Monday, October 12, 2009


I’m soon off to the Surrey International Writers Conference so I am trying to craft a pitch that will pique the interest of Donald Maass, the agent I am seeing at the conference. If my pitch doesn’t pique his interest, I’m hoping it at least doesn’t send him screaming from the room.

So, what is a pitch? It’s that short, intriguing blurb about your story meant to entice an editor or agent to ask more about your book and have them (hopefully) request to see a full manuscript. That’s a lot of pressure on a scant few lines of prose. Where does one begin?

Let’s begin by discussing what a pitch is not. It is not a mini-synopsis of your whole story. I was relieved to read this news on Kristen Nelson’s blog, Pubrants. Ms. Nelson says “all you need to do is examine the first 20 or 50 pages of your manuscript. Then zero in on the main catalyst that starts the story forward—the main conflict from which all else in the novel evolves. It’s the catalyst kernel of your story that forms your pitch.”

Lee Nordling concurs. “The complete sequencing of events for your story is important, but not at the pitch stage. At this stage, you’d be surprised how little beyond the concept and the arc of the story is important.”

Whew! Good to know I don’t have to sum up my entire story. Ms. Nelson goes on to say pitches are much like back cover blurbs; they never give away the ending of the story. For good examples she suggests taking a trip to your local library or bookstore and checking out the back cover blurbs of a number of books in your particular genre to get an idea of what a pitch should look and feel like.

So, how do I create a pitch that gets the attention of agents and editors? Kristen Nelson says that romance novels are particularly difficult to pitch because there are essentially no new stories under the sun. But there are new and unique ways to tell these stories and that uniqueness must come through in your pitch. “Too often I see historical romance pitch copy that reads something like this: she’s desperate but the belle of the ball and he’s a rake. It’s too generic. I need some original element (character, plot device, etc.) to grab my interest or I’ll pass.”

Ms. Nelson uses the example of Allison Brennen’s book “The Prey”. Here, the unique element is that someone is murdering people remarkably similar to the characters in the heroine’s bestselling novel. What’s unique about your novel? Make that the center point of your pitch.

A good pitch should not only be unique, it should be brief. The examples Kristin Nelson gives range from 5 to 8 lines. She says that if a writer can’t get their pitch down to that length they’re not trying hard enough. You want your pitch to be brief in order to quickly introduce your story, and to give the agent/editor an opportunity to ask questions about your story. Generally, your agent/editor appointment will last about 10 minutes so you can’t waste time rambling. Don’t make the mistake I did the first time I pitched (albeit in a practice pitch session – although a real editor was involved). Not having a clue, I began to read my synopsis. I’d only gotten part way through when the editor told me my time was up. Yikes! Most editors will not mind if you read your copy from a 3” x 5” card. But practice ahead of time so you feel comfortable.

A good pitch should also raise story questions. Kristin Nelson uses the example of Jana Deleon’s novel “Rumble on the Bayou”. The pitch/blurb opens with the heroine, a deputy, finding an alligator stoned on heroin in the town drunk’s swimming pool. Hmmm, you wonder. How did the alligator get the heroin? Who’s the town drunk? Why did the alligator end up in this particular pool? A good pitch will make readers (and agents and editors) want to read the story to discover the answers to these questions.

Don’t forget to include at least a hint of the conflict in your pitch. Without conflict, you don’t have a story – or a pitch. Louisa Burton says “­empha­size the con­flict, because what every editor and agent knows, and what every novelist should know, is that conflict is the beating heart of a story.”

Have you written a pitch for your story? Remember, you don’t necessarily have to present it in person. It can become part of your query letter to an editor or agent. What’s the hardest part about writing a pitch for you? Check out a couple of pitches I’ve attempted to write at my website .


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks for another great collection of conference info, Jana. I haven't yet needed to pitch, so my half-assed pitches aren't particularly cohesive, but I'll be sure to come back to these posts of yours when I'm ready to head out and push my product at cons.

Karyn Good said...

I tried my hand at a pitch when Nikki Duncan visited us here on the prairies and found it a very useful exercise. I wanted to give it a try because as you say, it can be used in queries. I like what Kristen Nelson's blog says about pitching and I found Allison Brennen's example for The Prey very helpful.

Good luck with Donald Maass! I'm very much enjoying his book. And good luck in Surrey, I can't wait to hear how it all goes. It's getting close!

Janet C. said...

I'm working on it - really I am. I also really like Jessica Faust's blog at She gives a huge amount of advice and real examples - check out her archive, she also did pitch sessions.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
You don't have to wait until you go to a conference to write a pitch. As Karyn says below, don't forget that you can use a pitch as part of your query letter to an agent or editor. They can be very handy devices to succinctly define the story for you as well. In fact maybe the best time to write a pitch may be when you're in the planning stages of your story.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I thought the pitch you wrote with Nikki Duncan was excellent. You have a real flair for pitches and taglines. Keep up the good work!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
The reason I wrote these blogs was because I knew it would force me to get my act together and get ready for the conference. I've still got lots to do as well and I'm feeling the pressure too. But just think of it, Janet. It'll be worth it when we get there!

Thanks for the link. I'm going to check it out now.


Helena said...

The time factor is starting to make me feel I'm in a pressure cooker, Jana. On top of that, I had an unexpected invite to a family Thanksgiving gathering ... so my apologies for just checking in right now.

I know that your post will be top of my list of references in the next few days as I do what Janet's trying to do (and everyone else who's going to SiWC). Some intense work ahead. Hope we all land in Surrey feeling more or less prepared.

I like your advice to Hayley about using the pitch strategy for query letters. Anything that will make those contacts with editors come across more professionally.

Thanks for giving us more conference prep (was tempted to call it pep, because I know that's what we'll all need!)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Jana, but I wish you're written this before I went to Denver.

I actually read this on Monday then closed the window and forgot to come back and comment.

It's an excellent post - one of those keepers I'll copy and save in my 'promotion' folder.

Good luck with Donald Maass. He did a 7 hr workshop to 300 attendees in Denver and everyone raved about it for the next 3 days.