As you may or may not know, I recently judged the first QueryTracker blog contest ever —I chose the top four one-sentence pitches out of 585 entries! And out of those entries, 25% of them weren’t even pitches at all. Now that might have made my job easier, but let’s make it so that the next agent to judge that contest has to pick the winners out of 100%, shall we?
The pitch line. In the movie industry these are known as log lines. Your pitch can also be your hook, but your hook doesn’t necessarily need to be your pitch. Confused yet? Well, I’m going to try and clear it up for you.
The pitch needs to convey three things: the plot, the genre and the tone of the story. And it needs to convey these things in one concise sentence. It doesn’t need dialogue, it doesn’t need a cast list, it doesn’t necessarily need the title and it definitely doesn’t need the word count—and before you snicker at this advice, you should know that these are common mistakes. And they’re not the only ones.
Think about the winning entry: When you look into someone's eyes, you see their soul, but when sixteen-year-old Emerson Taylor kisses their lips, she sees their pasts.
This entry gives me enough of the plot to get me interested, I know that it’s a YA with a girl protagonist, and it definitely conveys the mysterious, paranormal tone. AND, of course, it’s concise!
I know it’s not as easy as that. How do you know what techniques are wrong? What kind of pitches actually work? What are the other common mistakes? How do you know if you’re making them if I don’t tell you what they are?!?!
Okay, okay…I’ll try. These are the five most frequent incorrect pitch types that I’ve seen:
1.The Cheerleader: JOHN CRETON, YOU’RE DEAD is an exciting, action-packed thriller with a romantic sub-plot that will leave the ladies drooling.
Sure this tells us the genre, and it’s concise, but what the heck is the story about? And is the tone supposed to be “campy adventure”? Probably not. All this person did was talk up his/her story—rah, rah, sis boom bah!
2. The Opener: The hot sun beat down on the streets of Barterville, baking the dead body—previously known as John Creton—in the town square, sure as heckfire making the swirling vultures drool.
Okay…is this a western? A mystery? Comedy? Picture Book? Aside from the last guess—-I hope—-I really can’t tell because it reads more like an opening sentence than anything else. And an opening sentence can lead to anything.
3. The Two (three or even four!) Parter: When Carol Barterville met John Creton, she knew she was in for a passionate night…she just didn’t know the night was going to change her life forever; John Creton, however, had been drooling over Carol for a long time…as werewolves often do; and a baby born to the two of them, just may take the world by storm.
For those of you who don’t know…a semi-colon is just shy of being a period; this means that anything after the semi-colon is supposed to be a full, complete sentence; it further means that anyone who uses them is technically writing more than one sentence; in conclusion…it is no longer considered a one-sentence pitch.
4. The Riddler: Why is the harsh world so unfair to snorting, ugly, drooling John Creton, and how can he turn it around to make it more fair?
How does this tell me about the story? Am I supposed to answer this question? Is my answer supposed to be the pitch? Who is pitching to whom now? Are you as confused as me?
Before you go all John McEnroe on me, notice the name of this incorrect pitch type is not The Question, it’s The Riddler. That’s because using a question isn’t always a bad thing when trying to write a pitch (see below). But asking a vague question that kind of sums up most people’s lives is like the time I paid $30 to get my palm read…the information could have been about anyone, just like this story could be about anything, and any John Creton for that matter…well, any hairy John Creton who happened to have his teeth recently pulled and a cold.
5. The “You Talkin’ to Me?”: “Mama, you just can’t leave ol’ John Creton crying and drooling on the side of the road,” Carol said.
This is really similar to The Opener, but it’s even more awkward because it has that ‘Carol said.’ tagged on the end. I feel like I just opened a book somewhere in the middle, closed my eyes and pointed to a sentence, and this is what I got. Using dialog may actually work as a one sentence pitch…I’ve just never seen it work. “Dare you to prove me wrong!” I yell at my computer screen until my voice is hoarse and my ears ring.
So you now know what not to do, and I’m almost positive there are more Pitch No-No’s that can be added to that list, let’s move forward.
What does work? Try these techniques:
1. This Meets That: As the undead take over the world, the Cretons and the Bartervilles just can’t seem to drop their rivalries and fight together, until new-zombie John Creton starts drooling over more than just Carol Barterville’s brains in this ROMEO & JULIET meets DAWN OF THE DEAD paranormal romance.
Giving your agent or editor the perfect line to describe your book is tough, but when you say two well known titles, characters, or authors, we get it! And so will everyone we tell about it.
2. The Question: If you needed to fix your mom’s car before she came home from vacation, would you take the school dork to the 11th grade dance for $1000, even if it’s snorting, ugly, drooling John Creton?
Tone--check. Genre--check. Plot--check.
3. The Basic Pitch: Detective John Drool-Creton is sick of the LA streets and ready for early retirement, until the serial killer who murdered his wife five years ago resurfaces, and he finds out that Carol may still be alive.
This is a simple summary of a story that is most likely between 70,000 and 90,000 words. Yes folks, it is possible to sum up a whole story in one sentence. There is no easy way to tell you how to do this, but just practice whittling down your story, little by little from full manuscript to outline to synopsis to summary to query to pitch. All I can say in this case is practice makes perfect.
So I guess that’s it on one-sentence pitches, at least for now! Please keep in mind that I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on pitches, but as a person in the publishing industry, I have a pretty good idea as to what works. I hope I was helpful to at least a few of you. The rest of you may get nothing from this but nightmares of John Creton drooling. So, yeah…good luck with that.
Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary is currently looking for a wide range of fiction from young adult, fantasy, science fiction, romance, thrillers, women’s fiction, middle grade, historical and commercial fiction as well as non-fiction in a few areas. Before submitting, please check out her profile on QueryTracker to make sure she represents your genre.