Pitch it to Me, Baby

By Karen Duvall

Wow! I can’t believe the Colorado Gold Conference is only one month away. I’m refraining from packing my bag too early, but I mentally add to my packing list every day. I’m all registered for conference, my plane reservations are made, my hotel room is set, I’m super excited to see my kids and grandkids while I’m there, and I’m eager to visit with all my Colorado writer friends again. This promises to be an incredible trip.

As I prepare for my journey, I’m also preparing for the conference itself. I feel very lucky to have made it into a critique workshop with Kensington editor Peter Senftleben on Friday morning. Though I have an agent, it never hurts to network and the manuscript pages I’m having critiqued is from the book my agent is preparing to submit to publishers. I want my pitch to be tighter than a banker’s wallet.

It’s fortunate for me that I’ll be teaching a “Pitch and Query” workshop for the Central Oregon Writers Guild on Saturday, August 23, at COCC in Redmond, Oregon. Perfect timing, yes? Because not only will I be helping guild members work on pitches for their novels, they’re going to help me with mine. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Guild members aren’t preparing to pitch at any specific conference I’m aware of, but it’s smart to have one ready for any situation when you might need a tight description of your book. During the workshop we’ll be working on queries as well. Conferences aren’t the only opportunities to pitch a novel. There are now many pitching opportunities online that include blog events with editors and agents, writer group forums, Twitter, Facebook and online writers’ conferences that are growing in popularity.

This is all the more reason why a pitch should be brief and effective. Step one — It needs three vital components for a solid hook:

  • Paint a compelling mental picture.
  • Offer an idea of genre.
  • Have a killer title.

What elements go into the pitch? First we state who the hero is, what his goal is and why he must have it, and what prevents him from getting what he wants. It’s vital that we focus on the conflict at the heart of our book. Put this all together and you have an ironclad formula for a successful pitch. If it falls within the purview of an agent’s or editor’s acquisition needs, you’ll probably get a request for pages.

I recommend writing several versions of your pitch. When you think you have a good one, don’t stop there. Polish it, let it sit for a while, then read it again out loud. The goal is to hook your audience, so it should be short and to the point.

As usual, it’s easier to use movies as examples because popular movies are the most familiar. Here are two fairly good single-line pitches:

“A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.” – Die Hard

“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.” – Pretty Woman

Both these examples use hooks to grab attention. Once you capture an editor’s or agent’s interest, you can take it one step further. Both these one-liners set the stage to continue on with the hero’s character arc and the emotional stakes that embroil him and the antagonist. The first line of your pitch is usually conceptual, an overview of the big picture. Once your hook has found its mark, it’s time to reel in your audience with theme and conflict.

Be prepared to answer unexpected questions that may not be covered in your pitch. You might be asked something like: Who’s your villain and what does he want from your hero? Where did you get the idea for your story? Who are the other characters and why are they important? Plus myriad other possible inquiries. Know your story inside and out.

Practice your pitch on a fellow writer or critique partner. If you pre-registered for the one-on-one pitch coaching sessions on Friday at conference, you’ll have a chance to try out your pitch and get feedback from a professional.

During my workshop here in Oregon I’ll be breaking up the class into groups so they can brainstorm and practice writing their pitches. But as a warm up, I have an exercise planned. They’ll get a list of vague pitches for popular movies that that can be “beefed up” to power pitch level. Vague pitches can be misleading and lose power due to a lack of specificity. I’ve collected a bunch and the class can revise as many as they want as practice for creating their own pitches.

Can you revise any of these poor pitch examples?

Batman: A man deals with the deaths of his parents.
Superman: A Kansas farmboy moves to the big city and helps people.
Spider-Man: A nerdy teenager learns to stand up for what he believes in.
Captain America: A troubled young man takes steroids, attacks foreigners.

Feel free to post in comments whatever you come up with.

Though I won’t be giving my pitch workshop at Colorado Gold, I will be presenting a workshop on Plot Devices: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on Saturday, September 6, at 4:30 p.m. I’ll have a few tools to share for your writer’s toolbox so don’t miss it. See you then!

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Karen Duvall lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. She’s an award winning author published with Harlequin Luna and is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy series.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com

7 thoughts on “Pitch it to Me, Baby

  1. terryshames

    Karen, I wrote a blog post about this topic this week, but not as broad as yours. The bottom line for me was that people giving a pitch need to focus first on who and then what. I was at Thrillerfest and asked a few people what their works in progress were about. I was amazed at how unprepared many people were to give a few short sentences about their work. Many of them seemed to think a “philosophical” answer was the proper one (i.e., “my book is about how no one is what they seem to be”). Your advice is spot on!

    Reply
    1. Karen Duvall Post author

      I know just what you mean, Terry. I’ve encountered the same thing. It’s partly nerves, but also unpreparedness. You never know who you’re gonna meet in the elevator.

      I remember attending a PNWA conference in Seattle and I had my pitch all ready. I’d memorized it. And then when I sat down with the agent, I froze. I couldn’t remember a word of it. So I took out my cheat sheet and she says, “Here, hand it to me.” So she read it to herself. LOL. I was mortified. :) Nerves can do funny things to the brain.

      Reply
      1. terryshames

        That’s why I think it’s so helpful to have that formula in your head. Protagonist name first, then what he or she is up against. If you say the name first, you’ve got a start. Of course, I’ve been known to forget the name of my protagonist under duress!

        Reply
    1. Karen Duvall Post author

      LOL, Shannon! We can help each other because I’m sure mine will still need some work. Hey, I have an idea. Have Dave fly you out here and you can come to my workshop! \o/ Heehee.

      Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    We all have pitch sessions and loglines on our minds before conference, don’t we? Roommates practice on each other, we ask every new acquaintance what he writes and if he’s pitching this year, and we hope for and live in terror of that agent encounter on the elevator. It’s taken me a lot of years to stop obsessing and focus on planning and practicing…and yet I still get nervous as I walk into the room and meet the agent/editor for the first time.

    Reply

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