November 16, 2010

How to Write a Pitch Paragraph

It was so fun to do a pitch paragraph for the memoir pitch contest on the Dystel & Goderich blog! I find that I’m enjoying creating pitches a lot more now that I know a little bit about it. Before, I would throw up my hands and think to myself, does anyone really know how to write these things? The answer is yes ~ though I don’t claim to be an expert, I’ve done a lot of research and taken classes and helped a lot of other writers with theirs and even have gone to a whole conference devoted to figuring out how to pitch (Algonkian).

First I wanted to talk a little about the philosophy behind a pitch. No, it is not merely something agents do to make your life miserable (though it may seem like it sometimes). Hehe. It makes perfect sense of you think about how you tell stories and about how you evangelize books. So you read a book that you think is great and you want to tell everyone else about it. How do you do it? You start at the beginning and you tell them about the characters and a little about where it’s set and then launch into the plot. Sort of like you’d tell a story to someone sitting next to you on a barstool. You want to get across what a great story it is and why you liked it so much and also impress the person with your storytelling skill. (This, in fact, is a great exercise. Have a friend ask you what your story is about, and practice giving a couple of sentences as if you were talking about someone else’s book.)

The problem, of course, is that with your own book you don’t have the distance to simplify and essentialize it enough. To you, who worked on it for years and have thought of nothing else, it’s a complex being that is so much more than just what happens. But you know as well as I, if you tell someone what the book is about ~ the larger themes, the deep inner meaning ~ they’re going to be bored to tears. So you have to use all those great storytelling devices you use in your fiction: concrete details, specific language, lively verbs, cause and effect. You want a little theme, but not too much.

A big problem is that you have to simplify your story in your own mind, so let me urge you: you are only going to highlight the main storyline. ONLY the main storyline. Let me repeat … You only have a couple of sentences. One measly paragraph. You are telling only the main storyline. Also, two, maybe three characters tops. Add more characters at your own peril. You want your protagonist, antagonist, and maybe one more, but only if he or she is integral to that main plot. Of course, by simplifying the plot, it may feel like you’re misrepresenting the book, but it has to be done. We simply have to cope and move on about this. So, one storyline (the main one) and two characters, if at all possible.

So, you have a novel that is irreducible? Say it’s a novel in stories or some other experimental structure. Well, you’re going to have to do some research to figure out how to make it interesting while also talking about the bigger picture. Bigger picture often equals boring when that’s all you say about it. I guess the way to approach this is to ask yourself, what is the most interesting thing about this book, and focus on that.

Now we get to the actual pitch. A pitch needs to have everything that a great story has, only in a very short amount of space. It needs to have setting, characterization, plot, cause and effect, mystery/story problem, robust language, and larger themes. Always in present tense, of course. You’re not telling the whole plot ~ just the first one-fourth to one-third up until the first major turning point. You’re not aiming at resolution; you’re trying to get the reader to be hooked and want to buy your book/represent you.

So, a template: In [time period] [setting], [characterization of protagonist]. [Inciting incident followed by escalation/cause and effect to the first major turning point, while introducing and characterizing the antagonist]. [End with a problem that gestures to the larger themes of the book.]

Okay, this may not be the most helpful template, but it gets across how I think of it. Another tool that has been very helpful for me for both the pitch and the synopsis is this: Write your story as if it were a fairytale. You think I’m kidding. That was the only way I could write a synopsis and pitch for my last novel (Deep Down Things, which was from four points of view, each with its own character arc). So, here’s a fairytale hook:
Once upon a time, a sweet but plucky girl who wore a red cape and hood was tasked by her mother to take food to her sick grandmother, who lived on the other side of a dark wood. Her mother warned her not to go through the wood, but it was such a long way around and the wood did not look so dark and deep, so the girl decided to cut through it anyway. Little did she know, a whip-smart wolf awaited her, not simply to eat her up, but to destroy all that she held dear.
Not the best example, maybe, but you get the idea. It’s got all you need for a pitch: setting, characterization of protagonist, story problem, antagonist, larger theme. Try it, you might be surprised. Once you get that version down, then you rewrite it in pitch language.

The pitch/fairytale I created for my book (Deep Down Things) went something like this: 
In present-day Loveland, Colorado, a naïve but capable girl meets an idealistic young man who is a writer. As she helps him write a book, they fall in love, but things happen, as they do, and soon they are pregnant. Because the young man is idealistic, he blames the girl for not living up to his image of her, but also because he is idealistic, he asks her to marry him. They marry but then their darling baby, a boy, has a severe birth defect, and the girl must try to save her marriage and her child.
Once I massaged this into pitch language, trying to include more of the man’s perspective and a little theme, it became this: 
Nobody talks about the dark side of creativity. That the drive to create stems from loss. And, whether it’s a child or a book, some creations are destined to have short lives. From the death of her parents at sixteen, Maggie Jordan yearns for lost family. When she and an idealistic young writer named Jackdaw fall in love, she is certain that she’s found what she’s looking for. As she helps him write a novel, she gets pregnant, and they marry. But after Maggie gives birth to a darling boy, Jes, she struggles to cope with Jes’s severe birth defect, while Jackdaw struggles to overcome writer’s block brought on by memories of his abusive father.
Finally, I just wanted to point out just a couple other great resources on pitch writing. There are many more on the web, so lots of research is good.
  • Jane Friedman is doing a great series on her blog about novel pitches and query letters. Make sure to look around her blog and site - she has so many invaluable insights!
  • Miss Snark’s wonderful Cover Letter Crap-O-Meter.
And, finally, get feedback! Have your writer friends help you. If you find a contest on an agent’s blog, enter it. By all means, get help.

Questions of the Day: Do you know of any great resources on this subject? Please comment to let everyone know.

1 comment:

Walt Giersbach said...

Tough assignment, no doubt. It's taken me years to write a pitch in 30-35 words as an opening graf to a submission.

The pitch that got me into a Writer's Digest prize: "Everybody benefits from a risk-taker, but does everyone also have to pay for his mistake? Daniel wasn’t a bad husband or father, but he jeopardized his family, and this misfortune continued to echo through his daughter’s and granddaughter’s lives. When you play with the devil, you owe him his due." Concluding."Oh, and in relation to 'Paying the Devil,' free spirits are entertaining people, but they’re hell to live with."