Conference Critique Workshop #5: Perfecting your book pitch!

After speaking with someone recently who is trying to finalize their book pitch before the conference, I thought I’d talk about them for today’s post. 

But first, a description:  What is a book pitch? 

It’s a brief statement that explains the premise of your book.   In other words, it is what you say when an editor, agent, bookstore owner, librarian, friend or neighbor asks, “So, what’s your story about?

And second, a disclaimer:  I hate writing book pitches.

I have to admit that they really, really stress me out.  Especially the one-sentence kind my agent wanted me to write for my next book, JUST FLIRT.  Seriously?  I’m supposed to condense 290 pages, thirty chapters, two main characters, and all those plotlines into just one sentence, is she out of her mind?  Oh, no, I need at least five sentences.  Six, max.

But that’s my problem. 

A pitch isn’t supposed to be a complete summary that explains every single detail.  No, it’s supposed to be a brief statement that will make people want to read your book and find out every single detail.  And in order to create a successful one, I need to stop thinking like a writer:

And start thinking like an advertiser:

And for those who went to Pam Smallcomb’s ABC event, yes–I totally copied her Mad Men photo idea.  But it does prove the point, doesn’t it?

(Thanks, Pam! :))

A good way to get a feel for book pitches is to study movie descriptions and novel blurbs.  So let’s start off by heading over to the Internet Movie Database and seeing how other marketing pros described movies that we’re all (hopefully) familiar with, like:

“An animated film about a young deer, Bambi, growing up in the wild after his mother is shot by hunters.”

“Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry.” 

[I really like that one!]

“Five high school students, all different stereotypes, meet in detention, where they pour their hearts out to each other, and discover how they have a lot more in common than they thought.”

“A coming-of-age story about a shy, young boy sent by his irresponsible mother to spend the summer with his wealthy, eccentric uncles in Texas.”

[Love, love, LOVE that one!]

“Three ex-girlfriends of a serial cheater (Metcalfe) set up their former lover to fall for the new girl in town so they can watch him get his heart-broken.”

[I must admit that I like this from Amazon better:  “An unlikely sisterhood plots a girl-powered revenge in John Tucker Must Die.”  Nice, huh?]

“A socially awkward but very bright 15-year-old girl being raised by a single mom discovers that she is the princess of a small European country because of the recent death of her long-absent father, who, unknown to her, was the crown prince of Genovia.”

[Even though this sentence is a bit wordy, I still used it as an example to let you analyze it and decide what you would cut.  Me?  I’d take out “raised by a single mom.”]

~

Okay, your turn.  Look up the blurbs and descriptions used for books or movies that are similar to yours.  See what they included, and what they didn’t.  It’s not copying, it’s learning!

Once you’ve done that, it’s now time to write your own pitch.

And don’t you dare cringe.  It won’t be that bad. 🙂

First, step back and take a good look at your book in its entirety.  What is it really about?  What is the core issue?  What event changes your protagonist’s life for better or for worse?  This is not the time to get bogged down by the plot and every single twist, turn, nook, and cranny.  This is not the time to be poetic, intriguing, or witty.  Just write down one simple sentence.

    A girl’s horse goes permanently lame.
    A boy inherits a fruit farm.
    Twin boys discover they’re psychic.
    A girl discovers her boyfriend is a cheating louse.

If you’re having trouble with this, ask someone who has read or critiqued your story. Maybe they can point you in the right direction. For JUST FLIRT, I had a hard time identifying the core because there’s two points of view and SO much going on. But then Jeri Smith-Ready reminded me how the problems for both characters are caused by a secret Superflirt blog. Bingo! So my rough sentence would be: 

    A secret blog causes a lot of problems.

Now let’s make that sentence sing by brainstorming some keywords about your story. You won’t be using all of them–they’re just jumping off points. So grab a pen and paper and write down the answers to these following questions:

What kind of book is it?

    Coming of age? Paranormal? Thriller? Fantasy?

What is the genre?

    Young adult? Mid-grade? Picture book? (Don’t you love easy questions?)

How could you best describe your protagonist in one or two words?

    Outgoing overachiever? Ambitious show-off? Paranoid wreck? Wallflower? Shopaholic drama queen? Snotty heiress? 

What happens to your protagonist that changes their life?

    Your answer here will most likely be a repeat of the sentence you wrote above.

How could you best describe your main character’s antagonist?

    Devious twin sister? Corrupt biology teacher? Controlling mother? The snotty heiress’s arch-rival?

What is your story’s main setting and time period?

    Is your setting an important element, like the diner in the book, HOPE WAS HERE by Joan Bauer, or New York City in the TV show Sex in the City? Does your story take place in the past, like the 1950’s? If so, write it down.

What makes your story interesting?  

    Look closely at your plot and subplots and pull out keywords that makes your story stand out.  Like an ancient secret, historical intrigue, ghostly hauntings, denied love interest, damaging gossip, etc.

~

By now you should have a lot of keywords and phrases to work with.  Take a good look at them.  What jumps out at you?  What perks your interest?  What combinations can you use to best describe your novel? 

Let’s take a closer look at the one-sentence description for Secondhand Lions:

    “A coming-of-age story about a shy, young boy sent by his irresponsible mother to spend the summer with his wealthy, eccentric uncles in Texas.”

What did they use?  The kind of story, (coming of age,) a description of the protagonist, (shy, young boy,) the antagonist’s, (irresponsible mother,) what happens to the main character that changes his life, (he’s sent to spend the summer with his wealthy, eccentric uncles,) and the setting, (Texas.)

Using my novel, JUST FLIRT, as an example, here’s my answers for all the above questions:

    –  Coming of age.
    –  Young adult.
    –  Self-proclaimed superflirt.
    –  A secret blog causes a lot of problems.
    –  Popular bully.
    –  Struggling campground.
    –  Summer, lawsuit, love interest, secret blog, meddling mother-in-law, sworn enemy, revenge flirting, misunderstandings, a lying con artist.

By putting together the more interesting key elements, here’s what I first came up with for my one-sentence pitch, (with Jeri’s help!):

    A secret blog brings a summer of lies, lawsuits, and love to a self-proclaimed Superflirt, and her sworn enemy at a struggling campground.

(What can also be effective to is compare your book to a popular movie, like my agent did for my first novel, BEAUTY SHOP FOR RENT.  She described as “A Steel Magnolias for the younger set.”  Very clever!)

Now it’s your turn! Pick and choose your most interesting key elements and create your book pitch.

Once you’re done, Read it out loud.  How does it sound?  Too wordy?  Too complicated?  Does your tongue trip up over certain parts?

For mine, I love how this looks on paper, but sometimes I have a hard time saying it out loud, especially when I’m nervous.  So if I go into panic-mode when asked what my book is about, I’ll change it to:

    JUST FLIRT is a young adult novel about a secret blog that brings a summer of lies and love to a self-proclaimed Superflirt and her sworn enemy.

Maybe it’s not as interesting without the “lawsuits” and “struggling campground” elements, but hearing me stumble and mumble through a pitch doesn’t make a good impression, either!  I also added “young adult novel” to clarify my genre.

Once you’re satisfied with how your pitch sounds out loud, it’s time to memorize, memorize, MEMORIZE! Practice your pitch in front of the mirror, to your cat, or to your writing buddies.  Ask them what works, and what doesn’t.  And then prepare yourself to answer the question, “Cool, sounds good.  Tell me more!”

And finally, if you’re feeling nervous when it’s time to deliver that pitch to an editor, agent, bookstore owner, librarian, friend or neighbor, remember to:

    Take a deep breath.
    Quickly repeat it in your head before speaking.
    Speak slowly if you have a tendency to babble too fast like me.
    And above all . . . Be confident!  Be bold!  Be brave!

Good luck!

Workshop #1:  Opening Lines

Workshop #2:  Amazing Manuscript First Pages

Workshop #3:  Formatting

Workshop #4:  Surviving Your First Critique

Workshop #5:  Perfecting Your Book Pitch

Laura Bowers

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About Laura Bowers

Laura is a writer, runner, reader, runDisney addict, blogger/vlogger at Write, Run, Rejoice and Joyful Miles, mom of two college boys, excellent chili maker, and obsessive list keeper. She clearly likes run-on sentences and adverbs. She also still thinks Spice World was an awesome movie and feels no shame about that.
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17 Responses to Conference Critique Workshop #5: Perfecting your book pitch!

  1. Mary Bowman-Kruhm says:

    This is a wonderful and very valuable post, Laura. I suggest people do it early, even before they write their book. It is then what Kim Griswell, editor and Highlights workshop leader, calls a “nutshell” and can be a constant reminder of the tone, style, and parameters of your book. I tape my nutshells to the top of my computer.

  2. Edie Hemingway says:

    Thanks for taking us through this process in such a helpful, practical way, Laura! I actually think I can do it by following these suggestions.

  3. Pam says:

    Great post, Laura! When your sentence is written, I think you should be able to see your novel’s objectives: what it is that is going to push your character forward, etc. And if you can’t write this sentence no matter how hard you try, I think it can mean that you need take a good look at your plot. It distills things down to their essence. Now I am going to go work on mine. 🙂 Thank you!

  4. Michele Miller says:

    What great timing for this subject! I love it. You gave me the inspiration to finish writing my own pitch for my story. I was getting stuck with a really bad pitch and your suggestions and samples have helped immensely! Thanks again and keep them coming!

  5. Kara Laughlin says:

    Finally I have my one-sentence pitch! Read your post, cogitated while making dinner, fine-tuned with my husband while he set the table, and DONE! Thanks, Laura.

  6. great blog post. I am definately using this information at this Saturday’s meeting.

    Cindy

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  10. Cathy Sledz says:

    I’ve worked on pitches for three PB manuscripts now, one in particular helped remind me exactly what the story was about. Still, I stumble EVERY TIME over saying them out loud …ugh … trying to slow down and silence the inner critic.

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