How do you pitch a novel? And why lavish time on it? Is it just so that we won’t be caught flat-footed when someone asks what the story is about?
The Point of Pitching
While it’s true that an intriguing, quick blurb for a novel makes us look more professional–and saves us the embarrassment of stumbling through a confused rendition, a pitch also has a deep marketing purpose.
A pitch positions your novel amid the world of books. It gives instant perspective on the story, pinpointing genre, tone, and unique features. Publishing today depends on branding and brevity. For better or worse, we’re in the world of entertainment and marketing with its thirst for audience definition.
The pitch isn’t just for marketing. The novel’s “handle” will follow the book through the whole path of publication, affecting–whether explicitly or in the background–cover design, choice of titles, author blurbs, and promotion.
To process information, people sort input into patterns. So with the pitch, we’re helping people to quickly identify our novel’s pattern, making our story “known” at an instinctive level.
“Adventure novel,” “coming of age,” “family story” are all familiar patterns that begin to narrow the universe of our story. That’s a good place to start.
An example from one of my recent books, At the Table of Wolves:
“An historical fantasy . . .”
I’m a big fan of establishing the “kind” of book immediately (historical fantasy) so that we can grab onto the most salient positioning feature. Then I need extra information to bring my story into sharper focus. Setting is a major feature of Wolves, so I added in:
” . . . set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world . . .”
This opening quickly zeroes in on genre and sub-genre. Not just a historical fantasy, but the interwar years. Not medieval fantasy, not sword and sorcery, but psychic abilities.
But we still don’t have a grasp of who or what, so I add in:
“. . . and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”
This leaves us with “A historical fantasy set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”
This pitch gives clarity of genre, a hint of world-building (a gift for hearing the truth; a power over ice and cold) and the story problem (Nazi plot to invade England.) What can make it stronger: A comparison to other stories.
So tack on: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets the X-men.” This tells us that the story deals with super powers (adventure) with an overlay of espionage (thriller). A comp in the “____ meets ____” mode not only describes the work, it suggests who the audience for your book is.
Or establish contrast as in: My book is like “A” except for “B.” Using Naomi Novik’s Uprooted as an example, “A fairy tale but with a heroine who rescues the dragon.” And, as well: “The violence of the Brothers Grimm deepened by the friendship of two women.” You don’t need to stick to two.
Creating the perfect pitch isn’t easy. But once you relax into the creative process, the exercise can be a bit of fun. Seriously!