[September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.]
Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips by Chuck Sambuchino
If you’re writing a novel or memoir, the most important part of the query letter is the pitch—a brief basic description of your story designed to pique the agent’s interest. This will be the longest and most difficult section to compose. It’s tough to boil down an entire book into a few condensed paragraphs, but here are 7 tips for how to lay out a compelling pitch that draws an agent or editor in.
1. Control your length. Pitches are 3-10 sentences, and most run 6-9. Concise is a very good thing. If you write more than ten sentences, your letter runs the risk of going over one page and also simply rambling.
2. Do not reveal the ending. If, when describing my latest novel, I told you that the good guy wins in the end, but his wife dies when failing to disarm a bomb at the end … would you still want to read the book? Probably not. A query pitch reads like back cover copy from a novel or DVD in that you don’t explain how the story ends, but rather retain intrigue and suspense.
3. On that note, look at DVDs and novels to see sample pitch text all around you. If you’re having trouble putting together a pitch, visit your nearest Barnes & Nobles or Target or any other place that sells both books and movies. Pick up both films and books in your genre (e.g., children’s stories, Christian fiction, thrillers, etc.) and start reading the boxes, back covers, and jackets. Those are all pitch examples for you to study and emulate. See what grabs your attention.
4. Be specific and avoid generalities. Specific elements bring a pitch to life and generalities drag it down. Don’t say, “The couple goes through many highs and lows.” Explain what that means, specifically, even if you’re just touching upon a bigger picture. “Avoid vagueness,” says literary agent Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary. “I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel. If there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no.” Being specific paints pictures in the mind of the reader. If I tell you that my main character “just quit his job,” does that create an image in your mind? Probably not. But how about if I told you, “After making his hundredth Big Mac this weekend, 17-year-old Rodney Morrison makes a spontaneous decision to quit his job in style—by launching a cupful of special sauce out the drive-through window at a rude customer before walking out the front door with his middle fingers high in the air.” Now, does that paint a picture in your mind? Yes.
5. Aim to elicit emotion. The style and voice of the pitch itself should reflect the content of the book. Don’t say, “My novel is a humorous romp with quirky characters.” The agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to make her laugh. Can you do that? Don’t say, “My novel is full of suspenseful twists and turns.” Rather than talk about your novel from a distance, the agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to put a chill down her spine. If you’re writing light, humorous women’s fiction, then there should be some laughs in the query letter. If you’re writing a dark horror novel, then there should be some spooky elements. Imagine you read a line like “But as Candace continues to explore the world of erotic asphyxiation, she becomes addicted to the feeling and even begins to choke herself in bathroom stalls on lunch breaks just to experience the sensation.” Such a line hits you, and can make you feel repulsed, or intrigued, or engaged. It triggers your emotions. If you can appeal to an agent’s emotions, she’s much more inclined to request more material—because you’ve shown her that your writing connects to readers, rather than just told her (anyone can do that).
6. Beware subplots and unnecessary details. Pitches often go too long, because they’re bogged down with superfluous elements. A simple way to avoid this is to cut out the small stuff: leave plot elements, setting description, and proper nouns on the cutting room floor. For example, look at these two potential beginnings of a pitch:
Version 1: Zalisa is a teenage elven princess who lives on a jungle planet. Despite her desire to live a common life welding swords, she is repeatedly told by her parents about her destiny to become queen and bring peace between warring tribes as their supreme leader. (Word count: 46; two sentences.)
Version 2: Zalisa, part of the chosen Y’Ri noble elves, lives with the Sha’NaRee tribe on the jungle planet of Usulurah. Adorned with long hair down to her waist and many tattoos she’s designed herself, all Zalisa wants is a life among the commoners doing what she loves best: sword making. She has quietly developed an amazing knack for intricate blade making, and trained with the highest levels of metalworkers and smiths in her province of Va’Quenay. The only problem is that her parents, E’Leepha and Can-Yur, expect their daughter to refrain from frolicking among the commoners, but instead fulfill the destiny of Tritonalt, a great prophecy widely known to all citizens of Usulurah. According to Tritonalt, Zalisa is the chosen royal descendent who will ascend to the throne as part of a divine prediction foretold by the ancient elven wise men at the 7 Cycles of Wisdom gathering eons ago when all the system’s planets were in line with the sun. Once she has ascended to the throne, it is foretold that Zalisa will quell the constant warfare that has hampered the planet, and finally bring peace to the land. (Word count: 186; six sentences.)
The second intro is chock-full of stuff we don’t need to know right now: the proper names of things (such as the planet name), her exact appearance outside of being an elf (i.e., the tattoos), and the backstory about how the prophecy came to be (the gathering). The second version has already used up most of the query page—six pitch sentences, out of a maximum ten—and there’s no discussion of what happens throughout the meat of the plot, what challenges Zalisa faces, or what she sets off to do to stop said challenges.
7. Practice, and have different versions if need be. Tell your pitch to others or get your query formally critiqued by a professional or peers. If you can’t decide between two versions of a pitch, you can always try out both and keep tabs on which agents get which versions. If one is garnering a better response rate than the other, you have your answer concerning how best to move forward.
September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.
Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.