(The following content was originally presented at the SCBWI New Mexico April Shop Talk on 4.09.19)
When I started querying in 2011, I looked at pitch a lot like a suitcase.
The first time I’d even think about writing a pitch for my work, the entire manuscript would be finished and ready to send around. I’d stare at the pitch format in horror, wondering how was I supposed to distill a huge, complex narrative into a two-paragraph query letter. Or even worse, a measly logline! My pitch suitcase looked like a tiny weekender bag I was supposed to stuff an entire wardrobe into. Fitting one into the other seemed impossible.
But writers seeking the traditional publishing route know that pitch is a necessary evil. So I gritted my teeth, manuscript after manuscript, and crammed the content into query letters. Every time I got the inevitable rejection, I would curse the concept of pitching.
“Why won’t agents give me a chance?” I would moan. “My stupid query letter is standing in the way of them connecting to all the special aspects in my book!”
Little did I realize that response was the key to everything I was doing wrong. But more about that in a moment.
Pitch and I started to become friendly in the fall of 2016, when I participated in the writer mentorship contest, Pitch Wars. While I revised my manuscript for two months, my entry in the final agent showcase was a mere 50-word summary and the first page of my story. Here's that summary:
The vitiligo on Tami’s skin has always made her lonely. When her new classmates mistake her for their missing friend Renee, Tami’s strange connection to her doppelgänger grants instant popularity—along with access to Renee’s dark secret. If Tami sets things straight, she’ll lose her newfound friends. If she doesn’t, she might lose herself.
My mentors and I worked on that short summary for weeks and weeks, yet I was still amazed to see the payoff and ultimate power of those fifty words. While the first page showcased my writing skills, the summary showcased my story’s concept, which turned out to be my winning ticket to signing with an agent.
Fast forward to a little over a year later.
When my agent and I first went on submission with THE DERBY DAREDEVILS, which was then a chapter book series titled THE FLANNELS, we honed the summary until it sizzled. Again, that hard work paid off. Here's that series pitch:
When Kenzie Ellington’s best friend moves to Canada two weeks before her birthday, Kenzie has to find someone new to celebrate with… and a way to celebrate! In THE FLANNELS, a group of funky third graders button their plaid shirts, lace up their roller skates, and take to Austin's junior derby track. Together, the Flannels face fierce competition, thieving roller derby ghosts, and some confusing first crushes. IVY & BEAN meets ROLLER GIRL in this queer chapter book series that embraces differences and staying true to oneself.
I met my eventual editor in person months after acquisition, once we were in the middle of revisions on Book 1 of a very different-looking middle grade series. Still, that initial pitch was the first thing she brought up in our conversation.
“Minutes after I received the email, I wrote Lauren back and said I couldn’t have dreamed a better pitch,” my editor told me. “I needed to read your story.”
Wow, I thought. Maybe that little weekender bag isn’t so bad after all.
And that’s when I realized that instead of being my worst writing enemy, pitch was actually becoming my best friend.
Since this discovery, I’ve studied and honed the craft of pitching. Looking back, I’m able to see that my inability to clearly pitch earlier manuscripts meant they were pretty much doomed from the start.
As a proud pro-pitch-convert, I want to go into all the great things about pitch I was missing out on, why I now start every project with a pitch before a draft, and my specific process for transforming the ideas in my head to a crisp logline and query letter.
What a Pitch Really Is and Why It’s Important
While past me may have thought loglines and query letters filtered out the special qualities in my writing, the truth is, it’s the pitch’s job to convey those special aspects. The reason why I missed this pretty obvious point was due to a common pitch misconception:
Ultimately, a pitch isn’t just about what happens in your story from A to Z. A pitch is about why this story is unique, fresh, and needs to be told.
When I’m out of ideas with my writing, I let pitch lead the way. I check out the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag on Twitter to see what agents and editors are fascinated by these days, to see if I’m drawn to any of those concepts.
A lot of times writers believe they’re only standing on one side of pitching, but really we’re on the other side too, as readers.
While I like to know what agents and editors are still searching for, I also like to see what they’ve already discovered. Along with #MSWL, I research deal announcements on Publishers Weekly Rights Reports and search for one-line descriptions that makes me want to read a certain book. Similarly, I’ll check out book blogs like “Pop! Goes the Reader” and consider the short descriptions of upcoming books and which ones pull me in.
There really is no escaping pitch. It sticks the whole way through a book’s life cycle.
A pitch is used to sell a book to an agent, then to an editor, then to a publishing team, then to booksellers and librarians, then to the reader. Pitch never ceases to be important. People will always want to read that paragraph-length description before they buy, checkout, or order a book.
Why Pitch Comes at the Beginning
In his book Anatomy of Story, John Truby suggests that writers crafting new stories should begin by making two lists: one summarizing all their past projects, and one of all the qualities they enjoy in books by other authors. The point of this exercise is to identify the unique and specific ideas writers most enjoy before they become sucked into the weeds of plotting and character arc.
I love this practice, and even though my tastes rarely shift between projects, I still make the lists every time I sit down to try something new. It reminds me to begin the process of writing with joy and excitement. And ultimately, my pitch becomes a touchstone marking my excitement for a new project that I can return to again and again when I’m lost in the drafting and revising stages.
Besides acting as a touchstone during times of struggle, I like crafting a pitch before I start a project because it can save me loads of time, energy, and heartache.
Sometimes an idea feels so fragile that I want to hide it away until it grows up into a full book. But I owe it to my ideas to get feedback early on. By the time I have a logline or two-paragraph pitch, it’s time to see if my excitement translates. While hearing a concept isn’t viable may hurt a lot in the moment, it’s much better than hearing the same response after I’ve spent months crafting and polishing a full manuscript.
The same goes for significant feedback that asks me to streamline or reimagine parts of the story. Once I have a whole manuscript in front of me, I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of elements that can change. Should I combine two side characters into one? Nix a subplot? Add a chapter or two in the third act? I can often toil away at a list of revisions without understanding if I’m addressing and improving the true core of the story.
When I begin with pitch, I’m building the narrative from the ground up. I don’t move onto the next floor until the first is solid. That way, when I do run into trouble I can figure out exactly which component isn’t working.
My Pitching Process
With #MSWL inspiration and “love lists” completed thanks to Truby’s advice, I make pages of messy notes about what I want my next story to look like. I jot down aspects of the setting, twists, character dynamics, or themes and symbols I want to see echoed throughout. If I have a picture of a scene in my head, I describe it without crafting full sentences.
Then, when I’m fairly certain I have my rough ingredients for a story, I throw some of them together.
My favorite strategy for crafting pitch is to first fill out a basic logline formula:
“After/When [catalyst], [main character] must [main action] or [stakes.]”
This “Mad Libs” exercise turns my list into something I can fiddle with. Sometimes I see a lot of potential in the basic formula, and I massage the wording from there. Other times, I realize the special aspects of my idea aren’t coming through in the original logline, so I revisit other components and see if I can sub those into the format.
Here’s some other aspects I’ll list and consider in my notes: Main character’s goal, conflict, decision, antagonist, hook, setting, mentor, sidekick, love interest, etc.
Once I have a logline I’m happy with, I move onto my query-length pitch. This entails two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, I go into the setting, the main character and their goal, and the catalyst. I like my midpoint of the pitch to be a wrench that gets thrown into the main character’s initial plan.
In the second paragraph, I detail the catalyst and how my main character reacts or pivots. Usually there’s a new plan for how to deal with the disruption, but ultimately it’s a flawed plan. In the last sentence, I like to hint that the solution for my main character won’t be so easy, and they’ll be pushed into either an impossible action or impossible decision in order to get what they want. I like to keep the word “impossible” in mind because I want the reader to wonder how things will turn out. There’s nothing more disappointing than stakes that are easily predicted or solved from reading the pitch alone.
Armed with my logline and query pitch, I’m ready for feedback from critique partners.
Sometimes I’m sent back to the drawing board. Sometimes I’m given a handful of notes for consideration. I work and rework my pitch materials until they make me desperately want to read this not-yet-written-book that’s still floating around in my head. Only after my pitch reaches this level will I set it aside and get to beat sheets, outlining scenes, and exploring various character profiles.
So many aspects of a manuscript are bound to change, but if a pitch is done right, its essence should continue from one form to the next.
Whenever I’m feeling discouraged with writing, I like to take a favorite book down from my shelf and read the short summary on the back cover. I’m reminded that every marketing blurb can be traced allllllll the way back to an idea that sparked that author’s imagination.
And I remind myself that perhaps one day, the pitch of my work in progress will end up on the back of a book cover, too.