by Christine Wells
Many of us in Romanceland are eagerly anticipating the national conference of Romance Writers of America® in Washington D.C. next week. A large number of our Bandita Buddies are aspiring writers, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about pitching your manuscript.
There are all kinds of pitches, from the short elevator pitch (useful for cocktail parties or casual encounters with publishing professionals) to the longer, blurb-style pitch you might use in a scheduled meeting. Which you use depends on the circumstances, but two things must be present: conflict and what I call ‘sexy’ words—specific details from your story that have that ‘wow’ factor. These are the kinds of words that imply high stakes, immediacy, humor, quirkiness, mystery, intrigue or yes, sometimes, plain old sex. We’re all interested in those things, right? Specifics will set your book apart from the herd.
Taking a well-known concept and giving it a twist can be an effective way of pitching a story. The high concept pitch Anna Campbell used for her debut novel CLAIMING THE COURTESAN, which sold to Avon at auction, was Pretty Woman by candlelight. Everyone has seen the movie Pretty Woman or at least knows the premise. The twist is setting the story in the Regency period (the candlelight reference), when a courtesan was wholly in her keeper’s power.
When Kirsten Scott sold her young adult novel, DELCROIX ACADEMY: THE CHOICE in a ‘good’ deal to Hyperion, her agent called it X-Men for girls. That succinct, three word pitch speaks volumes, doesn’t it? It gives you the tone, the subgenre, the type of conflict and the fresh twist.
My pitch for WICKED LITTLE GAME was Indecent Proposal with a Regency twist.
Of course, the movie world is where the high concept pitch was born. The movie ALIEN was pitched as Jaws in space. If you want to find more examples of high concept pitches for movies, you can search IMDB by keyword.
But the movie with a twist won’t work for every story, and can be risky unless you refer to a blockbuster or a classic. Even then, if the editor or agent hated the movie or didn’t see it or just doesn’t get the significance of the twist, you’ve lost her. So, let’s move on to the slightly longer logline.
Anna Sugden, whose fabulous Panic-Free Pitching workshop handout is on her website, has a perfect logline for LOVE BY BEQUEST: A Texas cowboy inherits an English sheep farm. Now, the conflict is obvious, isn’t it? A classic fish out of water story. For the logline, you don’t even need to know who the heroine of this romance is. That comes later in the blurb-style paragraph in your query. Don’t try to tell the whole story in this short, one line pitch.
For her recent release, THE EDUCATION OF MRS. BRIMLEY, Donna MacMeans used this logline: A Victorian strip-tease. Yep, that’s it. Intrigued? Go buy the book!
Donna’s next novel for Berkley, THE TROUBLE WITH MOONLIGHT, was about a Victorian heroine who turns invisible in moonlight. Just her, not her clothes. Donna says: ‘Did I mention she's a bit of a thief? If you want her to get something for you, she'll do it for a price but it's always during a full moon and, of course, she must be...’ You fill in the blank! A nekked invisible heroine thieving in Victorian England? Now that’s something I want to read. This pitch juxtaposes paranormal and historical romance in a fresh and intriguing way.
For her manuscript REFUGE, Suzanne Welsh’s more detailed pitch uses specific language to convey high-stakes action and conflict. After witnessing a senator's assassination, a spinster-librarian flees into the west as a mail-order bride to escape the clutches of the murderer.
Look at how many specific, ‘sexy’ words Suzanne uses to really enhance the punch of her pitch: senator (high profile implies high stakes) assassination (again, high stakes) spinster librarian (rightly or wrongly, we assume someone intelligent, sheltered and quiet, someone who must struggle to face the challenges ahead of her) the west (again, fish out of water scenario here) mail-order bride (hints at romance and an interesting conflict for someone labeled ‘spinster’) escape a murderer (high stakes, suspense).
I pitched my Berkley historical romance, THE DANGEROUS DUKE like this: A duke accidentally steals a lady’s erotic diary. Can you see this is going to be a sexy story about stolen secrets? Are you already wondering what will happen when my hero reads that diary and whether he’ll be caught out? I hope so!
Notice that none of these pitches goes into detail about the story. They focus on piquing the reader’s interest, that’s all. Usually, in a query letter or formal pitch session you need more detail than that, but it’s a great tactic to have the logline front and centre, before you move on to the longer blurb. A real sock-it-to-’em sentence that makes an agent or editor give the rest of your query their full attention. The ‘what if’ question can work well for this purpose, too.
For more examples of pitches that work, read through the deals on Karen Fox's wonderful website.
Now, not every book lends itself to a logline. My advice—write a book that does. That’s not as flippant as it might appear. Think about it—if a book lends itself to a dynamic, interesting hook, isn’t it more likely to be a dynamic, interesting book? Plus, writing a logline for your story before you begin gives you a sharpened focus, a touchstone to keep your story on track.
However, if you are submitting and you just can’t get that snappy one-liner, don’t despair. For my first novel, SCANDAL’S DAUGHTER, I wrote a standard one paragraph pitch and it had a 100% success rate. Which is not to say that every editor or agent offered representation or a contract, but everyone I queried asked for more.
That’s all a pitch can do for you. In the end, the proof is in the pages.
If you're a reader, do you find the 'high concept' attracts you to a story if you haven't read an author before? Can you think of any intriguing ways just one line about a story or a movie has captured your attention? I'd love to know your thoughts.
If you're a writer, pitch us your logline (and yes, published and unpublished writers are welcome to do this). Or share your own tips for writing great pitches. We have it on good authority that some editors and agents read our blog, so if you're an unpubbed, give it your best shot!
For those attending National, if you would like to win a one hour session with me at National to work on your pitch or even just chat about writing in general, please state it in your comment. I'll post the winner before I leave for D.C. on Monday and we can arrange a mutually convenient time.