Writers in the Storm

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September 9, 2016

Pitch Your Novel Perfectly

Susan SpannSusan Spann

In the publishing world, an "elevator pitch" is a one-sentence (under one minute) pitch an author gives an agent, editor, or reader in order to prompt interest in a manuscript or book.

I've heard a lot of these over the years, and I help authors write (or revise) them in conference settings. In fact, this coming weekend I’ll be taking pitch appointments and helping authors prepare to pitch agents at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference in Denver.

While the content of every author’s pitch will vary, depending on the setting, genre, and nature of the author's work, there are some constants common to effective elevator pitches. Since I’ve got pitching on my mind, I thought I’d use today’s guest post to offer a few pro tips for crafting the perfect elevator pitch for your novel or nonfiction book:

1. Effective pitches last under one minute. (No Exceptions.)

Many times, authors try to cram too much information into an elevator pitch.

(This is the #1 mistake I see, and the #1 error agents mention to me.)

Authors often think an agent or editor (or a reader) needs to know everything about the novel in order to understand its premise. That’s not true. Long pitches lose your listener, and can persuade an editor or agent that you're not ready for publication. Telling too much actually tells the listener that you can’t describe your work effectively.

Instead, craft a pitch that you can deliver in a single breath . . . without gasping and flopping around on the floor like a fish at the end.

2. Effective pitches favor “high concept” over telling the entire story.

The purpose of a pitch is to make the listener excited about reading your book or manuscript, not to tell the entire story.

Consider movie trailers and the jacket copy on published novels: neither tells the entire story. In fact, the most attractive pitches entice without revealing more than absolutely necessary. They tell you about you the protagonist, the conflict and stakes (s)he faces, and leave you wanting to read and find out what happens.

3. No backstory dumps.

For purposes of the pitch, your character's backstory almost never matters. I say “almost” because if your hero is a ninja detective (like mine), you’ll obviously want to mention that fact, even though his ninja training happened in the past. However, the details of his backstory—the woman who scarred him, the brother who died, and the fact that he’s really, really fond of udon—don’t belong in the pitch.

Authors find backstory compelling because MOTIVATION and FEELINGS and THIS IS IMPORTANT . . . except, in the context of the pitch, it usually isn’t. All the agent, editor, or readers really needs is "A middle grade novel about a three-legged chihuahua raised by a clan of ninja cats, who must employ his ninja skills to stop an evil platypus mage from killing all the ninja cats and taking over the world."

No matter how much you want to tell the listener all about the chihuahua's abandonment issues, and how his cousin is also a platypus, and how he also has asthma and a really bad case of gout ... please don't.

Backstory turns a winning pitch into a loser faster than a platypus mage can vaporise a clan of ninja cats.

4. Memorize your pitch. Don't read it.

Authors often want to read the pitch, because it's too long or complicated to memorize or because the author is afraid of forgetting it due to nerves. Don't do this.

You've spent thousands of hours writing and revising this story. You can memorize one sentence--and if you can't memorize it, that means your pitch is too long.

Edit, shorten, and tighten it until you can commit it to memory. Editors and agents understand nerves, but they also need to know you understand your work and that you can talk about it without a cheat sheet.

5. Practice your pitch with other people, and listen to their feedback. 

The first time pitching your book is always the scariest (and least comfortable), so practice it with friends and fellow writers before you try it out on editors and agents.

Practice until you're comfortable, and ask the listeners for feedback. Pay attention to what they say. If the pitch is too long, or confusing, be willing to fix it.

6. Relax.

Many authors are terrified of face-to-face meetings with editors and agents, but industry pros are only people--and generally, quite nice ones. The pitch is not your "one and only chance" for success. It’s a chance to talk about your book with some someone who might actually want to read it.

Obviously, this isn't an exhaustive list of ways to improve your elevator pitch, but hopefully it gives you a good head start. Do you have other suggestions that have worked for you?

About Susan

Ninjas-Daughter1Susan Spann writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. The fourth book in the series, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, will release from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).

11 comments on “Pitch Your Novel Perfectly”

  1. Thank you! I'm at this very point (query, pitch) and I'm devouring every scrap of advice I can find.

  2. Great suggestions, Susan. These come in handy whether you're pitching an agent or attempting to tell friends/neighbors/strangers about your book. 🙂

  3. Super post, Susan. My new bookmark has two book covers on it, and each has its high-concept one-liner under it. Unfortunately, I still don't have either one of them memorized. Good reminder. Thanks. Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

  4. Great tips, Susan! I'm not ready (or, rather, the WIP isn't ready for me) to pitch yet, but I've been working on a practice one so I'll be ready when the time comes. And while I've managed to hit all of your criteria, up until last month I felt like something was missing from it. Then someone suggested adding a quick phrase or statement about the stakes - what the MC stands to gain or lose if she doesn't reach her goal. Once I added in the "stakes statement" at the end, the pitch has been grabbing people's attention more often. 🙂

  5. The elevator pitch is - for me - the most difficult thing to write. I'm working on mine now. If you are willing to react, Susan, I'd be grateful. If not, I understand, since my request is a bit like the doctor getting asked for a diagnosis at the cocktail party. Here it is: "A public relations counselor must balance her professional career against her personal beliefs as she works with a meat packing client she believes abuses immigrant workers."

  6. I never know what to say when people ask me about my books. It's a question guaranteed to make me tongue-tied. So I had my pal, Laura Drake, write my pitch/logline and I just memorized it.

    If you can find a way to get me over the visceral freak-out of pitching, I will be indebted to you forever!

  7. I wish I'd had this great "checklist" the first time I had to write a pitch. (Mine was waaaaay too long.) Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom with us, Susan!

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