We’ve all faced the problem of shoving our perfectly polished, honed, and refined novel into the misshapen box known as the pitch (or the query or the god-forsaken synopsis). It’s like trying to turn a diamond back into coal. It seems impossible, and everyone’s first attempts usually end messy and painful.
After reading over one hundred pitches for Pitch Slam, I’ve noticed what makes one pitch stand out, another come so close and another miss. The advice from all the judges fell into a few patterns.
Here are seven of the most common tips.
1. You have 35 words. Use them all. When someone stops at 30, I wonder how much time they really spent on honing the pitch. There are starving people in the contest who would walk a thousand miles for five more words. Use them. (But don’t go over.) With five words, you can weave in voice. You can add specifics. You can go from good to great.
2. Comp titles are not your book. They are not short-hand for your book. And they take up space. I don’t think there was a single pitch slam entry where I thought, “Great use of comps!” In almost every case, I wanted more information about the book. Sometimes I hadn’t even read the comps, so that’s doubly wasted space. Comps are great for queries where you have the luxury of words. Not so much in a pitch.
3. Stakes are the heavy workers in your pitch. Every book should have something at stake. A number of pitches would benefit from being written in formulaic “when x, y must, or else z” to boil your story down to the basic crux. What does your character want? What is s/he willing to do to make that happen? What will it cost to succeed? What will it cost to fail? This is the hook. Make sure you know what the stakes of your book are and push that.
4. Your main character is the emotional core of your story. I’m much more invested in “unpopular Jack” than I am in “unpopular boy”. I’m even less interest in “boy.” Give your MC’s name and throw some descriptive paint on him/her so we know who we’re rooting for. Beware of naming minor characters — those you can continue to call by general nouns. You still want to make your nouns as powerful and descriptive as possible.
5. No matter how much character or stakes you get into your pitch, you are going to miss if I can’t follow the story. Make sure your setup is clear. If you’re going to use words that will only become familiar when I read your book, you’re going to have to devote space to explaining them or risk confusing me. I want to understand, so help me out. And no matter how common your words are, you want to make sure that there’s a logical connection between cause and effect. Don’t jump from your premise to your stakes without connecting the dots for me to know how they relate. Everything in your pitch should be pertinent and support the same goal. Ask a friend who’s unfamiliar with your book to read your pitch and tell you what they think it’s about.
6. Be specific. The best pitches make clear the who, what, why, how. It’s hard to get excited about vague characters, a vague set up, and vague stakes. “A boy goes to school to learn how to become a wizard and defeat evil to save the world” sounds really boring compared to “Seemingly ordinary eleven-year-old Harry enters wizarding school. Navigating forbidden forests and hidden passageways, he stumbles on clues to a lurking danger. If he can’t solve the riddle, he’ll unleash the dark lord who killed his parents.”
7. Make sure the mechanics are perfect. Your grammar, spelling, and punctuation need to be perfect. Beyond this, make sure that your sentences flow. You can choose to use a single sentence or four, but note that most pitches flow best with two or three sentences. The first can give us set up. The second can give us stakes. Read your pitch out loud and make sure it sounds right to your ear.
8. If you can manage all of the above, you’re already going to have an awesome pitch. If you can do all that while weaving in some voice, you’ll be golden. Voice is that unquantifiable thing that makes a reader smile slightly with the joy of reading. It’s a perfectly chosen word or an unexpected turn of phrase. Ideally, your voice will match the tone of your story. You should never put voice ahead of all the above points. I don’t care how cute your 35 words are if I don’t understand what your story’s about. But voice on top of a great pitch will have slush readers fighting for your entry.
The 35 word pitch is only one concentric level of hell above the Twitter pitch. If you sent one into Pitch Slam, congratulations! You’ve already done the hard work of narrowing down your story to the bare bones. I hope the above tips will help you refine your pitch into something amazing. Good luck!