Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter
Pitching your book to an agent or editor is daunting. How are you supposed to cram the essence of your entire novel into a pithy couple of sentences? (Hint: You’re not.) Here’s a formula for a concise pitch that will set you on the right track. Ladies and Gentlemen, James Scott Bell‘s “three-sentence pitch”:
First Sentence: Your lead character’s name, vocation, and initial situation. Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high-level merger negotiations between computer companies.
Second Sentence: “When” + the main plot problem. When Will celebrates a recent merger by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.
Third Sentence: “Now” + the stakes. Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC, and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology that can be used for mass destruction.
Boom. Three sentences. The first introduces the protagonist in his ordinary world. The second presents the inciting incident. The third is what your character stands to lose if the antagonistic forces prevail. Here’s another example:
Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch. When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her. Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.
Give it a try, but keep each sentence brief. Having taught this formula at pitch workshops, I know how tempted writers are to pack those three sentences full of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building. Resist that urge!
Now, can you boil your three-sentence pitch down further to create an even more concise pitch? Conversely, can you expand it to craft an evocative query letter? Whichever way you go, start here: with three sentences.
Above, we looked at a quick three-sentence formula that will help you start to craft your pitch. Did you try it? Yes? Awesome!
Did you thwart the temptation to squeeze in a bunch of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building? No? Alas. Go back to those three sentences and whittle, hone, refine, and polish. Until you do, your pitch probably isn’t ready.
Go ahead. Do it now. I’ll wait.
Are you back? Excellent. Then let’s get you ready for your pitch appointment:
Ditch the idea that your pitch is supposed to be a complete summary of your novel. It’s not. Your pitch is a conversation starter. Pitch appointments at writing conferences tend to run about ten minutes. Deliver your pitch, then let the agent you’re pitching to ask you questions about your novel. About you. About your writing in general. Relax and have a chat.
Focus on character and plot. Ten-minute pitch appointments fly by, and many are wasted by the author who spends…way…too…much…time…explaining (1) his protagonist’s backstory, (2) his world-building elements, or (3) all the cool historical facts he discovered when researching his novel. Seriously. I once listened to a pitch during which the author never actually told me a single thing about her plot. Even when I asked questions about the story itself, her replies remained focused on backstory and setting. The agent wants to know if the story you put down between page 1 and page 350 is something they can sell. That’s what’s on the table, so focus on that.
Be prepared to respond to feedback and questions. Things I’ve said (gently, I hope!) to writers during pitch appointments include: (1) You’re pitching this as YA, but it’s coming across as a middle grade. What makes it YA? (2) How will your novel stand out among current bestsellers in your genre, or how will it appeal to readers of those bestsellers? (3) What are the last three books you’ve read in your genre? (4) What is your novel’s inciting incident, and how far into the manuscript does it occur? (5) In the story you just described, it concerns me that your protagonist isn’t actually the one who solves the plot problem. (6) The conflict you describe is very internal to your character. What is the story’s external conflict, and how does it get resolved and/or relate to the internal conflict? (7) Has your manuscript been critiqued by a critique group or beta readers?
Bring a copy of your query letter. If the agent stops you in the first minute of your pitch appointment with something like “I don’t represent that genre” (or anything else that feels like a shutdown/letdown), then politely ask if she wouldn’t mind giving you her quick impression of your query letter. After all, it’s your ten minutes. You paid for the appointment. And her input on your query letter just might help you land a different agent—one that’s right for you, your genre, and your project.
Understand that a disappointing pitch has zero bearing on your future as a writer. There will be other conferences, other pitch appointments, other opportunities. Keep pitching. Keep sending out query letters. The more doors you knock on, the more likely one (or more) will open.
And above all, keep writing.
Angie Hodapp has worked in language-arts education, publishing, professional writing, and editing for the better part of the last two decades. After completing her master’s thesis, a work of creative nonfiction, and leaving academia, she gave herself permission to write what she really wanted to write: speculative fiction and romance. Angie is currently the contracts and royalties manager at Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She and her husband live in a renovated 1930s carriage house near the heart of the city and love collecting stamps in their passports.