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
A pitch is more than a conversational gambit. 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 painful and confused rendition. But a pitch also has a deep marketing purpose that goes beyond elevator encounters with editors.
A pitch for your novel positions your story amid the world of books. In that larger context, it gives instant perspective on the story, pinpointing genre, tone, and unique features.
Although we may consider our deep and carefully crafted novel impossible to boil down to a couple of sentences, publishing today depends on branding and brevity. For better or worse, we are in the world of entertainment and marketing with its thirst for audience definition.
The pitch is not just for the elevator. 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 are 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.
Taking as an example my latest book, At the Table of Wolves, I started with:
“A historical fantasy . . .”
I’m a big fan of establishing the “kind” of book immediately (historical fantasy) so that one can grab onto the most salient positioning feature. Then I needed to move on to extra information that would 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.”
The strengths of this pitch are 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 we 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). Comp titles are very effective in pitches. As in the above example, the pattern can be “____ meets ____.” Comps not only describe the work, they suggest who the audience for your book is.
Another approach using comps is to establish contrast: 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.” Further along in the pitch you might add in more titles. Again, for Uprooted: “The violence of the Brothers Grimm deepened by the friendship of two women.” You don’t need to stick to two.
Is it easy to create the perfect pitch? No, indeed. But it does help if the pitch seems effortless.
As a mentor of mine once said — and whose advice I’ve adhered to ever since: Never let ’em see you sweat!
This post, and others noted in the link below, are part of a Zombies Need Brains kickstarter.
Check out more posts on creating winning pitches here.