook), and use that to grab the reader with that. The shorter the pitch, the better. Seriously.
– Comp titles. Comp titles, while definitely not necessary when it comes to writing a pitch, can be useful if you have room left in your pitch and can think of an excellent pair of them. Comp titles are generally those “X meets Y” pitches, wherein a writer compares books/TV shows/movies/etc. that together encapsulate the heart of your own books. The books etc. you choose in your comp titles should be well-known, but should not be a modern blockbuster that has probably been far overused (The Hunger Games meets Twilight, for example, is only going to make a reader roll his eyes) and should compliment the rest of your pitch. Comp titles work especially well if the two titles you’re comparing are generally very different. So for example, an intriguing comp title might be calling your book “Hamlet meets The Matrix.” (And if anyone has a book that fits that description, I BOW DOWN TO YOUR AWESOMENESS.)
– Not a deal breaker. Remember this: a bad pitch is not a deal breaker. Pitches are important, but in contests, for example, a great 250-word sample of your book will always trump a pitch. (Many contests ask you to include the first 250 words of your manuscript in addition to your pitch. If you’d like to know more about how to write a good first 250 words, I posted on that here.)
So to bring this all together, I’m going to write an example pitch using the plot I mentioned above:
For sixteen-year-old Alex Tanner, finding a webpage about himself two weeks into the future is totally awesome and all until he logs on one morning and his status reads: DECEASED.
Although I’m sure this pitch is far from perfect, it’s one that works (I got multiple full requests based off of it), and that’s all you can really want. It covers all of the three major elements I mentioned above (it has a hook, the future webpage, as well as an implied goal and stakes, the status reading “DECEASED” (which makes it clear that the book will be focusing on Alex needing to stop his own death)); it’s short, to-the-point, and has no cliches; and its all based around the hook of Alex basically learning he’s going to die in two weeks but he has no idea why. Really, that’s all you need–something that hooks the reader.
And if you can do that, then you are good to go.