Monday, August 9, 2010

How to Pitch Your Novel in 25 Words or Less

Pshaw! It’s impossible, you say. Tell that to a scriptwriter. The first rule of screenwriting is to reduce the story line to 25 words or less. Think about the blurbs written for your favorite TV shows. Notice how short they are?

I didn’t say it was easy to reduce your story to its simplest form, but you need to learn to pitch your book in one sentence—two at most.

Marketing guru Michael Reynolds caught me off guard a few days ago when he asked me to pitch Sedona Storm. I stuttered. My brain shut down. My hands shook. It had been so long since I had shared the story line that I froze. I’m glad he wasn’t Steven Spielberg. Pitching takes practice.

Screenwriters call these pitches “loglines.” I don’t know why, but I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind that word. Novelists call them elevator pitches. I suppose in the old days authors would corner New York editors in the elevator, blurt out their pitches, and shove manuscripts into the editors’ hands.

Notice they are not called “bathroom pitches.” Never pitch to an editor in the bathroom. It’s the cardinal rule that should never be broken.

What is a pitch? First, it’s a sales tool that you need to master. When I read a query letter, I want to know what the story is about in the first sentence or two. It should excite me. The pitch should create a desire in the editor to request the full proposal, and the proposal should create a desire to read the entire manuscript.

But let’s stick with the pitch for now. When you pitch your manuscript, you need to communicate the drama of the story in its simplest form. You don’t include subplots or secondary characters, and you don’t give away the ending. A pitch should include who the story is about (the protagonist), the goal of the protagonist, and what force or antagonist stands in the protagonist’s way.

You don’t need to use the protagonist’s name, but you might describe her as a lonesome widow or a conservative politician. Then you must let your audience know the primary goal of your protagonist. Is it to win an election, or to find love, or to seek revenge? What stands in the way of your protagonist reaching her goal?

In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s main goal was to go back home to Kansas. Lots of people and events stood in her way, but her main antagonist was the Wicked Witch. As an experiment write the pitch for The Wizard of Oz in 25 words or less. It can be done.

Here’s the pitch for my novel Sedona Storm written with my coauthor Carrie Younce:

When an investigative reporter seeks to uncover who is responsible for a series of bizarre cult murders, her life is threatened by the secretive leader.
Now write a short pitch for your work in progress. Keep it handy and as you write, it will remind you of where your story is headed.

Please let me know how today’s blog has helped you. This is a two-way conversation. I have both published and unpublished authors who read The Roving Editor every day, and we need to hear from everyone so that we can learn from experience. Share your pitch with us, either for a book you’ve already written or for a work in progress. If you have trouble identifying the components of a pitch, we’re here to help. Let’s talk.

29 comments:

  1. I went to a conference in the spring and had a really hard time with this pitching. This is what I said though I know now it should have been more generic.

    A widow's guilt over her husband’s death keeps her from love, until she meets a man is the recipient of her sixteen-year-old son’s heart.

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  2. I’ve been trimming & splicing & adding & cutting. Flipping & flopping. Practicing. Slicing & dicing pitches for my novels all in preparation for ACFW.

    All this work is turning me into Dr. Seuss.
    ~ Wendy

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  3. Just 25 little words that have the power to tie you in knots. Sometimes it feels like it takes longer to write the logline than the whole novel.

    For my next novel I want to try doing this and the synopsis BEFORE I write, not after.

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  4. I'm sure he was speaking metaphorically, but Michael Hague says Hollywood walls have blood sprinkled on them from the brutal ripping apart of pitches.

    Thankfully, we only have sweaty backs and cold palms at ACFW. Your blog will make many of us less clammy the next time we meet!

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  5. Barbara, great stuff. The logline (or high concept pitch) is also very helpful for marketing once a book is contracted. Good for back cover copy (when expanded) and publicity. Nothing is ever wasted.

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  6. Has anyone else found that they had to tweak their pitch the further they got into the book? Here's mine after getting the plot down:

    A newly-saved trophy wife fights to save her family and her heart from a faceless stalker.

    And here's my take on TWOO:

    A Kansas farm girl and her dog must find the way home through beautiful yet treacherous Oz.

    I'm finding that I'm either in the teens or the low thirties for word count. Wonder why getting it in the twenties is difficult for me?

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  7. Hi Barbara,

    Here is my pitch for my WIP.

    Alone and desperate, a young lady journeys across the country searching for a place to call home and a faith of her own.

    Not sure it's strong enough but I love the idea of having it in front of me as I write. Hopefully it will keep me on track. =)

    Thanks for all the tips.

    ~ Lacie

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  8. Thank you for writing this, Barbara, and for helping us strengthen our pitches. :)

    Mine is closer to 29 words... hope that's okay. I had it critiqued on the ACFW e-mail loops (at that time it was exactly 25 words and I was very proud of myself), and they suggested a few changes, resulting in the extra words.

    A small-town travel agent is looking for a charming man, her missing dog, and another glass of sweet tea. But she finds something unexpected along the way: herself.

    -Ashley

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  9. Your post came with great timing. I need to better develop my pitch, as I work through revisions on this WIP and prep for a conference in October. Thanks for the info!

    My problem is triming this down. Right now I've got it at 45 words! Yikes.

    Aspiring missionary doctor, Anne Knox, is elbow deep in the gross anatomy lab when a pleading call for help from another continent spurs her to recruit a team of classmates adn head to Venezuela. But what happens in the jungle clinics changes everything.

    -Sarah

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  10. Great tutorial Barbara,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Here's mine:

    While fleeing his anti-Semitic father, an American youth pursues love with a Jewish woman among a remnant of people struggling to regain their nation from the sinister inhabitants that guard the land.

    Comments welcome.

    Thanks again,

    Dave Longeuay

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  11. Hi Barbara.

    Your blog is informative and encouraging. Thank you for your industry insight and sharing your expertise with new writers.

    Here is the pitch for my completed, Southern romantic mystery—

    Part of her wasn't surprised at all with what she discovered in her husband's pocket...until she becomes the chief suspect in his murder.

    Thanks again,
    Lisa Carter
    Sweet Tea with a Slice of Murder

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  12. Thank You Barbara,

    I have to say I started a loop on ACFW just for this. I sent them all here today to hear your wisdom.

    Now this has been a crazy little thing to work on. I have tried to put everything into it which didn't work, and then I stripped it down and everyone said that didn't work either.

    Here's what I came up with after working with your instructions...any suggestions are always welcome.

    ***
    During Freshman Survival Class, Reegan's childhood rival confesses she is in trouble--but helping her may place them both in danger.
    ***
    Thank you again you helped me focus and get a few steps closer to what I think a pitch should be.

    Cheryl Eklund +-

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  13. Thank you, Barbara! This really helps. I'm getting ready to head to Indianapolis, so this is perfect. Pitching is scary! It took me a year and a half to come to this logline (I like that term!). Still working to perfect it, since it's at 31 words.

    "A NASCAR public relations manager battles to stay one step ahead
    of her adulterous past, her growing attraction for the team's newest
    driver, and the unconditional love of a pursuing God."

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  14. I find it amusing that I can write 90,000 words, but 25 can be painful!

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  15. I can write them down - just hope I can spit them out! Look forward to seeing you at ACFW conference!

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  16. I've learned how to do this, but it's definitely not something that's easy! I've realized coming up with a "pitch" is something we must be able to do even after we have a contract. Our publisher will want our input for the logline on the back of our books, for book marks, etc. Thankfully, they're very practiced at coming up with catchy lines and could help me immensely!

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  17. This is why crit partners are so helpful! I had a pitch I liked, but one crit partner tweaked it into something SO much better.
    Here it is:
    An entrepreneur’s property purchase jeopardizes the livelihood of the woman who stranded him at the altar and who harbors painful secrets about a child he never knew.
    Eek! Okay, that's over 25.
    Anyway, the hard part for me is saying the pitch. Makes we want to Shudder! LOL
    Cute about you and Sedona Storm's pitch. :-)

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  18. Wow! After reading this blog I know I need to redo my pitch. Thanks so much for the insight. I'll get right on it.

    I am now following your blog and look forward to reading all your posts. Have a great day!
    M.J. Macie

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  19. Is 25 an industry standard? Or just a goal to aim for. I've boiled my pitch down to 46 words for my proposal and that was HARD at almost twice the suggested length. I did use a shorter one-liner when verbally pitching and it went over really well, but I had the chance to elaborate in person.

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  20. I've written promo sentences and back cover copy for my completed middle grade novel, but this is my first try at a 25 word pitch.

    A biracial twelve-year-old enters a cellar that once hid slaves and discovers two supernatural worlds. One promises fame, the other freedom. Which does he choose?

    I look forward to meeting you at your workshop, and appreciate your willingness to help aspiring writers.

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  21. How about this for the Wizard of Oz? (22 words)

    After a tornado transports a Kansas girl to a strange and dangerous land, she seeks to return to the home she despised.

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  22. Thanks for the information of how to write an elevator pitch. I am an unpublished author at least for fiction. I am a regular columnist for a homeschool magazine, so this whole world of pitches is new for me.

    Blessings,
    Jodie Wolfe

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  23. Barbara,

    Thank you for this post. It has helped a lot. After the fun & enlightening exercise w/the Wizard of Oz, I applied what I learned from it to my story's bulky pitch. Still messing w/it, but it's starting to feel as good as my new, shorter haircut. :)

    I really liked what you said about how pitches should create the desire for the full proposal, and the proposal should create the desire for the entire manuscript. I'm keeping that one at the back of my mind.

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  24. In case people are still reading the comments here, I found some very helpful posts on Rachelle Gardner's blog:

    The One-Sentence Summary Contest, which explains how to write a pitch

    The Winners, which shows lots of examples of great pitches

    and

    One-Sentence Summary Critiques and Tips, which gives some very helpful advice!

    Most of the pitches I've read in the comments here would probably benefit from reading Rachelle Gardner's advice. I know it really helped me.

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  25. Great explanation of how to write a pitch...if only it were as easy to actually DO that!

    Here's what I came up with for my historical fiction:

    A war-weary spinster heads west to escape her grief and runs headlong into the man who caused it.

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  26. April,
    Thanks for the tips on pitches from Rachelle's blog. They were very helpful.

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  28. (Sorry I'm late getting in on this - I'm just now finding this blog and all this valuable info!)

    This post clears up a question I've encountered a few times about whether or not the "pitch" line should give away the ending. Thank you!

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  29. Great blog. Do you have any tips on how to pitch a novel written in multiple viewpoints: i.e. with more than one story going on?

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